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La rupture (1970)
Something of a cropper for a great director
As my purpose in writing these reviews is primarily to impart enthusiasm for films I greatly admire, I have little taste or time for rushing into print over ones that fall far short of outstanding. Let me say at the outset that I am a great admirer of Claude Chabrol at his best, I will go even further and claim that the trilogy of works he directed in 1969 and 1970, "La Femme Infidele", "Que la Bete Meurt" and "Le Boucher", dark, mesmerising yet compassionate explorations of disturbed human psyche, are among the crowning treasures of French cinema. I suppose the problem with Chabrol was that he was so prolific. Good as some of his later films were such as "La Ceremonie" and "Une Affaire de Femmes" he never again scaled those earlier heights. There are potboilers galore, mostly fairly watchable, though disappointing when one thinks of the past greatness of their creator. What to make though of "La Rupture", surely the most bizarrely outlandish of those far too many disappointments? A formidably wealthy grandfather (the most over-the-top of Chabrol's many swipes at the bourgeoisie) will go to any extreme to wrest control of his grandson from the boy's morally impeccable mother even though the youngster has sustained a serious head injury by his drug-ridden son, the boy's father. Next move to hire a shady layabout with a nymphomaniac girlfriend to trump something up that will prove the mother morally unfit to have custody of the boy. What better than to get girlfriend to dress up as mum, then for both of them to kidnap the mentally handicapped daughter of his and mum's landlady, feed the girl with drugged sweeties that will enable her to respond with pleasurable excitement to a depraved movie. To give this nonsense a semblance of artistic credence a mysterious balloon seller pops up from time to time in the local park suggesting some sort of symbolism and Pierre Jansen's atonal score punctuates the action with an aura of awesomeness that suggests something disturbing could be about to happen. Why am I bothering with all this? Simply to counter the many user reviews that express the view that "Le Rupture" is one of Chabrol's finest works. Its character types, the goodies - mother, the hospital doctor and the good-natured lawyer, the baddies - grandfather, the layabout and the layabout's girlfriend, the sillies - the card-playing elderly biddies and the histrionic actor in the guest house are all two- dimensional. All are light years away in depth from the husband driven by love and jealousy to act as he does in "La Femme Infidele", the bereaved father seeking some form of consolation in home movies of happy days past in "Que la Bete Meure" and the eponymous butcher whose love of the school teacher is heartrendingly impossible to reach any fruition given his background; reminders of the greatness Chabrol could be capable of achieving. In these he had something uniquely special to say about the nature of love.
A cause for well deserved applause
Audience applause at the end of the showing I attended of "Brooklyn" is something I can hardly ever remember from a cinema visit. Obviously a symptom of universal pleasure, it got me thinking about how and why this particular film. For me it had to do with nostalgia. Although I was probably the oldest member of the audience I daresay there could have been quite a few not so far behind. Were they perhaps thinking, as I was, that most of today's cinema just doesn't generate the emotional warmth that we so often basked in during the heydays of the '30's through to the '50's? That here for once was a work that succeeded in capturing just that. It so rarely happens. John Schlesinger's "Yanks" did it for me in 1979 when he memorably evoked the emotional effect that the departure of so many American soldiers had on a British community at the end of the war with all the intensity of a previous generation of directors. I thought of "Yanks" when I came away from "Brooklyn". Although the new film is much smaller in scale it has that same affection for characters that was the hallmark of the best of yesteryear. I had imagined that a film chronicling a young Irish girl's experiences of travelling alone to a new life in the States would be more astringent. Although it does not shirk social issues such as a beautifully observed Christmas lunch for elderly Irishmen who have fallen on hard times, it has a warmth and honesty that never verges on the sentimental. We care for Eilis, happy when she finds love with the good natured Tony, worry when her return to Ireland presents her with a nice but obvious second best and rejoice when all comes right at the end. A lovely film, lovingly directed by a newcomer to me, John Crowley.
Since You Went Away (1944)
The type of film I grew up on
It was the type of film I used to see with my mother when she met me after school with a packed tea during those far off days of the war; the type of film I would look out for many years later on afternoon TV to share with her once more during the closing days of her life in a nearby nursing home. I have never lost my affection for those American 'weepies' of the '40's even though I now have to admit that many like John Cromwell's "Since You Went Away" fall some way short of the greatest by William Wyler and John Ford. There are even examples by lesser directors such as Anatole Litvak's "All This and Heaven Too" and Henry King's "Song of Bernadette" that are head and shoulders above it in overall quality. Nevertheless, as I waded through almost three hours of treacle the other evening I felt that "Since You Went Away" was an experience worth resurrecting if only for three factors, as a historical document, one sequence of tremendous emotional power and a reminder of the glorious black and white photography of some of those Hollywood masters, in this case Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Night of the Hunter"). Made at the height of the second world war the film was intended as a tribute to those wives, youngsters and others left behind on the home front. It generated enormous empathy from housewives everywhere with its central character played by Claudette Colbert, the embodiment of the 'stiff upper lip'. In probably her best role she keeps the whole film together in spite of its indulgent over length and often discursive irrelevant frills such as the martinet lodger's eating habits and his relations with the family dog. Often it needs the mention of 'Corregidor' or 'Salerno' to get back on course. I don't suppose I would be taking the trouble to pen this review were it not for a wonderful thing that happens well into the film, the meeting and steadily growing relationship between daughter Jane (Jennifer Jones) and the lodger's grandson (Robert Walker). In countless war films particularly those of this period there were attempts so encapsulate the intense preciousness of a couple's short time together before being torn apart by enforced separation. Of course it's that old love-youth-death cocktail yet again but I cannot remember it being more movingly done than here. Marvellous use of the pathetic fallacy of being caught in a thunderstorm in a country landscape followed by possibly the greatest cinematic train departure ever. Worth seeing if for nothing else.
