Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Old blog, movie-related:
I'm also on twitter: @Steffi_vanEssen
Joan of Arc (1948)
"Not a religious, but a political trial"
In our era there are women warriors in film and TV, from Xena to Beatrix Kiddo, but back in Hollywood's classic era they were an extreme rarity. Joan of Arc was an exception that was acceptable partly because she came from history not fiction and, more crucially, she was a saint and a miracle worker. The tale was told in the only way it could be then, as one of the religious epics that would become a major presence in the cinema of the following decade.
Appearing a few years before the epic genre really took off, and while studios were still recovering from the lowered budgets of WW2, Joan of Arc is not quite as grandiose as the biblical movies that would come later on. Based on a play (Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine), upon its release it was accused of being too talky and lacking in action. But this is made up for in a number of ways, not least of which is its lavish period detail. It is epic in scope and scale, but only so far as the history requires. There is no spectacle for spectacle's sake. The movie is exactly as big and spectacular as it needs to be.
The movie is also buoyed by a leading performance from Ingrid Bergman. Bergman brings a necessary presence to the role, not in her delivery of lines but in the power of her emoting, which transcends any stolidness in the screenplay. An especially notable moment is her look of genuine disappointment when she realises that the dauphin has been replaced by one of his lackeys. The other standout performance is that of José Ferrer as the real dauphin. Fresh from the stage, Ferrer is theatrical, Shakespearean even, but that is just the sort of exuberant touch the movie needs to stop it becoming staid.
This was the final project of ace director Victor Fleming, who had earlier helmed (most of) Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Joan of Arc sees him taking a more relaxed pace (his trademark was speed and punchiness), but with no less of an eye for intelligent staging and shot composition. There's an excellent scene where a young Joan wanders distractedly away from the chattering of her family to sit alone by the fire, framed in profile with the flames forming a corona about her head. This isn't just some obscure bit of symbolism or foreshadowing, it's a way of showing her in clear isolation while still keeping her image dynamic and vibrant.
The presentation and performance of this edition of the Joan of Arc story compensates for its dramatic, dialogue-based format. And, while it remains very much a movie based on Joan's sainthood and Christian devotion, Bergman makes her touchingly human, and this allows the character to reach us from the past.
Oliver Twist (2005)
"Treat him kindly"
Stories, no matter how respected and illustrious, can exist beyond their origins. Charles Dickens's novel of Oliver Twist has been adapted for the screen a number of times, but rather than simply returning time and again to the source novel successive versions have taken cues from each other, gradually refining the tale over the centuries. David Lean's 1948 version invented the idea of Olvier being abducted by Bill Sykes for the rooftop finale (in the novel Oliver is safe and sound by this point). The subsequent Lionel Bart musical copied this ending, effectively making it official. It's a stark example of the power of cinema as a shaper of stories and cultural knowledge. This latest big screen offering takes that trajectory even further with a modern-style, naturalistic take on the Dickens tale.
Just as Dickens's books are most often remembered for their vivid characters so do many Dickens adaptations succeed or fail on the strength of their cast. With this version, I'm quite impressed by Barney Clarke in the title role. Clarke is not a stupefyingly good actor, but in him we at last have an Oliver who is not completely meek and frail, and has a believable amount of fight in him. Ben Kingsley's is certainly the best dramatic Fagin ever, and really the only high quality acting job in the movie. But some of the best moments come from the obvious rapport between the supporting players. There are some moments that seem so perfectly to capture something very familiar and immediate yet also appropriately Dickensian, as when Fagin's boys remove Oliver's fine clothes - they sound just like a normal bunch of teenagers, in spite of the archaic language.
But many other times, it just doesn't work, and there are some absolutely woeful bits of acting on display. Worst offender here is Jamie Forman as Bill Sykes; a wooden performance of sub-Eastenders calibre. Also, while it's nice to have a Nancy who is less a mother-substitute and more like a big sister, Leanne Rowe is just not that good. And though the realism of the performances can sometimes conjure up something wonderfully natural and fluid, it can just as easily produce the irritating drone of Jeremy Swift's Mr Bumble.
