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"I Know I Didn't Always Feel This ... Sedated."
26 January 2002
Hmmm ... Let's just take a cool, objective look at a few of the comments made by IMDb users who have reviewed "American Beauty". "Haunting." "Riveting." "Brilliant." "More than meets the eye." "Uplifitng." "Never contrived." "By far the best I have ever seen." "Makes you think." "Exceptional." "Never gives stereotypes." "Classic masterpiece." "Movies don't get any better than this."

And that list is by no means exhaustive. Now let's contemplate the actual film that these people have been watching.

Lester Burnham is Suburban Man. An unremarkable individual not valued by his employer and ignored by his family, he has wasted his entire adult life by succumbing to the routine of work and home, and failing to indulge his own individuality. When two key events coincide (the loss of his job and the dawning of a 'crush' on his daughter's friend) Lester is suddenly free to "beat his drum", slough off years of conformity and be his eccentric self.

Yes, that's right, yet another dull, cliche-ridden suburban situation comedy hinting at inchoate unease deep in the soul of bourgeois America. All the predictable bases are touched during this smug box-office home run - petty snobbery, keeping up appearances, repressed yearnings for Bali Hi, and that profound American lament, "I've Never Been To Me".

And what does Lester do to express his newfound rebellious individuality? How exactly does he challenge the suburban world which he has rejected? Form a witches' coven? Invent a world language? Assassinate Castro? Reproduce indian cave art using bison dung as paint? No. He drinks beer in front of the TV set, and gets a job in a hamburger joint. Can America's big-budget Dream Factory come up with nothing more exciting than this?

Before dealing with the wider themes, I would like to tackle some details which bothered me. What is a gun doing in this story? Are Hollywood's screenwriters so bankrupt of ideas that they can't construct a plot without relying on the dreadfully-overworked device of pistol-packing? The opening shower sequence was embarrassing. Adult jokes are fine by me, bawdy humour is great ... but this was unnecessary and degrading. It simply didn't belong. A narrator who announces that he is dead isn't a clever touch, it's just sloppy work. Is Mena Suvari REALLY the embodiment of American beauty? I find that hard to believe. And what about the total loss of nerve surrounding her character? Isn't this brash film supposed to be proud of its handling of adult issues? So why does the temptress have to be revealed as a trembling little virgin? We hear a great deal of American trumpeting of feminism as a cause. Can't anyone see that this moral cave-in is profoundly anti-feminist? On a similar note, what was Thora Birch's topless shot all about? It defines the term 'gratuitous'.

And so, back to the broader picture. "American Beauty" isn't any of those amazing things that people have claimed it to be. It isn't even mediocre. It's a tired, self-satisfied, deeply unimaginative rehashing of a format which was outworn by the time "My Favourite Martian" hit the TV screen. Challenging the regularity of suburban life isn't clever and isn't funny. It is gut-achingly DULL.

The question which arises, then, is why so many people are sincerely convinced that "American Beauty" outshines "Citizen Kane". I offer this for consideration ... they feel that way because they are told to. It doesn't work every single time, and sometimes it misses spectacularly, but Hollywood knows that as a general rule, advertising pays dividends. Tell people often enough that they need to see this mighty film, and they will accept the premises - both that they need to see it, and that it's mighty.

Barnum said that nobody ever went broke by under-estimating the public. There's truth in that. Just provide the bread and the circuses, and the docile populace will take you at your word that the bread is delicious and the circuses thrilling.

The public wants what the public gets.
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Live Flesh (1997)
"La Ultima Cita"
26 January 2002
Spain, more than most nations, has to deal with its ghosts. The Franco years were a time of enforced stasis, a period when no creativity was allowed to thrive, and progress of any kind was suppressed ruthlessly. A false mentality was imposed on the nation, a communal fantasy looking back in time to a supposedly innocent 'golden age'. Spaniards were forced to see themselves and their culture in terms of Carmens and castanets, fans and fandangos. A people was frozen in time for forty years, and fed on a diet of synthetic movies and novels which summoned up a sexless, crime-free rural idyll, Franco's concept of nationhood. While the West had the Rolling Stones, Spain had troubadors in sombreros. The galloping modernity which has transformed Spanish society in a single generation has given the young adults of today an interesting 'window' on history. While the West has moved smoothly from Sinatra to Sid Vicious, from Marilyn Munroe to Marilyn Manson, Spain has a deep chasm between today and yesterday. Almodovar is intensely concerned with this gap, and his films serve two functions in respect of it. They analyse the social forces which created it (and were spawned by it), and they help Spain to bridge the barranco. It is time now for Spain to move on. When Elena meets Victor for one final date, the purpose of the sexual coupling is to wipe out the guilt which clings to their shared past.

New and Old clash on every street corner. We hear a soundtrack of anodyne 'traditional' songs overlaid on scenes of black immigrants doing drug deals. Sancho is a model of old-fashioned manhood who tries, but fails, to castrate the New Man, Victor. The house left to Victor by his mother is out in the northern satellits township of Ventilla, a working-class ghetto of high-rise tenements, Franco's already-rotting 'solution' to Spain's social problems.

Cinematically, "Carne Tremula" is second only to "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" as an example of Almodovar's assured command of the film-maker's craft. Transitions are especially well-done. A bus door opens and we see, through the cab, Victor standing, waiting to board. This is the portal of movement opening for Victor, the boy with the gift of lifetime freedom of the buses (symbolically, the 'new' Spaniard, born to a life of movement). Clara remembers her first sexual intercourse, and looks at a photo of herself in First Communion dress. Both events were first communions, both were rites of passage, abandoning the childhood phase. Almodovar moves the action forward from 1980's Madrid to Barcelona in the Olympic Year (1992) by showing the olympic logo on the cycle track, viewed from overhead, as the cyclists cross it. To end Victor's prison sequence, a bus (always his symbol) passes right to left, 'wiping' the prison and revealing the free man. Sancho the housebound husband is re-introduced with power and economy when Clara crosses her own 'welcome' mat to be greeted by him. Fire, earth, ice and water are used as 'gates' in the narrative, marking new beginnings (for example, Clara's frying-pan catches fire because Victor distracts her by announcing the end of the affair). Isabel's waters break on the bus, and we see men in water at moments of 're-birth' (David in the bath, newly secure in the permanence of Elena's love).

Stalking is a strong theme, Almodovar inverting and perverting the idea of sexual arousal and pursuit. Voyeurism can be innocent and healthy (young Victor watching Elena in her apartment) but becomes sick when the watcher is impotent and jealous (David filming the Victor-Clara couplings). Victor pursues Elena, even wearing a wolf's head in order to close in on her.

Clara is the woman with no sense of direction, whose emotional life is arid. She depends on but does not love the useless Sancho. She loves but cannot possess the sexually potent Victor. The mutual gunning-down of Clara and Sancho is pre-ordained, both in the earlier attempt, and in the shooting by which Sancho launched the narrative.

Elena, like many young bourgeois adults, had a heroin phase in her teen years, but has put that behind her and leads a useful and caring life. However, character is fate. She cannot escape the consequences of her sexual union with Victor. The 'final date' is the powerful climax of the film, the fatal destiny to which all of these characters are tending. It speaks volumes of Almodovar's talent that his highly-improbable last reel, with all of the central characters converging on one spot, is entirely believable.

In a film predicated on contradictions, David is contradiction personified. The sporting champion with no life in his penis, the good man who cuckolded his friend and partner, the hero of the stand-off in the apartment who becomes the raging jealous spectator on the sidelines, David is both admirable and despicable. His obsession with basketball is psychologically neat - a sublimation of his damaged machismo - and also a devastating revelation. The wheelchairs swoop around the court in a Busby Berkley parody of athleticism, and the ball pops into the basket in clever mimicry of the coitus for which this is David's substitute.

And Victor? He is the picaro, the innocent who is always on the move, never comprehending the forces acting upon him, yet never defeated by those forces. His 'life on wheels' is the true life, in contrast with David's sterile life-in-death on wheels. Victor, alone of all the characters, grows because of his suffering. Franco's Spain was static, but Victor has broken free of that prison, and is dynamic. He moves. Thus is he the true victor.
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"Las soluciones drasticas"
26 January 2002
Warning: Spoilers
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** This modest little study of marital infidelity deliberately restricts itself to a narrow canvas. Its events all transpire in a single day, beginning with the bedside clock which bleeps at eight in the morning. Marta sets about the unappetising routine of her little middle-class life. We see her dropping off her teenage daughters, one at medical school and the other at the toddlers' play group where she works as an assistant.

The place is Pozuelo de Alarcon, an ugly, featureless suburb of Madrid. Marta chats with a neighbour in the supermarket then rides the suburban train into the city. Her world is bound by the confessional box and the shopping mall, both of which she visits without either enthusiasm or displeasure. They simply exist. They are the landmarks by which she navigates.

It is the dead of winter, with Christmas trees on sale in the Plaza Mayor. Director Miguel Angel Rivas uses the colourless, lifeless climate as a quiet commentary on Marta's life. The rail station at Pozuelo is unattractive and without any comfort, but at least the harsh environment gives Marta an excuse to wear her fancy fur coat. Madrid is shown in greys and browns, mirroring Marta's psychological drabness. "Vidal is my husband" is all she needs to say. What else does a bourgeois wife and mother need? Later, when the truth emerges, Vidal tells her, "You don't understand anything." It is true. Marta hasn't bothered to think or see for years.

Returning from the shopping expedition to Madrid, Marta walks in on Vidal kissing the voluptuous young Ana in the family's living-room. Ana Obregon, playing Marta, does a good job of putting across the wife's indignation, but why is her character so reluctant to confront Vidal directly about his treachery?

