Why Do Fools Fall In Love is an unexpected gem. In the previews it looks like a movie-of-the-week bio of a long dead celebrity, but this is actually a carefully crafted, well acted and visually fascinating film. With films that claim to be based on actual events, it is important to consider that those events have been interpreted by a writer, director, and actors. Whether this film accurately portrays events in the life of 1950's singing sensation Frankie Lymon is immaterial to the success if the film. The fact remains, whether truthful or fictional, the film is interesting to look at, entertainingly written, and cleverly constructed.
Director Gregory Nava has sculpted the film into a richly intertwined series of flashbacks, reminiscences and moments out of pop history. The performance scenes, where we see Frankie Lymon before an audience, either as a raw kid or as a fading icon, are wonderfully integral to the story, and not just blatant rationalization of the sound track cd on sale soon at music stores everywhere. Nava allows the innate energy of the music to flow into the film through lively editing, camera movement, colourful setting and costume. Particularly interesting are the long continuous Steadycam shots and the processing of footage to look like old home movies or 1950's live TV images.
Larenz Tate (The Postman) made an explosive impact early in his career with his role of O-Dog in Menace II Society, and then excelled on the short lived TV series South Central. Here, he is considerably reigned in either by the film makers, or by his own sense of how Lymon should be played. His performance, although capable, seems shallow at times and never really delivers any insight to what makes the man tick. The film makers knew that the strength of the story was in the perspective given it by the three women who each claim to be Lymon's widow and entitled to a share in his estate. The character of Lymon, as seen from these different points of view, is at times childishly naive, brutally malicious or tremendously generous and unselfish.
The film's best performance is from Vivica A. Fox (Booty Call, Independence Day) who plays Lymon's `first' wife Elisabeth Waters. Fox mixes a wry intelligence with a crude and unpolished demeanor to portray the woman who so loves Lymon in the decline of his career, that she will work as a prostitute to pay for his drug rehabilitation in a private clinic. The tragic irony of her pouring so much of herself into Lymon's empty shell is that she survives the giving while he can never find what he needs in the taking.
The two other wives are played very ably by Halle Berry (Bulworth) who appears as Zola Taylor of The Platters and Lela Rochon (Waiting To Exhale) as Emira Eagle. Zola is attracted by Lymon's talent and charisma and is so won over by his sincerity and her own belief in his character that she allows him to destroy all that she has earned as he destroys himself. Emira is the wholesome, God-fearing school teacher who finds the committed romantic in Lymon and manages to help him settle into a simple domesticity for a time before the call of his lost celebrity takes him from her in a last attempt to reclaim his fame.
The period detail is vivid and slides up and down a continuum that ranges from deliberately romanticized to unbearably sordid. The film makers have wisely avoided the trap of dwelling on Lymon's heroin addiction. There is very little portrayal of the actual use of drugs, just an examination of their effect on Lymon and on the lives the women who love him.
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For his debut as a film director, Alan Rickman has chosen material with which he is very familiar. The Winter Guest is a play he commissioned and directed on the stage before adapting it for the screen in collaboration with playwright Sharman Macdonald. Rickman's familiarity with the material and his considerable experience of working in front of the camera seem to have prepared him well for the making of an exceptional film.
Emma Thompson plays Frances, a photographer whose husband has recently died after a long illness, leaving her to raise a teenaged son. Frances and Alex are visited by Elspeth, Frances' mother (played by Thompson's mother, Phyllida Law). Frances cannot find direction in her life and has surrounded herself with the photographic record of her husband and his illness. Elspeth, whose health is failing, cannot rely on the support of a daughter who is unable even to care for herself. Alex is caught between memories of his father and an emotionally absent mother. On the coldest day in memory, the sea around this remote Scottish village, like the lives of Frances and those she loves, has frozen as far as the eye can see.
Together, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Robin Cameron Don, have created an environment for the story which mirrors the desolate emotional world in which the characters find themselves. The colours are muted to the point that the film sometimes seems to have been shot in black and white, with only tones of grey to give it texture. Some shots are composed with a rigid symmetry, others with a sweeping, aerial freedom. This contrast is timed to echo the themes of dependency between parent and child, the purpose of Death and grieving, and the tension between the emotion and the intellect.