It seems that many of the cast members, good or bad, were chosen for their appropriate physical appearance than anything else. This is not surprising, since Polanski his crafted a rich and thriving world for them to inhabit, as if he was creating a photographic illustration more than a movie. Pawel Edelman's cinematography captures the detail and texture of a Gustav Doré print. The setting does not dampen Polanski's trademark visual style, with lots of tight, grim-looking compositions. A neat example is when Oliver is hauled before the workhouse governors, and the handful of seated men are arranged to create a surreal kind of tunnel. The 19th century squalor seems stiflingly close to the viewer.
But perhaps the most significant thing about this edition of Dickens's story is its manipulation of the story. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has excised the subplot of Oliver being related to Mr Brownlow, a daft construction that stretched the bounds of probability and confirmed the class prejudice Dickens held at that time. This adaptation also emphasises Oliver's final confrontation with Fagin, a powerful and moving coda and a very mature thing to include. A lot of other minor diversions have been stripped away to give a very direct and efficient retelling. But this tinkering with the text is also the movie's downfall. In simplifying the story, just a few too many corners have been cut. Key characters like Bill Sykes are introduced without ceremony. There's also not enough time to build up a convincing relationship between Oliver and Brownlow. This version of Oliver Twist may look sumptuous and have many flashes of brilliance, but as a whole it is a rather cold, drab experience.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
"The right thing at the wrong moment"
With the exception of a handful of early shorts, Charlie Chaplin took responsibility for every possible aspect of his creative process, not only starring in his pictures but also writing, producing, directing, editing and even scoring them himself. In the silent era this worked very well because he was a master at the comical ballet of slapstick. When sound arrived however, he found himself struggling with verbal comedy and the inelegance of dialogue.
Monsieur Verdoux is a "comedy of murders" developed from an idea by Orson Welles. It's a decent little story, with a dark theme for both Welles and Chaplin, but one they have melded to a more humanist end. In adapting Welles's outline, Chaplin shows his flair for creating intriguing characters, making his hero a murderer who will rescue a caterpillar from being stepped upon and is filled with love for his wheelchair-bound "true" wife and their young son. As with Chaplin's other talking pictures, the biggest problem in the screenplay is his trite dialogue peppered with a touch of the awkward, such as the son in the first scene describing his mother (or sister; it's not entirely clear) as having feet like submarines.
In his earlier movies Chaplin's style as a director tended towards simplicity, eschewing close-ups and camera moves for long, static takes for the action to unfold in. Now, perhaps in an attempt to appear modern, he is being a bit more adventurous with the camera, but it appears clunky and misguided. Luckily, Chaplin still has his eye for beautiful, iconic moments. His murder of one wife, disappearing into a room offscreen as the sunset shines through an upstairs window, combines the sinisterness of Hitchcock with the grace of Griffith. In another, quite lovely moment, he uses a flower shop telephone to call a would-be wife, but in the foreground we see the overwhelmed reaction of a young florist, utterly convinced of his sincerity.
Chaplin remains, in attempt at least, a slapstick comic, and he tries here and there to grease the narrative of Monsieur Verdoux with a bit of physical comedy. It bears some resemblance to his silent work, but is always accompanied by verbal commentary from the characters, which makes it seem flat, almost mechanical. This is something Chaplin himself feared when the talkies first arrived, but nevertheless he ploughs on with forced routines that seem at odds with the film world going on around them. At least the star himself is still good enough, able to slide from cheeky and comical to stern and serious with ease and credibility.
I think the unfortunate truth is that, with the added complications of sound, the entire process of making a movie was beyond Chaplin's capabilities. If only he had had the humility to allow someone else to co-write with him and come up with some decent dialogue, or handed over directing duties to someone who could better reconcile the comedy and drama. Essentially, Monsieur Verdoux is still a very good movie Chaplin's genius is still tucked away in there but it lacks the overall brilliance of his earlier works.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
"A nice old man with whiskers"
It seems bizarre today, but when Miracle on 34th Street was made in 1947 the studio opted to release it in May, on the basis that more people went to the cinema in Spring than at Yuletide. And, having just got round to reviewing it now, I too find myself in the bizarre situation of watching a Christmas movie at what is almost the furthest point from Christmas in either direction. It doesn't feel as odd as you might think. After all Miracle on 34th Street is for most of its runtime devoid of twinkling Christmas trees and drifting snow, so it doesn't actually come across as that Christmassy. It does however rather prominently feature a rotund old man with a white beard.