Ana is a character who suffers from insufficient thinking-through on the part of writer and director. "It wasn't for love or sex," she opines - so what was it for? She ends her affair with the PE teacher in order to concentrate on Vidal, but we are given no convincing explanation as to why she would do this. Most puzzling of all, why does she remain in the house after the discovery, pouting and enduring Marta's tirades?

The film has a nice little jazz score. I thought more could have been done with the redhead Nida.
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Magnum Force (1973)
"As Long As The Right People Get Shot"
26 January 2002
Clint does his tight-lipped Harry thing, and Hal Holbrook does his sinister-insider-perverting-American-institutions thing in this Dirty Harry offshoot which shows unmistakeable signs of a format creaking at the joints.

A group of vigilante cops is administering 'street' justice to criminals acquitted by the way-too-liberal San Francisco courts. Can Harry stop this uniformed lynch mob? You know he can.

The film starts well, but quickly degenerates into feeble formula. The early scenes of the mysterious motorcycle cops are striking. David Soul's character, Davies, is depicted cleverly as the 'fragments' of a policeman, with badge, gun and bike standing in for the man. He relies on these symbols and at the same time desecrates them.

And then the rot sets in. The 'crowd' scene at Ricca's acquittal is feeble. The hi-jack is quite ludicrous, and Mitch Ryan (McCoy) overacts outrageously. How come Davies is officiating at the funeral? Doesn't anyone think of the fingerprint evidence left on the car? Since when have lieutenant detectives done their own ballistics analysis, or defused bombs themselves? If evidence is processed as casually in California as this film suggests, it's no wonder that OJ Simpson was acquitted.

Why does Harry meekly obey Briggs as they drive along near the end? What has he got to lose? Or is the film just limping mindlessly along to the next location?
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Dillinger (1945)
"Dillinger And His Big Plans!"
26 January 2002
This lean, mean cheapo has all the virtues of economy. Lawrence Tierney is great in his impressive debut, ideally cast as the cold, humourless psychopath. In a little over an hour we get the complete biography, with the bad guy hero gunned down with seven dollars and twenty cents in his pocket, the exact amount with which he began his criminal spree.

The scene transitions are tight and efficient, and the story-telling terse and elliptical, giving us only the significant moments in this brief, violent life. No words are wasted when Pa Otto meets his end.

Dmitri Tiomkin provides his customarily excellent music. The lone wailing horn in the prison scenes captures superbly the despair of the inmates, as indeed does the unyielding regularity of the jail architecture.

Verdict - Less is more in this commendably spare gangster flick.
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Live Flesh (1997)
"Una Vida Sobre Ruedos"
25 January 2002
One of Almodovar's favourite conceits is the use of old TV and movie images as ironic commentary on our modern lives. He loves the sheer trashiness of those millions of hours of low-grade output and he likes to mimic 1950's sitcom formats ("Women On The Verge") or to splice 'quotes' from old footage into his modern tales. It's a device which he uses very effectively in this film. When the gun is fired in the apartment, a shot rings out from the TV set in the corner. The fake news item of the bus birth, in black and white to represent the drabness of Franco's Spain, is a loving recreation of TV's golden age. Women are mannequins in these old TV shows, used by men as objects of prurient displays, and of violence. Our mass media have drugged us, suggests Almodovar, into being passive recipients of authority's handouts. We can no longer distinguish between entertainment and reality. David confronts Victor and wounds him in the testicles, but the two enemies are immediately distracted by the soccer game on TV and become 'guys together', forgetting their hatred in the communal false orgasm of the scored goal.

Names are always important in Almodovar films, and in this one they hold the key to the story's many meanings. Elena is Helen of Troy, the creature who radiates unconscious sexual appeal and leads men into war and destruction. Victor Plaza's name contains several layers of symbolic importance. He is the film's real victor, overcoming the misfortune of the shooting and his own sexual imbecility to attain true happiness in America. Many Spanish towns have a 'Plaza de la Victoria', a municipal tribute to the great historical sea triumph of Lepanto. In this sense Victor's name makes him the personification of ordinary Spanish life, a hispanic Everyman. Isabel Plaza Caballero, the prostitute whose wretched short life becomes a saintly image of suffering and continuity, has the name of Spain's great Catholic queen and the title of a 'gentlewoman'. For Almodovar there is no contradiction in a whore having nobility. Sancho is a kind of Sancho Panza to David's Quixote, the latter idealistic but impotent, the former iconoclastic and comical.

Almodovar's trademark is the looping circular plot in which the characters both repeat and vary their patterns of behaviour, crossing one another's paths and inadvertently echoing the actions of others. Nowhere is this better illustrated than here. The plot is almost literally circular, beginning and ending with childbirth in a wheeled vehicle, and Victor's life-defining moment hinging on the circular bus ride which brings him back to the identical spot where he started, a payphone on the Calle Eduardo Dato. The characters penetrate one another's lives in ways that are totally convincing, and with a grounding in human psychology which few writers or directors can display.

Opposites and contradictions are everywhere. Victor is the prison convict, the sexual inadequate born of a prostitute on a bus, who rises to become an admirable man, sexually proficient, successful, and a loving husband and father. Sancho the macho cop is a spiritual cripple, relying on alcohol to deaden the pain of his failure as a lover. David the real cripple is a national sporting hero. The mother is the whore, the charity director is the heroin addict and the naive lad is the jailbird. The welcome mat on Clara's threshold is the cruellest of ironies. Marriage and sexual coupling are the fabric of the story, but in fact everyone is cuckolded sooner or later. David used to 'service' Clara, now Victor performs that function, and the 'manly' Sancho is sexually redundant. Elena copulates with Victor at the dramatic climax, and we recall that it was a sexual encounter between these two which launched the whole story.

It is hard to watch Almodovar's work without thinking of Bunuel. The adolescent preoccupation with the 'obscure object of desire' is a good example. Almodovar is fascinated by the vagina, and over and over again in this film we see men's heads buried between women's legs. Two boy children emerge from wombs, David performs oral sex on Elena in the bath, Victor studies Clara's pudendum, David approaches Elena's genitalia along his wheelchair ramp. The great sloping twin towers of Madrid's Puerta de Europa form an architectural pun, a visual representation of a woman's open thighs. Victor's emotional speech at Isabel's burial site (apart from advancing the plot neatly) is one more image of a man's face in a woman's vagina, the grave being the ultimate womb. This particular vagina brought Victor into the world, and through its immoral earnings it gave him the money to live.

The first Christmas in the film, like the First Christmas, happens in a very unpromising setting. It is cold in Madrid in every sense. The final years of Franco's joyless, oppressive reign are conveyed very effectively in a restrained palette of blacks, browns and greys. A state of emergency has been declared by a faceless Authority, grown paranoid about the danger of 'outside influences'. Victor has entered a drab and frightened world, with a bus driver as his reluctant Joseph. By the close of the film Christmas has acquired its cheerful capitalist trappings. This is a 'Christmas in the sun'. Victor is in the young land of freedom and opportunity. He has come of age and is now the complete man. The future looks bright for the New David, father and son.
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Serpico (1973)
"Unfair. Unfair!"
16 January 2002
Frank Serpico begins his career with the NYPD as an idealistic rookie who believes in the moral value of policing. He has a simple and old-fashioned ethical code, an outlook which used to be known as honesty. What he finds is a moral sewer, five boroughs wide, in which almost every cop is on the take. The police are just another gang of hoodlums, but with more guns than the bad guys. Even basically decent cops go along with the kickback culture, because a locker-room psychology prevails in which values have become perverted. Squad loyalty is now a criminal conspiracy of silence. Detectives do not hesitate to shake-down hoods who are slow to pay. To Frank Serpico, this is simply wrong. He wants no part of it. And so his long agony begins.

Both responding to and helping to shape the mood of its time, a weary cynicism towards authority, "Serpico" arrived on the screen just as Watergate built to its climax. Americans could no longer regard their institutions as gleaming examples to mankind of optimism and good government. The film begins gloomily with Serpico badly wounded, having been shot in the face. We hear police and ambulance sirens fading, symbolically representing the life-force ebbing from Frank, and the withering of American dreams.

This first-class film is a triumph, and one that could easily have misfired. Had the crooked cops been depicted as mere thugs, then Serpico himself would have been an archetype, just another two-dimensional crusader. What gives the film its psychological richness is the realisation that the dishonest cops are NICE. These are affable, reasonable men who want to like Serpico and want to welcome him onto the team. The camaraderie is seductive and it's difficult for Frank to hold out against it. He is besieged by self-doubt, wondering if he is just a one-man awkward squad, or worse - a prima donna, sacrificing personal relationships on the altar of his own ego.

Again, the easy (but disastrous) course would have been to give Frank some big heroic speeches, allowing him to inveigh against corruption. The film chooses instead to go for psychological truth, and this is what makes the project outstanding. Appalled, afraid and despairing of ever changing anything, Frank withdraws into himself. He becomes the spectre at the feast, the silent rebuke, the muted but ever-present conscience of his colleagues.

Though Frank rejects the golden shield which is eventually offered, we feel that the system still means something. There are still some honest cops, and even after all these vicissitudes, the United States is still a nation of laws. Lumet's profoundly liberal and optimistic view of America ultimately shines through, but the final mood is one of quiet resignation rather than triumphalism. Right can prevail over wrong, but a price has to be paid. Serpico wins his titanic struggle, but he is diminished and saddened as a man.