Rickman uses cinematic devices like a veteran. His symbols and recurring motifs of water, fire, and even fur, are used to considerable effect throughout. So too, does he use narrative techniques. Two truant school boys, not originally connected with Frances and her mother, are drawn into their story and used as contrast. In their narcissistic search for pleasure and adventure, they depict the base side of life against Frances' cold intellectual remoteness. Nita, a young woman with romantic designs on Alex, is almost able to draw him out with her passionate attitudes and her aggressive, juvenile, almost animalistic desires. Chloe and Lily, two elderly women of the village whom we meet as they wait for a bus to take them to a funeral, demonstrate the constant presence of death and how it can be embraced and normalised. They pore over obituaries and discuss the rituals of death with a mundane, child-like preoccupation. Their closeness further develops the themes of dependency and need.
Some may find the restraint of the film difficult to endure. Characters seem ever on the edge of lashing out or breaking down. There is a contained energy at work which is only seldom evident in their actions. This restraint is deliberate. It becomes the central motif in the film's construction. The story is about the frictions which exist between what we need and what we can give, between parent and child, between passion and logic, life and death. The performances are tight and restrained because the characters, in their efforts to understand and adapt, must be also.
The Winter Guest is an excellent film. Rickman uses visual, auditory and narrative techniques like a veteran. There are tremendous performances by all; especially Law (Elspeth) , Arlene Cockburn (Nita) and Sean Biggerstaff (Tom). A wonderful capture of atmosphere and production design is enhanced by exemplary cinematography and held together by an intelligent, controlled and dramatically charged script.
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Sensitive without being over-sentimental. (SPOILER ENCLOSED)
26 March 2004
The setting is the Australian frontier of the late 19th Century. When young Jim Craig's father dies in a freak accident, leaving him alone to maintain their remote mountain homestead, Jim must seek employment as a hired hand on the cattle ranch of the gruff, territorial, Harrison. Complicating his efforts are Harrison's estranged brother Spur, who has been an avuncular figure to Jim his entire life; Jessica, Harrison's beautiful and high spirited daughter; and a renegade stallion that leads a roving pack of wild horses across this bleak landscape.
Beginning in the late 1970's and well into the 1980's, Australian films that made it to North America were wildly praised by critics and garnered box office to match. The Man From Snowy River is one of the better films of the period and has its own place in film history as a classic adventure.
What makes the film remarkable is the skill with which the visuals are tied to the narrative. The sweeping and fluid cinematography by Keith Wagstaff (Diana and Me, 1997) is absolutely breathtaking. Coupled with exceptional editing by Adrian Carr (The Lighthorsemen, 1987), the film needs almost no dialogue to deliver the very best of its content. Particularly indicative is a scene that very neatly shows a large group of horsemen saddling up for a strenuous ride in pursuit of a valuable runaway colt. The precision of the editing and the authority of the camera capture the mood of the group and render the rough-around-the-edges flavour of the individual cowboys, with documentary like veracity.
The script by Fred Cullen and John Dixon (Return to Snowy River, 1988) is really only fair but it manages to deliver charm throughout and never strays very far from the `A man's got to do...' theme at its core. Characterization is rather bland, giving way to the high adventure that drives the film along. The archetypes of the western genre are all present. The writers clearly know the traditions well and the film shows their playfully irreverent affection for them.
Kirk Douglas (Greedy, 1994) is fine in his dual role as Harrison and his addled prospecting brother, Spur. Tom Burlinson (Return to Snowy River, 1988) is perfect as the taciturn Jim Craig, the young mountain man trying to prove himself in a world that expects a man to rise to a challenge before he can really be considered a man.
The film's climax is one that stands with the best in cinema, particularly Tom's slow-motion ride down an almost vertical drop. The last twenty minutes of the film generate a fabulous kinetic energy that builds up in the sweeping scenes of galloping horses, the hard editing and the thunderous soundtrack of hooves, cracking whips and stirring music.