The old man in question is Edmund Gwenn, a seasoned character actor here giving what is probably his definitive performance. It's quite a physical role, and he gets stuck into it with gusto. There's a scene where Gwenn stands next to a rather tall Macy's employee, and you can see he's quite a short man, but with his exuberant presence he still dominates the scene.
This is a simple yet effective little bit of storytelling, with some well-written vignettes that can appeal to kids without patronising adults. George Seaton (who adapted the screenplay from a story by Valentine Davies) is also a capable director with a laid back, unfussy style. One of his tricks is using the depth of a set to keep everything in shot, such as Maureen O'Hara talking to John Payne in the apartment with Natalie Wood visible in the next room, and the parade through the window beyond that. It means he can keep all the elements in play at once without having to resort to messy cuts or camera moves.
Miracle on 34th Street is basically one of those tales about the true spirit of Christmas and believing in the magic of it all. Today, it's rather amusing to see that the rage over the commercialisation of Christmas is old enough to be a tradition in itself. You see, purveyors of the "true spirit of Christmas" always seem to miss the point of what that really is. Early on in the movie Gwenn berates a costumed would-be Kringle for drinking on duty, but when I was a kid, a slightly tipsy Santa was pretty much part of the deal. Nevertheless, Miracle on 34th Street is a nice movie, and can be enjoyed in or out of the Christmas season as the tale of a sweet old gent doing good deeds.
King Kong (2005)
"Monsters belong in B-movies"
We live in an era in which virtually every classic of cinema is being remade, usually for the worse. King Kong was originally a surprise hit for RKO studios back in 1933, the heart of the depression. It had already been remade once, in 1976. That version simply updated the story for 1970s characters and settings, which seems logical enough. I haven't seen the 1976 movie so can't comment much on it, but the consensus is that it was atrocious. However for this latest and, I hope final remake, producer-director Peter Jackson returns to the 1930s setting that was the original picture's present day. In so doing, he gives the story a little of the relevance it once had in its era, whilst simultaneously recreating it as a nostalgic period piece.
The 2005 King Kong is also a far longer movie than either of its predecessors. This extra time is not really used to augment the plot, which is more or less identical to what it was in 1933. Instead, it's used to augment the characters. While the ship's crew of the first movie were nameless dots getting picked off one-by-one by various claymation monsters, here they are real human beings with personalities and backstories (who then proceed to get picked off one-by-one by various CGI monsters, but at least now the toll seems realistically human rather than a simple case of numbers). What's more, the character of the eponymous ape is fleshed out too, his mix of savagery, tenderness and near-humanity given a complex and moving arc. Kudos here also goes to the motion-capture acting of Andy Serkis and the animation team who have done a fantastic job of creating an animal with emotional depth.
The profundity of the screenplay is exemplified in a scene, intercut with the arrival on Skull Island, where Jamie Bell says of the Joseph Conrad novel he is reading "It's not an adventure story, is it?" This is of course theoretically an action picture, but it's an hour into the runtime before we get an action scene. Jackson doesn't pull the cheap trick of manufacturing a fight or a chase simply to keep up the pace, instead managing to hold our interest with creeping tension and character development. When the action does come, Jackson proves his mastery at fashioning breathtaking sequences. There are some truly exhilarating moments, like when the camera moves in on Kong and the T-Rex for the climax of their battle. As in his earlier pictures, one of Jackson's trademarks is little moments of comedy, most notably seen here in the dinosaur stampede. And when the middle hour of the picture becomes an almost non-stop action-fest, Jackson has the sense and inventiveness to give each sequence its own tone, even requesting an unusually sombre bit of musical scoring for the insect pit. Incidentally, it's a superb and sensitive score all round by James Newton Howard.
Finally, one thing that makes the 2005 King Kong special is its open tribute to its roots, not just the 1933 movie but 1930s Hollywood in general. Peter Jackson is very much a modern director on the surface, filling his movies with wall-to-wall CGI and two-second shots, but his understanding of his cinematic forebears underpins it all. The movie begins with "I'm Sitting On Top of the World", but the opening shot is of a shanty town, which is the kind of irony seen in depression-era movies like Gold Diggers of 1933. There's some sly mocking of the stars and scripting of the era, but done so as to be a knowing wink to old-time movie fans. And, with its beautiful rhythm and epic scope (epic being an overused word these days, but this picture truly merits it), this is a version of a Hollywood classic that seems totally in love with the very essence of cinema.
