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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The author, philosopher, art critic, historian and social commentator
John Ruskin was one of Victorian Britain's great public intellectuals,
so when his young wife Euphemia ("Effie") petitioned for the annulment
of their marriage on the grounds of non-consummation this caused one of
the great public scandals of the age. Effie accused her husband of
being impotent; he countered with the mysterious allegation that her
body had some "disgusting feature" which rendered her less than a
woman. (As Effie was noted for her beauty, this allegation was greeted
with some bemusement). Ruskin also accused his wife of adultery with
the artist John Everett Millais, but a medical examination which
revealed she was still a virgin both refuted this accusation and proved
the truth of Effie's own assertions.
This film tells the story of the love triangle from Effie's point of view. The script was written by Emma Thompson, who also appears in the film in a supporting role. (Thompson appears to have an interest in art; she also produced and starred in "Carrington" about the early twentieth- century painter Dora Carrington). I had always imagined Ruskin's marriage to be a May-December affair between an innocent young girl and a man old enough to be her father, but in fact the age difference between the couple was only nine years. Much of the problem seems to have been that they did not have a home of their own, living with Ruskin's parents who seemed to disapprove of their son's marriage and did not put themselves out to make Effie feel welcome.
The film appears to have divided opinion; I note that the fact that one of the main characters is a painter has prompted some armchair critics to reach for that old "watching paint dry" comparison, which I felt was a trifle unfair. Admittedly the director Richard Laxton does sometimes seem to take an over-leisurely approach to his subject, but there are compensations. The film is mostly visually attractive, especially in the scenes set in Scotland where Laxton appears to have been influenced by Millais' great series of Perthshire landscapes, paintings which rank among his greatest artistic achievements, even though they are much less well known than his earlier Pre-Raphaelite pictures. (Millais can now be seen as one of our greatest 19th century artists, worthy to rank alongside Constable and Turner, but for many years his later work tended to be undervalued following severe contemporary criticism from the likes of Morris and his former champion Ruskin, who had obvious personal motives for denigrating his ex-wife's second husband).
The acting is generally of a high standard, especially from Greg Wise (previously best known to me as Mr Emma Thompson) as Ruskin. As portrayed here, Ruskin emerges not as a deliberately cruel man but as a cold one, an other-worldly intellectual with little interest in women, in love or in sex, and living under the thumb of his domineering mother (played, in another fine performance, by Julie Walters). Wise is rather older than the historical Ruskin would have been during this period of his life, but this does not really matter because the intention seems to have been to show him as a man old before his time. He also achieves a convincing likeness to the historical Ruskin, something which cannot be said for Tom Sturridge as Millais. (Sturridge is dark and bearded, Millais was blond and clean-shaven). The American actress Dakota Fanning plays Effie with a convincing English accent, but shouldn't someone have told her that Effie was actually Scottish? Or was this a deliberate move on the part of the producers to make the film more acceptable to American audiences, who traditionally have difficulties with British regional accents? (It is said that Cheryl Cole's Geordie accent was the real reason behind her sacking from the American version of "The X Factor").
After years of dealing with literary subject-matter, the British "heritage cinema" movement now seems to have moved on to the Victorian art world; Mike Leigh's biography of Turner is to follow shortly. "Effie Gray", however, is not principally about art; Millais is only a subsidiary character. Ultimately it is a psychological study or, to borrow Nigel Nicolson's phrase, a "portrait of a marriage". 6/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
No, this is not a biopic of Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary who
resigned over the Falklands War. Dora Carrington (18931932) was an
English painter who was associated with the Bloomsbury Group, a group
of British artists, writers and intellectuals who took their name from
the district of North London in which many of them lived. Many of the
Bloomsburies were believers in "free love", and they were known for
their complex sex lives which have provided fertile material for
biographers ever since. Carrington (she preferred to be known simply by
her surname) was no exception; in fact the real Carrington had an even
more complicated sex life than the character portrayed in this film.
Here she is shown as exclusively heterosexual, whereas in reality she
was bisexual and had affairs with both men and women. The men in her
life depicted here are her fellow-artist Mark Gertler, her husband
Ralph Partridge, the writer Gerald Brenan and her great love, the
author and critic Lytton Strachey.
It seems odd to say that Strachey was the great love of Carrington's life because he was famously homosexual. She, however, became obsessed with him, and the two began an unusual relationship. It was never consummated in a physical sense, although they slept together in the same bed, but their friendship continued until the end of Strachey's life, throughout Carrington's marriage to Partridge and her affairs with other men. Not long after he died, the grief-stricken Carrington committed suicide. The relationship was further complicated by the fact that Strachey was himself sexually attracted to some of Carrington's other lovers, especially Partridge. (The question of whether Strachey and Partridge actually had a physical relationship is discreetly left unanswered in the film).
