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Calypso Dreams (2003 Video)
The music's great
24 October 2005
Despite everything the film did to put me off, I really enjoyed it. Basically, what you get is a bunch of aged calypsoists (some of whom have since died) talking about their music and their fellows, and playing a lot of calypsos, interspersed with laughter. It's the music and the laughter that keep you watching. After seeing this film, I mean to track down recordings of some of the people featured.

But be warned that there's a lot you may find off-putting.

(1) The film quality is the worst I've ever seen. At least the sound was good.

(2) Of course, the West Indian accent is difficult to penetrate. After a few minutes, your ear should become accustomed to it, and you probably will understand what people are saying, but if you have difficulty with accents you may never know what is going on.

(3) Apart from an interview with Harry Belafonte (which is very enlightening and increased my respect for the man), the entire film is inward-looking. Every now and again, someone says that the calypsoists are the heirs to the griots, and you can sometimes get a West African "feel" to the performances, but this wider context is otherwise ignored.

(4) At the same time, viewers would probably welcome a little more social or political context to the songs. That would have to go further than than the film's regular shots of bars, shanties and peeling wallpaper.

I gave the film a 7, based solely on the music and the people.
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Hothouse bloom
8 September 2005
I've just got back from watching this on the big screen and my head's still reeling. It's remarkably gorgeous to watch.

What seems to come out most clearly on the big screen is how much the film depends on showing off the trio of handsome women, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, and Kathleen Byron. They're all different, and they're all differently presented by a camera that loves them. In particular, at times the film seems to exist only to display the changes in Kathleen Byron's face as she tumbles into madness.

Because, honestly speaking, this is in many other ways a disappointing Powell & Pressburger film. Big themes are set up and regularly referred to (cold nuns/hot natives, Christianity/Buddhism/Hinduism, the cracking-up of an enclosed community, etcetera) but they aren't really explored. The film is really a big lush bath of sensations, held together by the three beauties, and especially by Kathleen Byron. It's like Gone to Earth, but with more pulchritude and less plot.

Having said that, even a disappointing Powell & Pressburger film will outrank most other films: I gave it 9/10. If the chance ever comes your way to see this film on the big screen, don't hesitate. You'll be ravished.
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Hancock (1961– )
We're going to come out of this singing, mate
17 August 2005
I wouldn't presume to offer a review of this TV series, except that nobody else has done so and the series deserves at least one positive comment.

The earlier Hancock's Half Hour may be more recognizable to people who have never seen his work before. Sid James was a regular supporting character in those shows, and for a while other characters included Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques -- all three went on to greater fame in the Carry On films.

However, Hancock never liked the gags and funny voices that came with them, and this TV series marks the point where he left them behind (somewhat cruelly in the case of Sid James, I understand). Alas, a later step was to ditch the script-writers, Galton and Simpson, and it was all downhill from there.

Although IMDb pretends that there's no DVD, in fact The Very Best of Hancock DVD (region-2) contains five episodes from this series. There are some absolute crackers, where almost the only character is Hancock, or almost the only set is a single confined space, or both. The language of the episodes is also purer and more easily understood by a modern viewer (Galton and Simpson's wild excesses were put on hold for a time).

The Blood Donor is a famous episode, and also highly recommended are The Lift and The Radio Ham, which display the virtues of Hancock's comedy at their best. They all bear re-watching.

For people of my generation and nationality, Hancock is the master of comedy. It may be, however, that really he's a rare wine that doesn't travel well. If any of his work actually translates to younger audiences, this series will be it.
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Modern Times: The Lido (1995 TV Movie)
The true golden age
1 April 2005
Even though it's only ten years old, this TV documentary comes from a lost age. No company would invest the money and the trust in making a film of this sort today, and I doubt if any TV station would broadcast it. It's a leisurely, informative, beautiful reality programme that doesn't depend on people being voted out, or sticking their heads into buckets of slime, or having their houses made over. There's an interviewer who asks sensible questions, and all the wonderfully complex people that are being filmed answer these questions spontaneously in their own words and as they please. Nowadays, before filming began, the person being filmed would be rehearsed in what they were about to say. Oh what we have lost in just ten years! It's unlikely that you'll ever get the chance to see this film, but take that chance if it ever comes your way.