The film contains some marvellous technical things. In the opening minutes, the action cuts between Frank as he is now (wounded, broken and alone) and as he started out (the clean-cut, idealistic rookie). These transitions are seamless, and the narrative logic is smooth and natural. We see Frank's first moment of disenchantment in a cafeteria when it dawns on him that cops get free handouts of food, but they have to take whatever comes. This first bewilderment develops until we see the gulf open up between Frank and the dishonest cops, the ones who take the money but also take the self-loathing.

The terrible stress to which Frank is subjected is depicted with skill. The police department has a huge institutional inclination to protect its own, and this vast weight is brought to bear on Serpico. Equally, the pressure is relieved cleverly at appropriate points in the narrative. Frank's 'collar' of Rudi Casaro reaches an explosive climax as this all too human guy reaches breaking-point. On the other hand, the romantic story-telling interlude with Laurie and Serpico's undercover cameo as an orthodox rabbi break the tension and vary the pace beautifully.

The second-unit work is of a uniformly high standard. We are shown atmospheric New York streetscapes with grubby brownstones and the massive, overbearing masonry of the Brooklyn Bridge, in knowing homage to the films noirs of twenty years earlier. The symbols are powerful. This city, and this police department, are too colossal for one man to stand against them. Practice sessions in the police firing gallery intelligently reinforce the film's undercurrent of foreboding. Paper targets obscure the gunmen's faces, suggesting a monolithic force united against Frank, then come hurtling towards him on pulleys, signifying the fate which is rushing to meet him.

Mikis (Zorba the Greek) Theodorakis has provided a classy score. I particularly liked the jazzy, minor-key horn passage.

Pacino puts in another of the towering performances which have distinguished him as the profoundest acting talent of his era. He is simply wonderful. Barbara Eda-Young gives top-notch support as Laurie, the genuinely loving partner who is destroyed by her man's seeming eagerness for martyrdom in rejection of domestic happiness. If ever an actor exuded confidence it's Tony Roberts, and he is ideally cast as Bob Blair, Serpico's well-connected ally. Though he can open City Hall doors, he can't actually help Frank at all. Nobody can. Christ-like, Frank understands that it is ordained - he must go to the hill alone.
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"Cabaret Para Intelectuales"
9 January 2002
I came to this film wanting to hate it, but I was seduced by it and it affected me deeply. Why hate? Because I had just seen a TV documentary about Almodovar. He talks a good deal of shallow rubbish, and the showbusiness darlings who surround him are vile. However, his film speaks with the sincere voice of artistic talent. It even has a touch of greatness.

It is a film about Woman. Almodovar is well-known for his preoccupation with feminine sensibility, and here we go through the range of female awarenesses - Madre, Puta, Actriz. This is not the 'macro' masculine world of war and politics, but the feminine 'micro' universe of caring, loving and suffering. In a real sense, it is "All About Eve".

Manuela loves her son Esteban totally and unconditionally. When he is taken from her, she must forge a new life. Back in her native Barcelona she finds fulfilment caring for Rosa the pregnant nun and Huma the barren actress. A new Esteban appears, and the cycle of living and loving begins again.

This flimsy summary of the story gives no real idea of the film's symbolic and dramatic richness. It is a pattern made of other patterns, with stories repeating, reversing and overlapping endlessly. Names can mean a break with the past (Agrado, Huma) or they can insist on continuity (Rosa, Esteban). In the guignol tradition, names can also delineate character - Agrado tries to make life agreeable for others, Huma Rojo is red smoke, a hollow illusion, and Nina is an adult with a child's personality.

Almodovar deliberately offends against social custom. Women are fathers, birth means death and drama is more real than life. It is tempting to think of Almodovar as the new Bunuel, and he takes the same childish pleasure in shocking the 'decent' Spanish bourgeoisie. When Agrado gives her performance in the theatre, the old folks walk out in disgust while the youngsters stay and are entertained.

"This play marked my life," says Manuela of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. It made her a mother (the defining experience of her existence) because it introduced her to Lola. She explains that she played Stella and Lola played Kowolski, literally and figuratively. The male symbol is brutal and cruel, the female symbol is the nurturer of life who endures abuse because she loves. Like Stella, Manuela escaped, pregnant and alone. The play returns later as Esteban's birthday treat and the cause of his death. Manuela knows the text by heart, and when she follows the production to Barcelona, fate pulls her into the drama and she triumphs as Stella. Huma is Blanche, the sad derelict, "relying on the kindness of strangers". (Another link with the play is the title of Almodovar's own production company, "Deseo".)

Esteban's delight with his new book is shown in the reading of the foreword - "es un prefacio maravilloso!" The film, similarly, has a marvellous preface. A bag of plasma drips purposefully, its valve shaped like a crucifix. The symbolism is rich and catholic, and prepares us for what will come - here is a figurative mother, giving the blood of life and suffering the cross of sorrow. Taps, console and graph represent institutionalised care, as opposed to the natural, personal care of a mother. These things are neat and orderly, but cold and soulless. This is the organ donation unit of a hospital. It does excellent work, but we see its effort in fragments rather than a whole. The files list organs, not people - 'higado', 'corazon'. Technology can help us, but it can never replace maternal love. We feel uneasy when we are told that "the machine is breathing for him".

Manuela works as a nurse (symbol of the nurturing mother) in this unit, and we see her as an actress appearing in a training video, playing a mother whose son is dead. Two doctors ask for the boy's organs. New life must be nourished from his body's wreckage. When the scene is repeated for real, it is almost too painful to watch. Almodovar takes us to the 'meta' level, with Manuela's anguish setting up cross-rhythms with her professionalism. Love is stronger than systems, and the organ co-ordinator weeps for Manuela.

The real Manuela stands tiny before a vast advert for 'Streetcar', showing Huma's face. Is the image more potent than the individual? Or is Almodovar saying that superficial impact fades, whereas human empathy endures? What is the relationship between the true woman and her made-up face? Esteban dies pursuing the 'red smoke' of an actress's fame. If he had stayed with his real mother and not chased an illusion, he would have been safe.

Esteban will bestow new life. We go with Manuela as she follows her son's heart to Coruna, where another young man has hope restored. The mulch of death feeds the roots of life. Manuela knows two places, Spain's first and second cities, Madrid and Barcelona (importantly for Almodovar, these are the two pre-eminently 'modern' towns). She moves between them along the tunnel umbilicus, as a pregnant teenager, childless mother and finally as triumphant madonna with the 'new' Esteban.

The spectacular vista of Barcelona and sumptuous portal of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia rapidly disappear, and we are soon in an ugly wasteland where prostitutes parade as grotesques in a hell worthy of Goya. These two Barcelonas recur again and again - the outward city of quirky, appealing architecture and the mean streets of the hopeless, directionless underclass.

Almodovar's narrative has been engrossing up to this point. Now it will expand and deepen as a new cast of characters is woven into the film's fabric.

"Que raro!"
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"I Don't Know Which Side Anybody's On!"
30 December 2001
Private dick Phil Marlowe is hired by a "paltry, foppish man" to accompany him on a midnight assignation. What follows is a glorious piece of Chandleriana, a ganglion of a plot involving a jade necklace, a jailbird who carries a torch for a showgirl, a "big-league blonde" with a rich old husband and an eye for private eyes, and more narrative twists and turns than a Restoration comedy on acid.

Will Moose be reunited with Velma? Who's the brunette in the gulch? What is Anthor's precise relationship with Marriott? How many more times can Marlowe get slugged from behind without having his skull disintegrate?

Golden tenor Dick Powell may not be the obvious choice to play Marlowe, but in fact he turns in THE definitive performance. Chandler once defined the ideal hero in one of his essays as a special man, but at the same time a man of the people. Not amazingly bright, subject to bouts of confusion and wrong-headed wilfulness, but for all that a tough, decent, dry-humoured guy who just happens to be as sexy as hell. Powell delivers.

Watch out for a remarkable dream sequence after Marlowe is forcibly injected with heroin (yes, heroin). Expressionist cinema was never as evocative as here!

All in all, the film is an example of a genre captured at its apex - "like lighting a stick of dynamite, and telling it not to go off"!
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There's disagreement, and there's discourtesy
5 March 2001
I am certainly not above criticism. I get things badly wrong sometimes. Visitors to IMDb often correct me in forthright terms, and when they do, I write to thank them. However, it's one thing to point out errors, and quite another to trash an honest opinion because it doesn't happen to chime with your own.

The other person who has reviewed "French Dressing" (probably the only other person who has SEEN it) goes by the nickname of 'hernebay'. This individual accuses my review of 'hastiness' (evidence, please?) and tells the world that my description of the film is 'distorted by ... animosity'. I challenge hernebay, or anyone for that matter, to point to a single inaccuracy in my review. Where are these distortions?

I take it that I am included among 'those determined to make hostile judgments'. This is simply wrong. I watched the film and found it weak and unconvincing. Hernebay cannot possibly comment on my state of mind as I saw the opening credits rolling. He or she does me a disservice by accusing me of bias. But then, Ken Russell himself (we learn from hernebay) didn't understand the film, and he directed it!

If I am open to criticism because I mention the film's stock devices, so be it. The feeble humour on display owes more to the Boulting Brothers and Ealing than to 1960's 'with-it' sensibility, and the lame gags were already old by 1963 - it is no argument at all to claim that we're viewing this tawdry effort from the wrong end of the 60's.

The film is about much more, hernebay tells us, than a French sex-bomb meeting randy English councillors. Viewers who can find more to it than that are welcome to write to me and explain whatever it is that I'm missing. What it's REALLY about, according to hernebay, is 'a loving parody of the French Nouvelle Vague' (dealt with in my review, actually), 'wistful lyricism' (praised in my review, actually) and what hernebay sees as links forward in time to a TV series (these links are not explained) and backwards to Victorian operetta (oh come on!)

