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A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)
This is not only the best version of the play available on film, it is easily one of the five best Shakespearian films of all (at least in English).
The fact that it was made on less than a shoestring budget is totally irrelevant. Whether or not there are any special effects, the photography by the renowned Peter Suschitzky ("Dead Ringers", "Empire Strikes Back", "Spider") is excellent. It's not only pictorial, but contributes greatly to the spontaneous, irreverent, slapstick-esquire approach to the whole production, which Peter Hall and his marvelous actors worked so hard to achieve. The locations are also ideal, given the modernized, anglicized look of the production.
Director Hall's interpretation of the play comes as close to 'perfection' as an enthusiast of the Bard could possibly ask for. He refuses to reduce the play to an erotic fantasy, as so many other have done (i.e. the 1999 film), and he rejects the even more common temptation to turn it into a loud, garish costume-ball. In other word, Hall presents the play as Shekespeare wrote it.It relies for its appeal on marvelous words and gestures, not on costumes and special effects.
As for the cast, one only need to look at the big names on the list to see that this production was literally one-of-a-kind. Actually the least famous major player in this company is the one most worthy of note: Paul Rogers, a wonderful character actor and a frequent collaborator of Alec Guinness, is quite possibly the best Bottom that most of us (in this day and age) are ever likely to see. Both Cagney and Kevin Kline were terrific in the major films, but Paul Rogers IS Bottom.
It says something about both film audiences and readers that the 1935 Warner Bros. film with James Cagney is rated more highly on the IMDb than this production. In that pretty but vapid collection of songs and dances, you could hardly hear any of Shakespeare's words, and if you could you would have to cringe, since almost none of the actors could adequately speak the lines. Cagney was good, but the rest was silence. GO WITH THIS VERSION INSTEAD! Fortunately, it was recently made available on DVD.
Don Quijote de Orson Welles (1992)
A Delightful Treat For Any True Welles Fan- (and more complete than you may think...)
Those who dismiss this reconstructed film out-of-hand cannot possibly have any appreciation of Welles' genius. The reviewer who calls it a "dog's dinner" is obviously reacting to the unusual and non-linear qualities of Welles' later films. I doubt that he can know very much about either Welles or Quijote. In any case, he fails to see the forest from the trees. Of course there are some scenes and shots in this incomplete film that go nowhere-- BUT this is still the most beautiful, exhilariting, and cinematic version of Cervantes yet put to film. I don't doubt that the film would be better if Welles had been able to finish editing it himself. But even as it is, the great director left his mark on each and every surviving scene. Visually speaking, the film is simply too similar to 'The Trial' and other late Welles classics to be ignored.
The film centers around the idea of Don Quixote (and Sancho) trying to stick to their guns in the midst of the great confusion of modern-day Spain. Such a conceit is absolutely typical of Welles, as are all the other major departures from the novel. Welles was not known for faithfulness. But there are also scenes of pure character drama, and they play so well as to make us believe that Cervantes had written them; Welles was, after all, among the greatest of screenwriters.
Not the least of his triumphs here is in the casting: Akim Tamiroff, one of the screen's greatest and most unsung actors, was born to play Sancho and he does not disappoint. Francisco Reiguera looks and acts more like Cervantes' Knight than any other. Again, the other reviewers fail to appreciate this.
If the film has any really major flaw (apart from the awful English dubbing), it is the additional dialog written by Jess Franco, who was Welles' A.D. on this film. Of course it is difficult to identify, but I take it that most of the dialog is Welles'. The film also goes on too long concerning bull-fighting, but of course this was one of Welles' fascinations and it is probably at least partly his fault.
The real reason this film has been ignored is because a lot of people crave conventional narrative cinema so badly that they deride cinematic art unless it has a "artist's brand name" attached to it. Since Welles' is not entirely responsible for the final cut as we have it, a lot of people feel that its 'fair game' in a way that his other films are not. Well, if you can't stand genius, then stay away from it-- you'll only embarrass yourself trying to deride it.
BEWARE THE English-LANGUAGE DUBBING. Welles obviously never did an English dub of this footage, and the one that is supplied by Welles' reconstructors is a total injustice to the film. It is far better to stick it out with the Spanish track and French sub-titles, even if you don't know a word of French. At least you'll have an idea of the quality of some of the scenes. HOPEFULLY we will see a DVD of this in the US with English subtitles.