I suppose I have to say something about the subject. People of all shapes and sizes, ages and colours, and from all walks of life relax at an outdoor swimming pool in London. It's an amazing slice of life.
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30 September 2004
The film sticks tenaciously in the memory, in a way that slick studio productions often fail to do.

Visually, a fair bit of the film is a pastiche of German propaganda newsreels, or borrows from that library of pictures. This augments the feeling of realism and makes it an even bigger shock to see German troops marching through London, or relaxing off-duty, taking in the sights and admiring the women. No studio film would dare to take such an approach. And where did they find so much genuine-looking equipment? No studio film-researcher would ever be that scrupulous about accuracy.

The sound-recording is dreadful and it would benefit from one of those clever clean-up jobs that are available these days. But what is said, and how it's said, are unforgettable. The wrong-headed justifications of Fascism that pepper this film sound like real people's words and they're spoken by what clearly are real people, who are taking a little time off from their real jobs to appear in the film. For instance, the fat, middle-aged, bureaucratic bully who voices many of the arguments has to have been in real life a school teacher or a bank manager: he looks and sounds the part in a way that studio actors working from a polished script could never manage.

The ending is forced, but only because you feel that the film would be endless without a forced ending. Although a lot of things take place that are genuinely shocking (I won't list them as I'd have to announce spoilers), the point of the film isn't to relate a narrative that has a defined beginning, middle and end. The point is to make you feel that this is all real and make you wonder what your response would have been if the Nazis had started running your country.
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Strange film, worth seeing
16 September 2004
The dizzy title of this film might suggest a screwball comedy, but it's deceptive. Despite claims to the contrary, this is definitely not a screwball comedy. It starts with plenty of jokes and humorous moments, but among other things, the pacing is all wrong. Also, screwballs often involve moneyed folk with big houses and good accents, and these are working-class characters in a small and under-furnished apartment. Knocking a few drinks back is an amusing foible in screwballs: here it usually complicates the lives of the characters. Instead of driving places, they take the bus or feel guilty about spending money on cabs. Screwball couples may have a pet dog or a leopard in tow; how many of them have small children (as here) whose sleep is interrupted by the bitter arguments of their parents? This might even be called anti-screwball.

The unevenness of tone certainly disconcerted me the first time I saw it, and it has clearly worried several of the other people who've commented on the film. Though Judy Holliday is great (as usual), it helps an appreciation of the film if one does not expect a replay of Born Yesterday's raucous laughter or even the gentler-paced humour of Bells Are Ringing.

Scenes of the discordance and trials of married life are played for laughs, but with an increasingly harder edge until the comedy has very nearly been wrung out of the whole thing. Slowly, the humour departs from the story and we're left with a very watchable study of a marriage spiralling into crisis, even if the treatment does become rather soapy at times.

After several viewings of this strange film, I'm still not sure if I've enjoyed the experience, though I constantly feel that I've been watching something significant. I can't give it a score, as I really don't know how to estimate an accurate score. It's worth seeing, even if you don't expect to like it: that's the only way I can summarise it.
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Better than nothing
10 September 2004
The Beggar's Opera has so much going for it. The author, John Gay placed it squarely in an underworld of thieves, whores, liars, drunkards, double-crossers, and corrupt officials. He gave them a witty voice, where moral values are reversed, and most importantly he gave them newly worded songs set to recent popular tunes.

The Beggar's Opera continues to be an important work, that has been raided by later writers; most importantly by Brecht who adapted its main elements as The Threepenny Opera; and also by writers such as Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven clearly borrows heavily from from The Beggar's Opera, down to the final twist).

This is a film that should work well as a film-of-the-stage, for there is always a sense that the characters are trapped in their little world, in each other's pocket, and all knowing each other's business. But Peter Brook tries to make the film more cinematic by opening the action out in places. Though this is understandable, it entails some unfortunate compromises. The attempt to inject some new life into this film, with primarily visual scenes and a bit of derring-do action, means that Brook is forced to cut the text severely in places, and the strength of the piece lies in the words Gay wrote, not in the pictures that Brook creates. The film works well where the original text survives and the characters are allowed to speak, but that happens rarely. And Brook also messes about with the twist-ending!