A modern fairytale
A group of children walking in an unfamiliar landscape stop to gaze in rapture at a garden full of colourful flowers. For a moment they seem to have forgotten the reason they have taken their journey; one lovely moment among many in Hirokazu Kore-eda's "I Wish," a meditation on how children would like their world to be that little bit better. The film has taken quite a while to reach this point. In a rather meandering exposition the elder of two brothers separated geographically by a family split comes to realise that his greatest wish is for them to be reunited again. He even wonders whether the smouldering volcano that dominates the town might one day burst, causing the mass exodus that could end in physical relocation and reconciliation. He paints a picture of the eruption, places it on a high point of his wall and gazes up at it from his bed. During the development that follows be excitedly learns that the passing of the two bullet trains on a newly constructed line joining his town and his brother's generates at their point of passing a force so powerful that anyone standing beside the track will have their wish come true - the very stuff of fairy tale here translated into a realistic contemporary setting. When both brothers gather together a few friends to make their collective wishes come true what has until then been a rather slow footed film cluttered with non-essentials suddenly springs to life. The two groups travelling from their two towns towards each other on their local line meet up at a country station. From this point there is magic in the storytelling. What I admire most about Kore-eda is his honesty. In real life not every wish can come true but every so often there can come about a coincidence that can in itself be something of a miracle. Here it takes the form of the children's chance encounter with very human "good fairies." the elderly couple who see in one of the girls a resemblance to a daughter whose company they no longer enjoy. This is just enough to get the children to the one place where they can be close enough to the bullet trains to scream their wishes. The rest of the films is the quietest of codas as the children return home with perhaps a wiser view of the world than when they set out.
Beiqíng chéngshì (1989)
That rarity, a quiet epic
Hou Hsiou-Hsien's "A City of Sadness" is one of Oriental Cinema's most rewarding challenges. I have returned to it several times, always with a sense of awe, understanding it a little more on each occasion but still not always sure what is actually happening on the screen. Although this makes the experience sometimes frustrating, the miracle is that it never detracts from the gut feeling I have had from the very first viewing that I am watching a masterpiece. An ambitious attempt to capture the immediate post second world war period of Taiwanese history by following the members of one family through fragments of their daily lives rather than a carefully constructed continuous narrative, Hou's work resonates with tremendous feeling. As is usual with this director, the audience has to work hard to supply connections in a film without joins, in order to understand who is who and what is actually going on. I have to admit that some of the scenes of gang violence still elude me, but, these apart, the light is beginning to shine through. It is clear that the old man with the beret who sits often staring vacantly is the owner of that densely furnished restaurant; that he has four sons. The eldest, the sturdy looking one, seems perennially mixed up with figures of a gangster underworld, the second has returned from the war mentally damaged, the third did not return from active service in the Phillipines and is presumed dead. And then there is the youngest who has a photographer's studio and seems completely apart from the rest of the family by virtue of a sensitive, gentle nature and the disability of complete deafness brought on by a childhood accident. It is his fortunes and those of the young nurse he eventually marries that provide the sense of audience empathy that even the most obscure cinema need in order to work its magic. Their scenes provide moments of great tenderness in a relationship that relies entirely for communication on the written note such as the occasion when she needs to tell him about the beauty of a German folksong that is being played. When the country is placed under repressive martial law with massed executions for dissenters we have snippets of the deaf mute's experiences. There is a particularly telling moment when he is in captivity, unable to hear the sound of the firing squad from which he somehow mercifully escapes. In "A City of Sadness" it is short scenes such as this that one remembers so vividly. That it provides the experience of a sweeping epic without recourse to any great scenes of action is both its mystery and fascination.
The Captive Heart (1946)
Ealing not only made good comedies
Having read a lukewarm review of "The Captive Heart" in Time Out (my cinema bible) and thinking, "They're bound to trash this one," I leaped to the IMDb reviews ready to play my "champion of the turkey" role. What a pleasurable surprise to find it not needed, that I am indeed at one with sympathetic users and critics alike in admiration for this rather special offering from the Ealing archive. Whereas the comedies from the West London studios are still admired with affection, their more serious fare tends to be overlooked. "The Captive Heart" is something of a forgotten treasure, a tribute in the wake of victory, to our gallant servicemen who spent much of the second world war as prisoners in German camps. It's another team piece in the mode of Carol Reed's better known "The Way Ahead" which takes a cross section of class types and closely observes their behaviour as they share an enforced coming together. It's all very stereotypical but if treated with sincerity, as in both films, a measure of character cliché can be forgiven. If the level of acting is fairly mediocre, particularly some of the women with those period prissy upper class accents, one part, that of Michael Redgrave as a Czech who has assumed the role of an English soldier killed in battle to escape being identified by the Germans, stands out for its quality. Where the film really scores is in its reminder of a time when people were really nice to one another particularly when brought together in adversity. Everyone mucks in to help, from comforting the young soldier when first confronted with the permanence of his lack of sight to the initially unsympathetic character who gives up his chance of repatriation to aid one who needs it more, welcome reminders of an age when it was generally normal rather than exceptional to emerge from the cinema feeling good.