The film's main strength is the quality of the acting, especially from Emma Thompson in the title role and Jonathan Pryce (hidden behind a beard like a quickset hedge) as Strachey. As played by Pryce, Strachey comes across as conceited and self-obsessed, yet also capable of dignity and sincerity, especially when, as a conscientious objector during the Great War, he has to defend his pacifist position before a conscription board. He fails to return Carrington's selfless devotion, but we are always aware that, because of his sexuality, this is not something for which he can be blamed. Despite her tangled love-life, Carrington comes across as surprisingly naive and innocent. She was only in her early twenties when she first met Strachey, whereas Thompson was in her mid- thirties at the time the film was made, yet we are never conscious of watching an older woman playing a younger one.
Another good feature is the visual appearance of the film, with some attractive photography of the English countryside in the outdoor scenes. The indoor ones are rather lighter and airier than is normal in British "heritage cinema", owing to the distinctive Bloomsbury ethic, based around pastel colours and simplicity at a time when interior design in Britain was generally marked by strong colours and elaborate decoration.
The film, written and directed by Christopher Hampton, focuses mainly on Carrington's sexual and romantic relationships. The film is divided into six chapters, and it is significant that all but one of these feature a man's name in the title; none of these titles makes any reference to her art. Although the film helped to revive interest in Carrington, previously somewhat neglected, as an artist, little of her art is featured here. Perhaps the reason is that the Bloomsbury Group, generally progressive in other matters, were rather conservative when it came to the visual arts; like Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Carrington was more influenced by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of a previous generation than by her Modernist contemporaries. The one picture that does play an important role is Gertler's "Merry-Go-Round", an allegory of the First World War and far more daringly radical than anything Carrington ever produced.
Yet Carrington was clearly a talented artist, and I would have preferred it if the film had explored this aspect of her life in greater depth, particularly as I am one of those who believe that the study of lesser- known artists can be as rewarding as that of the officially recognised Big Names. This is especially true of the twentieth century, the artistic history of which has far too often been portrayed as a steady progression towards the inevitable triumph of abstract over figurative art. The contribution of those like Carrington who stood for a quite different set of artistic values has tended to be neglected. There was more to her than simply being the female participant in a rather unusual (even by Bloomsbury standards) love affair. 6/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Have you ever heard Rachmaninoff's Brief Encounter Piano Concerto?
Don't you just love Beethoven's Clockwork Orange Symphony? What about
Schubert's Barry Lyndon Piano Trio?
No, I thought not. Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Schubert's Piano Trio in E flat are never referred to by those nicknames, even though those works are prominently featured in the films of those names. "Elvira Madigan" has achieved the virtually unique feat, for a film, of bestowing a nickname on a famous piece of Classical music. When I first discovered Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 as a teenager in the late seventies I wondered why it was often referred to as the "Elvira Madigan Concerto". (I had not seen the film at that time. Was the mysterious lady Mozart's lover or the dedicatee of the work?) Indeed, the name is still sometimes used, even though the film itself is today much less famous than it once was.
The true story on which the film is based is well-known in Sweden and Denmark; this was one of three cinematic versions, but the only one to have become well-known outside Scandinavia. (There was another Swedish version from 1943 and a Danish one, also from 1967). In the summer of 1889 Lieutenant Count Sixten Sparre, an aristocratic officer in the Swedish Army, deserted and eloped with a Danish tightrope dancer named Hedvig Jensen, even though he was married with two children. (Hedvig worked under the stage name of Elvira Madigan, hence the title of the film). They spent about a month wandering through the Danish countryside, but eventually died together in a suicide pact after they ran out of money. (No, that's not a spoiler; the opening titles make the eventual fate of the young couple quite clear from the start). Despite Sparre's aristocratic status, he does not appear to have been wealthy.
The film tells the story of this tragedy in a simple, unadorned way. We see almost nothing of Sixten's life in the military or Elvira's life with the circus. Apart from the two lovers, the only character of any significance is Kristoffer, Sixten's friend and brother-officer, who tries to persuade him to return to his wife, his children, his country and his duty as a soldier. He fails, of course; Sixten realises that there can be no turning back to his old life and that as soon as he steps on Swedish soil he will be clapped in jail as a deserter.
In the fifties Swedish cinema had been dominated by the figure of Ingmar Bergman, but in the sixties younger directors like Bo Widerberg were reacting against Bergmanism, and, visually, "Elvira Madigan" is about as different from the gloomy monochrome look of a Bergman film as one could imagine. Hedvig (she prefers to refer to herself by her real name) and Sixten wander together through a beautiful, verdant summer landscape lit by almost perpetual sunshine. (There is one brief scene set in a rainstorm). The dominant colours are the green of the vegetation and the gold of the ripening corn, of the sunlight and of the lovely Pia Degermark's hair. The one contrasting colour is the red dress of a little girl who appears in several key scenes. Mozart's wonderful slow movement fits in well with the general ethereal mood.
