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Old blog, movie-related:
I'm also on twitter: @Steffi_vanEssen
Joan of Arc (1948)
"Not a religious, but a political trial"
In our era there are women warriors in film and TV, from Xena to Beatrix Kiddo, but back in Hollywood's classic era they were an extreme rarity. Joan of Arc was an exception that was acceptable partly because she came from history not fiction and, more crucially, she was a saint and a miracle worker. The tale was told in the only way it could be then, as one of the religious epics that would become a major presence in the cinema of the following decade.
Appearing a few years before the epic genre really took off, and while studios were still recovering from the lowered budgets of WW2, Joan of Arc is not quite as grandiose as the biblical movies that would come later on. Based on a play (Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine), upon its release it was accused of being too talky and lacking in action. But this is made up for in a number of ways, not least of which is its lavish period detail. It is epic in scope and scale, but only so far as the history requires. There is no spectacle for spectacle's sake. The movie is exactly as big and spectacular as it needs to be.
The movie is also buoyed by a leading performance from Ingrid Bergman. Bergman brings a necessary presence to the role, not in her delivery of lines but in the power of her emoting, which transcends any stolidness in the screenplay. An especially notable moment is her look of genuine disappointment when she realises that the dauphin has been replaced by one of his lackeys. The other standout performance is that of José Ferrer as the real dauphin. Fresh from the stage, Ferrer is theatrical, Shakespearean even, but that is just the sort of exuberant touch the movie needs to stop it becoming staid.
This was the final project of ace director Victor Fleming, who had earlier helmed (most of) Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Joan of Arc sees him taking a more relaxed pace (his trademark was speed and punchiness), but with no less of an eye for intelligent staging and shot composition. There's an excellent scene where a young Joan wanders distractedly away from the chattering of her family to sit alone by the fire, framed in profile with the flames forming a corona about her head. This isn't just some obscure bit of symbolism or foreshadowing, it's a way of showing her in clear isolation while still keeping her image dynamic and vibrant.
The presentation and performance of this edition of the Joan of Arc story compensates for its dramatic, dialogue-based format. And, while it remains very much a movie based on Joan's sainthood and Christian devotion, Bergman makes her touchingly human, and this allows the character to reach us from the past.
Oliver Twist (2005)
"Treat him kindly"
Stories, no matter how respected and illustrious, can exist beyond their origins. Charles Dickens's novel of Oliver Twist has been adapted for the screen a number of times, but rather than simply returning time and again to the source novel successive versions have taken cues from each other, gradually refining the tale over the centuries. David Lean's 1948 version invented the idea of Olvier being abducted by Bill Sykes for the rooftop finale (in the novel Oliver is safe and sound by this point). The subsequent Lionel Bart musical copied this ending, effectively making it official. It's a stark example of the power of cinema as a shaper of stories and cultural knowledge. This latest big screen offering takes that trajectory even further with a modern-style, naturalistic take on the Dickens tale.
Just as Dickens's books are most often remembered for their vivid characters so do many Dickens adaptations succeed or fail on the strength of their cast. With this version, I'm quite impressed by Barney Clarke in the title role. Clarke is not a stupefyingly good actor, but in him we at last have an Oliver who is not completely meek and frail, and has a believable amount of fight in him. Ben Kingsley's is certainly the best dramatic Fagin ever, and really the only high quality acting job in the movie. But some of the best moments come from the obvious rapport between the supporting players. There are some moments that seem so perfectly to capture something very familiar and immediate yet also appropriately Dickensian, as when Fagin's boys remove Oliver's fine clothes - they sound just like a normal bunch of teenagers, in spite of the archaic language.
But many other times, it just doesn't work, and there are some absolutely woeful bits of acting on display. Worst offender here is Jamie Forman as Bill Sykes; a wooden performance of sub-Eastenders calibre. Also, while it's nice to have a Nancy who is less a mother-substitute and more like a big sister, Leanne Rowe is just not that good. And though the realism of the performances can sometimes conjure up something wonderfully natural and fluid, it can just as easily produce the irritating drone of Jeremy Swift's Mr Bumble.
It seems that many of the cast members, good or bad, were chosen for their appropriate physical appearance than anything else. This is not surprising, since Polanski his crafted a rich and thriving world for them to inhabit, as if he was creating a photographic illustration more than a movie. Pawel Edelman's cinematography captures the detail and texture of a Gustav Doré print. The setting does not dampen Polanski's trademark visual style, with lots of tight, grim-looking compositions. A neat example is when Oliver is hauled before the workhouse governors, and the handful of seated men are arranged to create a surreal kind of tunnel. The 19th century squalor seems stiflingly close to the viewer.
But perhaps the most significant thing about this edition of Dickens's story is its manipulation of the story. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has excised the subplot of Oliver being related to Mr Brownlow, a daft construction that stretched the bounds of probability and confirmed the class prejudice Dickens held at that time. This adaptation also emphasises Oliver's final confrontation with Fagin, a powerful and moving coda and a very mature thing to include. A lot of other minor diversions have been stripped away to give a very direct and efficient retelling. But this tinkering with the text is also the movie's downfall. In simplifying the story, just a few too many corners have been cut. Key characters like Bill Sykes are introduced without ceremony. There's also not enough time to build up a convincing relationship between Oliver and Brownlow. This version of Oliver Twist may look sumptuous and have many flashes of brilliance, but as a whole it is a rather cold, drab experience.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
"The right thing at the wrong moment"
With the exception of a handful of early shorts, Charlie Chaplin took responsibility for every possible aspect of his creative process, not only starring in his pictures but also writing, producing, directing, editing and even scoring them himself. In the silent era this worked very well because he was a master at the comical ballet of slapstick. When sound arrived however, he found himself struggling with verbal comedy and the inelegance of dialogue.
Monsieur Verdoux is a "comedy of murders" developed from an idea by Orson Welles. It's a decent little story, with a dark theme for both Welles and Chaplin, but one they have melded to a more humanist end. In adapting Welles's outline, Chaplin shows his flair for creating intriguing characters, making his hero a murderer who will rescue a caterpillar from being stepped upon and is filled with love for his wheelchair-bound "true" wife and their young son. As with Chaplin's other talking pictures, the biggest problem in the screenplay is his trite dialogue peppered with a touch of the awkward, such as the son in the first scene describing his mother (or sister; it's not entirely clear) as having feet like submarines.