Perhaps some further reconstruction is also still possible? BUT it will only happen if Welles fans are supportive of the footage the Welles did indeed achieve.
Mute Witness (1995)
Mute Witness- a good piece of filmmaking with no heart
This film is a superb technical exercise by a director who obviously has talent to spare. It's suspenseful for almost every minute of its running time. The film contains a number of very clever moments, some of which are quite funny, and all of which give the impression that the director has thought deeply about his craft. But the film has at least two major flaw. Firstly, the film is too busy, even giving the appearance of being rushed. This is, of course, intended to make the film more suspenseful, but there are sometimes too many suspense and action 'ideas' thrown together into one short sequence, and this renders a certain amount of the action quite implausible. Everything is played at the same fast pitch; there are virtually no sequences which manage to be slow-paced and dreadfully suspenseful at the same time; in other words, the kind of talent for suspense that we associate with Hitchcock. Nevertheless, for what it is and what it tries to do, this is superior as a thriller to almost anything else out there, with the possible exception of David Fincher at his very best.
The other major criticism is that the film has no heart, no humanity. It's not simply that there is not time given to emotion and character development, although this is true enough. Nothing in the film ever particularly engages our sympathy, beyond wanting the heroin escape from her truly repugnant pursuers. Without humanity there is of course no real ethic or moral conflict to be found, and this in my view reduces the film to a great technical exercise which is hollow inside. There is a horrible murder scene in the film, and one desperately wants something (anything) to offset the ugliness. It's inferior to a film like 'Control Room' which balances brilliant suspense sequences with drama, created by minimal but effective exposition of the conflicting motives of the characters. In short, if you're going to be heartless and pitiless with your story and characters, you had better have the brilliance of a Hitchcock (or an Argento at his best) to make up for it. Anthony Waller is almost there, but not quite. Film trivia: Alec Guinness tells in one of his books how he came to do this cameo (which he almost immediately forgot about afterward). The director simply saw Guinness in a restaurant and begged him to do the scene. Guinness kindly obliged him by memorizing and speaking his handful of lines, which of course made no sense to him at all. Guinness' real voice is obviously not being used when we hear the Reaper giving commands via walkie-talkie in the climax. At least they could have taken the time to do a better impersonation of Guinness! It's probably the film's biggest technical gaffe, and certainly the most annoying.
Ukikusa monogatari (1934)
an early masterpiece from Ozu
This film is full of the sensitive observation, the slow-building tragic emotion and the moral ambiguity of Ozu's later works. While eschewing the cheap tragedy that was already so fashionable in Japanese melodrama (you can imagine the story going in that direction for any other director), the ending leaves the viewer uncertain and unsettled, with only the vaguest hopes for all concerned.
Apart from the depiction of a rundown and pathetic acting troupe (it reminds me of Alan Mowbray's drunken Shakespearian actor in 'My Darling Clementine'), and the rural small-town atmosphere, what lingers on in the mind is the portrait of an extremely flawed man. Like the great male characters of American cinema, Ichikawa is decent but ruled by anger, regret, and a certain way of life. will Ichikawa ever really be able to change, or do justice to those he feels responsible for? But after all, actors will be actors...
In fact, if this film is to be criticized for anything, it should be done so for its lack of a really detailed look into the lives and profession of the actors. After all, Ichikawa's profession turns out to play such an important part, in the end, in the fate of his 'family'.
Ozu's direction of women (particularly Ichikawa's wronged, but vengeful, lover) is sensitive and truthful, while his his direction of children is, as always, well-observed and hilarious.
Ankokugai no bijo (1958)
'Underworld Beauty'- an early Seijun Suzuki classic. Warning- may contain a spoiler!
What seems at first like a standard Yakuza programmer (there were dozens of them churned out by the Japanese majors every year) is turned by its director into a deliciously perverse comedy that centers around a treasure in diamond inside a dead gangster's stomach!