Degermark received "Most Promising Newcomer" nominations at both the Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards and won "Best Actress" at the Cannes Film Festival, and her charm and innocence, quite different to the more worldly beauty of a Hollywood superstar, played a vital role in the success of the film. She did not, however, go on to become a star herself, making only a handful of films (none of them well known) after this one. Her co-star Thommy Berggren has become a well-known actor in Sweden (he starred in, among other things, "Joe Hill", also directed by Widerberg) but is less well-known internationally.
The popularity of the film at the time of its release, and possibly also its comparative neglect in more recent years, can be explained by the way in which Widerberg seemed to capture the spirit of the sixties so well, even though the story was set in the nineteenth century. Sixten and Hedvig can be seen as hippies born eighty years before their time; they have "dropped out" of society to embrace nature and the simple life, rejecting both militarism and materialism and proclaiming, by their actions, that "all you need is love". Of course, man (and woman) cannot live by love alone, and they have to pay the price for defying the values of their society. The central question posed by the film is whether the blame for their tragedy lies with that act of defiance, or with those very values themselves.
Another question is whether their freedom from social values has been bought at too great a cost to others. We hear from Kristoffer that Sixten's wife Henrietta has attempted suicide following his desertion of her. Sixten dismisses this as a lie, but it is clear that his behaviour must have caused great distress to his family.
"Elvira Madigan" can be seen as a sixties artefact, just as much as a mini-skirt, a lava lamp, an E-type Jaguar or a Beatles LP are sixties artefacts, but that does not necessarily mean that it is of no interest today. Its visual beauty, and the rather naive idealism with which it is infused, help to make it watchable nearly fifty years after it was made. 7/10
During my childhood and teenage years, and even during my time at
university, I was an avid fan of "Doctor Who", but my enthusiasm for
the series began to wane in the late eighties, by which time I was in
my twenties. Part of the reason was the decision to move the programme
from Saturday to a Wednesday timeslot, as work commitments meant that I
could not always get home in time to watch it. This difficulty could no
doubt have been overcome by the purchase of a video recorder, but
another reason was that I disliked Sylvester McCoy's interpretation of
the role. I therefore gave up watching, and when the BBC cancelled the
series at the end of the 26th season I greeted their decision with
indifference rather than the fury which would have been my reaction a
few years earlier.
"The Curse of Fenric" was one of a number of serials which I missed because of my anti-McCoy boycott of the programme, and I had never seen it until it was recently broadcast on the "Horror" channel. It was the penultimate serial in that fateful 26th season; the very last "classic" Doctor Who adventure was the ironically inappropriately named "Survival".
The Doctor and his companion Ace arrive at a British military base in Northumberland during World War II. The base, he main purpose of which is to intercept and decipher German coded messages, is loosely based upon the real-life Bletchley Park, but whereas Bletchley had a vast team of cryptanalysts, all the work at this installation seems to be done by only two men with the aid of a computer. Trying to explain the plot in any more detail would be a vain endeavour. Suffice it to say that it involves Viking inscriptions, a group of Russian soldiers who are carrying out an invasion of Britain despite the fact that they were supposed to be our allies at the time, an insane British naval officer who seems far madder than any Nazi, a wheelchair-bound professor, an unbelieving parson, poison gas, a race of aquatic vampires known as Haemovores, an Oriental vase, a baby, a game of chess and some revelations about Ace's family background. Have you got all that?
Despite the wartime setting the villains are not the Nazis, who are conspicuous by their absence. Behind the mayhem which engulfs the base and the surrounding area is a being called Fenric, who, like The Mara which featured in some earlier episodes, is a disembodied evil entity from the dawn of time. Just as The Mara was derived from Hindu/Buddhist mythology, so Fenric is loosely based upon Norse myths; the name is derived from Fenrir, the monstrous wolf which fought against the Norse gods. (The original title for the serial was "The Wolves of Fenric").
Unfortunately, there is little in "The Curse of Fenric" to alter my view that McCoy was the George Lazenby of the series. I think that the problem was that he was originally a comic actor who tried to play the Doctor as a clown. When this proved unpopular with both the producers and the viewing public, the scriptwriters tried to make his character darker- the Seventh Doctor is for this reason sometimes referred to as the "dark clown"- but McCoy never really seemed able to convey this. I was never a great admirer, either, of Sophie Aldred's Ace, a surly, bolshie young woman who seemed to have a perpetual chip on her shoulder. Aldred also struck me as a rather wooden actress.
The acting is not, however, the only reason why I regard this serial as a failure. As might be apparent from my above list of all the many plot elements, the story is unnecessarily complex, difficult to follow and does not make a lot of sense. "The Curse of Fenric" is, unfortunately, not the only below-par adventure from the late eighties and while watching it I could easily understand just why the BBC executives decided not to bring "Doctor Who" back for a twenty-seventh season.