In his earlier movies Chaplin's style as a director tended towards simplicity, eschewing close-ups and camera moves for long, static takes for the action to unfold in. Now, perhaps in an attempt to appear modern, he is being a bit more adventurous with the camera, but it appears clunky and misguided. Luckily, Chaplin still has his eye for beautiful, iconic moments. His murder of one wife, disappearing into a room offscreen as the sunset shines through an upstairs window, combines the sinisterness of Hitchcock with the grace of Griffith. In another, quite lovely moment, he uses a flower shop telephone to call a would-be wife, but in the foreground we see the overwhelmed reaction of a young florist, utterly convinced of his sincerity.
Chaplin remains, in attempt at least, a slapstick comic, and he tries here and there to grease the narrative of Monsieur Verdoux with a bit of physical comedy. It bears some resemblance to his silent work, but is always accompanied by verbal commentary from the characters, which makes it seem flat, almost mechanical. This is something Chaplin himself feared when the talkies first arrived, but nevertheless he ploughs on with forced routines that seem at odds with the film world going on around them. At least the star himself is still good enough, able to slide from cheeky and comical to stern and serious with ease and credibility.
I think the unfortunate truth is that, with the added complications of sound, the entire process of making a movie was beyond Chaplin's capabilities. If only he had had the humility to allow someone else to co-write with him and come up with some decent dialogue, or handed over directing duties to someone who could better reconcile the comedy and drama. Essentially, Monsieur Verdoux is still a very good movie – Chaplin's genius is still tucked away in there – but it lacks the overall brilliance of his earlier works.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
"A nice old man with whiskers"
It seems bizarre today, but when Miracle on 34th Street was made in 1947 the studio opted to release it in May, on the basis that more people went to the cinema in Spring than at Yuletide. And, having just got round to reviewing it now, I too find myself in the bizarre situation of watching a Christmas movie at what is almost the furthest point from Christmas in either direction. It doesn't feel as odd as you might think. After all Miracle on 34th Street is for most of its runtime devoid of twinkling Christmas trees and drifting snow, so it doesn't actually come across as that Christmassy. It does however rather prominently feature a rotund old man with a white beard.
The old man in question is Edmund Gwenn, a seasoned character actor here giving what is probably his definitive performance. It's quite a physical role, and he gets stuck into it with gusto. There's a scene where Gwenn stands next to a rather tall Macy's employee, and you can see he's quite a short man, but with his exuberant presence he still dominates the scene.
This is a simple yet effective little bit of storytelling, with some well-written vignettes that can appeal to kids without patronising adults. George Seaton (who adapted the screenplay from a story by Valentine Davies) is also a capable director with a laid back, unfussy style. One of his tricks is using the depth of a set to keep everything in shot, such as Maureen O'Hara talking to John Payne in the apartment with Natalie Wood visible in the next room, and the parade through the window beyond that. It means he can keep all the elements in play at once without having to resort to messy cuts or camera moves.
Miracle on 34th Street is basically one of those tales about the true spirit of Christmas and believing in the magic of it all. Today, it's rather amusing to see that the rage over the commercialisation of Christmas is old enough to be a tradition in itself. You see, purveyors of the "true spirit of Christmas" always seem to miss the point of what that really is. Early on in the movie Gwenn berates a costumed would-be Kringle for drinking on duty, but when I was a kid, a slightly tipsy Santa was pretty much part of the deal. Nevertheless, Miracle on 34th Street is a nice movie, and can be enjoyed in or out of the Christmas season as the tale of a sweet old gent doing good deeds.
King Kong (2005)
"Monsters belong in B-movies"
We live in an era in which virtually every classic of cinema is being remade, usually for the worse. King Kong was originally a surprise hit for RKO studios back in 1933, the heart of the depression. It had already been remade once, in 1976. That version simply updated the story for 1970s characters and settings, which seems logical enough. I haven't seen the 1976 movie so can't comment much on it, but the consensus is that it was atrocious. However for this latest and, I hope final remake, producer-director Peter Jackson returns to the 1930s setting that was the original picture's present day. In so doing, he gives the story a little of the relevance it once had in its era, whilst simultaneously recreating it as a nostalgic period piece.
The 2005 King Kong is also a far longer movie than either of its predecessors. This extra time is not really used to augment the plot, which is more or less identical to what it was in 1933. Instead, it's used to augment the characters. While the ship's crew of the first movie were nameless dots getting picked off one-by-one by various claymation monsters, here they are real human beings with personalities and backstories (who then proceed to get picked off one-by-one by various CGI monsters, but at least now the toll seems realistically human rather than a simple case of numbers). What's more, the character of the eponymous ape is fleshed out too, his mix of savagery, tenderness and near-humanity given a complex and moving arc. Kudos here also goes to the motion-capture acting of Andy Serkis and the animation team who have done a fantastic job of creating an animal with emotional depth.
The profundity of the screenplay is exemplified in a scene, intercut with the arrival on Skull Island, where Jamie Bell says of the Joseph Conrad novel he is reading "It's not an adventure story, is it?" This is of course theoretically an action picture, but it's an hour into the runtime before we get an action scene. Jackson doesn't pull the cheap trick of manufacturing a fight or a chase simply to keep up the pace, instead managing to hold our interest with creeping tension and character development. When the action does come, Jackson proves his mastery at fashioning breathtaking sequences. There are some truly exhilarating moments, like when the camera moves in on Kong and the T-Rex for the climax of their battle. As in his earlier pictures, one of Jackson's trademarks is little moments of comedy, most notably seen here in the dinosaur stampede. And when the middle hour of the picture becomes an almost non-stop action-fest, Jackson has the sense and inventiveness to give each sequence its own tone, even requesting an unusually sombre bit of musical scoring for the insect pit. Incidentally, it's a superb and sensitive score all round by James Newton Howard.