In brief, enough survives of the original to make it worth watching, if there's no better alternative.
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42nd Street (1933)
Watch it on the big screen
9 June 2004
I've had only the one chance to see this at the cinema and I'm very glad I took it. The film is certainly a different entity when you're not sat at home, watching the video.

It's not just a case of the numbers being that much more spectacular on a big screen. The performances of all the other actors (with the exception of Ruby Keeler) are so much better. On the small screen, some of their numbers can seem a little dull, just filling in the space between the beginning and the end of the film. But seen as they were intended to be seen, the numbers are skillful and entertaining... ... all of which makes a greater nonsense of the characters' constant assurances towards the climax: give the kid (Ruby) a break, she'll be able to carry the lead role. Oh no she can't, and anyone else in the film would have done better. Anyone.

Other people have commented on her clompy dancing, flat acting and insecure singing. Who could disagree? Given the right number, such as in Footlight Parade, where Jimmy Cagney did most of the work, she could be a reasonable support; but this isn't that film, it's 42nd Street, and the kid isn't given that sort of limited opportunity. The big screen emphasises the remarkable difference between the shots of her dancing: show her full-figure and she's graceless, you can almost see her biting her lip as she concentrates on the basic steps; but show her from the knees down and those feet are a blur of wonderment. Do we suspect a stand-in?

It's great fun, even so (and even if for the wrong reasons), and I recommend seeing the film at a cinema if the opportunity ever presents itself.

P.S. In Footlight Parade, she takes the part of "Shanghai Lil". The essay subject is: Compare and contrast with Marlene Dietrich!
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Hour of Glory (1949)
28 May 2004
Quite apart from its wartime themes, this is the best introduction I know to the world of office politics and power broking. Fans of Ricky Gervais are advised to give this little film a viewing. It has enough story lines to keep everyone happy and the cast is mighty fine at playing a variety of individuals. It's hard to think of a better supporting-role performance from Jack Hawkins, and anything with Kathleen Byron in it always has to be watchable.

I've only just read the novel of the same name, on which it's based (still in print and available, and strongly recommended by the way). Comparing the two, it's easy to see how so much of the film derives from the novel; but this is far more than a film of the book. Powell and Pressburger have done a superb job of focusing and concentrating the novel's strengths.
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Only a minor quibble
28 April 2004
I watched this again recently, on DVD. While it remained greatly enjoyable, for all the reasons that other commentators have given, I did at times become irritated with Jeremy Irons' interpretation of Charles Ryder as a very dead fish. For the sake of continuity, this necessitated a monotone in his voice-over commentary which tended to grate.

I remember reading, at the time the series was first broadcast, that at a very late stage Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews agreed to swap their roles. I thought this odd at the time and it must have driven Casting mad. After all, if Irons had played the part of Sebastian Flyte at least he would have looked like the other members of the family; and Anthony Andrews as Charles Ryder would have embodied the outsider. One of the points that Waugh underlines in the novel is that Charles Ryder falls in love with Julia because of her resemblance to her brother, Sebastian, and the change in roles makes a nonsense of this.

Still with me? Then, while watching the DVDs, I started to imagine how Andrews might have played the part of Charles Ryder. As someone who might conceivably decide to become an artist (however second-rate); as someone who might charm his way through a whole family. It's a bit harder imagining Irons as Sebastian Flyte, but at least he would have done justice to the role of dedicated alcoholic who gets no pleasure from his life's addiction. If only they'd not agreed the change!

Finally, an unsolicited testimonial about Castle Howard, which stands in for the stately home (exteriors and interiors). It and its grounds are open to the public. If you come to Britain, don't stick in London. Make York your base and choose a sunny day to go on an excursion to Castle Howard.
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Train trivia
6 April 2004
This is a bit of trivia for the benefit of all train spotters out there. Presumably as a result of the film being made on Southern Railway, several miles to the north of Southampton, the credits incorporate a few unacknowledged shots of Southampton. Most obviously, the station that's shown on emerging from a tunnel is the old Southampton West station, now Southampton Central, in the form it took before Hermann Goering radically reshaped it. Perhaps the shots were intended as part of the final reel. If so, they count as outtakes, recycled in the credits.