Some Goofs. Officers in the Royal Navy (unlike the Army and RAF) are required either to be clean-shaven or to wear a full beard. A moustache like Commander Millington's would not be permitted. Whoever came up with the name "haemovore" seems to have got his Greek confused with his Latin. The Greek form of "blood-eater" would be "haematophage" and the Latin "sanguivore".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
No it isn't, it's west of Java. Plenty of films have contained goofs,
but there cannot be many which have contained a goof in their very
title. Apparently the film makers felt that, for some reason, it made a
more exotic title than "Krakatoa, West of Java".
Disaster films ("Airport", "Earthquake", "The Poseidon Adventure", etc.) have become synonymous with the seventies, but "Krakatoa, East of Java" is an example from the final year of the preceding decade. Like "Titanic" and the recent "Pompeii" the film combines a real historical disaster with a fictional "human interest" story. Indeed, it is this back-story which takes up most of the film's running-length; there are a few earlier rumblings but the big fireworks show does not really get going until the second half.
The story is based upon an attempt to recover a valuable cargo of pearls from a shipwreck close the island of Krakatoa. When the expedition sets off they are not particularly worried by this location as they believe that the volcano on the island has been dormant for around two hundred years. As, however, the film is set in August 1883, they are in for a rude awakening. Among the characters are the ship's Dutch captain, his beautiful mistress who is fleeing from an abusive husband and looking for her young son, from whom she has been separated, an laudanum- addicted diver with health problems and his girlfriend, the British inventor of a diving bell, an Italian father-and-son team of balloonists and four female Japanese pearl fishers, hired for their diving expertise. One of these girls becomes romantically involved with the younger Italian.
With so many different strands, the plot is an unwieldy one and the script does not always read fluently. Some developments are dealt with far too quickly, especially the episode in which a gang of convicts briefly seize control of the ship before Maximilian Schell's valiant captain sees them off by the simple expedient of watering them down with a fire hose whereupon they all jump overboard, never to be heard of again. They were presumably all drowned or eaten by sharks, fates which they considered preferable to the awful prospect of having to face Schell's fire hose. (This is one strand which easily could have, and probably should have, been omitted from the script). There are no outstanding acting performances, Brian Keith's ageing, drug-ravaged diver Harry Connerly probably being the best.
Like "Titanic" and "Pompeii", however, this is not the sort of film you watch for the sake of great writing or of great acting. It is the sort of film you watch for one reason, and one alone- the big bang at the end. And the special effects of the volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami are indeed pretty good by sixties standards and still hold up well even today. (One of the Japanese girls actually uses the word "tsunami", rarely used in English back in 1969; everyone else in the film says "tidal wave"). The film actually won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. I hope the film-makers appreciated it- it was never going to win one for anything else. Especially not for geographical accuracy. 6/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I was a student at Cambridge during the early eighties I was
surprised to discover that not all my contemporaries shared my love of
the institution at which we were studying. Some disparaged it as an
"ivory tower" and compared it unfavourably with the so-called "real
world" in which they hoped to be earning a lucrative salary once they
had completed the tedious formality of obtaining their degrees. This
tendency seemed particularly pronounced among those students, generally
from wealthy backgrounds, who hoped to make their living in the
financial institutions of the City. When the Crash of 1987 came, a few
years after we had left college, I remember thinking that this
demonstrated that my contemporaries had been wrong and that the world
of high finance, with its casino economics, was far more unreal than
the world inhabited by the most other-worldly Cambridge academic.
The year 1987 also saw the release of "Wall Street", perhaps Hollywood's most famous exploration of the financial world, although it does not deal with the Crash but with the boom years that preceded it, years which have become known (from the film's best-known line) as the "greed is good" era. "Margin Call" is a "Wall Street" for the 21st century, an examination of the Crash of 2008, a far worse crisis than that of 1987.
The action takes place in a large Wall Street investment bank on the eve of the Crash. (This bank is a fictitious institution, although the events depicted do mirror events at some real banks during this time). After arriving for work one morning, Eric Dale, a senior risk analyst, is informed that he is being made redundant as part of an immediate mass layoff, despite his nineteen years of service to the firm. Dale tries to protest that he is currently working on something important, but is hustled out of the door. Before leaving, however, he manages to pass a memory stick to a junior colleague, Peter Sullivan, telling him to "be careful".
When Sullivan looks at Dale's work, he is horrified by what he discovers. Dale has realised that the bank owns an excessive number of sub-prime mortgage-backed securities which are virtually worthless, not so much securities as insecurities. A drop in the market, which given its current volatile state is almost certain to happen before long, could leave the bank dangerously over-exposed, with potentially disastrous consequences. Sullivan informs his superior Will Emerson of his findings; Emerson realises the seriousness of the situation and the matter is referred upwards to a chain of ever more senior executives, ending with the bank's British Chief Executive John Tuld.