August: Osage County (2013)
A very good 'bad' movie
They've been screaming at one another for an awfully long time. And they're still at it, those dysfunctional couples and families that seem to come mainly from American theatre. Cinema guarantees an even larger audience for screaming domestic monsters so it is no surprise that many stage hits from "The Little Foxes" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" quickly find their way to the big screen. Family angst enriched by the odd skeleton in the cupboard is usually sure fire box office. I must admit to finding the genre quite addictive,so much so that I have to be really careful to distinguish the good from the bad. What of "August: Osage County" which I have just caught up with? Well, it has Meryl Streep for a start as a matriarch with the ability to out-scream everyone else on set or any other set for that matter. Otherwise she hasn't much going for her, poor thing - a widow suffering from mouth cancer but still smoking like a chimney, popping as many pills as she can get her hands on, hair falling out from chemotherapy. But at least she has rather an attractive wig that she wears with great presence in those scenes where she is called upon to scream her loudest. Hers is a tremendous part and Streep seizes it with a relish that just about sends her over the top. The eldest of her three daughters is almost her match when it comes to verbal vitriol. Julia Roberts gives a powerful performance that in places almost overshadows that of her film mother in the way her dislikability is the more believable. From the acting point of view this is a terrific ensemble piece with every character playing their gut wrenching weaknesses to the hilt. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be attracting a lot of attention lately, tears his heart out for getting up too late to attend the family funeral, capping this with the disaster of upsetting a dish at the aftermath dinner. That dinner is quite something! It somehow seems to bring out the worst in everybody, raising domestic angst in a tremendous crescendo, but not before Streep's brother-in-law is forced into the position of having to deliver an embarrassingly long and mawkish grace. I am not sure where all this leads but I certainly enjoyed it. However, is there not something exploitive in the process of of being offered entertainment by watching people behaving badly, inducing in one pure titillation? Fine if the result is pure comedy like that most successful TV series "The Inbetweeners," but rather more dubious in the case of a drama inviting comparison with "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", both outstanding for their penetrating tragic insights into the human condition. "August: Osage County" strains rather too hard to surpass its predecessors in hysteria so that any messages it might have been trying to convey become drowned in grotesque caricature. However as I enjoyed it so much I feel obliged to crown it a very good 'bad' movie though not quite a great 'bad' one, an accolade I would reserve for Sam Wood's glorious 1942 melodrama, "Kings Row" in which a future President of the USA screamed "Where's the rest of me?"
Un amour de jeunesse (2011)
A not altogether successful reminder of former glories
There are times when I long for a great new film from France. Gone it seems are the days of Goretta, Chabrol, Truffaut, Malle and Bresson. Sometimes Techine rises to it, but only just. I was reminded a few days ago of what we are missing when I caught up with Mia Hansen-Love's "Goodbye First Love", a film that conveys the ecstasy and pangs of adolescent passion with a delicacy that the French so often manage to achieve with such effortless ease. In short, this could not have come from any other country. I watched the first third which follows the intense relationship of eighteen year old Sullivan and the younger Camille with something of the excitement of rediscovery. Hansen-Love's direction has a fluency and pace that perfectly match the breakneck quality of an affair teetering on the edge of uncertain fulfilment. When Sullivan departs with his mates on a South American backpacking trip Camille is distraught. Her slow recovery and recognition of a different type of love in her relationship with her mature architecture teacher, Lorenz, form the central part of the film. Unfortunately with the absence of a frenetic passion something of the vitality of the first third is lessened and the film becomes an altogether more mundane affair that even Sullivan's return several months later cannot quite rescue from the occasional yawn. What I imagined from the beginning might prove to be a re-run into "La Dentelliere" country ends up as something far less substantial in quality. Today's French cinema, although often still quite distinctive in style, sadly lacks a director of the calibre of those men from the past.
The Selfish Giant (2013)
It's grim up north
British cinema has long been telling us "it's grim up north." Directors certainly piled on this message during our '50s and '60s New Wave. Up in Scotland, as Bill Douglas in his Trilogy let us know, it could be even grimmer. In some of the work of Tony Richardson ("A Taste of Honey" for example) the grimness could be softened somewhat with poetic images of industrial landscapes. Nothing wrong with this. "Honey" is a lovely film in many ways, but if a director wanted to be hard-hittingly grim he had to jettison poetic visuals as Lindsay Anderson did in "This Sporting Life", possibly the greatest film of our New Wave. There have been innumerable "grim" films with northern settings since with occasional outstanding examples as Ken Loach's "Kes" and more recently Shane Meadows's "This is England." Into this august company steps Clio Barnard with "The Selfish Giant" remarkable for painting possibly the bleakest picture I have come across of life north of The Wash. True there are some beautiful shots of cooling towers and others of horses in misty landscapes but these barely relieve the unrelenting sordidness of the way families of no-hopers live on the fringe of a northern city.. The opening scene introduces Arbor, a disturbed, hyper-active kid being fished out screaming from underneath his bed by his constant friend, Swifty, to go on a night time forage for scrap metal. Although they are in the same class at school, Swifty seems that much older and more mature by virtue of a voice that has already broken. The boys always do things together, whether it is being excluded from school or nicking scrap to sell to the unscrupulous dealer, Kitten. Eventually Arbor goes one step too far when he nicks scrap from Kitten to sell elsewhere. Ordered to replace the stolen cable results in a shocking and unbearable tragedy. "The Selfish Giant" is one of those films that doesn't give up its secrets straight away. When I first saw it I was sickened by its unrelieved sordidness, with foul-mouthed characters such as Swifty's father acting completely without respect or compassion for anyone, but with the death of one of the boys some three quarters of the way through, the film begins to achieve a level of intensity that makes for mesmerising cinema. Arbor is not able to articulate his grief on the death of his friend but the long wait in the rain outside Swifty's house, his eventual acceptance by the grieving mother and the affectionate grooming of the horse in the the final shots say it all. Herein lies the compassion we have been longing for, the very stuff of great tragedy.