I pointed out that the film catches one of the first whiffs of vibrant-youth-versus-pompous-middle-age, that overused 1960's format, and went on to explain that "French Dressing" is just too early to do it properly, remaining stylistically and psychologically in the 1950's of Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice. Hernebay tries to have it both ways, blaming me for not understanding the stuffy mood of 1963 (Christine Keeler etc.), and at the same time not seeing that this is the first of the "pop" films. Anyone who cares to read what I actually wrote may feel that these carpings are unwarranted.

I didn't CONCEDE that Naughton is pretty. I SAID she is. My point was that she disappeared after this flop. Hernebay points out that she starred in another damp Russell squib. My point exactly! The reason why her stocking-tops are ridiculous is that she has just removed a pair of jeans. Perhaps hernebay knows a lot of women who wear stockings and suspenders under jeans. I don't. Hernebay thinks the cinema riot is well filmed, and on that point we will never agree. See the film and form your own view.

I am, it seems, hostile and prejudiced. In a sense, this is true. I am hostile and prejudiced towards slapdash films which try to be funny but fail miserably. Hernebay gives Russell credit for knowing that parts of a Kent town would collapse in the following decade. Pardon me for not commending the auteur's prescience.

If hernebay had taken the trouble to read any of my other reviews, he/she would have seen that for my summary I almost always lift an apt quotation from the screenplay. It is simply foolish and unfair to accuse me of not knowing what I was doing when I quoted Judy.

There is a difference between defending a much-loved work from unmerited abuse, and simply refusing to acknowledge its weaknesses, just as there is a difference between honestly disagreeing with someone, and mounting a discourteous attack on him.
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"People With Ropes Round Their Necks Don't Always Hang"
26 February 2001
Angel Eyes, the cruel assassin, hears of a fortune in Army money, lying hidden in a graveyard. Blondie is the benevolent free spirit, Western Man in his perfect incarnation. His partner and nemesis is Tuco, the irresistible rogue who combines charm, courage and total amorality in equal measure. Only Tuco knows where the graveyard is, but only Blondie knows where to dig, so each must keep the other alive if they are to collect the money.

"The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" is the keystone of the 'Dollars' trilogy, and the pinnacle of the Spaghetti Western genre. Neither before nor after did the format achieve this sweeping majesty, this clarity of characterisation or this narrative power. Leone's curious hybrid of American art-form, Japanese look and European sensibility worked beautifully - and hit its zenith in this picture.

Ennio Morricone's revolutionary musical score is universally acclaimed. The conservatoire-educated composer came up with material for this film which is more than merely innovative and arresting - it sets a new benchmark by which to measure cinematic composition. The central motif was an instant worldwide hit and has never lost popularity, but the score has much more to offer than one engaging melody. Insistently-picked guitar enhances moments of tension, and the lasciviously latin trumpet passage at the film's climax expands the meaning of the photographic images. Music melds with visuals like paint bonding with plaster to form fresco. Without that music, this film is almost unimaginable.

A picaresque story in the great European tradition, the film recalls (and extends) the line of inheritance which runs from "Lazarillo de Tormes" through Voltaire and Dickens. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, and Blondie and Tuco find themselves meandering in tandem through an evilly-disposed universe, lurching from one scrape to another (the desert episode, the prisoners-of-war episode, etc.) This western Quixote and Sancho double act draws on the selfsame comic proposition, that two very different men, yoked together by fate's whimsy, can forge an understanding that comes close to love.

Though Blondie is the 'doer' and the presiding intelligence, the heart of the film is occupied by the unforgettable Tuco. What a character! Comical charlatan, savvy killer, conscienceless swindler and lovable monster, Tuco remains fascinating for every second that he is on the screen. Fine writing delineated the character but it took Eli Wallach's inspirational performance to breathe life into one of cinema's immortal rogues. With the natural courage of a wild animal and the vulnerability of a born loser, Tuco is suffused with a vital humanity which leaps off the screen. His introductory vignette is a masterpiece of exposition, told entirely in images. Our anti-hero escapes a gunning-down (not for the last time!) and makes off gnawing a chicken leg, wiliness, vigour and sensuality mingling in one great affirmation of life itself. Tuco is the other, the dispossessed, the one who must rely on his wits to survive. He is the most frenetic character in the film, and the one who constantly wears a noose around his neck. He has developed his 'otherness' and transmuted it into a life force. Tuco is, par excellence, one of "those that come in by the window".

If you think of the world's great novels, it is surprising how many of them are comic - "Ulysses", "A La Recherche", "Oliver Twist", etc. And so it is with this cinematic novel. Virtually every scene is casseroled in a piquant comic sauce. The lists of Tuco's outrageous crimes, read aloud at his various hangings, the wild fluctuations in the relative fortunes of Blondie and Tuco, the transparent attempts of Tuco to save his own skin in every tight corner - all combine to make this a richly comic work, though the humour is usually dry and always understated.

This is a film of immense visual power. Each of the three protagonists is given an opening vignette: extreme close-up forces the viewer to take note of the vulpine quality of Lee Van Cleef's extraordinary eyes, fixing him in the mind as a merciless predator. Blondie is seen, not as a man whole and complete, but fragmented by his defining symbols - hat, cigar and gun-holster. The desert sequence contains an image of Blondie staggering on foot, with Tuco's mounted shadow pursuing him over the sand, an object lesson in conveying mood and information without words. Tuco sets an empty bottle rolling down a dune, and in the next shot it hits Blondie in the face. Tuco's ascendancy and Blondie's fading hope are communicated in a single gesture. Blondie's compassion for the whipped mongrel Tuco is enshrined in the little act of sharing a cigar. In the gunshop scene, Tuco hardly utters a word, but his purpose, his knowledge of guns (and the lethal beauty of the weapons themselves) is conveyed powerfully. Tabernas, the Spanish location, is a place of parched hills and scrubby desert, and the film makes superb use of wide panoramas to capture the quality of the terrain. The American Civil War happened on the green pastures of Virginia, not in this barbaric Nowhere, but it doesn't matter. Rock and sand provide a mythical context for these exotic characters who never existed, and never could exist.

The finale, with its three-way draw, is epic in scale. Tuco's crazed run through the tombstones is brilliantly shot, with the short field of focus rendering the graves a single unbroken blur as Tuco's greed blinds him to reality. Rapid cuts between the eyes of the participants in the draw heighten the tension dramatically, and then after the explosive release, the closing conceit is a comic gem worthy of a Moliere or a Goldoni.
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"We Rob Banks."
10 January 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Boy meets girl, boy takes girl on robbery spree, cops chase boy and girl. This innovative film transformed Hollywood's approach to the crime genre and ushered the nouvelle vague into America's mainstream.

The real-life Bonnie and Clyde ranged the rural Texas-Oklahoma-Missouri emptiness in the early 1930's, holding up village banks. A product of the Depression, these amateurish outlaws attracted media attention because they brought drama to a bleak, joyless world. They were freewheelers who turned the tables on the banks, notorious but somehow admirable villains. The Robin Hood theme is quietly insisted upon throughout the film. Banks foreclose on poor farmers, or suddenly fail, wiping out ordinary folks' savings. Out of this chaos emerge these youngsters, scourging the rich and living for the moment, riding their luck for as long as it lasts, "uncertain as times are".

Mythology is the stuff that Bonnie and Clyde are made of. The film deals admirably with both reality and myth. A farmer touches Clyde reverently, as he might touch a sacred relic. On the other hand, Old Man Moss is disappointed by the ordinariness of the dynamic duo - "they ain't nothin' but a coupla kids!" We see the clumsy, ragged robberies and the burgeoning fame. Our lovable rogues may be violent thugs, but they favour the little guy. During a robbery in progress, a farmer is permitted to keep his money. The authorities are portrayed as hapless oafs, as is customary in 'Robin Hood' movies, but here it bears an underlying significance - America's institutions have failed the citizens. People can't repose trust in the police. (The film was made at the depths of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights disturbances.)

One of the striking features of the film, and one which attracted criticism on its release, is the linking of violence with comedy. This was a period when violence was being portrayed graphically onscreen, and what is new in this film is that the firing of the gun and the bullet hitting the victim are both contained in the same camera shot, as opposed to the traditional euphemism of the cut away from the gun. We never forget that, for all their hedonistic levity, our two leads are "staring square into the face of death". The final shoot-up is a shocking and fascinating danse macabre. "There's nothing quite like the kinetics of violence," says director Arthur Penn. He uses crazily juxtaposed running-speeds to compound the horror of the madly-flailing corpses, an effect which he calls "both spastic and balletic".

And then, of course, there is sex. The real Clyde Barrow maintained a homosexual liaison with C.W. Moss, and originally the writers Benton and Newman had wanted the menage-a-trois with Bonnie to be a part of the film. Warren Beatty objected to playing a bisexual, and on reflection the Beatty-Penn-Benton-Newman production team dispensed with the sexual sophistication, reasoning that it would complicate the story unnecessarily and alienate cinema audiences. The only remaining vestiges are Clyde's difficulty making love to Bonnie, and some laddish cuddles during the card game in the hideout. The meeting of Bonnie and Clyde at the start is filled with playful sexual imagery. A bored, trapped Bonnie pummels the slats of her bedframe, pouting with sexual frustration. Clyde bursts into this 'prison' and seduces her with his aura of danger and excitement. Check out the phallic symbols - toothpick, gun and coke bottle.

The music is wonderful in itself, and wonderfully appropriate. Flatt and Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" evokes place and time perfectly, and provides a rousing accompaniment to the car chases. Director Penn has the boldness to dispense with incidental music and, where dramatic effect requires it, to rely on ambient sound such as eerily-rustling grass.