Finally, one thing that makes the 2005 King Kong special is its open tribute to its roots, not just the 1933 movie but 1930s Hollywood in general. Peter Jackson is very much a modern director on the surface, filling his movies with wall-to-wall CGI and two-second shots, but his understanding of his cinematic forebears underpins it all. The movie begins with "I'm Sitting On Top of the World", but the opening shot is of a shanty town, which is the kind of irony seen in depression-era movies like Gold Diggers of 1933. There's some sly mocking of the stars and scripting of the era, but done so as to be a knowing wink to old-time movie fans. And, with its beautiful rhythm and epic scope (epic being an overused word these days, but this picture truly merits it), this is a version of a Hollywood classic that seems totally in love with the very essence of cinema.
The Aviator (2004)
"A bad experience with a dog"
The biographical movie is these days more able than ever to be frank about all kinds of madness and sordidness. In fact it's more than that. It's practically a prerequisite of the modern biopic that you present your subject as some kind of flawed genius. The trouble is, no matter how interesting the individual, an interesting movie is not a guarantee.
The Aviator is directed by Martin Scorsese, whose love of antique cinema surely gave him some special interest in the project. However, I don't see what the idea was of making the early scenes mimic Howard Hughes's two-strip colour process. It doesn't have the authenticity to hark back to the real thing, no other lost classic techniques are resurrected to keep it company, and frankly it looks ugly. As usual Scorsese's showy, jumpy manner of filmmaking is a bit hit-and-miss. He's still great at capturing states of mind, albeit a bit heavy-handedly, but he is seriously short on "wow" moments these days.
The protagonist is portrayed by Scorcese's new favourite Leonardo DiCaprio. He's perfect as the young Hughes because he'll probably go on looking eighteen until he's fifty. Trouble is he still looks (and sounds) eighteen when he's playing the middle-aged Hughes. The acting however is first class, subtle yet forceful. The same unfortunately cannot be said of Cate Blanchett's terrible impersonation of Katherine Hepburn, which copies a few of Hepburn's speech patterns in a grotesque caricature. And she gets the accent wrong. No-one else really stands out as good or bad.
In spite of the general mediocrity of the production, Hughes's life as presented here does offer up some great moments. A nice little montage of clips from Hell's Angels which makes it look even better than it probably is in reality. The occasional humour in an incredibly rich man who thinks he can get anything to happen by simply buying the experts. Our ability to actually route for Hughes when he comes back blazing and cleans up at the hearing after everyone had written him off as a nutter. The eventual poignancy as his condition resurfaces. However it's The Aviator's failure to weave this into some kind of grand narrative that makes it seem so plain overall.
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
"Those nasty little snobs"
After the defeat of nazism and the revelation of its horrors, people in the Allied nations were suddenly compelled to talk about that racial prejudice that existed in their own backyards. It's an indicator of how fiercely the issue was beginning to burn, that even cautiously commercial Hollywood was in on the act, making a high-class production of Gentleman's Agreement.
But unlike most of the movies on racism that were to follow in later years, Gentleman's Agreement is not about persecution of black people, but about anti-Semitism. This is not to downplay anti-Semitism, but given the relative scale of the problem in the USA it does seem as if Hollywood is just taking baby steps in the field of race relations. Especially since the movie specifically defines Jewishness as a matter of faith, not ethnicity. What's more, Gentleman's Agreement only really attacks prejudice as it exists in upper-class society – being refused entry to a club or having people turn their noses up at a dinner party – a long way from the hatred and violence that makes up the thin end of bigotry's wedge.
Given that it now seems such a weedy condemnation of prejudice, perhaps better to view it simply as a drama. After all, director Elia Kazan is ace at dramas. Kazan's style is marked by the confidence to keep his subjects further back within the shot. There's a bit where Celeste Holm calls Gregory Peck from within her office, and their conversation follows with no change of angle, no cut to a close-up of Holm. While there never are any actual close-ups, the layering within the frame can produce an intense feeling of closeness at times. When Peck and Dorothy McGuire have an argument after he is refused a room at the hotel, they move from being near a set of double doors at the back of the room, then they move to the foreground, and the sudden gulf between them and the doors in the background make it feel like they have suddenly stepped into our personal space.
And then of course we have a cast of top dramatic actors. Sadly lead man Peck's performance is rather a corny one. Watching his deliberation as he comes to the decision to pose as Jewish is almost painful. He's only good when he's being stern and forceful, and it's later in the movie he starts to come into his own. The great performances in Gentleman's Agreement belong to its women. Dorothy McGuire is nicely understated, her voice near to a husky whisper as she delivers her most pertinent lines. Celeste Holm is excellent, for most of the movie a joyful and easygoing presence, so carefree and likable that her steely outburst towards the end seems all the more stark and powerful. Anne Revere, always a monument of dignity even in the grip of an angina attack, proving herself one of the most effortlessly natural actresses of her generation. In her smaller role, June Havoc is very good too.
Unfortunately, if we're going to take Gentleman's Agreement as a drama, it starts to look a very flimsy movie indeed. The romantic angle is as bland as day-old kebab meat, and the dialogue is corny and dull. It's a shame then that this was the first movie condemning racial prejudice to receive major plaudits, not because the social evils it portrays weren't worth attacking, but that there were other movies doing it far better. In the same year Crossfire also looked at anti-Semitism in a much more dynamic story framework, and with deeper eloquence and insight, but it was a runner up to Gentleman's Agreement's Best Picture win. A few years later Pinky (also directed by Kazan) and No Way Out would address anti-black racism, but while Pinky would receive a fair bit of attention, the ahead-of-its-time No Way Out was practically relegated to B-movie status. It's in a way remarkable that these other pictures existed at all, but a pity they didn't get the credit they deserved.
State Fair (1945)
"Starry-eyed and vaguely discontented"
It is some testament to the growing stature of the movie musical in the 1940s that Rodgers and Hammerstein, then revitalising the stage musical in a way not seen since the death of Ziegfeld, decided to turn their hands to a piece for the screen. State Fair had been a popular non-musical movie back in 1933, a simple yet touching love story that Rodgers and Hammerstein could adapt with very few changes in what looked like a simple case of "add songs, create hit".