Hasta la Vista (2011)
A sensitive balancing act
"Come as You Are" is an all too rare example of a film featuring physical disability that actually succeeds. Let's face it. Which of us would normally expect to be entertained by the spectacle of three young men, a paraplegic, one with hardly any vision and one semi-paralysed as a result of terminal cancer, struggling to go on a holiday sex adventure? I have to admit that on reading the blurb in the Radio Times I thought this could not possibly work. It sounded like some sort of "Inbetweeners" effort in the worst possible taste. However as it was taking up time in a BBC World Cinema slot I felt duty bound to give it a "ten minute" test particularly as too little attention is given to foreign movies by our TV companies. That the film grabbed immediately and survived those initial scenes I can only attribute to the likability of its characters. Admittedly Philip the paraplegic, the mouthy one of the three, needed getting used to, but his companions, Lars and Jozef, had those endearing features that make for good company on a long journey. But even Philip was to reveal a more sympathetic side towards the end. I suppose in a way it worked because it was a comedy that skilfully sidestepped the mawkish, with each scene however embarrassingly uncomfortable for the characters at the time - the hotel bedroom scene where a key is mislaid or the misadventure where Jozef accidentally rolls down an embankment into a lake - tending to come right so that the overall feel-good factor was never quite dissipated. Claude, the lads' overweight female chauffeur holds the whole thing together beautifully. She develops a bond with her charges as we do with both them and her. In the end their sexual fulfilment is what matters all round. Admittedly the scene where death finally catches up with Lars is terribly sad but somehow it speaks for the honesty of a film that faces up to the fact that life is a balancing act of laughter and tears for most of us.
Bright Star (2009)
When watching Jane Campion's affectionate account of the final months of John Keats's brief life I could not but ponder on the precariousness of human existence even at such relatively short time ago as the early years of the nineteenth century. Ahead were those advances in medical science that certainly have enabled this octogenarian to watch several hundred wonderful films rather than a small handful. It is the ephemeral nature of experience that tugs at the heartstrings, a romance with everything going for it, cut short because a cure now available simply was not there. "Bright Star" lovingly conveys the "carpe diem" of the all too brief relationship of the young poet with his very near neighbour, Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish instinctively express the emotions of an affair they know to be all too short in a way that reminds that great romantic cinema is far from dead. As if this were not enough, Campion's work is terrific on period detail. A shot very near the beginning depicting a Hampstead village landscape with white sheets of washing flapping in the foreground is breathtakingly beautiful. And this just one of many. There are moments of exquisite tenderness such as the scene where Keats comments on the rosebud complexion of Toots, Fanny's much younger sister. We are never far from the poetry itself which is oft-quoted even to the extent of providing a background to the final credits thus rendering the usual rushed exit from the half lit "dream palace" all but impossible. There is a moment shortly towards the end when Fanny, hearing of Keats's death collapses in a paroxysm of grief. As moving as similar moments in the work of such masters as Satyajit Ray and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, this places Jane Campion's film on the highest level.
The Monuments Men (2014)
My new role, champion of lame ducks
I certainly didn't ask to become the champion of lame ducks but having been exposed to such diabolical reviews of the 2013 "Romeo and Juliet" and now an even worse batch on "The Monuments Men" I suppose I shall have to accept the role. For the second time in under a year I find myself completely out of step. It is almost as if I have watched entirely different films from the multitude of pen blasters. Not that I would place these two works on the same level. Carlo Carlei's Shakespearian adaptation is for my money one of the finest cinematic takes on the Bard, a work imbued with passion, excitement and visual beauty that had me reeling to an extent I have not found anyone to share. Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is no more than a worthy middle-of-the-road film, what in terms of literature one might deem "a good read." As I tend only to submit reviews of films of outstanding quality, as a means of imparting enthusiasm for those I particularly admire, I would not have been writing this. My motive here is rather different, to lambaste injustice that I find near incomprehensible. Not only is the exciting true story of the rescue of great works of art from the Nazis during the latter parts of the war well told, the art direction capturing the devastation of the period is visually most impressive. If the film has a fault which places it on a lower level than such wartime epics as "The Great Escape" it is short on character development which tends to be swamped by emphasis on action. For once a better balance needs longer running time, rare to ask for from one of today's action flicks. Reports have it that George Clooney was deeply upset about the adverse reaction to what to all intents and purposes should have been a popular hit with audiences. If it is any consolation, George, I lapped it up and am probably as puzzled as you about the extent of such unjust denigration.
Romeo & Juliet (2013)
A dummy's reply
Of all the clever-clever barbs fired at the 2013 "Romeo and Juliet", "Shakespeare for Dummies" has probably given the film's detractors the most satisfaction. But, as anyone who has read my user reviews of the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" and the 1999 "Mansfield Park" will quickly realise, I am no purist as far as literary adaptations for cinema are concerned. I suppose therefore I must be something of a dummy, but a dummy who would like to take the floor to confess to finding this recent version of literature's most famous youth-love-death cocktail rather wonderful. Not that it hasn't been well done before. I haven't seen Castellani's but Zefirelli's later version was a thoroughly worthy attempt, certainly of a standard to raise a question as to whether further interpretations were needed. I experienced serious unease fuelled by all those truly awful reviews before even the opening credits. Give it half an hour perhaps. Not that it started particularly well. A horseback contest between a Montague and Capulet reminded that we might well be entering "Ben Hur" country with all the boredom of that gargantuan epic. I suppose it was the entry of Douglas Booth's Romeo chipping away at a stone figure of Rosaline, his current love, in an artist's workshop that raised more than a glimmer of interest. Was ever a portrayer of the role more handsome! And this coming from a pretty 'straight' viewer! Just imagine his effect on all those Juliets in the audience! I have to admit to finding him the more engaging partner, hardly matched by a no more than pretty Juliet, who rather gabbles her lines and is, well, little more than average school dramatic society material. By now I am aware that I am hardly writing a review of something of a terrific film, so what makes it so outstanding? It can be summed up in the one word - passion. This version concentrates on the lovers to the exclusion of much else such as the groundings humour of Mercutio here played absolutely seriously as is Lesley Manville's pragmatically intelligent Nurse. For once,in Paul Giametti's outstanding portrayal, we can really feel the tragedy of Friar Lawrence's ghastly misguided solution to saving the young lovers which serves to drive the action forward to those tragic deaths presented with such moving intensity. It all culminates in a truly great moment when the young Benvolio clasps the dead lovers hands together. Not Shakespeare but nevertheless a masterstroke. As a bonus we are treated to beautifully shot locations. At one point where the lovers depart from one another on a riverbank the image is ravishing. The main quarrel of its detractors seems to be copious liberties with the playwright's text. There is no question but this is an adaptation in the same way as Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and "Ran" both of which are reverenced by cineastes yet contain not a line of Shakespeare. Why all the furious reactions to this version? Remembering the derision than was heaped against Powell and Pressburger's marvellous "Gone to Earth" when it first appeared in the early 1950's but has now achieved deserved recognition, I put it that Carlo's Carlei's "Romeo and Juliet" is possibly a film before its time. Sadly I shall not be around in a few decade's time to say, "I told you so."