At the writing stage, Benton and Newman were in love with the French New Wave and wanted this project to enshrine the nouvelle vague principles. Strenuous but abortive attempts were made to recruit first Truffaut and then Godard, but Beatty finally convinced the writers that outer trappings such as European directors were unnecessary, because the script held all the New Wave ingredients. Truffaut's benign influence pervades the final version, especially the section where Bonnie reads her ballad aloud. We move visually through three scenes as Bonnie's voice proclaims the couple's testament, a cinematic gem suggested by Truffaut. Throughout the action, the jump-cut style of editing captures perfectly the spareness which is the essence of New Wave. Two sheets of newspaper are scattered on the swirling wind, an image which underscores the feckless, empty existence of the protagonists. Benton may not have got his francophone director, but in this fresh treatment of classic American subject matter he succeeded in making his "specifically European film".

"We couldn't have made it on the back lot," says Beatty, and he is right. The rural Texas locations are terrific, their open spaces hinting at both freedom and emptiness. Bonnie and Clyde are at their best when on the move, and they grow fractious whenever cooped up. The countryside is almost a participant in the story, as when the distraught Bonnie, filled with thoughts of death and separation, absconds through the field of withered corn, or the Eugene-Thelma episode closes with a dustcloud 'wiping' the action. The night-to-day sequence around the two cars after Buck's misfortune is beautifully done.

Beatty produced the film as well as starring in it. He held daily pre-shoot discussion sessions for the cast, an admirable attempt to enrich the creative process. By the evidence of this fresh, entertaining and superbly-constructed film, his inclusive instincts triumphantly augmented a winning formula.
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"Something To Do With Death"
4 January 2001
Sergio goes Hollywood for this big-name, big-budget Spaghetti Western. Fonda, Bronson, Robards and Cardinale queue up and take Leone's choreographic direction in an epic tale of blood and revenge.

Frank is a bad guy who has killed a lot of people. He now works for a railroad entrepreneur whose ruthless sterile tracks are spreading ever westward. The time has come for the real Americans to confront both the railroad and Frank.

Leone sat down with film intellectuals Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento and watched dozens of Hollywood westerns. From this saturation-viewing emerged a 300-page treatment which was eventually distilled into the script, penned by Leone and Sergio Donati. There are conscious echoes of "Shane" and "High Noon" in the meticulously-plotted screenplay. Ennio Morricone apparently sat in on the planning stage and had composed the score in toto before shooting began, the reverese of the usual process of fitting music to existing footage. The result is a tight matching of soundtrack and visuals. Robards, Bronson and Cardinale each have musical 'signatures' which play whenever their characters are onscreen. Bronson's is an eerily-wailing harmonica, Robards has the plonking banjo and Cardinale the lush strings. So intricately was everything structured that the themes were available to be played on set, so that the actors could co-ordinate every nuance of gesture to fit with the score.

The film is a grandiose lament to the death of the Wild West. Decay is everywhere to be seen. Streets, bars, buildings and people all have a beat-up, grungy look. When Cheyenne (Robards) pauses beside a rough-hewn wooden post, there is little difference in texture between his face and the post. Morton the cripple is killing the romantic West of open spaces with his "snail trail" of railroad tracks, leaving the fine adventurous men (Cheyenne and Harmonica) nowhere to go.

There can be few opening scenes with the visual and aural brilliance of this one. Three bad guys stake out Flagstone's railroad depot in a High Noon pastiche. Jack Elam (who was actually in "High Noon") leads the villains. The only spoken words throughout this long (but totally gripping) scene are uttered by the old station clerk. Haunting rhythms raise the tension to an unbearable pitch ... the squeaking windmill, the chattering tickertape, the creaking bench. This wonderful crescendo climaxes with the appearance of Bronson, a sequence as stylised and choreographed as a Shinto ceremony, all the more effective for the absence of spontaneity.

Equal to and counterbalancing this scene is the very next one, the introduction of Frank. This time it is "Shane" that gets the treatment as the McBain boy spots five men in yellow duster topcoats. A growing sense of unease on the McBain homestead is beautifully conveyed (was the stopping of a cicada chirp ever so effective?) A cinematic multiple orgasm ensues, with the musical theme crashing in as the boy sees the devastation, and the camera swoops round to reveal the baddie to be none other than Henry Fonda as Morricone's trademark solitary tubular bell peals out.

Cheyenne's entrance is also a piece of impressive cinema. Inside Lionel Stander's strange labyrinthine tavern, quite unlike any saloon ever filmed before, the violence which hovers around Cheyenne like a dustcloud is heard but not seen, preparing us for his appearance in person. The sliding of the lamp towards Bronson works brilliantly, the film's two good men sharing the light of humour, the symbolic forging of a meaningful friendship.

By a slow accretion, the plot reveals itself. The leviathan of the railroad must be stopped, and there must be a reckoning with Frank. Gradually the fates of the main characters converge, and swim into sharp focus for the shoot-out.

It is not the story, excellent though that is, which lingers in the memory, but rather a hundred individual flashes of brilliance: Claudia Cardinale (are those eyes for real?) filmed on the bed, viewed vertically downward, through a lace canopy: Cheyenne's surprise method of concealing himself on the train: Morton ("when you're not on that train, you're like a turtle out of its shell") imprisoned by the armature that helps him walk: the 'heartbeat' of the train's engine during the cardgame: the tension of the ambush preparations against Frank: the eruption of guitar music as Bronson enters the frame: Bronson's stillness and self-possession, the emblem of his righteousness: Fonda's eyes flickering rapidly in his motionless head, denoting the waning of his self-confidence: the amazing super-close-ups of Bronson: and the weird brick arch, the only man-made intrusion into the entire terrain, and the focus of human depravity.
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Psycho (1960)
"A Psychiatrist Doesn't Lay The Groundwork ... He Merely Tries To Explain It."
30 December 2000
A respectable 30-year-old spinster steals $40,000 from her workplace and takes off on a solo car journey to nowhere. She makes the fateful mistake of staying overnight at the Bates Motel ...

There is a difference between a great film, where the cast and technicians seem inspired and the project is carried along on the energy of its ideas, and a merely good film, in which the cleverness is calculated, and the tricks are consciously inserted. "Psycho" is merely a good film.

But what cleverness! The incidental music of Bernard Herrman, Hitchcock's composer of choice, has a discordant, staccato leitmotif in the strings which repeats constantly, building almost hypnotically towards the shrill climax of the shower scene. Hitchcock deploys a battery of subtle devices to keep the viewer feeling vaguely uneasy. Sexual frankness was a shocking thing in a mainstream movie in 1960, and the opening scene (showing Marion's "extended lunch hour" with Sam) is so sexually honest that it cannot have failed to disturb contemporary cinema audiences. Faces are lit from below or the side, creating an inchoate sense of foreboding. Owls and ravens, traditional omens of evil, preside silently over Norman's parlour. The windshield wiper which fails to clear the rain is a symbol of Marion's guilty conscience.

The film's abiding mood is one of creepy uneasiness, and this is reinforced at every turn by Hitchcock's system of visual imagery. There is, of course, the Old Dark House, but far less obvious techniques are also at work. As Arbogast mounts the stairs, the camera retreats disconcertingly before him. The tines of the rakes in Sam's store are raised like bony, clutching fingers behind Lila's head. Marion's unblinking eyeball is compositionally echoed by the circular plughole, the water draining out as her life force ebbs away.

In the long dialogue scene between Norman and Marion ("We all go a little mad sometimes"), the rhythm of the cutting is exquisite. Sometimes we see the speaker, sometimes the listener, as the rapidity of the cuts forms a counterpoint to the text, and emphasises the discomfort of the characters (Marion wary but self-possessed, Norman outwardly affable but painfully shy).

The cinematic axiom, "Show it, don't tell it", is beautifully illustrated in the scene in Marion's bedroom. The camera closes in on the bundles of banknotes lying on the bed, then pans to the packed suitcase, telling us without the need for words that she has decided to take the money and run.

Then something puzzling happens. The film seems to lose all belief in its own precepts, and the rich visual symbolism is abruptly abandoned. Lila opines, "I'll feel better when all this is explained," but she is wrong. The explanation is a huge let-down. We get Dr. Simon, a psychiatrist, lecturing us at tedious length about Norman's condition. "Show it, don't tell it" flies out of the window. Maybe Stefano, the scriptwriter, realised that the running time was already over two hours and the thing needed its loose ends tied up rapidly. Perhaps the flat, prosaic ending is the price Hitch has to pay for the slow painstaking build-up in the early reels (it is almost half an hour before Norman makes it onto the screen). Whatever the reason, I for one found the closing section very disappointing.
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Goldfinger (1964)
"Something Big's Come Up"
26 December 2000
Warning: Spoilers

The dastardly villain Auric Goldfinger has hatched an evil plan to detonate a nuclear device inside Fort Knox. This will render the gold reserves of the Western World unusable for generations to come, and will drive up the value of Goldfinger's own stash of bullion. However, this is one ruthless criminal who has reckoned without the resourcefulness of James Bond ...

Cars, girls, jet planes, lasers and more gadgets than you can shake an electronic homing device at fill this watershed Bond adventure to overflowing with lovable 60's kitsch. I say watershed because this is the film in which the Bond phenomenon finds its definitive expression. The delightful sunshine which drenches the locations of Miami, Geneva and Kentucky is the ideal symbol of early 60's optimism. Those dour Austerity years of the previous decade have been conclusively sloughed off, and the cheap materialism of the Beatles Age has yet to be comprehended in all its true tackiness.