Tuld's solution to the problem is a simple one- an immediate "fire sale" to dispose of the firm's toxic assets before the rest of the market cottons on to just how toxic they are. Sam Rogers, the bank's Head of Sales and Trading, objects on both ethical and practical grounds; if the bank disposes of worthless assets under what are effectively false pretences it will gain a reputation for untrustworthiness and destroy its relationship with its trading partners. Tuld's response is that desperate diseases require desperate remedies; the alternative to the "fire sale" is that the bank will probably collapse. He is not worried by the effect this will have on the rest of the financial sector or on the wider American economy; indeed, he positively welcomes the prospect of an economic slump, knowing that an astute financier can turn this to his advantage just as much as a boom.
Nearly all the action takes place in gleaming, sterile chrome-and-glass skyscraper offices high above the streets of New York. The natural world is almost totally excluded. The characters, inhabitants not so much of an ivory tower as of a glass one, are separated from the "real world" by several hundred feet, and this physical separation symbolises their moral isolation from that world; they either do not know, or do not care, how their actions will affect the lives of the men and women below them. The artificiality of their world is emphasised by the film's drab palette of colours, dominated by black, grey, beige and dark blues.
The film features a strong ensemble cast, all of whom play their parts well. Special mentions should go to Demi Moore, proving that she can be a serious actress as well as a sex symbol, Kevin Spacey as Rogers, a man with more moral sense than most of his colleagues but who allows himself (reluctantly) to be dragooned into conformity by a mixture of bribes and threats, and Jeremy Irons as Tuld, less flamboyant than Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street", but even more amoral. For Tuld greed is good, and so are duplicity, selfishness and ruthlessness provided that they serve his purposes. (Tuld has something in common with the anti-hero of another fictional treatment of the Crash of '08, John Veals in Sebastian Faulks's novel "A Week in December").
The film received an Academy Award nomination for "Best Original Screenplay", and this was certainly well-deserved. Much of the dialogue consists of obscure financial jargon, and yet the plot itself never becomes obscure of difficult to follow, but remains engrossing throughout. The ending is, admittedly, a weak one, but with this exception "Margin Call" succeeds both as a piece of film-making and as a piece of social commentary. Hollywood rarely, if ever, attacks big business unless there is a good business reason for doing so, but this does not prevent it from occasionally making some pertinent points about modern capitalism. 7/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Hollywood has been making films about itself almost as long as there
has been a Hollywood to make films about, but there were three very
fine examples in the early fifties, "Sunset Boulevard" from 1950 and
"The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Singin' in the Rain" from two years
later. It has been suggested that both "Singin' in the Rain" and
"Sunset Boulevard" were based upon the career of Norma Talmadge, a
major star of the silent era in the twenties who (like Lina Lamont in
"Singin' in the Rain") found it difficult to adapt to the coming of
sound because of a strong working-class accent. Talmadge was still
alive in the early fifties, and I often wonder what she must have made
of these two films.
Unlike "Singin' in the Rain", a Technicolor period piece set in the twenties, "Sunset Boulevard" has a contemporary setting and was shot in an expressionistic black-and-white reminiscent of film noir. (Director Billy Wilder had earlier made one of the great classic noirs, "Double Indemnity"). During the early fifties many of the stars of the silent era were still alive and living in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills area, and were still fondly remembered by the older generation, but were no longer the celebrities they had been at the height of their fame and were little-known to younger people. The film deals with one of these, Norma Desmond, a faded silent diva whose career, like Talmadge's, came to an abrupt end with the coming of the "talkies". Norma has retained considerable wealth from her days as a star but has become a lonely recluse, living in her vast mansion with no company but her German servant Max. She still receives quantities of fan mail, and harbours dreams of making a triumphant comeback; she is writing a screenplay based upon the story of Salome and John the Baptist and hopes that it will be made into a film by her old friend Cecil B. DeMille with herself as the star.
The other main character in the film is Joe Gillis, an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter. When we first meet Joe he is floating face down, quite dead, in Norma's swimming pool. We then discover in an extended flashback how he met Norma by chance, was recruited to assist with her "Salome" screenplay, became her lover and eventually ended up in that swimming pool. A subplot deals with Joe's relationship with his friend Artie Green and Artie's girlfriend Betty Schaefer, a studio script reader with ambitions to become a script writer.
The script for "Sunset Boulevard" was co-written by Wilder and his producer Charles Brackett, and it is a fine one. There is a streak of sardonic humour running through it, although it is not really a comedy (unless, perhaps, a very black one). The main themes are self-delusion and the traps of fame. Norma, in the teeth of all the evidence, persuades herself that she is still a star, that the "talkies" are just a passing fad and that the public are longing for the great Norma Desmond to make her comeback in a silent film. She also convinces herself that Joe is in love with her, while it is clear that he is just using her for her money.
Although Joe sees the truth about Norma all too clearly, he has fallen prey to a delusion of a different kind, namely that he can touch pitch and not be defiled. He thinks that he can exploit Norma shamelessly, that he can carry on an underhand affair with Betty while remaining friends with Artie, and that in spite of everything he can still retain his spiritual and artistic integrity. He thinks that he can succeed in the Hollywood system without needing to make the necessary compromises with reality. Norma never wakes from her dreams, eventually spiralling downhill into madness, but Joe eventually realises that he cannot have it all, that he cannot have Norma, and Betty, and his writing career. Shortly before his death he resolves to renounce them all and to return to his old job as a journalist in Ohio. His moment of lucidity costs him his life, but it enables him to regain his self-respect.