Director Seijun Suzuki-- early on in his career, and before being recognized as a significant talent-- manages to make this film into something that only he could have possibly directed. Suzuki's films are exercises not in action but in absurdity, violent or otherwise; and in this sense the film is one of his first real classics. Suzuki obviously emphasized the more singular and perverse elements of the middling script, at the expense of conventional elements. Ultimately the film may be unable to transcend the limitations of its B-movie genre and origins: for instance, the action climax, though superbly shot, still feels kind of standard, without the memorableness that one would expect from a 'Suzuki film' of the 1960's. There's also a very tame ending(undoubtedly forced by the studio). But there are many other precious moments in the picture, full of innovative camera-work, black comedy, social awkwardness, and glaring cinematic artificiality. But it is all done in a more subtle and unassuming style than we find in Suzuki's later films. Arguably the film is too subtle, and not stylistically extreme enough. Probably the time was simply not right for the kind of films that Suzuki wanted to make- older filmmakers still dominated the studios, while iconoclastic filmmakers who would leave their mark on the sixties-Okamoto and Shinoda, for instance- had not yet gained respectability. But while this may ultimately prevent the film from being a masterpiece, it also accounts for some of its charm. This is one rare Suzuki film that is not afraid to be 'coy'- that is, to keep the audiences guessing about what the story (and film) is really all about. One never knows what will happen next, whether it will be something normal and and typical of the genre, or something oddball and perverse. It's much like Hitchcock in this respect. Suzuki quickly abandoned this sort of coyness once he was given more freedom- but its quite amusing in its own right.
Furthermore, the characters are more humanely treated in this Suzuki film than in his greatest classics, which are rather pitiless. Mizushima, playing the world-weary hero, is genuinely conflicted, and the audience feels it. Seldom do we feel much more than amazement, disgust, or fear, from Suzuki's gangster protagonists.
All in all, it is an extremely diverting, amusingly wicked yakuza film, a minor classic of the genre. It's easily worth the mere $15 or so for the excellent DVD from Home Vision (the Criterion people); for fans of the genre, it's a must.
The Mouse That Roared (1959)
A British Comedy Classic, and A Relevant One- don't listen to the review above!
An Exercise in Cold War Absurdity.
This is a true classic, with one of the wittiest scripts ever written, and hilarious performances from a perfect cast.
It's not slapstick, which is perhaps why some people not acquainted with British humor (at least before Monty Python), have been turned off. It's also a bit sophisticated for children. It's a satire which relies for its laughs on an absurd plot, absurd dialogue, and hilariously absurd caricatures.
Although it's considered a harmless entertainment, 'The Mouse That Roared' is chock full of satiric jibes at the dirty politics, international relations, and paranoid culture of The Cold War- its just that the jokes are so quick and subtle that you might miss them if you blink (one of my favorite touches concerns a radio report of 'aliens'- actually the chain-mailed soldiers of Grand Fenwick- sighted in Central Park. Upon hearing the report amongst a crowd of shocked New Yorkers, one well-dressed, perfectly normal looking gent mutters about the supposed alien invasion: 'I knew it it HAD to come to this!' This is the filmmakers' fairly accurate portrayal of how far some Americans had descended, by this time, into Atomic, Cold War and Space-Crazed paranoia).
It should be said that the diplomatic relations between America and the World, as portrayed in this film, are even MORE RELEVANT now than they were during the Cold War; except that the American statesmen seem so virtuous and well-meaning in comparison to some of our current ones. Rent it and you'll see what I mean.
This is also, all things considered, probably the best Peter Sellers vehicle produced in Britain- all the rest, of varying quality, were much shorter on laughs (also of note, however, are 'The Naked Truth' and 'Only Two Can Play'). Tully Bascombe is not an outrageous or demonstrative character like Inspector Clouseau. Instead, Sellers takes a fairly normal, if a bit pathetic, Everyman and manages to make him quite funny in nearly every scene. And as the Grand Duchess he is absolutely hilarious- it's impossible to watch this performance for a moment without laughing.
As someone who is very well acquainted with British film comedies, I can say without hesitation that this is one of the very best, even in a decade which produced 'The Lavender Hill Mob' and 'The Ladykillers' (directed by Alex MacKendrick, who was a cousin to Roger macDougall, the ingenious screenwriter of 'Mouse That Roared.' Even if the film's plot and dialogue were not so consistently funny, its undoubted charm, and its magnificent triple performance by Sellers, are more than worth the price of rental.