Say something about the film, must I? Well, of course, it's sheer genius. Surely that doesn't need saying. I can't wait for the day that Quentin Tarantino discovers it.
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King Lear (1983 TV Movie)
Stunningly powerful
1 April 2004
Warning: Spoilers
***Look, the play's been around for 400 years, so it's unlikely that my comments will contain any genuine spoilers***

I'm sorry that so many people don't like this version of King Lear and mention Olivier's performance in particular as something they object to. I think that Olivier's performance is awesome. It contains the essence of a once-powerful man struggling to achieve some control over his decline. It seems like something grown within him rather than lines he had to deliver. The descent into madness and that quiet, miserable interlude before death are faultless. I've sat hopefully through so many versions of the play over the years, and squirmed at the bombastic acting of those scenes, but in this version it really doesn't occur to me that I'm watching a play. When the central character is as engrossing as Olivier makes him, all the sub-plots and other characters fall into place.

Never having been much of a fan of Olivier's screen work, I was surprised to discover that he was every inch as great an actor as is usually claimed.
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It should come with a health warning
26 February 2004
I actually enjoy Branagh's acting of Shakespeare, and was looking forward to finding out what he'd done with this far-from-easy play. But it is definitely a lost labour of love. There's just so much pointless fiddling with the original that lengthy criticism would be repetitive and shrill. So here's a couple of comments instead.

The only result of replacing large chunks of the play with Cole Porter lyrics is to demonstrate how relatively impoverished C.P. is as a writer when compared with Shakespeare. And I never thought anyone could spoil C.P. for me until Branagh managed it. Branagh must have a tin ear not to realise the serious loss of quality.

And the ending of the play, and all its meaning, is reversed. "The words of Mercury are harsh (harsh, underlined) after the songs of Apollo," says Shakespeare, not "What about if we fast-forward to a happy-ever-after conclusion?"

If the film were clearly signposted as a cabaret reworking based on an original idea by Shakespeare, then nobody could feel cheated by this nonsensical trifle. As it is, after one viewing, my video of the film went straight to a Thrift Shop. At least the next mug to buy it will be donating something to a good cause.
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Strangely addictive
24 February 2004
At the risk of sounding like a complete anorak, I have to confess to a deep affection for John Wayne's Lone Star westerns. Every one has a mighty fine title, usually nothing much to do with the story being told. They have that addictive quality that other people find in today's soap operas. In both types, the plots are familiar and preposterous, the characters are off-the-peg, the acting is poor, the heroines are pretty, and the leading man looks good (especially on a horse in J.W.'s case).

Of all J.W.'s Lone Star films, this one is my favourite. It has all the virtues listed above, maybe not as developed as in some of the later films, but there nevertheless. I particularly enjoy the way a character is introduced in the first reel, made to disappear for most of the film, and reintroduced at the end. The heroine is delightful in jodhpurs, and the bad guy simply looks dastardly in them. Then there are the pistols that seemingly are deadly at several hundred yards. And an important prop is what I take to be a genuine stagecoach.

But this film has notable extras: "interesting" singing, some truly exciting stunt work, and a remarkably lyrical climax that I don't think Robert N Banbury ever came close to emulating again. It's so good that you'd almost believe that Ingmar Bergman had seen this film and been inspired by it as he started on Virgin Spring.

Note to students of film: it's probably a bad idea to try that suggestion on your teacher!
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Rising Damp
16 January 2004
The novel is easily superior and the best parts of the film are direct translations from what Greene wrote; for instance the quiet but grim humour that breaks into the scenes with Boyer and Lorre, or the murdered-child obsession that takes over some of the plot. Where the film deviates from the novel, it tends to the ludicrous.

However I don't want to suggest that the film is bad in any way. It always looks the part and the story stays in the mind like a good 'un. Some of the minor characters were stock actors who could turn their hand to anything.

It's a dreadful shame that the film's not available on DVD.
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