Individually both members of the duo had worked in film before, so the format was not unfamiliar, and they are prepared to make concessions to it. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein pictures produced by Fox State Fair is the shortest by a considerable margin. The epic musical that would appear in the mid-50s (boosted primarily by the adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein's big stage works) was still an unknown concept. Nevertheless, they seem keen to make the most of the cinema's possibilities. At one point, a snatch of singing becomes an internal monologue, something that doesn't really work on stage (although having said that it never really caught on in the movies either). Apart from this, all the usual Rodgers and Hammerstein touches are there, with songs that move the story along emotionally and tonally rather than semantically. "It Might as Well Be Spring" is integrated into the background scoring and becomes an illustration of Jeanne Crain's confused dissatisfaction.
This is also one of the earliest musicals in which non-singing actors would be dubbed by professional vocalists. In later years this would be done a lot because the studio wanted the right performer for each role more than they wanted someone who could sing. Strangely though there is nothing special about Jeanne Crain or Dana Andrews, both of whom were dubbed here. The best player is surely Fay Bainter, the archetypal mother figure in numerous 40s movies. She is full of endearing, twitchy mannerisms, as in her hesitation over adding more liquor to the mincemeat. There's also a nice little supporting part from sweet old man Donald Meek as one of the judges.
State Fair is undoubtedly a nice-looking picture. At this point Technicolor was still quite a special thing, but it was beginning to become standard for musicals. The colours here are rich and vibrant without being garish, the screen filled with subtle pinks, blues and natural greens. Director Walter Lang handles the scenes with poise and delicacy. His staging of "It Might as Well Be Spring" is simple yet beautiful, slowly closing the camera in on Jeanne Crain as the shadow of the trees teases across the image. His arranging of the crowds is excellent too, often keeping people moving rhythmically but realistically, and forming careful patterns to draw our attention to the stars in the foreground.
Good as it looks and sounds, State Fair is ultimately a rather flat experience. Apart from the fact that this version has songs, its 1933 counterpart was better in almost every aspect. The earlier movie was certainly far more intensely romantic. Even the songs in State Fair are far from Rodgers and Hammerstein's best, the delicate charm of "It Might as Well Be Spring" being the only example up to their usual standard. The movie's one real asset can be summed up in Craine's sudden anger that the ultra-modern farmhouse proposed by her bespectacled suitor would have "nothing useless". In other words, she yearns for the purely decorative things in life. State Fair, with its fragile beauty and quaint frippery wrapped around a rather mundane slice of Americana, is a purely decorative movie.
Madame Curie (1943)
Romance of radium
Scientists are one of a number of professions whom over the years Hollywood has mercilessly stereotyped. In the movies, at best they have been charming but out-of-touch boffins, at worst cold-hearted and humourless beings. Madame Curie however is a rarity in that it shows scientific folk as being the dreamy, romantic types that they so often are in real life.
Adapted by sci-fi novelist Aldous Huxley and others from the biography by Marie Curie's daughter Eve, the screenplay makes concession to the fact that Hollywood movies are designed for mass consumption. As such the scientific jargon is dumbed down, almost painfully. On the one hand technical talk is skipped over as babble (as in a not-so-discrete dissolve during Marie and Pierre's walk home together when she begins quizzing him over formulae) and, conversely, the protagonists seem implausibly clueless at times (the idea of the Curies dismissing the stain at the bottom of the bowl and taking days to realise it might be radium is laughable). But nevertheless it's impressive and rewarding the way the writers find ways of making real scientific concepts easily digestible, such as the discovery of radium focused in waiting for the right number to appear on a spectroscope.
For the two lead roles MGM decided to re-team its star-couple of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, previously seen as Mrs and Mr Miniver in the previous year's Best Picture winner. Sadly they don't compare to their earlier incarnations, the interaction between them veering from wooden to melodramatic. However, as their on screen relationship develops the affection appears very real and touching. These aren't exceptional performances in their own right, but the rapport between the two of them is clear and effective.
Thank goodness director Mervyn Leroy has the sense to direct this movie with steady delicacy, with long takes and measured performances giving the story the dignity and also the humanity it requires. There's a particularly nice moment where the Curies are by their daughter's bedside, Walter Pidgeon telling a story to little Margaret O'Brien, Garson sat silent and motionless between them, the camera dollying in, then out, upon her face as the emotion of the moment plays across it.
Madame Curie is a far from perfect work, and Hollywood will probably never get science quite right. And yet this picture achieves a quite wonderful thing – a marriage between the magical romanticism of that great movie-making factory, and the equal yet misunderstood allure of scientific endeavour. The common ground exists, and Madame Curie treads it.
"The pictures make the world seem beautiful"
It's nice to see that, over three decades since the likes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Sleuth, stageplays with minimal casts can still be made into workable movies. Closer, adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, looks at the love lives of four professionals in early contemporary London. Set in amongst the bustle of the metropolis, yet brutal in its intense focus on the individuals involved.
The director Mike Nichols made his debut with the aforementioned Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and as then he shows a rich lexicon of techniques to bring out the right aspect at the right moment. Every scene seems played for different effect. The photography scene in which Julia Roberts first appears is all about faces – well-lit, unobtrusive backgrounds and close-ups big enough to make us notice eye colour and twitching mouths. The sex chat scene shows Jude Law at first simply sat at his computer, then a little later we see wider shot with clothes strewn around a poky flat, giving us a clue as to his current living arrangements, before finally moving into mean close-ups, mostly played for comical effect. Not only does each scene have the necessary impact and perspective, each one is distinctly memorable in style and setting.
When such a small cast carries the burden of the whole movie upon them, you need a very capable set of performers. Jude Law at first seems a little disappointing in his woodenness, although arguably it's right for his rather weak-willed and stilted character. Julia Roberts is muted but entirely convincing. Natalie Portman is overwhelmingly emotive, silently bearing her character's pains but also believably forceful towards the end. The best performance is perhaps that of Clive Owen. Not a particularly pleasant character that he plays, but Owen somehow manages to make him likable, and almost vulnerable in his slavery to his own libido.