The Aviator (2004)
"A bad experience with a dog"
The biographical movie is these days more able than ever to be frank about all kinds of madness and sordidness. In fact it's more than that. It's practically a prerequisite of the modern biopic that you present your subject as some kind of flawed genius. The trouble is, no matter how interesting the individual, an interesting movie is not a guarantee.
The Aviator is directed by Martin Scorsese, whose love of antique cinema surely gave him some special interest in the project. However, I don't see what the idea was of making the early scenes mimic Howard Hughes's two-strip colour process. It doesn't have the authenticity to hark back to the real thing, no other lost classic techniques are resurrected to keep it company, and frankly it looks ugly. As usual Scorsese's showy, jumpy manner of filmmaking is a bit hit-and-miss. He's still great at capturing states of mind, albeit a bit heavy-handedly, but he is seriously short on "wow" moments these days.
The protagonist is portrayed by Scorcese's new favourite Leonardo DiCaprio. He's perfect as the young Hughes because he'll probably go on looking eighteen until he's fifty. Trouble is he still looks (and sounds) eighteen when he's playing the middle-aged Hughes. The acting however is first class, subtle yet forceful. The same unfortunately cannot be said of Cate Blanchett's terrible impersonation of Katherine Hepburn, which copies a few of Hepburn's speech patterns in a grotesque caricature. And she gets the accent wrong. No-one else really stands out as good or bad.
In spite of the general mediocrity of the production, Hughes's life as presented here does offer up some great moments. A nice little montage of clips from Hell's Angels which makes it look even better than it probably is in reality. The occasional humour in an incredibly rich man who thinks he can get anything to happen by simply buying the experts. Our ability to actually route for Hughes when he comes back blazing and cleans up at the hearing after everyone had written him off as a nutter. The eventual poignancy as his condition resurfaces. However it's The Aviator's failure to weave this into some kind of grand narrative that makes it seem so plain overall.
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
"Those nasty little snobs"
After the defeat of nazism and the revelation of its horrors, people in the Allied nations were suddenly compelled to talk about that racial prejudice that existed in their own backyards. It's an indicator of how fiercely the issue was beginning to burn, that even cautiously commercial Hollywood was in on the act, making a high-class production of Gentleman's Agreement.
But unlike most of the movies on racism that were to follow in later years, Gentleman's Agreement is not about persecution of black people, but about anti-Semitism. This is not to downplay anti-Semitism, but given the relative scale of the problem in the USA it does seem as if Hollywood is just taking baby steps in the field of race relations. Especially since the movie specifically defines Jewishness as a matter of faith, not ethnicity. What's more, Gentleman's Agreement only really attacks prejudice as it exists in upper-class society being refused entry to a club or having people turn their noses up at a dinner party a long way from the hatred and violence that makes up the thin end of bigotry's wedge.
Given that it now seems such a weedy condemnation of prejudice, perhaps better to view it simply as a drama. After all, director Elia Kazan is ace at dramas. Kazan's style is marked by the confidence to keep his subjects further back within the shot. There's a bit where Celeste Holm calls Gregory Peck from within her office, and their conversation follows with no change of angle, no cut to a close-up of Holm. While there never are any actual close-ups, the layering within the frame can produce an intense feeling of closeness at times. When Peck and Dorothy McGuire have an argument after he is refused a room at the hotel, they move from being near a set of double doors at the back of the room, then they move to the foreground, and the sudden gulf between them and the doors in the background make it feel like they have suddenly stepped into our personal space.
And then of course we have a cast of top dramatic actors. Sadly lead man Peck's performance is rather a corny one. Watching his deliberation as he comes to the decision to pose as Jewish is almost painful. He's only good when he's being stern and forceful, and it's later in the movie he starts to come into his own. The great performances in Gentleman's Agreement belong to its women. Dorothy McGuire is nicely understated, her voice near to a husky whisper as she delivers her most pertinent lines. Celeste Holm is excellent, for most of the movie a joyful and easygoing presence, so carefree and likable that her steely outburst towards the end seems all the more stark and powerful. Anne Revere, always a monument of dignity even in the grip of an angina attack, proving herself one of the most effortlessly natural actresses of her generation. In her smaller role, June Havoc is very good too.