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
It isn't Jane, but who cares!
MGM's "Pride and Prejudice" must have been pretty popular cinema-going fare in the '40's. I remember seeing it eight or nine times - not bad going in those days when one didn't have access to a private film collection and had to rely solely on getting ones cinematic "fix" from whatever "dream palace" was on hand. Until the arrival of "The Third Man" it was the film I had watched the most number of times, so much so that I could quote much of the dialogue, especially lines that I believe were not even in the book. I even remember picking up a second hand Collins edition lavishly illustrated with stills of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and others. I could not have seen it so many times if I had not enjoyed it. A peep a few evenings back merely reconfirmed that, with very few exceptions, I tend to enjoy what pleased me in those far off years just as much now, in spite of the derision that my many purist friends sometimes shower on me. What does it matter if the costumes are early Victorian rather than Regency, the dialogue more akin to Hollywood screwball than Austen vernacular, many of the characters a good deal more quirky than those that Jane imagined, when the result is such fun. One simply has to forget the original and see this as an entirely different entertainment. I get enormous enjoyment from Mary Boland's outrageously silly Mrs Bennett and Edna May Oliver's gloriously over the top Lady Catherine. Some of the men are possibly more plausible in the Austen sense. Who could take issue with Edmund Gwenn's wisely spoken Mr Bennett. And then there is the great Olivier, who, in a performance of real authority as Darcy, for me, absolutely convinces as a man who has to face up to the eponymous faults of the book's title before gaining his Elizabeth. Greer Garson's performance is not quite in the same class but at least she is endowed with the looks and intelligence that enabled her to go on to stoically face the traumas of the Blitz (Mrs Miniver) and discover radium (Madame Curie). MGM gave its one excursion into Austen country its full production values with sumptuous ball and garden party sequences and a lush score by its in-house composer, Herbert Stothart, which must cover at least three-quarters of the film with its Wagnerian leitmotivs suggesting many of the characters. A score well worth a listen in its own right.
Till Death Us Do Part (1968)
A pleasant surprise
One-off movies based on TV sit-com series seldom work, which is probably the reason there aren't more of them. Generally they fall into the trap of expanding material that sits well in a half-hour slot but when stretched to feature length comes out as interminable even for the fans. "The Inbetweeners Movie" is a classic example of how not to do it. I must admit I approached the 1969 film of "Till Death do us Part" with some trepidation on this score only to finish up with more than a degree of pleasant surprise. Norman Cohen's Alf Garnett saga works well for the very reason it is just that - a saga spanning the second world war before hopping on twenty years. It crams in a tremendous amount, sometimes almost too much. A lengthy sequence in which Alf and his "Scouse git" son-in-law drunkenly attend Britain's World Cup victory seems just an excuse for including some archive newsreel footage. And then there are those monologues such as Alf's church prayer for salvation against being re-housed and his acceptance in a dream of an honour bestowed by "Her Gracious Majesty" that have a silliness bordering on the embarrassing. Not so two deliriously funny sequences, one where the old "moo" joins in a sing-song in a London underground shelter during the blitz, another a riotously drunken wedding celebration that has the energy one finds in the best of Fellini and Ford. Quite some achievement! But possibly the most memorable feature of "Till Death do us Part" is its re-creation of those dusty East End streets during the dark days of the war. In such scenes the film touches on the special.
Hue and Cry (1947)
"Hue and Cry", one of the earliest and freshest of the Ealing comedies, now has that look of what my children and grandchildren call "the olden days" rather than yesteryear. What more fascinating document to capture the look of London in the immediate post war period for historians! Because this is escapist fare no mention is made of the blitz. Bombsites are presented as one vast amusement park where the youngsters of the film cavort and have fun. In Britain during the 'forties filmmakers were going great guns on escaping the studios for interesting locations, albeit, in this case, acres of debris. For a climax the chase was the big thing and what better than bringing the goodies and the baddies together for one massive punch up in a bomb damaged urban landscape, location work that more than makes up for some pretty phony looking studio backdrops in places. "Hue and "Cry" is a hugely enjoyable romp in which a gang of youngsters led by the engagingly cockney Harry Fowler take on and eventually foil a gang of crooks led by laughing mastermind Jack Warner after discovering that their favourite 'penny dreadful' is being used as the means to convey instructions for criminal activities. Because almost everyone enjoyed a caricature in those days, there is the larger than life Alistair Sim to provide that added dimension of playful eccentricity in the person of the innocent writer who is completely unaware of the use to which his stories are being put. It all leads via a scene in the London sewers, predating "The Third Man", to the glorious climax where all the boys of the capital and one girl descend, quite literally in one case, on the baddies. And what better to round it all off than a shot of angelic choirboys, bandaged, black eyed and gap toothed,singing "Oh! for the Wings of a Dove!"