Being adapted from a minimalist stageplay, Closer makes an unconventional movie, but not a bad one. The long, dialogue-based scenes of the theatre remain intact, but the strength and individuality with which they are acted and directed prevents things from ever seeming boring or wordy. Closer is unusual for any narrative in that it rather confusingly leaps forward between scenes, sometimes across several years, without explicit notice. Once you've got the pattern however it becomes very easy to follow. The fact that it tends to tell the story through the eyes of the most despicable characters at their lowest moments forces viewers to consider their own actions rather than take the place of the victims. For all that it is about deception, it is painful in its emotional truth, which makes it fulfilling. It is dark but with a dark wit, which makes it bearable.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
"Beyond your years"
The exploitation movie – that branch of cheap and violent movies that includes Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu, zombie horrors and many other subgenres – has rarely run to epics. These were bottom-line products, made at low cost for (supposedly) unsophisticated audiences, and usually clocked in around the 80 minutes mark. Grand, overarching themes were rarely explored, and the main goal for the filmmakers was generally a high body count and maybe a bit of sex. With Kill Bill however Quentin Tarantino creates a grand, sweeping homage, the exploitation movie to end all exploitation movies, a two-part meditation on the very nature of revenge and killing.
As with its predecessor, Volume 2 is a patchwork of references to Tarantino's favourite pictures. This time round he is, if anything, even more flagrant in his referentialism. The flashback at the start of the picture features some rhythmic cross-cutting between close-ups like one of Sergio Leone's early features (notable exceptions as exploitation epics). Then there's a Kung Fu segment which mimics not only the clichés of Hong Kong cinema but also the style of humour and overused zoom lens. Is it theft? Not really. It's channelling the influences in the way one might reshape Romeo and Juliet or La Dame aux Camelias into some other work.
Tarantino doesn't just borrow the motifs and camera-work of his cinematic forebears, he also encourages the eerie, taciturn acting that characterised Leone's pictures. Uma Thurman's range broadens even more here. It's amazing the way she is able to portray Kiddo as a tough fighter while still retaining her sensitivity. David Carradine is at his best here in the title role, a model of seductive evil, credible as both the killer and the kind lover and father.
And really these two dual-natured performances characterise something that is fundamental to Kill Bill. It's a movie about killing, and one that does not shy away from the sensationalist violence of the exploitation flick, but it is also a movie with a lot of heart and humanity. With volume 2 it becomes clear why volume 1 began with the business over Vernita Green's daughter. It becomes clear why Bill cancelled the hospital hit on Beatrix at the last minute. This is a movie about love as much as hate. Kill Bill is an emotionally mature and intelligent work, while still having that delightful playfulness and comic book mythology. A sincere and worthy tribute to a tawdry yet beloved part of cinematic history.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
"Instead of running from the pain"
While sports movies have never been a major genre, boxing movies have probably accounted for more than half of all sports movies ever made. It must just be something about the idea of boxing basically being an organised punch-up, or maybe the scope for philosophising about the spectacle of violence, that has rendered it the stuff of drama.
But conversely to the usual male pride arena of the typical boxing picture, Million Dollar Baby sees Clint Eastwood settling into a father-daughter dynamic as an ageing trainer with his protégé Hilary Swank. Eastwood's acting has improved as he's aged. He's become less active, so his whole persona has receded back into his face. All his past roles are written there in that tortured visage, a former tough guy trapped in this old man's body, facing difficulty and failure for the first time. Swank gives a deceptively quiet performance for someone playing a boxer. What she's doing is matching Eastwood's steely, laconic demeanour, albeit with a good deal of youthful optimism. The rapport between the two of them seems completely natural.
All boxing matches look more or less alike, but ways of shooting them have differed from one movie to the next. Martin Scorsese's direction in Raging Bull was the much-lauded camera-in-the-ring approach. Eastwood's camera on the other hand is often prowling around the edge -the manager's position – the ropes half obscuring the screen. Throughout the movie there seems to be an emphasis on low ceilings, dark corners, and long, barren hallways. It's a seedy, gritty world these characters inhabit, a world with few exits.
For all its modernity and plot twists Million Dollar Baby fits a well-worn mould. Most of the great boxing movies are about failure of sorts, and perhaps victory of other sorts. And there's no shame in its sticking to the pattern; it's what makes good boxing movies good. Million Dollar Baby is part of a cinematic tradition, and a worthy heir to its predecessors.
Sergeant York (1941)
Back in the classic era, motion pictures tended to be a lot shorter than they are now. Even after the three-hour-forty-minute behemoth Gone with the Wind (1939), few movies ran for more than two hours. For the 1941 production of Sergeant York to come in at two-hours-and-ten, you can be sure it was warranted.
This is the true tale of Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War. And yet this is not really a war picture. Instead it depicts the incredible (and largely true) story of his transition from drunken, violent youth, to teetotal pacifist, to reluctant soldier and eventual war hero. It doesn't rush onto the business of fighting – it gives equal weight to each portion of his story. We get to know and respect York, even when he is a hoodlum, which the screenplay does by putting him up against rivals like Zeb and giving him struggles to route for him in. When he does go off to war his actions, his expertise and his emotional response, are in context and have far more impact. There's a clever bit in an early scene when the travelling salesman comes to town. Even though the war hasn't touched the characters' lives yet, we are reminded that it's going on by a prominent newspaper headline.
York is portrayed by Gary Cooper, one of many classic actors who really only ever played one type, but within that confinement could show a whole range of feelings and reactions. Here we see Cooper's simple, honest country boy type pushed to extremes. He seems simple and slow as the emotions flow across his face like glaciers, but his genuineness remains constant throughout, and his steady consistency conveys a sort of depth and intelligence that creeps up on you. An actor who immediately appears clever (Henry Fonda was considered) wouldn't have had the same effect.
Director Howard Hawks has become known of a maker of both action movies and raucous comedies, but his style was always steady and thoughtful. Long takes abound in Sergeant York, often with the camera placed amongst people rather than to one side. There's also some wonderful classic Hollywood lighting to be seen here, as in the shot when Gracie runs over to kiss the hero as he's ploughing the land, a kind of fuzzy silver effect that you don't get in colour or even in modern black and white. The chiaroscuro lighting popular in the 50s is much praised today, but with it we lost the soft beauty of these earlier pictures.
Were this an original story for the screen it would appear far-fetched, but here it seems truth really is a little stranger than fiction. There are of course a number of fabrications; I'm sure York didn't really have his gun struck by lightning, and it should be noted that in October 1918 the Germans knew they would soon be defeated and many of them were desperate to surrender. But it's not the romantic embroidering of Alvin York's tale that makes it seem plausible for the screen, it's the rounded care and dedication that has been taken in constructing the movie, the time given to making it feel true.