Unfortunately, if we're going to take Gentleman's Agreement as a drama, it starts to look a very flimsy movie indeed. The romantic angle is as bland as day-old kebab meat, and the dialogue is corny and dull. It's a shame then that this was the first movie condemning racial prejudice to receive major plaudits, not because the social evils it portrays weren't worth attacking, but that there were other movies doing it far better. In the same year Crossfire also looked at anti-Semitism in a much more dynamic story framework, and with deeper eloquence and insight, but it was a runner up to Gentleman's Agreement's Best Picture win. A few years later Pinky (also directed by Kazan) and No Way Out would address anti-black racism, but while Pinky would receive a fair bit of attention, the ahead-of-its-time No Way Out was practically relegated to B-movie status. It's in a way remarkable that these other pictures existed at all, but a pity they didn't get the credit they deserved.
State Fair (1945)
"Starry-eyed and vaguely discontented"
It is some testament to the growing stature of the movie musical in the 1940s that Rodgers and Hammerstein, then revitalising the stage musical in a way not seen since the death of Ziegfeld, decided to turn their hands to a piece for the screen. State Fair had been a popular non-musical movie back in 1933, a simple yet touching love story that Rodgers and Hammerstein could adapt with very few changes in what looked like a simple case of "add songs, create hit".
Individually both members of the duo had worked in film before, so the format was not unfamiliar, and they are prepared to make concessions to it. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein pictures produced by Fox State Fair is the shortest by a considerable margin. The epic musical that would appear in the mid-50s (boosted primarily by the adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein's big stage works) was still an unknown concept. Nevertheless, they seem keen to make the most of the cinema's possibilities. At one point, a snatch of singing becomes an internal monologue, something that doesn't really work on stage (although having said that it never really caught on in the movies either). Apart from this, all the usual Rodgers and Hammerstein touches are there, with songs that move the story along emotionally and tonally rather than semantically. "It Might as Well Be Spring" is integrated into the background scoring and becomes an illustration of Jeanne Crain's confused dissatisfaction.
This is also one of the earliest musicals in which non-singing actors would be dubbed by professional vocalists. In later years this would be done a lot because the studio wanted the right performer for each role more than they wanted someone who could sing. Strangely though there is nothing special about Jeanne Crain or Dana Andrews, both of whom were dubbed here. The best player is surely Fay Bainter, the archetypal mother figure in numerous 40s movies. She is full of endearing, twitchy mannerisms, as in her hesitation over adding more liquor to the mincemeat. There's also a nice little supporting part from sweet old man Donald Meek as one of the judges.
State Fair is undoubtedly a nice-looking picture. At this point Technicolor was still quite a special thing, but it was beginning to become standard for musicals. The colours here are rich and vibrant without being garish, the screen filled with subtle pinks, blues and natural greens. Director Walter Lang handles the scenes with poise and delicacy. His staging of "It Might as Well Be Spring" is simple yet beautiful, slowly closing the camera in on Jeanne Crain as the shadow of the trees teases across the image. His arranging of the crowds is excellent too, often keeping people moving rhythmically but realistically, and forming careful patterns to draw our attention to the stars in the foreground.
Good as it looks and sounds, State Fair is ultimately a rather flat experience. Apart from the fact that this version has songs, its 1933 counterpart was better in almost every aspect. The earlier movie was certainly far more intensely romantic. Even the songs in State Fair are far from Rodgers and Hammerstein's best, the delicate charm of "It Might as Well Be Spring" being the only example up to their usual standard. The movie's one real asset can be summed up in Craine's sudden anger that the ultra-modern farmhouse proposed by her bespectacled suitor would have "nothing useless". In other words, she yearns for the purely decorative things in life. State Fair, with its fragile beauty and quaint frippery wrapped around a rather mundane slice of Americana, is a purely decorative movie.