The best storyline of all the Bond films, the best theme song and the best interpreter of the Bond character combine to make this a special film. To the innocent cinema audience of the period, yet to experience foreign travel via the package holiday, and increasingly turning to icons of youth for its totems, this big-budget festival of sex and opulence hit with an emotional impact that the later (and infinitely duller) Roger Moore spying-by-numbers projects could not hope to emulate. "Goldfinger" caught us as cinema-goers at a unique moment in our collective cultural development. Never again would we be this naive, never again would we yearn quite so earnestly for this brash consumerism. Bond's car is a sleek, expensive accessory which gets casually trashed, and the same fate befalls Jill Masterson, his sleek, expensive female accessory. Death by gold is the ultimate immolation: venal consumerism can offer nothing beyond this.

It would require an essay some thousands of words in length to deal with the many absurdities of the plot. In a way, the silliness of the narrative is its very strength. Just as James Bond is a flippant young stud, it is meet that he should embody a flippant new genre. Goldfinger has built an amazing model of Fort Knox, its hydraulics governed by a snazzy 60's console of buttons and flashing lights. He uses his elaborate and rather-too-showy model to explain in detail to a bunch of American hoodlums exactly how Operation Grandslam will work. Moments later, he murders the gangsters with poison gas. Why didn't he just kill them anyway, without going to all the bother and expense of having the model built? What was the point of the model? It really doesn't matter. Rejoicing in the gadgetry is an end in itself. Indeed, it's the core of the film.
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Blade Runner (1982)
"It's Artificial? Of Course It Is!"
20 December 2000
In the year 2019, Los Angeles is threatened by a gang of renegade replicants. A replicant is a robot which so closely approximates humanity that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from the real thing. Even the replicant itself may fail to realise that it is merely a machine. The robots are programmed with a maximum lifespan of four years, a safety device intended to prevent them becoming too knowledgeable, and therefore a threat to human beings. Furthermore, each replicant is provided with software which contains a fictitious but credible personal history, so it 'remembers' its own childhood.

The breakaway band of replicants poses a threat to Los Angeles. Usually, combat androids such as these spend their working lives in space, stuck on labour colonies orbiting the earth. Mutinies are usually contained locally but this gang has made its way back to earth because its leader, Roy Batty, wants to force the humans to extend his lifespan. Blade runners are essentially police officers who specialise in 'retiring' (that is, destroying) apostate robots. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner and he is given the task of hunting down the four surviving members of the replicant band. What follows is a rather mundane cops-and-bad-guys movie in a quirkily futuristic setting.

And what of this future world? Cops patrol the city in black-and-white squad cars, just like in 1982, but now the cars can hover in the air. The depiction of downtown architecture is visually impressive, but unfortunately it is patent nonsense. Urban traffic and the science of robotics will not be like this in 2019. This science fiction is so much science baloney.

"Watch out for water," says J.F. Sebastian as he shows Priss to his apartment, and it is a warning that should be standard in every Ridley Scott film. Why does Ridley always conceive of the future in terms of steam gouts, dripping ceilings and restless searchlights? And why, for that matter, must a man in a fez always be devious and cowardly?

Rutger Hauer makes a terrific villain, mixing suavete with chilling ruthlessness. Daryl Hannah and Brion James are interesting casting choices as the replicants Priss and Leon, and Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford. The character of Rachel (played by Sean Young) adds intellectual depth to an otherwise pedestrian shoot-'em-up. Her moment of tragic self-comprehension is the best thing in the film.

I for one fail to see why this film is slavered over and hailed a cult masterpiece. The storyline is dull and no character, with the possible exception of Rachel, has any internal life. The final symbol of mortality is attractive enough, but why was Batty holding a dove in the first place?
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"A Glorified Native Apeman!"
20 December 2000
There is a lot of near-nudity in this jungle adventure nonsense of 1934, one of the last mainstream films to peddle flesh openly before The Code began to bite. Jane's nude swim was edited out as a post-production afterthought, but her jungle garb leaves little to the imagination in any event.

With regard to the story, there isn't much to analyse. Two white hunters, one good and one bad, go on safari to the elephants' graveyard. Martin (bad) wants to help himself to the ivory that's lying around, and Harry (good) carries a torch for Jane, whom he knew in her London society days. He hopes to woo her away from the Ape Man.

The film has much to its credit. If the narrative is fairly flimsy, it is related with gusto, and both sound and images are beautifully clear. The scenery, especially that of the Mutiyah Escarpment, is marvellous. Both Weissmuller and O'Sullivan are amiable and photogenic screen presences.

On the other hand, there is plenty about this effort that is simply preposterous. Let's begin with the animals. Zebras live on plains, in herds. To have one solitary zebra meandering through the jungle is plain silly. The apes are oh-so-obviously guys in gorilla suits. Tarzan's penchant for fighting lions by hand is barmy, and not very persuasively filmed. As for taking on the rhino ... well, the back projection is so obvious that the scene is marginally less frightening than a Liberace TV special. The rhino's attack on Cheetah's mother is unintentionally hilarious, with the man in the monkey suit doing a neat somersault when butted. The rhino itself must be all of three months old. African elephants are everywhere - except that they are actually docile little Indian elephants with big paper ears glued on.

Now for the humans. How come Tarzan lives in the wild, but is always clean-shaven? How does the guy with the five-word vocabulary understand everything that's said to him? One of the native bearers is shot dead for having the impudent nerve to be tired and scared. This murder is condemned, not because it is barbaric, but because everyone else will now have more stuff to carry. The character of Harry is fairly central to the film, but the script forgets to tell us what happened to him.

The vine-swinging is truly awful. Totally studio-bound and entrusted to trapeze artists, it looks exactly what it is - a circus act filmed indoors. Tarzan is made to appear athletic as he climbs up to build a tree-house, by the rather crude expedient of having him climb down, then reversing the motion.

Still, audiences were naive in 1934 ... and Jane looks good.
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"Can A Man Like A Woman Against His Will?"
20 December 2000
Hmmmmm .... strange one, this. Though it was made as early as 1934, it is no less than the FIFTH film adaptation of J.M. (Peter Pan) Barrie's stage play. It is a simple love story, set in a Scottish hamlet in early victorian times. RKO do the period feel very well indeed (check out the churchyard scene) and we can forgive a few shaky Scottish accents.

Gavin Dishart is the handsome young man who has just been appointed minister to the church at Thrums. He meets Babbie, a mysterious gypsy girl, and suddenly his life is transformed, and some of his values need to be reappraised.

"The fall of man through the temptation of woman" is Gavin's improvised sermon, and it encapsulates the theme of the film. The light coquetterie between Babbie and Gavin is very well done, and for the young generation of 1934 this must have been a terrific date movie. Max Steiner, RKO's contract composer, provides the score.

John Beal is ideal as the innocent young pastor, and Katharine Hepburn is impressive in a gentler, less stridently feminist role than was usual for her. She is memorable in the scene where she takes off at an athletic sprint, trailing skirts behind her. Beal is great in the scene where Gavin rues the missed kiss. Wearyworld, the unpopular policeman, adds a touch of wry humour: actor Andy Clyde appears to be a genuine Scot, though his Glaswegian accent is wrong for this lowland village. He is, one would guess from his style of delivery, a veteran of the music halls. Alan Hale Snr. is Rob Dow, the local drunk. Wise, humane Doctor McQueen is played admirably by Donald Crisp.

Memorable images include the zoom-in on the fast-disappearing "irresponsible, light-headed gypsy" which informs us that Babbie may amount to more than she seems, and the dour faces of the three elders at Mrs. Dishart's door.

Verdict - curious early Hepburn vehicle with nice period atmosphere
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"A Law Bigger'n Any In The Book - Family Pride"
4 December 2000
One of Hollywood's major offerings of 1957, "Gunfight" contains all the ingredients one would expect of a blockbuster - big stars, big budget and a storyline calculated to capture the public's imagination. For me, however, the film doesn't quite work. In the final analysis, the whole thing is a little too sluggish, a little too formulaic.

To be sure, it contains fine things. Burt Lancaster is stolid and unyielding as hard lawman Wyatt Earp. Sturges films him with the camera at ground level as he rides onto the screen, making him seem superhuman in his larger-than-life moral certainty. He faces down the armed drunk without the faintest twitch of fear, the embodiment of a strong, righteous enforcer of the law. The friendship between the paragon and the wastrel is cleverly done, with Earp and Holliday (Kirk Douglas) each seeing something to admire in the other, very different, man. Character is also to the fore as a plot-driver when Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) is forced by the dynamics of her relationship with the Doc into ever more wretched behaviour. By comparison, the Earp-Laura love story is cold and staid. Both Lancaster and Rhonda Fleming are terrific to look at, but hard to warm to. Though the film takes an eternity to get to the shoot-out which is its raison d'etre, when the climax finally comes the suspense is built superbly. In a nice symmetry, we see the women of both sides dreading the fatal clash as Ma Clanton and Virgil's wife separately mourn the departure of their respective menfolk. Douglas made a career out of playing generous-spirited bad guys, and one of the best things in this film is Doc Holliday's heroic effort of will, rising from his sickbed to stand beside his friend in the face of mortal danger. Shot in a rich Technicolor palette, the film's images are strong and clean, and at times even beautiful, for example the barn fire, or the approach of the Earp faction, with Cotton standing facing them, his body framed by the corral building.

Other elements are not so well done. Wyatt is too unrelenting a hard man to win the audience's unqualified sympathy, as in the scene when he tells the all-too-human Cotton, "If you can't handle it any more, turn in your badge." The Frankie Laine ballad, almost de rigeur in 1950's westerns, is simply not up to scratch ("Boot Hill, Boot Hill, so cold, so still ...") There is an ugly shadow eclipsing Ike Clanton's face throughout his most important scene. Billy (a very young Dennis Hopper) is 'converted' by Wyatt far too easily.