The Blue Bird (1940)
"Go and get another pony"
Amid the competitiveness of classic era cinema, whenever one studio had a big success the others would inevitably roll out their copycats. These were invariably inferior knock-offs, but they often fared reasonably well because they cashed in on the popularity of whatever it was they were imitating. But imagine, if you will, a rip-off movie so appalling that it failed at the box office, even with the attachment of a popular star. Just such a thing is The Blue Bird. It's making was a particularly pertinent bit of point-making by 20th Century Fox, since its star Shirley Temple had lost out to Judy Garland for the lead role in The Wizard of Oz. However, the fantasy movie Fox gave to Temple got wrong everything The Wizard of Oz got right.
The failure of The Blue Bird is usually blamed upon the fact that Temple plays a mean-spirited little girl, and it's true this is at least part of the problem. It's not that she isn't good at being the snooty brat – I can well imagine her being like that in real life – it's just that it's wrong for the movie. The story arc is all about Temple's moral development through her adventures, but she's so convincing as the little madam we have no starting point with which to sympathise with her. Ironically though it's the deliciously evil Gale Sondergaard who I find myself routing for, especially since the "good guys" in this movie are so flimsy (or in the case of Fairy Berylune, downright rude).
But there are still deeper flaws running through The Blue Bird. Its joyless, po-faced moralism becomes tiresome incredibly quickly. Its fairytale concepts may be a little different but they don't really inspire much delight. Admittedly a little poignancy has been eked from the scene with children waiting to be born, but the concept of unborn babies being love-struck teenagers is a little too weird even for a fantasy movie. And plot-wise it doesn't really have much else to offer. There is a tacked-on "daddy going to war" subplot, very much a Shirley Temple staple, but it falls flat because unlike in The Little Princess an emotional bond between father and daughter is not established.
And when one compares The Blue Bird to its predecessor The Wizard of Oz, its woeful banality reaches depressing proportions. Like The Wizard of Oz, it begins in monochrome and turns to colour, but as oppose to the unforgettable transition in Oz it's an almost arbitrary switch between two scenes. Essentially it steals the idea but has learnt none of the grace. And, for want of a better word, it's not movie-fied enough. A frumpy Jessie Ralph in her patchwork cloak is very much as the character might appear in a book of fairy tales, but The Blue Bird could benefit more from the glamour of Billie Burke and her sparkles. And Helen Ericson as "Light" is simply too bland to be a replacement. Also bland is the music, the special effects, the set design I could go on, but there doesn't seem much point. The Blue Bird shows classic Hollywood at its least enchanting.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
"God will be cut"
Over the last twenty years cinema, and culture in general, has had a thing for retro chic. In particular, we have developed an appreciation for the charm that lies in things that, even in their day, were considered cheap and shabby. Hence Quentin Tarantino can make a living through the renovation and glorification of the exploitation movie. And also hence he can find some pretty amazing things to make out of it. Having been bolstered by the successes of his first few movies, he was now able to indulge himself in this pure homage.
Much can be made of the scintillating gore and graceful violence in Kill Bill, but Tarantino's direction is marked by both its simplicity and humanity. Unusually, given its subject matter, the visual style here has a lot less emphasis confrontation between two characters (as was the case in the continuous stand-offs of previous Tarantino movies) and more upon individuals and quiet detail, as when Uma Thurman inspects her hands after awakening from a coma or catches her reflection in a Hattori Hanzo blade. And this is all very much to the purpose of the story. Whereas there are no clear-cut heroes or villains in Pulp Fiction, in Kill Bill Thurman's is a character we are really supposed route for.
Strong characters are brought to life by a strong cast. Thurman is able to portray the cool and collected killer, but on top of that she displays both a feminine softness and likable humanity, exemplified in brief moments like that cheeky twitch in her face as she talks about getting the other little piggies wiggling. The best supporting part is that of Sonny Chiba, humorously charming at first, then displaying a calm dignity. Quite impressive for someone who was for the best part of his career a Japanese Steven Seagal. David Carradine, a favourite actor of mine even before cameras had rolled on Kill Bill, is only seen here as a glimpse of gnarled hands, but he packs enough character into those digits to make his presence felt throughout the movie.
Mention must be made of the music in this picture. Tarantino has always picked and chosen diverse pre-existing tunes for his soundtracks, but for Kill Bill the magpie is at his most manic and eclectic. Most of the selections don't make much cultural sense (for example "The Lonely Shepherd", which underscores the sword presentation on Okinawa, was performed by Romanian Gheorghe Zamfir) but each fits the mood of the moment, which is what's important. In terms of timing and choreography, he's moulded the scenes around the music and not the other way round, which is a legitimate way of doing things. He's good at it too, selecting images that complement both rhythm and tone. He should make a musical one day.
But above all it is a sense of playfulness that make Kill Bill what it is. All the time Tarantino seems to be giving sly winks to the audience, and such self-reference is made acceptable by the exaggerated comic-book nature of it all. The line "So you understand how serious I am, I'm going to say this in English" makes no logical sense, but it does mean that Lucy Liu's coolest speech can be delivered without subtitles. Appropriate meanings abound, like the phone ringtone that plays "Auld Lang Syne" (old acquaintance, indeed!). Tarantino has utmost respect for those old exploitation movies, but he recognises their limitations when it came to logic and credibility, magnified here as he tries to cram in one B-movie trope after another. In light of this, he simply has fun with the format, and allows the audience to have fun with it too.
"Songs for great halls"
Before Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the world of high fantasy has not been particularly well-served by cinema. The genre was not even really taken seriously in literature until the 1960s. During the 80s, there was a fad for fantasy movies, but while most of these looked nice and were good enough fun, none of them really had magnificence (although the 1981 Excalibur movie comes pretty close). It was not until the first decade of the 20th century that we saw fantasy cinema's rather delayed coming-of-age.
As with the first two movies in the trilogy the transition from novel to screenplay is exceptional. There's a lot more action and a lot less dialogue in this one, and yet the plot is still clear and the narrative never feels repetitive. The idea of binding the various story lines together in time – such as when the Witch-King arises near Frodo and Sam, but the tower of green light is seen miles away by Pippin – are great for building up the tension. They also really help to establish this vision of Middle Earth as a real place with vast dimensions.