This was an ambitious theme for a movie, but Wilder found two actors equal to the task in Gloria Swanson and William Holden. Swanson herself had been a major silent star whose career had waned with the coming of sound and who saw in "Sunset Boulevard" her chance of making a return to the screen. (Her last feature film had been nine years earlier). Today this is probably the role for which she is best remembered. As for the much younger Holden, this was the film which made him a major star. There is another good performance from Erich von Stroheim as Max, who at first seems a sinister figure but is later shown to be a devoted servant with a secret of his own.
When the film came out, it was popular with the public and acclaimed by the critics, but Louis B Mayer publicly berated Wilder for biting the hand that fed him by satirising the industry that had made him famous. These sentiments were by no means universal in the film world; several figures from the industry, notably DeMille, agreed to appear in cameos as themselves. I do wonder, however, if feelings similar to Meyer's were responsible for the film's relatively poor showing at the Oscars compared to its main rival, "All about Eve". That film, of course, is also about an ageing actress, but is set in the world of the theatre, not the cinema. Far safer to satirise Broadway than Hollywood. Today, however, both films have taken their rightful place among the classics of the cinema. 9/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Doctor Who loses control of his TARDIS yet again, and ends up in the
early 19th century. And there's trouble at t'mill. Or rather at t'pit.
The peace of the Northumberland mining village of Killingworth is being
disturbed by a series of Luddite riots. Those with knowledge of social
history might point out that Ludditism was much more widespread in the
textile industry than in coal mining, but this is not a goof by the
scriptwriters. These particular riots have been fomented- for their own
nefarious purposes- by two renegade Time Lords who have arrived in
Killingworth, quite independently of one another. (Exactly what their
nefarious purposes are would take too long to explain).
One is the Doctor's old enemy, The Master who, like the Doctor, possesses the power to regenerate himself. All The Doctor's many incarnations have been quite different, both in appearance and in personality, from their predecessors, but Anthony Ainley's Master is, with his goatee beard, deliberately similar in appearance to the character played by Roger Delgado in the early seventies, and in personality is just as villainous.
The other renegade is a new character making her first appearance, the female Time Lord (or Time Lady?) known as The Rani. Although both renegades are evil and join forces to fight The Doctor and his companion Peri, their alliance is an uneasy one because of their differing personalities. Unlike The Master, The Rani is not obsessed with power for its own sake, but is a gifted scientist obsessed with scientific knowledge who will do anything, however immoral, to attain it. It was originally intended that Kate O'Mara's character should, like The Master, be a recurring character in the series, but she only appeared in one more serial, "Time and the Rani", before the series temporarily came to an end in 1989.
Although a number of adventures over the years had been set in the Earth's past, this was the first story since the days of the First Doctor to feature genuine historical characters, in this case the engineer and inventor George Stephenson and Lord Ravensworth, a landowner, industrialist and politician and a patron of science and learning. Part of the Master's scheme involves kidnapping Stephenson and other leading scientists and engineers of the time, such as Michael Faraday and Thomas Telford, who have been invited by Ravensworth to a scientific conference. (His ultimate ambition is to force them to work for him, thus giving The Master the power to control Earth's Industrial Revolution from its inception).
Colin Baker's mop of blond hair gave him a youthful appearance, but his Doctor did not really have the same boyish enthusiasm and manner as his predecessor, Peter Davidson. (I always assumed the two actors were around the same age, but in fact Baker was older by several years). His Sixth Doctor could be rather grumpy and irascible and could have something of a superior air about him, lacking the Fifth Doctor's often refreshing humility. One thing that connected the Sixth Doctor with most of his predecessors was an eccentric dress sense; he always wore a brightly coloured coat which made him look like a refugee from a production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat". Nicola Bryant's Peri was probably the best companion of the eighties, certainly better than her predecessor Nyssa, with a feisty and determined personality which recalled Louise Jameson's Leela from the seventies, although the two women were supposed to come from very different backgrounds. Although Nicola was British, she always played Peri as an American. (Was this a deliberate attempt by the producers to increase the series' popularity in America?)
This serial was originally broadcast in February 1985, during the 1984- 85 British miners' strike, so its theme of industrial unrest in the mining industry must have seemed very topical at the time. It is sometimes said that during the late eighties the "Doctor Who" scriptwriters tried to smuggle left-wing, anti-Thatcherite messages into their scripts, but "The Mark of The Rani" seems to have, if anything, a conservative political slant, with its sympathetic portrayal of Ravensworth as a benevolent, enlightened employer, its enthusiastic advocacy of new technology and its critical assessment of the Luddite movement. (The only miners in the story who support machine-breaking are those who have fallen under The Rani's evil influence). During this period "Luddite" was often used as a term of abuse by the political right, especially against trade unionists, although Left-wing historians sometimes tried to rehabilitate the original Luddites, whom they saw as hard-working men driven to desperation by grasping employers.