There exists a wide spectrum of opinion on the question of how loyal a work of fiction should remain to the historical event which inspired it. One camp would argue that the artist has total freedom to rework a popular legend such as The Gunfight, while the other extremity would insist on documentary accuracy. This film is interesting, in that it takes a well-known incident for which contemporaneous records abound, and virtually disregards the historical truth.

In the film, the decent, clean-shaven Earp boys are merely 'doing what a man has to do'. We know that the Clanton-McLaury gang is mean and duplicitous, and that there will have to be a showdown between Right and Wrong. The shoot-out, when it comes, happens over several minutes of time on a clear, bright day. There is an athletic battle of movement, with the Earps in particular manoeuvring for position, and finally trapping the Clantons in and around a burning wagon. The strategic intentions of the good guys are clear and easy to follow.

The reality of October 26, 1881 was quite different. Two gangs of walrus-mustachioed men confronted each other, standing face-to-face in a built-up street. The shooting lasted a maximum of 30 seconds, and when the smoke cleared, three of the so-called "cowboy faction" lay dead or mortally wounded, whereas the Earp faction sustained only minor wounds. Wyatt was totally unharmed. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne, two of the cowboy leaders, had in fact run away when the guns opened fire.

This was no tussle between Good and Evil. Wyatt Earp was not a US Marshall, as the film tries to insist. He was Virgil's assistant with purely local authority, little more than his brother's pinch-hitter. Doc Holliday held no office of any kind. This was a clash between two Americas - the Earps representing the urban, northern, republican culture which had won the Civil War, while the Clantons stood for the freebooting, democratic, open-range mentality whose sympathies lay with the vanquished South.

A motion picture has a span of something like 90 minutes in which to set out its stall. Perhaps such a narrow intellectual space imposes so many constrictions that the true flavour of a historic event can never be properly represented. Or maybe the limitations of the medium set the film-maker free to create a better, more poetic "reality". I don't know the answer. There probably isn't one.
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"This Thing Would Have To Be Arranged With Finesse"
4 December 2000
... but wasn't. If the Walmington-on-Sea Amateur Dramatic Society had been given a postal order for four pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence and invited to write, shoot and act out a film about Nazi contraband, the good burghers of Walmington would have come up with something slicker and more sophisticated than this.

Gregory Keen is a handsome American intelligence officer seconded to the British secret service in the wake of World War Two and the Berlin Blockade. His task is to thwart the nefarious plans of dastardly supercrook Dumetrius, "a man who's butchered his way half across Europe - and whom it's up to you to get!" (Yes, that really is quoted from the script.)

This awful British film of the Austerity period defines the term "amateurish". Clumsy fight scenes, un-scary bad guys like the cuddly Yotti Blum (Danny Green), a French secret agent with a crazy accent swanning around London wearing an inconspicuous beret, dreadful lines such as "You unclean cretin!" - need I go on?

The action, written and directed by someone called Maclean Rogers, is full from start to finish of absurd improbabilities. For the assassination attempt, why would the decrepit sexuagenarian Dumetrius (Ronald Adam) climb onto a rooftop with a rifle? Doesn't he have henchmen for that sort of thing? And how did he know that his 'target' would appear at this very window? In the warehouse denouement, how come the smoke doesn't move when the camera pans? It couldn't possibly be a cheaply overlaid special effect, could it? How come Rubinstein can give up half his fortune, which he protected from the rapacioua Nazis, with as much equanimity as if he were handing over a box of matches?

Coutts describes Dumetrius in one of the script's many indigestible mouthfuls as "cunning, ruthless, completely unscrupulous and will stop at nothing". One cannot help but wish that at least some of the bad guy's demonic energy had infused a few of the other people involved in this project. Nothing whatsoever in this feeble farrago comes close to being convincing. The appearance of Dumetrius, in disguise, on a routine military flight out of Berlin is plain ludicrous (wouldn't there be just the slightest risk that someone might KNOW the British officer he's trying to impersonate?), but no more ludicrous than the presence on the same flight of Hedy Bergner (Carole Matthews), the allegedly glamorous accordion player, journeying to London to play a single gig at a night club. Putting aside the universally-held view that the last time the accordion was a cool instrument was NEVER, what is she doing on a military transport? Was the accordion in so much demand in 1956? Wasn't Jimmy Shand available? And did she obtain that coiffure by letting the regimental goat chew her hair? Marzatti's is as trashy and unbelievable as one might expect - a night club depicted by someone who's never been to a night club, for an audience that has never been to one either. Why isn't Sally Jennings fazed when the strange man grabs her in the dark?

Richard Denning plays Keen, a phenomenon all too common in British films of the era - a token American, brought in to add "class". Well, compared to the rest of the movie, perhaps he succeeds. Such things are relative.
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"It Might Have Lacked Something In Craftsmanship"
3 December 2000
Dave Hirsh is through with the army. A drinking binge with his buddies results in Dave being loaded onto a Greyhound bus bound for Parkman, Indiana (his seldom-visited hometown) clutching the few things he has managed to collect - Ginnie the floozie ("that dumb poushover") and a bag containing two bottles of scotch, the tattered manuscript of a love story and Hirsh's beloved copies of Faulkner, Wolfe and Steinbeck. Dave was once a writer of considerable promise. It had not been Dave's intention to revisit Parkman, but now that he's here he decides to hang around for a while. He wants to settle a score with his brother Frank.

The proprietor of a thriving jewellery store and a rising star in the Rotarians, Frank Hirsh is the worst kind of small-town phoney. He is a master of glib sales patter and the vacuous small talk of country club social evenings. Though he would rather die than say so, he doesn't want his kid brother within a hundred miles of Parkman. Dave is bohemian, hedonistic, creative - in other words, thing which threaten scandal. Having to socialise with Dave (folks would gossip if he shunned his own brother), Frank spends the time alternately bragging about his vulgar prosperity and timidly hinting that maybe Dave should move on.

"I'm an expert on tramps," wisecracks Dave (played by Frank Sinatra). Typically of Ol' Blue Eyes' projects of the period ("Ocean's Eleven", "Come Blow Your Horn") women are depicted as chattles to be despised and traded.

Equally typically, it is from Dean Martin's character that the most virulent misogyny comes. Bama Dillert warns Dave that you either give women orders, or allow them to dominate you. There is no other way. Bama hangs around with Rosalie, the lowlife zombie, and tells Ginnie to "just be a good girl and shut up". It is poor, good-natured Ginnie who gets most of the abuse. "You'll go anywhere with anybody," says her husband-to-be. She is grateful when he allows her to clean the house for him. Edith the nice girl and Dawn the perfect daughter are shown to be whores at heart. Even superior, educated Gwen has her sluttish moments.

Dave's rediscovery of his writing talent is somewhat improbable, as is the volume of whiskey supposedly consumed by these 'real men'. Even more unlikely is Dave's romantic rush of blood to the head near the end of the picture, and the melodramatic consequences which flow from it.

There is a Cahn and Van Heusen theme song, of course ("To Love And Be Loved"). Shirley Maclaine is good as Ginnie the 'escort' with the heart of gold. She tended hereafter to be typecast as a trollop ("Irma La Douce", "Woman Times Seven", "My Geisha", "Sweet Charity", "Two Mules"). The set of the French house is marvellous, with its easy-on-the -eye three-dimensional layout. Martha Hyer as Gwen seems miscast as Frankie's love interest, not least because her head is twice the size of his.
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Limelight (1952)
"I'm Shameless, But I Can't Help It"
17 August 2000
An ageing vaudeville comedian is well into his decline when he rescues a young ballerina from death and nurses her back to health. Her combination of vulnerability, gratitude and unconditional adoration give the jaded Calvero a new lease of life.

"Love, Love, Love" is the title of a Calvero stage number, and it would serve as a subtitle for the film, with the young Claire Bloom as the jewish gamine, the Paulette Goddard of the next generation. As usual, Chaplin does it all - acting, writing, directing, composing and choreography. He also packs the film with Chaplins, with no fewer than seven members of the tribe appearing. "Sounds like a novelette," says Calvero when he hears Thereza's story, and the observation applies equally validly to this shallow and slightly tawdry love story.

"What is this urge that makes us go on and on?" asks Calvero. The viewer can be forgiven for wondering the same thing. This is Chaplin at his most self-indulgent (and that's saying something), with long rambling speeches about "the secret of all happiness" and horribly pretentious twaddle such as "Desire is the theme of all life. It's what makes a rose want to be a rose!"

Desire is what makes Chaplin want to seem clever and profound, but these witterings are meaningless ("The heart and the mind! What an enigma!") He cites Freud twice as he 'psychoanalyses' a girl he doesn't know, without any grounding in Freud's methods. And the screenplay is horribly over-written. The strivings towards a self-consciously literary style are embarrassing. We get phrases like "the elegant melancholy of twilight", and at one point Thereza is made to remonstrate with Calvero against his despondency because "You're too great an artist!" She tells him that he is "excruciatingly funny", when in fact he's just excruciating. The overblown histrionic style had gone out of fashion forty years before this. Thereza is given dreadful bits of speechifying to do ("Truth! Truth!") and the newspaper review which gets read aloud is literary pomposity of the most grotesque kind.