And again Jackson proves himself to be an action director with that little extra flair of intelligence. At first glance his work seems very much aimed at those with short attention spans, but there is so much loaded into each and every shot, the camera following an orc as he falls to the ground, or coming to rest upon a woman holding a baby as panic erupts in the city. His horror-tinged imagining of certain scenes is truly unnerving.
There is some all-round improved acting in this instalment. Perhaps the years wrapped up in the production were taking the necessary toll on the cast. There are some truly heartfelt moments from Bernard Hill and a wonderfully spirited turn from Miranda Otto. For me, Billy Boyd always stood out as the finest of the hobbit performers, and this is the movie where he comes to the forefront, demonstrating great dignity and emotion. The best performance however, as previously, belongs to Ian McKellen as Gandalf. There's something strangely knowing in his final scene.
One of the unfortunate things about The Return of the King is that it suffers worse than the first two movies from a lack of dignity at certain times. The CGI Gollum is too cutesy and it's hard to believe in him as an antagonist, although funnily enough the glimpse we get of partly-transformed Smeagol biting into a fish with Andy Serkis in prosthetics would have been perfect for the whole thing. Some of the most serious bits become silly. I remember laughing out loud in the cinema when Gandalf says "So passes Denethor " when the man is still pathetically running around in flames.
But by-and-large, this is an exceptional production, with its most outstanding touches in the way the whole thing has been put together. When the beacons are lit stretching a line across a mountain range, it's done in such a smooth, rhythmic way we are simultaneously impressed by the immense scale, the beauty of the landscape and the sheer brilliance of it as a means of communication. When Pippin's haunting song continues in the background as the men of Gondor ride off to their doom, we feel the depth of what is going on in a way the images alone could not impart. This is the kind of thinking you don't see in those numerous 80s fantasy movies, or in sci-fi's big trilogy, Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings movies put us right within both the excitement and the sadness of the story, for me with greater weight than Tolkien himself achieved. It elevates this above being merely another CGI action flick and grants the fantasy genre a status and stature it has never enjoyed before.
His Girl Friday (1940)
"Wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way"
There were a lot of so-called women's pictures around this time, typically romantic dramas, and pretty much the only movies of that era with female protagonists. His Girl Friday is an oddity in that it began life as a Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play with a male lead. Somewhere in pre-production the decision was made to turn the hero of what was originally called The Front Page from Hildebrand to Hildegard. But this did not simply make it another women's picture.
You see, although the title now reflects the gender-swap and the lines have even been re-jiggled to make Walter Burns the hero's ex-husband as well as ex-boss, this is still very much the same story as before. It's as if the female Hildy was there in potentia all along, with the familiar, quarrelsome relationship between journalist and editor having been very much like antagonistic ex-lovers all along. It's significant because this makes her a strong, professional character, as opposed to the floppy, flimsy females that screenwriters usually came out with in this era.
The new Hildy is magnificently brought to life by Rosalind Russell. Russell is fluent in sarcasm, and the knowing, world-weary tone she brings to her lines is exquisite. She seems totally at ease amid the boys' club atmosphere of the newsroom, and more than able to carry the movie and match up to her exuberant co-star Cary Grant. Grant shows a touch of Ned Sparksism in his performance, and it is easy to see Burns as the sort of pompous grouch that Sparks would normally play. By and large though this is prime Cary, with plenty of ridiculous exclamations and indignant gestures, best of which is a dismissive flick of the hand as he tells everyone to "get out". There are plenty of fine supporting players too. Ralph Bellamy is perfect as Hildy's would-be husband Bruce, Bellamy being an intelligent man who is good at acting a buffoon.
The action is overseen by ace director Howard Hawks. Hawks is brilliant at handling smooth switches between the general and the specific. The movie begins with a lengthy tracking shot (or rather two shots, but the blend is disguised) going right-to-left, showing off the indistinct business and bustle of the newsroom, before coming to rest on a slightly more empty end. Then Rosalind Russell enters, and we follow her with another tracking shot left-to-right. It's a great way of introducing the character. This second tracking shot is ostensibly a reversal of the one before it, but the first one is a broad picture of a place and the second has its focus on one person. Throughout, Hawks encourages not only the oft-praised overlapping dialogue, but also punchy visual collages of tense and hasty movements. Whenever the gaggle of reporters are in the room there's always one chewing gum or shifting his balance. His Girl Friday begins at high speed and from then on barely pauses for breath.
Of course, not all the genuine women's pictures of the 30s and 40s were poorly-written, and in fact a lot of them I enjoy immensely. But seeing His Girl Friday, a woman's movie that became one almost by accident, is a breath of fresh air when one compares it to the stereotyped imagery that was actually pitched and presented to women. It also happens to be a fun, witty and nicely-made movie.
Holiday Inn (1942)
"Can't go wrong, a tender song "
The 1930s produced a great many brilliant stars for sound cinema, voices and music having very much shaped that decade's movies. But by the 40s many of these acts were running out of steam in pictures that were either too samey or no longer suiting. To the rescue came a new idea – the team-up movie. Take two big stars, put them together on the same screen. Success!
It might have seemed like a terrible clash putting the two most popular musical lead men together in a picture, but as "I'll capture your heart singing(/dancing)" acknowledges, the two stars of Holiday Inn complement each other well by being the best at the two opposite ends of the musical performance spectrum – Bing Crosby's warm, earthy crooning and Fred Astaire's light, ethereal dancing. Personally I rate Fred's singing quite highly, and posterity tends to agree with me. Crosby however had a great dramatic talent, and he proves himself fully able to handle the more poignant side of the romantic angle. That's not to disparage Fred's acting, and as usual he is allowing his grace and control to feed into a number of different moods. He even does a top drunken dance. As to their leading ladies, I was going to say Marjorie Reynolds has a lovely singing voice, but then I found out she was dubbed by Martha Mears, which was presumably just as well. She has a kind of earnestness to her performance though and despite not using her real voice she is very much able to bring the necessary emotion into her act of singing. Virginia Dale, while passable, is sadly no Ginger Rogers. But Holiday Inn is not really about the women. The two leads here are Bing and Fred.