One commonly quoted received idea about "Doctor Who" is that the series went sharply downhill in the eighties after Tom Baker left the role in 1981. Although there certainly were some feeble episodes during this period, the decade was by no means a period of continuous decline and there were some good adventures, of which "The Mark of The Rani" was one. Certainly, it has its weaknesses, regardless of what one may think of its politics. The idea of a land-mine which turns people into trees rather than blowing them up is more like something from a surreal fantasy than from serious sci-fi, and there is a massive plot hole in the Master's grand scheme. (Why would a Time Lord, a member of a race whose technology far exceeds even that of twentieth century humans, want to kidnap a group of nineteenth-century engineers for their scientific knowledge?) Overall, however, the story is a good one. The early industrial setting (shot on location at the Ironbridge Gorge museum) gives the serial a very distinctive visual look, and O'Mara's Rani was a brilliant addition to the series. It is a pity that more use could not have been made of her.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"High Sierra" is an early example of film noir and is sometimes cited
as the film which made a major star of Humphrey Bogart. It was
co-written by Bogart's friend John Huston, who later in the same year
(1941) would direct him in "The Maltese Falcon". In most of Bogart's
films noirs, including "The Maltese Falcon", "Dead Reckoning" and "The
Big Sleep" he played the hero, albeit often a flawed hero, but here he
plays the villain.
The film opens with Bogart's character, a convicted bank robber named Roy Earle, being released from jail after being pardoned by the State Governor. This does not mean, however. that Roy has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice or that he is now a reformed character. Far from it. His release has been engineered by a gangster named Big Mac, to whom the corrupt Governor owes a political favour. Big Mac (a name which in the forties presumably did not carry the associations with hamburgers which it would today) wants Roy to carry out a robbery for him at an exclusive holiday resort in the Sierra Nevada of California. (Hence the title).
In form the film is a "heist movie" comparable to something like "The Concrete Jungle". It shows how Roy and his associates go about planning and carrying out the crime, concentrating more on the villains than it does on the police pursuing them. These being the days of the Production Code, however, when film-makers were forbidden from showing criminals succeeding in their enterprises, it also tells the story of how the robbery goes wrong and how Roy is forced to take refuge in the mountains.
Film noir was a genre often noted for its tone of moral ambiguity, and I said earlier that some of Bogart's other roles involved him playing flawed heroes. Here, there is another sort of moral ambiguity about his character. On the one hand Roy is a dangerous criminal; he has no compunction about shooting dead a security guard who attempts to foil the robbery, displaying the ruthlessness which is to earn him the nickname "Mad Dog". , On the other hand, he also has certain qualities which, in another context, could have been admirable ones. He has a professional pride which leads him to be meticulous about planning his crimes, whereas his partners can be careless and slapdash. (He loathes the "Mad Dog" nickname, believing that it denotes someone wild and out of control). He has a code of ethics which leads him to turn down an opportunity to double-cross his associates. (But woe betide anyone who tries to double-cross Roy!) At one point in the film he pretends to be a successful businessman, and it is easy to imagine that, under different circumstances, this is what he could have become.
The strangest side of Roy's nature is shown in his relationship with Velma, a young woman with a deformed foot whom he meets while planning the robbery. Taking pity on the girl, and knowing that her family are too poor to pay for corrective surgery, Roy pays for it himself. He does so in the hope that the otherwise attractive Velma will marry him afterwards, but never makes this a condition of paying for her surgery. (In the event, Velma turns him down, but for reasons unconnected with his criminal career, of which she remains ignorant). It is easy to see why this film made Bogart a star, as he gives one of the finest performances of his career, bringing out all sides of Roy's complicated personality, not only his ruthlessness, but also his better qualities, to such an extent that, even during the climactic final scenes of the manhunt on Mount Whitney, we can feel a certain sympathy with him. There are also good supporting performances from the two main female players, Joan Leslie as Velma and Ida Lupino as Marie, the sluttish moll who becomes Roy's lover after his rejection by Velma. The personalities of the two women are sharply contrasted. Velma can be seen as representing the respectable life of domesticity which Roy hopes to retire to after pulling off one last big job which will keep him for the rest of his life, while Marie represents Roy's actual life as it is at present.
The film is also notable for its extensive location shooting, especially as it was made in the early forties, a period when most films were shot indoors in a studio. Raoul Walsh's black-and-white photography of the California sierras is very different to the gritty, urban look of most films noirs, but it lends the film a certain epic grandeur. It is the sort of film Ansel Adams might have made had he taken up film-making as well as landscape photography.