"I wasn't funny," admits Calvero. Elsewhere he confesses, "I lost contact with my audience." How very true. Calvero is offered to us as one of the great artists of vaudeville, but the simple truth is that the 'turns' which he performs onscreen are embarrassingly weak. The patter is lacklustre and unfunny, and the wretched flea routine (which would not have survived the script consultation stage, had there been one) gets shown twice. It is an emblem of the film itself - too long-winded and not nearly funny enough. Calvero flirts with Mrs. Alsop, the tough old landlady, in what is meant to be a winning deployment of charm, but it fails because Calvero isn't charming. Worst of all is the seemingly never-ending ballet, Chaplin's most extreme form of self-indulgence in a film mired in directionless ego. As a pianist, Chaplin has dexterity without musicality: as a writer, glibness without eloquence: as a composer, facility without substance. In all of his 'artistic' endeavours, he tootles and tinkers without really ever saying anything. The clown demands to be taken seriously, but has nothing serious to say.

Plot articulations were never a Chaplin strongpoint (vide the train wheels in "Monsieur Verdoux"), and "Limelight" has some clumsy narrative apparatus. The hoary old contrivance of the surprise telegram is lazy plotting, as is the inelegant question-answer dialogue by which Calvero elicits Thereza's life story. Calvero has been on the verge of Skid Row for years, but suddenly high society rewards him for his artistic achievements with a benefit gala - and thus is Claire Bloom's ballet worked into the story. After a long, slow build-up to the ballet, the film ends with puzzling abruptness.

Postant the impresario (Nigel Bruce) and Neville the composer (Sydney Chaplin) occupy a no man's land somewhere between being developed as characters and being irrelevant to the plot. The suspicion has to be that Chaplin introduced Neville in order to render the film palatable to an American audience. The core story, that Youth must break free of Age's tutelage in order to fulfil its own potential, doesn't need Neville.

Chaplin was fond of back-projection (eg, the never-quite-halting train in "The Great Dictator"). Calvero and Thereza go for a stroll against a back-projection of the Thames Embankment, and it just doesn't work. The artifice is simply too distracting.

Can anything positive be said about "Limelight"? Well, the routine with Buster Keaton is delightful (but (1) was it really necessary to repeat the gags so blatantly? and (2) one hears ugly rumours that Chaplin butchered the scene at the editing stage because Keaton was so much funnier than he). There is a reverse-motion segment in the clownage, a device Chaplin had previously used in the 'globe dance' passage of "The Great Dictator"). Oh, and "Eternally" is a nice tune.
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"A Happily-Married ... Triple"
14 August 2000
Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin - in a musical? Yes, and it works rather well.

No expense was spared by Paramount in assembling the behind-camera talent. Lerner and Loewe's successful stage show was beefed up by Andre Previn's compositions and Nelson Riddle's arrangements, and a script by Paddy Chayefsky. If Clint and Lee aren't exactly Mario Lanza and Tito Gobbi, they are good enough. Clint sings timidly but tunefully ("I Talk To The Trees", "Gold Fever") and Marvin's growly "Wandering Star" was a big chart success back in 1969. The songs are strong, the lyrics clever and the choreography slick and busy. At two and three-quarter hours, the film is rather too long, but it contains plenty of interesting things, including some excellent comedy.

No-Name Town is a rough and ready prospectors' settlement, one of many such ramshackle communities springing up during the California Gold Rush. Two very different men link up as partners and grow into inseperable friends. 'Pardner' (Eastwood) is a straight, solid farmer from the Mid West, while Ben Rumson (Marvin) is a hell-raising wildman from no place in particular. When a mormon auctions one of his wives (Elizabeth, played by Jean Seberg), Rumson buys her. Things get complicated when Pardner falls in love with Elizabeth, and she falls in love with .... er, both men.

Added interest is provided by the arrival of a bunch of French whores and a party of rescued wagon-trainers (this last was drawn from a true story).

Good things include a barnstorming performance from Marvin, radiating enormous personality and a real flair for comedy. His career flowered late, but he was at his best in the late sixties ("Point Blank", "Hell In The Pacific", and of course this one). Previn's musical interlude which introduces the Parson (Alan Dexter) is superb, leading into one of the film's best songs, "Here It Is". The comical discords of the musical passage are a joy in themselves, and they pave the way perfectly for the Parson, who is at odds with everybody. "Hand Me Down That Can Of Beans" is rendered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, guesting in the movie. The boys obviously decided to stay on, because they crop up in various shots throughout the film. Mad Jack is played with manic zest and a peculiar British accent by Ray Walston, none other than TV's "My Favourite Martian".

The interminable gag of the collapsing tunnels stand as a metaphor of the film's shortcomings - over-elaborate, and over-long.
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"This Atrocious Film"
14 August 2000
What a heap of drivel. This early Ken Russell effort starts feebly then gets worse. It's a one-joke movie whose one joke isn't funny.

Jim is a cheeky young chap who works as a deckchair attendant for the council of Gormleigh, an imaginary holiday resort on the Kent Coast of England. Jim has a chubby friend called Henry and an American girlfriend, Judy. Judy is a cute kid who works as a journalist on the local paper, but wants to be a serious writer. Jim's brilliant idea is to galvanise tourist interest in Gormleigh by importing French sex-kitten actress, Francoise Fayol.

The single gag is the fun which arises (did I say fun?) when French sexiness meets English aldermanic pomposity. And there you have it.

Jim is played with barrow-boy chirpiness by James Booth, an actor very much in vogue at the time. The late, much-lamented Roy Kinnear is Henry, the dull and cowardly council employee who always seems to mess up. Alita Naughton makes her debut in this film, playing Judy. She is projected as the 'kooky' babe, an Audrey Hepburn for the beat generation. To the best of my knowledge, she was never heard of again.

"Dunno what you're laughing at," observes Henry at one point, and it might well be directed at the cinema audience. The humour seems to consist of getting people wet. We even have the old Walter Raleigh gag of spreading a cape over a puddle, then when the woman steps onto it she sinks up to her neck. And there is the platform of local worthies which slides into the sea. Yes, it's really as dire as that.

Merisa Mell (another starlet who didn't twinkle for long) plays Francoise Fayol. She pouts and wears bikinis. Because she is French, she says "Oh la la" quite a lot and breaks into "Gentille Alouette" when she's happy. Russell makes fun of the self-important Nouvelle Vague in 'Pavements of Boulogne', the film within a film, and Francoise's creator Vladek (Sandor Eles) seems to be a satirical thrust at Vadim.

Alita McNaughton is pretty, and Russell rather over-indulges the lingering close-ups during which she is expected to pull cute faces. She sings very nicely during her end-of-the-pier farewell to Jim and Henry, but she has little else to offer. She shows her stocking-tops twice (once, unaccountably, after removing a pair of jeans) - and it is twice too often for such a totally un-voluptuous woman.

The film falls between two stools. It fails as an old-fashioned seaside romp, and though one catches a whiff of rebellious sixties counter-culture ("What am I going to do with the flag?") it is too hidebound and middle-aged to work as a companion piece to "Hard Day's Night". Bryan Pringle was to spend the subsequent decade and more playing straight-faced comical weirdos, and he established the pattern in this film with his portrayal of the randy Mayor of Gormleigh.

Johnny Speight (whom I have always regarded as over-rated) provided additional dialogue, but whatever his contribution was, it didn't help. The 'big scene' - the riot in the cinema - is depressingly lame, in that oh-so-familiar British way.

Russell being Russell, there have to be some obtrusive auteurial camera tricks. We get bits of 'hip' sixties rapid-cut montage (the camel photos) and monotonous use of fast-motion for allegedly comic effect (Jim pedalling his bike hard, the Francoise disguise sequence, etc). Filming the boat conversation from another boat is, at least, visually interesting and in fairness to Russell the parting for France is attractively done, shifting the point of view between the pier and the ferry.

Robert Robinson appears as himself in what I can only assume was the consequence of a well-oiled Garrick Club wager.
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"It's As A Man That You Fail"
14 August 2000
A minor English diplomat is posted to Catalunya in the aftermath of his collapsed marriage. He takes his young boy with him, with visions of nurturing the father-son bond. Unfortunately, Brande is a 'stuffed shirt', a cold prig of a man who fails to comprehend his son's needs. He orders the gardens of the residence to be reduced to bland English regularity, instead of leaving them as a wild, overgrown delight for a child's imagination.

Jose is jobless and penniless, but the local pelota champion is a prince among men - young, handsome, charismatic and kind. When Jose is taken on as the gardener, he begins to supplant Brande in Nico's affections.

A decision was obviously taken, pre-production, to dispense with Spanish accents. There is some sense in this, because it can seriously detract from the film's purpose if the actors are constantly struggling to sustain funny voices, but it does produce an odd result. Dirk Bogarde is 'darkened up' for the part of Jose and looks great, but his smooth middle-class English delivery seems incongruous in the mouth of a Catalan labourer. When Nico visits Jose's home, every generation of the extended family speaks flawless English. That would be amazing in the year 2000: how likely was it in 1956?

Brande (played beautifully by Michael Hordern as a spiritual cripple) embarks on a campaign of emotional blackmail towards Nico and a policy of bullying Jose. He is incapable of seeing that this approach is doomed to failure, or that the subtly obsequious Garcia (Cyril Cusack) is the Iago to his own Othello. The ungracious refusal of Jose's fish marks the first breach of trust between father and son, but character is fate, and Brande is set on a course from which he cannot extricate himself. The confrontation between Brande and Nico on the staircase is one of the best things in the film. Young Jon Whiteley, in the part of Nico, gives an outstanding performance.

Bogarde plays the accusation scene with spot-on coolness, but would the theft of a watch, even at Franco's apogee, even if it involved a foreign diplomat, merit custody, handcuffs and an armed Civil Guard escort? Would someone accused of such a minor offence really prefer to take to the hills as a brigand?

Brande's Lear-like volte face in the rain-sodden mill is an affecting scene, and though the whole thing is rather far-fetched, it works as an entertaining fable.
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