Boogie Nights (1997)
A creative labour of love
"Boogie Nights" is that remarkable achievement, a depiction of particularly ugly goings on made singularly watchable through vibrant direction and the sheer likability of an endearing cast. It's a sort of secular "Pilgrim's Progress" in which we follow the journey of Eddie, a high school dropout and dish-washing nobody to the heights of porn film acting by virtue of his super well-endowed cock, then to the depths as both he and his associates mess their lives up during a period of decline in their industry to a finale that gives just a little peek at their recovery. Clearly influenced by Scorsese (all those exhilarating tracking shots in and out of rooms in single takes) and Altman (the skillful manoeuvring of a large cast), Paul Thomas Anderson has fashioned a great ensemble piece that cleverly balances comedy and violence in a way that is genuinely funny in spite of the often shocking happenings. Burt Reynolds brilliantly plays Jack Horner the porn king who gathers into his entourage a troupe of grotesques that continuously delight. Particularly lovable are Rollergirl who never takes her skates off even when having sex, Julianne Moore who plays the motherly dope addict actress Amber and a remarkably young Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cuddly queer cameraman Scotty who has a crush on Eddie. When Eddie eventually f***s things up by rounding on benefactor Jack, our eyes are cleverly drawn away from the two main foreground protagonists to a distraught Scotty in a background group of onlookers. It's a wonderfully perceptive moment in a film full of small wonders and sometimes greater ones as when Eddie drinking with Jack and another friend, all half immersed in a vat of water at a party declares his chosen stage name to be Dirk Diggler. "I think heaven has sent you here, Dirk Diggler. I think the angels have blessed us all because of you" declares Jack. It is an almost spiritual cry of joy, the climax of what is for Anderson clearly a creative labour of love.
The third of the triumvirate
Ot the three senior directors who dominated the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is the least known in the West. This could be partly due to the fact that unlike his contemporaries, Mizoguchi and Ozu, his cinematic language was more conventional and less innovative. And yet, if one looks long and hard, it becomes possible to identify stylistic trademarks that could be uniquely his, characters that are forever walking and interiors that are often shot from the centre of a room looking towards a corner. The very title is a metaphor for characters that are drifting their lives away with very little sense of purpose. The tragic couple, Yukiko and Kengo, who met in French Indo-China during the second world war when they were engaged on a forestry project find themselves drifting when they meet up again in a post-war Japan soured with defeat and despair. Generally when we see them they are walking, often through urban landscapes of a Tokyo desolate and scarred by the immediate past. They are always on the move in the manner almost of characters in a road movie to wherever they can travel, be it to a sad holiday resort out of season or a remote island drenched by rain that hardly ever stops. But their relationship is doomed partly because whatever passion they may feel for one another is always curiously out of sync with each other's. Their personalities are also deeply flawed to the extent that neither is able to cope with the social disadvantages of being part of a defeated nation. It has been said that defeat left many professional Japanese men feeling emotionally emasculated. This is certainly true of Kengo. As for Yukika, she has none of the stoicism of Mizoguchi's long suffering female protagonists. Dissatisfaction with her lot has left her whingeing with self pity. ""Floating Clouds" is a deeply pessimistic film in a way that Kurosawa's "The Silent Duel", which deals with a pair of lovers living through the similar period of the immediate aftermath of war, is not. Ultimately Kurosawa's characters come to terms with misfortune in a way that presages a future of some hope. Both films no doubt reflect their directors' widely different temperaments.
Brighton Rock (1948)
Dark goings-on not that far from here
"I never knew the old" Brighton "before the war" with its razor-slashing protectionist race gangs, crooked lawyers and ineffective police. We seldom travelled out of London. "I really got to know it in" those post-war days of safe family holidays by the sea - the excitement of the beach, ice cream sodas on the West Pier, cinemas in the evening.....
(No prize for recognising my reference to the opening of the great film that appeared two years later!)
Part of my fascination with the 1947 "Brighton Rock" is of course affection for a place I grew to love and know so well during the course of many happy vacations with my parents in those far-off days. I was even drawn to eventually settle in a sort of mini-Brighton complete with Regency squares and balconies and the sound of screaming seagulls, 37 miles along the coast to the east. But I digress.....What particularly surprised me on a recent viewing of the film was not only how well it has worn, but the extreme darkness of its nightmare vision of a gangster-ridden society. For a British film of the late '40's it is unusually violent and shot through with a bleakness that outstrips much of the Hollywood noir of the period. Was there ever a more vicious young thug than Richard Attenborough's enormously effective portrayal of the 17 year old Pinkie Brown who runs his protectionist racket from a seedy backstreet dwelling? Pointless to write at length when so much has already been written. (An excellent user comment on this site from laika-lives says it all). Simply let me record my admiration for the Boulting Brothers, especially John the director, for demonstrating an understanding of pacing and montage that almost equals the best work of the great Carol Reed, particularly in the terrific opening quarter of an hour when the unfortunate and terrified Fred is finally tracked down to meet his doom on the Ghost Train at the end of Palace Pier. They don't seem to do sequences like this with such style any more. A good enough reason, I would have thought, for shunning a recent remake!
La Nana (2009)
The pleasure of the unexpected
The pleasure of this modest but highly successful offering from Chile is the experience of watching a film unfold in a way that is contrary to one's expectations. Everything to begin with points toward an outcome that could be quite nasty. There is that gradual crescendo of menace remembered from such works as "Play Misty for Me" and "Mon Fils a Moi". We first meet the maid to an upper class Santiago family on her birthday when she reacts awkwardly to the attentions her employers bestow on her. A little later she obviously has her nose put out of joint when it is suggested that she needs an assistant as advancing years are beginning to affect her efficiency. To us she still appears quite young. There are just a few telltale signs that she may be a little past her best, health wise, but she still seems well able to do her job. Assistants one and two come and go, each driven away by the maid's intransigence in refusing to accept their role, accompanied by her ever darkening behaviour. By this stage in the film everything seems to have been set up for quite an awful showdown. But with the arrival of assistant number three the mood suddenly lightens. This isn't a sombre melodrama after all but a real feel-good flick, all the more pleasurable for this unexpected turn. It culminates in a deliciously pertinent closing shot of the maid taking part in the outdoor physical activity enjoyed by her third assistant. She is none the worse for wear and, for one brief moment, is even smiling.