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An understated masterpiece. Grueling and evocative.
26 March 2004
Harry Andrews (Superman, 1978) plays Sergeant Major Bert Wilson, the chief guard in a brutal British military prison camp in North Africa during WWII. The story opens as Wilson welcomes a new guard and offers him a treatise on his penal philosophy. His newest protégé, Staff Sergeant Williams, embraces the code with a single-minded zeal which is put to the test by the arrival of some new prisoners.
The Hill is a grueling and abrasive film, but powerful and evocative. The titular feature is a mound of sand and rock that dominates the prison drill-field. Inmates are kept in line under the threat of being forced to climb the hill repeatedly in full kit under the searing African sun.
Sean Connery (The Offence, 1973) plays Trooper Joe Roberts who has been charged with desertion under fire. Roberts' arrogant attitude and self assurance, rankle the inferior Williams who sets out to make Roberts the example of his ability to do his job.
The hill becomes the metaphor for the conflict between the prisoners and their guards. It comes to represent the systemic racism, and homophobia. It is the lever that pries off the lid on the fear of emotional exposure that haunts both guards and inmates. The incredible hardships endured by these men expose the workings of the British class system, operating even outside the system of military rank and privilege.
The performances are superb throughout. These actors are extremely lucky to have a brilliant script by Ray Rigby, and R.S. Allen that cuts to the themes with a razor-like accuracy in every scene. There is not one superfluous line of dialogue. Ian Bannen (Waking Ned Devine, 1998) shines as Sergeant Charlie Harris, a guard with a conscience who must grapple with a dilemma that sets compassionate treatment of inmates against the imperative of following orders. Ian Hendry (Doppelganger, 1969) manages to portray the villainous Staff Sergeant Williams with a kind of human vulnerability while he expertly plays the cruelty and boundless ambition of the man. Williams' treatment of his charges is often monstrous but he is not quite a monster.
The aesthetic of the film beautifully compliments the script. There is an unsettling intimacy in the cinematography by Oswald Morris (The Man Who Would Be King, 1975). The camera moves with an uncharacteristic pre-Steadycam fluidity that creates an immersive, enveloping closeness around the viewer. The exteriors are shot with a burning exposure that perfectly renders the formidable environment.
The Hill finds the very versatile director Sydney Lumet (The Verdict, 1982) at his best. This is a cohesive, satisfying piece of work which, like all the best cinema, is not always easy to watch and must challenge the viewer to examine their own views of the issues presented.
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What a pleasure to return, by chance, to an age of cinema when visual trickery, emaciated plot and stereotypical non-characters were not the norm! Scanning the shelves at the local video store recently, I was beginning to get that insidious, defeated, feeling that I had seen everything of value these racks had to offer. Preposterous of course, but you know that feeling I'm sure. All the covers begin to look the same. A scantily clad woman is superimposed about the gleaming barrel of a pistol or dead in a bathtub or held at knife point by a blood thirsty attacker who must surely deserve the disembowelling our hero has in store for him.
I retreated into the Science Fiction area and found her again; superimposed on the shiny barrel of a ray gun or , her space suit torn strategically to reveal sufficient flesh to attract the slobbering, horned alien, whose previous victim is still hanging in tatters from his blood stained fangs. Video viewers despair!, I thought. We're finished. But wait! What's this? The Day The Earth Caught Fire. No monsters, no murderers, no aliens and no semi-nude victim. Hurray!
I had seen this film on television twenty years ago, when I could not really appreciate it, but finding it on video started a nagging sensation at the back of my brain and I felt compelled to give it another, adult, viewing.
The basic situation of the story, the most improbable element of the film, is that two nations have simultaneously detonated nuclear bombs in their Cold War induced weapons testing hysteria, and have shifted the axis and orbit of the Earth with the result that the planet is headed for collision with the Sun. This premise unfolds gradually. Today, we would be shown, during opening credits, a slick computer generated graphic of mushroom clouds and the Earth from space, sailing through the cosmos toward destruction.