Huston's script, co-written with William Burnett, is a powerful and intelligent one. This combination of acting, direction and writing makes "High Sierra" one of the great classic noirs, worthy to tank alongside the likes of "White Heat" (also made by Walsh), "Double Indemnity" and "Pickup on South Street". 9/10
The Haunting" is a rare example of a British film shot in the UK but
ostensibly set in the USA; others include Chaplin's "A King in New
York" (which could not be made in America where Chaplin was persona non
grata) and the more recent "The House of Mirth". (There are far more
American films ostensibly set in Britain but actually shot in America).
The film did, however, have an American director, Robert Wise, and two
American stars, Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn.
Hill House, an isolated New England mansion, was built around 1870 by the wealthy Hugh Crain for his young wife. She, however, was killed in a freak accident before she could set foot in it, and a subsequent series of tragic deaths have left the house with the reputation of being haunted. The current owner, an elderly lady, refuses to live there and it is left empty, although it is kept in good repair.
Dr. John Markway, a British-born academic specialising in anthropology but with a sideline as a paranormal investigator, invites a small group of volunteers to stay in the house. Scientists in horror films are often portrayed as initially sceptical about supernatural phenomena, only to be proved wrong by events. (For obvious reasons: nobody wants to see a film about a "haunted" house that turns out not to be haunted after all). Markway, however, takes the opposite position; he believes in the paranormal and hopes to gather objective evidence of its existence.
Markway's companions in the house are two young women with psychic abilities, Theodora and Eleanor, and Luke Sanderson, the nephew and heir of the owner. Luke, who does not believe in the supernatural, fulfils the role of resident sceptic. Eleanor, a shy, mentally fragile individual, is clearly nervous. Theodora is, outwardly at least, more relaxed, although may be hiding something. A curious three-way relationship develops between Markway, Eleanor and Theodora. Unusually for the early sixties, this film contains a strong lesbian subtext; the dreaded "L-word" is never used and nothing is made explicit, but it is implied that Theodora is sexually attracted to Eleanor and jealous of Eleanor's growing attraction to the handsome Markway. The film subverts the normal stereotypes about female homosexuality by casting the glamorous Claire Bloom as Theodora and portraying the heterosexual Eleanor as plain and dowdy.
Wise made the film as a psychological horror film in the style of "Cat People" from some twenty years earlier. He did not work on the original "Cat People", which was made by Jacques Tourneur, but directed its sequel, "Curse of the Cat People", and had a high regard for Tourneur's film. Like "Cat People", "The Haunting" is an "understated" horror film, relying more on suggestion and inference than on what we are shown directly. There is no blood or gore and no stomach-churning special effects. Throughout the film we never actually see a ghost. Wise nevertheless manages to conjure up an atmosphere of terror by the use of "spooky" music, unexplained noises, oblique or unsettling camera angles and tracking shots and the design of the sets.
Today Gothic architecture in the cinema is generally used to convey a sense of luxury and opulence, especially in films about the Victorian or Edwardian upper classes. In much of the twentieth century, however, particularly between about 1940 and 1980, it was used produce a sinister atmosphere in horror films, thrillers and melodramas; other examples include "Rebecca", "Caught", "The House on Telegraph Hill" (also made by Wise), "Dragonwyck", "Psycho" and "The Spiral Staircase". (In what may be a reference to the last-named film, a spiral staircase plays an important role in the plot here). Indeed, in some cases it was used where it was historically inappropriate. The British horror film "And Now the Screaming Starts" was filmed in a Victorian Gothic house even though the action was supposed to take place around 1790, more than sixty years before the house was built. Here the exterior of Hill House is represented by Ettington Hall, Warwickshire, and the interior scenes were filmed on sets deliberately designed to look oppressive and claustrophobic.
Shirley Jackson, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, always insisted that it was a tale of the supernatural, but in the film the question of whether the paranormal phenomena are real or imagined is left open. The supposed psychic disturbances centre upon Eleanor, but it is possible that they may simply be symptoms of her overwrought imagination. Susan Hayward, who had worked with Wise on "I Want to Live!" five years earlier, was originally intended for the role, but I doubt if she would have been as brilliant as Julie Harris in conveying the psychologically fragile Eleanor's mental state, a mixture of nervous energy and terror. There is an effective contrast with Richard Johnson as Markway, outwardly a calm, phlegmatic British intellectual, but possibly too prone to believing what he wants to believe and blind to the effect his experiments are having on others, especially Eleanor. The weak link, as far as the acting is concerned, is Tamblyn's Luke, an inappropriately clownish and childish individual.
The film was remade in 1999, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta- Jones, but the remake is not a patch on the original. The horror genre had undergone a fundamental change between the early sixties and the late nineties, following the success of films like "The Exorcist" and "The Omen", and it seems that modern audiences will only accept a horror film if it is full of gore and gruesome special effects. More recent haunted house films like "The Haunting in Connecticut" show that this is even truer today than it was in 1999. The original "Haunting", however, shows just how effective the old school of horror could be at its best. 8/10
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