Madame Curie (1943)
Romance of radium
Scientists are one of a number of professions whom over the years Hollywood has mercilessly stereotyped. In the movies, at best they have been charming but out-of-touch boffins, at worst cold-hearted and humourless beings. Madame Curie however is a rarity in that it shows scientific folk as being the dreamy, romantic types that they so often are in real life.
Adapted by sci-fi novelist Aldous Huxley and others from the biography by Marie Curie's daughter Eve, the screenplay makes concession to the fact that Hollywood movies are designed for mass consumption. As such the scientific jargon is dumbed down, almost painfully. On the one hand technical talk is skipped over as babble (as in a not-so-discrete dissolve during Marie and Pierre's walk home together when she begins quizzing him over formulae) and, conversely, the protagonists seem implausibly clueless at times (the idea of the Curies dismissing the stain at the bottom of the bowl and taking days to realise it might be radium is laughable). But nevertheless it's impressive and rewarding the way the writers find ways of making real scientific concepts easily digestible, such as the discovery of radium focused in waiting for the right number to appear on a spectroscope.
For the two lead roles MGM decided to re-team its star-couple of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, previously seen as Mrs and Mr Miniver in the previous year's Best Picture winner. Sadly they don't compare to their earlier incarnations, the interaction between them veering from wooden to melodramatic. However, as their on screen relationship develops the affection appears very real and touching. These aren't exceptional performances in their own right, but the rapport between the two of them is clear and effective.
Thank goodness director Mervyn Leroy has the sense to direct this movie with steady delicacy, with long takes and measured performances giving the story the dignity and also the humanity it requires. There's a particularly nice moment where the Curies are by their daughter's bedside, Walter Pidgeon telling a story to little Margaret O'Brien, Garson sat silent and motionless between them, the camera dollying in, then out, upon her face as the emotion of the moment plays across it.
Madame Curie is a far from perfect work, and Hollywood will probably never get science quite right. And yet this picture achieves a quite wonderful thing a marriage between the magical romanticism of that great movie-making factory, and the equal yet misunderstood allure of scientific endeavour. The common ground exists, and Madame Curie treads it.
"The pictures make the world seem beautiful"
It's nice to see that, over three decades since the likes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Sleuth, stageplays with minimal casts can still be made into workable movies. Closer, adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, looks at the love lives of four professionals in early contemporary London. Set in amongst the bustle of the metropolis, yet brutal in its intense focus on the individuals involved.
The director Mike Nichols made his debut with the aforementioned Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and as then he shows a rich lexicon of techniques to bring out the right aspect at the right moment. Every scene seems played for different effect. The photography scene in which Julia Roberts first appears is all about faces well-lit, unobtrusive backgrounds and close-ups big enough to make us notice eye colour and twitching mouths. The sex chat scene shows Jude Law at first simply sat at his computer, then a little later we see wider shot with clothes strewn around a poky flat, giving us a clue as to his current living arrangements, before finally moving into mean close-ups, mostly played for comical effect. Not only does each scene have the necessary impact and perspective, each one is distinctly memorable in style and setting.
When such a small cast carries the burden of the whole movie upon them, you need a very capable set of performers. Jude Law at first seems a little disappointing in his woodenness, although arguably it's right for his rather weak-willed and stilted character. Julia Roberts is muted but entirely convincing. Natalie Portman is overwhelmingly emotive, silently bearing her character's pains but also believably forceful towards the end. The best performance is perhaps that of Clive Owen. Not a particularly pleasant character that he plays, but Owen somehow manages to make him likable, and almost vulnerable in his slavery to his own libido.
Being adapted from a minimalist stageplay, Closer makes an unconventional movie, but not a bad one. The long, dialogue-based scenes of the theatre remain intact, but the strength and individuality with which they are acted and directed prevents things from ever seeming boring or wordy. Closer is unusual for any narrative in that it rather confusingly leaps forward between scenes, sometimes across several years, without explicit notice. Once you've got the pattern however it becomes very easy to follow. The fact that it tends to tell the story through the eyes of the most despicable characters at their lowest moments forces viewers to consider their own actions rather than take the place of the victims. For all that it is about deception, it is painful in its emotional truth, which makes it fulfilling. It is dark but with a dark wit, which makes it bearable.