It is of little significance that no such technology was available to this particular film maker in 1961. He would have had no use for it, anyway. The film so cleverly acknowledges its limitations and adapts to them, that it rises above its shortfalls and still delivers one of the most gripping, and accessible science fiction stories on film.
In his first leading role, Edward Judd plays Peter Stenning, a world weary , disenchanted newspaper reporter. Peter's once promising career is fading and he must be frequently rescued from dismissal by his older colleague, Bill Maguire; played with characteristic quality by veteran Leo McKern. Maguire, like the custodial older brother, often does double duty, writing Stenning's articles for him while Peter dries out from a binge or rolls in late from an all night assignation with a young woman. At first, these characters play as stereotypical and shallow. Peter smokes and drinks too much. Maguire is bored with his work and avoids his wife. But they are delivered so well and with such consistency by the actors and the dialogue that they quickly become familiar and tangible. This is aided further by the gradual unfolding of the narrative that they populate. We regard them as real people before we are invited to share in their crises.
In a film whose resources are limited, or whose writer/director is really using their talents to the fullest, the narrative must be treated as the most important element. We all crave story. No matter if we watch film to see the special effects or our favourite actors, if the story is poor, we feel it. How often do we enter a theatre with a feeling of nervous expectation and leave it with a vague undefinable yearning for something more?
Val Guest produced, directed and co-wrote The Day The Earth Caught Fire. His single strongest effort here was in finding its point of view. It can not have been by accident that the main characters work for a newspaper. In 1961, newspapers were still the most widely used method of delivering current information. Like this film, the most effective news story is not about actual events, but the effects of each event on people. Guest recognised that The Day the Earth Caught Fire would be much more interesting as a story about the characters than one of atomic bombs or the mathematics of gravitational dynamics.
Ironically, narrowing the view to one newspaper office, broadens the reach of the film. As it becomes known, gradually, that the Earth is not only leaning over at a greater angle than before, but that it is also slipping out of its orbit around the sun, the reporters and editors of the paper begin to show the stresses they share with the rest of the world. Their personal concerns begin to compete with their professional ones. We are hooked by our human connection to the characters and they keep us in the world of the film through their commitment to deliver to a news hungry public.
With a sound film maker's instinct, Guest places the camera and characters where drama is served best. The motif of limited access is one which builds tension toward the climax. Doorways seem forever blocked or locked. Characters are kept apart by walls, doors or obstructions. Stenning frequently calls a broken elevator. Panicked crowds of weekend picnickers are turned away from a subway entrance by a police officer as thick fog envelopes England (a side effect of violently changing global weather). In a fit of decorum, while taking refuge at her flat during the fog, Peter sleeps apart from Jeannie, the object of his affections, separated from her by a bathroom door. Guest keeps his characters, and his audience, deliciously unaware of critical information with the same instinct for suspense that characterises the films of Alfred Hitchcock or John Frankenheimer.
The climax of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, is one of its weaker components. Here Val Guest returned to the original flaw. He based the resolution of the story on the initial, and improbable (even to those with only a limited grasp of physics) premise; that Earth could be shifted in space by bombs detonated on its surface. But again, he knows his strength. The film gives its attention to the stresses felt by the small group of familiar characters.
Tensions grow as fresh reports of severe climatic changes and public distress filter in to the newspaper office. Finally, and ironically, Earth's only hope rests with the strategic detonation of further bombs to correct the orientation and orbit of the planet. Here, again, our distance from the critical events allow the film maker considerable power to hold the attention. We are shown the fear, anxiety, expectation of the entire planet through those we already know in London. As the time draws nearer to the detonation of the bombs, characters begin to re-evaluate their relationships, and question the nature of their lives. Finally, the climax is left to us. We decide what outcome we desire most or think the world deserves, and if the film maker has done his job well, as I believe he has, we must be satisfied with the ending we choose.
See it soon. See it before you watch the next slobbering demon from Planet X invade the space ship and devour the unsuspecting Earthlings. The Day The Earth Caught Fire will show how drama and character have a place in science fiction, and how these are gravely absent from much of the science fiction films of today.
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