A sort of "Alice in Wonderland with an X certificate
What better way to plunge into nightmare that by taking a descending escalator towards a deserted metro platform. An inebriated woman who having, after a struggle, successfully opened a bottle of bubbly during her descent suddenly has her solitary revelry cut short when a fleet footed hooded maniac jumps out sending her hurtling into the path of an oncoming train. Such is the impressively horrific opening to the Hungarian "Kontroll". Though not quite! Just before, some sort of "official" tells us that what we are about to see bears no relation to the Budapest metro system that goes about its business in an orderly way, but that permission was given to allow a talented young director to film therein on the grounds of artistic integrity. At least I think that is what he means although he could be something of a clever literary ploy rather than a genuine bureaucrat. There is nothing to suggest either way. Everything about "Kontroll" intrigues and thereby lies its fascination. The main character, Bulcsu, spends his life in the metro. When the last train goes and everything shuts down so does he by kipping on a deserted platform. We simply assume he has no home to go to although we are never told. Does he ever change his clothes? Does he ever wash? All he ever eats is junk food from from station outlets. Understandable if Bulcsu were a vagrant, but he isn't. He leads one of the teams employed to sniff out those passengers who travel the system without tickets. As such he spends his days showered by abuse, with more cuts and scars to his face as the film progresses. Eventually he finds some sort of affectionate companionship with a rather pretty young thing who travels the metro in the costume of a bear. Again there is no explanation why she dresses this way. On her final appearance however she is flimsily dressed with angel's wings to lead Bulcsu upwards - all four escalators ascending. No prize for spotting the symbolism here! But not before we have experienced the very stuff of which bad dreams are made. The hooded monster (could he be the hero's alter ego?) plunges two more innocent victims to their doom with ever increasing ferocity, the third particularly unnerving in its suddenness, before being itself felled down in a sort of game of "chicken" with the hero. "Kontroll" has all the untidiness and illogicality of a dream. I suppose it can best be described as a sort of "Alice in Wonderland" with an X certificate.
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Those beastly Germans!
I suppose racism becomes excusable particularly when used as propaganda in wartime, all the more so when God is on your side. The only Germans we get to know in "Went the Day Well?", when they have the affront to invade an English village, are all rather horrid. They shoot the poor old vicar dead almost without warning in the church bell tower and then, once their mission is threatened by insurrection, have no compunction about delivering notice of summary execution on five children the following day, just enough time for the villagers to rally together by knocking off the enemy one by one in the best "Boys Own" style before help finally arrives. But not without some pretty nasty happenings on both sides including the bayoneting of the pub landlady after she throws pepper in the eyes of an enemy in order to send him to "kingdom come" with a sharp blow to the head, or the noble action of the lady of the manor whose protection of a group of young evacuees from a hand grenade results in her being blown to pieces. But surely films weren't that violent back in 1942? Some certainly were. It was just that most were in black and white so they didn't need oodles of ketchup. They also had a slick way back then of sparing us the worst by showing us the action then quickly cutting, leaving the effect to the imagination. Or else there was always a prop like a closed door as a suitably sanitised way of suggesting the lady of the manor's demise behind it. Of course we can smile at the quaintness of it all from the vantage point of just over seventy years on; the chapel going couple who object to the German instruction for all the villagers to assemble in the church, a German soldier claiming he comes from Manchester not realising the London isn't the only city to boast of a Piccadilly, or the dotty niece's corny observation that to eat a hyena would be "no laughing matter". But for all that, as sheer entertainment "Went the Day Well?" must almost be a contender for the blank space at the end of Barry Norman's recent lovingly compiled list in the Radio Times of the 49 best British films. Although no match for the finest, it is certainly better than some of the chosen. It has all the ingredients of those matinée thrillers we loved in the 30's and 40's when good and evil were so sharply defined except when the preconception of many of the characters was sometimes excitingly upset by the discovery of the arch villain as the most respected English gentlemen in the community. I don't suppose Godfrey Tearle started it all when he revealed the missing joint of a finger in Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" but he was certainly Leslie Banks's most distinguished forerunner.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
A gorgeous romp
They can be unpredictable, those films seen again after a gap of many years. Sometimes they disappoint, but every so often there is one, mainly forgotten, that resurfaces with the force of a revelation. One such that I had recently rather unenthusiastically acquired and put aside for a rainy day when I might be hard up for something to watch, was Zeffirelli's 1967 adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". Although surely tailor-made and type-cast for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at their most violently vitriolic, I hadn't remembered particularly liking it at the time. However, such was its effect a few day's ago that I couldn't wait to experience it again a few hours later. I suppose I must have become accustomed to the pleasure of those medieval costume romps of Pasolini such as "The Decameron" and "The Canterbury Tales" in the years since I first experienced Zeffirelli's foray into one of the Bard's most extravagant comedies. Anyway, "The Taming of the Shrew" is nothing but pure delight from its rainbow landscaped opening to the grand finale, a contest to find the most obedient wife. When two young travellers first arrive in Padua, they and us, the audience, are immediately drawn into the life of a city that always seems to be en fête with music (terrific stuff by Nino Rota) and gaiety. It appears a place devoid of medieval misery with only the odd drunkard in a cage swinging from the side of a building to remind of the fate that may befall a malcontent. For the rest almost everyone appears to be having a high old time, eating, drinking, revelling and dancing, with even the shrew, Katherina, exuberantly delighting in her bitchy rants in spite of being drenched in a muddy pool at one point or having food snatched from before her very open mouth. Elizabeth Taylor was never more voluptuously lovely than when she screamed her way through to eventual submission. As for Richard Burton, he was at his misogynistic best when taming such a beauty. But those many faces in the crowd are what stamp the film with so much joy and vitality. Was there ever a cast, from leading players right down to the most insignificant extra, that appeared to be enjoying themselves so much!
A German masterwork
For a bout of sickness at the end of a long winter what better antidote that watching all thirteen episodes of "The Second Heimat" in close succession! Of Edgar Reitz's three mini-series I have long found this the most fascinating and compulsive. Although no episode quite matches the "Little Hermann" sequence of the first "Heimat" in depth of feeling, it is somehow more exhaustive and honest in its exploration of its characters' relationship with their society, with none of the earlier work's sometime awkward omissions when it come to depicting the horrors of Nazism, or flights of fancy into the realm of the supernatural which seriously marred its conclusion. I am sorry in a way that Reitz made the third series. Although watchable much of it is melodramatic, the elements of soap opera predominant. In spite of its many longueurs (mainly sequences involving music performance that hold up the narrative flow without necessarily enriching it) the second series is a deeper experience in every sense. It follows ten years in the life of Hermann Simon, a country lad from the Hunsruck, from the time he first leaves home and comes to Munich to study music at the conservatoire. Although he is never far from the main thrust of the narrative, taking central stage in the first episode and sharing it with his main love, Clarissa, in the last, each of the intervening episodes features one of his many friends in his newfound Heimat. Not only does this give the whole work a satisfying unity, but we feel we get to know each character wonderfully well as if we are part of their many "gatherings" at "Foxhole", home of Elizabeth Cerphal, a wealthy spinster who "collects" artists from all media. "The Second Heimat" is full of superbly orchestrated "gatherings", none more impressively mounted than the wedding of Hermann and Schnusschen that forms the core of the central seventh episode. Here is a sequence to rival in intensity of detail the great family Christmas parties of Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" and Huston's "The Dead". When I first experienced Reitz's masterwork I wondered if something of its life and energy somehow drained away after the climactic wedding. Now I am not so sure. The wedding ends in drunken mayhem resulting in the students' expulsion from Frauline Cerphal's mansion. Nothing will ever be quite the same again. The final episodes are an extended dying fall that exemplify in an often moving way the passing of time that can never be recaptured. Even "Foxhole" is razed to the ground by bulldozers to make way for an soulless apartment block. For a second time death strikes one of the group. Some relationships break up. One of the girls with revolutionary tendencies ends up on the Baader-Meinhof wanted list. A gifted young musician who has never quite found his feet becomes a circus performer. A filmmaker narrowly escapes blindness. Another cannot make the film he wants. During the time I was watching, a "For Sale" board appeared outside the house of our neighbours of thirty-one years. My sadness at the passing of time that is about to bring about a change close to home seemed almost bound up with my experience of a work of film. That and my identification with Hermann when he falls sick and cold in a winter away from home. Flights of fancy, perhaps, but evidence surely of the unique grip "The Second Heimat" has on me.
Mia aioniotita kai mia mera (1998)
Tribute to a Master
The tragic death of Theo Angelopoulos in a street accident early this year deprived us of one of cinema's greatest poets. His was a unique way of looking at the world, so much so that he seemed to attract admirers and detractors in equal number. To love his work, however, is to have succumbed to an adagio tempo that allows us to meditate, as we watch,, on what is being revealed, be it character, history or legend. So strongly is the spirit of place conveyed that the viewer feels he is actually there in those wintry landscapes of northern Greece that Angelopoulos made very much his own.Possibly the single most important DVD issue in recent months has been Artificial Eye's release of all Angelopoulos's feature films in three boxed sets. This has enabled me to fall in love again with the few I previously knew such as "Landscape in the Mist", "The Beekeeper" and "Eternity and a Day" and to discover other masterworks such as "The Travelling Players" and "The Suspended Step of the Stork". If I concentrate this review on "Eternity and a Day" it is because it is the most recent I have re-experienced after a gap of several years. In many ways this study of a possibly terminally ill writer meditating on his life whilst at the same time struggling with his present, is the director's most personal film. Certainly it is his most immediate in the way it gets far nearer to its characters than usual, often viewing them in close-up rather than middle distance. The film commences with the boy Alexander responding, as he wakes one summer morning, to the summons of his friends to join them on the beach which faces his family home. Thereafter we only see him as an old man regardless of the time zone into which the film slips. Indeed it is the fluid use of time, often passing from present to past within a single shot, that is a salient and wonderfully satisfying feature of an Angelopoulos film. In his bleak present Alexander often thinks back to a day of perfect happiness, shortly after the birth of his daughter, with his late wife and family on the beach where he played as a child. There is little comfort in a present that prefigures the end. About to admit himself to hospital he visits his daughter hoping to leave his dog with her, only to find that his beloved house by the sea is about to be sold to developers. The big issues of history with which Angelopoulos is usually preoccupied are largely absent apart from the refugee problem resulting from the Balkan conflict. Alexander's accidental encounter with a young Albanian boy whom he rescues first from a police raid on a gang of unsolicited traffic window cleaners and later from child adoption racketeers provides the temporary solace of someone to care for during a period of almost unendurable loneliness. Like many brief and meaningful encounters this is short lived. The boy is about to board a ship for yet another clime. What to do to while away their last hour before departure? A nearby bus operating a circular city route provides an answer that fills the youngster's face with glee. It proves to be a magical ride taken by an assortment of characters, a querulous couple, a tired revolutionary from some demonstration bearing a cumbersome red flag, a trio of conservatoire musicians who perform more for themselves that for those around them and finally the poet from a previous century whom we have met earlier in the film searching for and buying words of an unfamiliar language. Who but Angelopoulos could have conjured up such an imaginative conceit! Moreover, those three cyclists clad in yellow heavy waterproofs who appear in other of his films (I read somewhere that they represent the Fates) take the same journey as the bus. Alexander is sad in the knowledge that he may be approaching death without finishing the book he is writing. Ironically Angelopoulos died before completing the final film of the trilogy he had been working on since "Eternity and a Day". Tragic as this was, there is at least the consolation that he left behind him some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful films the cinema has given us.