Another coup for this production was the song-writing talent of Irving Berlin, who for my money was the best of that generation of pop composers. Berlin's ease with fluid song structures means he could come up with such whimsical efforts as "I'll capture your heart singing" which switches tone back and forth to suit the styles of Fred and Bing. Meanwhile numbers like Easter Bonnet and of course White Christmas are among Berlin's most beautiful, and it's fab to hear Crosby's golden vocal chords doing them the necessary justice.
Holiday Inn sees Astaire reunited with the most prolific director of the Fred and Ginger movies, Mark Sandrich. Astaire and Sandrich had such a great rapport after all their years of working together. The opening scene with Fred wiping the snow off a sign is such an Astaire-Sandrich moment, this combination of smooth, unedited camera movements and normal actions turned into dance. And even for Crosby's more sedate numbers, he's excellent at overseeing the choreography of something as simple as putting out food in "Let's Start the New Year Right" to give it a kind of natural visual rhythm. Sandrich also captures the poignancy of the later scenes with some wonderfully still and sombre close-ups.
As the 30s turned to the 40s and the old repetitious franchise movies made way for prestigious one-off productions, Holiday Inn is a perfect transition, containing all that was pure about 30s musical output but melding it into something a little grander. The dancing harks back to the best of the Fred and Ginger movies, where the choreography was inventive but not yet gimmicky (Astaire's firecracker dance being the finest example). And, dare I say it, Fred and Bob are a pairing equal to Fred and Ginger. No, they don't dance together, but really the movie is all about the chummy rivalry between them – two very different performers with different temperaments, but equal in likability.
Cold Mountain (2003)
"Having a thing, and the loss of it"
American cinema was once very much enamoured of the Civil War. The silent era produced the world's first blockbuster with Birth of a Nation. Then the classic era gave us its crowning achievement in Gone with the Wind. But since then Civil War pictures have been few and far between. That period has to some extent fallen out of favour as a cultural touchstone, and there has of course been widespread condemnation of the overt racism of the former movie and the general of-its-timeness of the latter. Now, with a more realistic approach towards the horrors of conflict and oddly enough a British rather than American production, we finally have another great Civil War epic for our times in Cold Mountain.
Adapted from the popular novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain is an epic that is made vast through its succinct storytelling. The background to the romance between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman is communicated to us with pure images and mere fragments of dialogue. The characters and where they came from is rarely stated overtly, and it seems more natural that way, as if we're watching life pass by before us. In keeping with this director Anthony Minghella (who also adapted the screenplay) often keeps his camera high and distant, although he's not afraid to put us right within the action at times, allowing the liveliness of a character's performance to push the camera away or their calmness to draw it in. His wide-open shots show off the landscape at its finest (Romania often standing in for North Carolina, but this doesn't matter; it looks wonderful), showing off the changeless beauty which surrounds the misery and bloodshed.
The cast of Cold Mountain gives us some fine examples of non-American actors playing Americans, not that you would know for how well Nicole Kidman and Jude Law master the dialect. That lilting Southern States accent rarely sounds very serious to an outsider, but Jude Law manages to bring a strong dignity to the part of Inman. Irishman Brendan Gleeson is excellent as always, and his authentic fiddle-playing is a bonus. Best of the bona fide Americans is Renee Zellwegger. She's massively theatrical, but she gives us just the sort of larger-than-life supporting character the movie needs. She plays the role with life and likability, and she is deep and genuine when it's needed too.
Cold Mountain is, above all things, a powerful romance. There's a sweeping, Odyssey feel to Inman's journey, and a burning idealism to the love story that some might regard as old-fashioned despite the movie's modern take upon warfare. And funnily enough those earlier movies – Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind – weren't overly romantic tales. Cold Mountain is, in a way, more achingly human; a beautiful picture, full of the balance between great evil and great kindness. It's a worthy and far less flawed successor to those Civil War epics of past generations, and it's a real shame it never got quite the reception it deserved.
The Little Princess (1939)
"Pretend it in to happening"
There were a lot of "franchise" stars in the 1930s – Astaire and Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Mae West – players who had a very specific appeal and would appear as almost identical character in a series of almost identical movies. Shirley Temple was a little different because, as a child star, with each successive movie her roles had to reflect her changing age. The Little Princess was made when Temple was ten, and as such it's a comparatively dark and dramatic story, at least in contrast to her previous appearances.
And so, rather than just play the cutesy little girl with amusingly childlike emoting, we now see her reacting to things like loss and death in a story that occasionally borders upon real life, even if it's cutely saccharine in its resolution. The trouble is, now that she's started specifically trying to act, she lost a lot of the naturalism she had as a tot. As usual they put her alongside actors of a mid-level calibre, suited to the prestige and popularity of the movies, but not likely to set the world on fire with great performances. Ian Hunter is good for his small yet crucial role, pitching his performance to the twee simplicity of the story, but with an effective amount of dignity nonetheless. Hunter's rapport with Temple is also very clear, which pays off at the end of the movie. Richard Greene appears wooden at first glance, but here and there something a little more genuine shines through the varnish. Arthur Treacher is good fun as usual, and actually demonstrates in one scene that he could probably have been a good straight actor, had he had the inclination.
Director Walter Lang was renowned for his kindness and patience with actors, which no doubt helped generate a convivial atmosphere upon the set. He also has a great eye for shot composition, having been a keen painter in his youth. He keeps his camera low down, at a child's eye-level, which sounds obvious but not all directors remember this for kids' films. Also impressive is his use of multiple angles which really gives dimension to the sets, or can be used to highlight a sudden change in mood without resorting to cheap trickery. In the climactic scene between Temple and Hunter a couple of well-timed angle changes and otherwise long, static takes really bring out deep poignancy in what is a rather predictable moment.
Unfortunately for Temple (or more precisely, Fox's ability to profit from her), there have never been many great opportunities for child performers once they hit a certain age. Teenage roles can be played by young adults who have more experience and can work longer hours, and besides, while Temple was the perfect sweet little girl, she was never the gutsy Elizabeth Taylor type. In itself however, The Little Princess is not a bad little movie. The finale is touching in spite of cliché, and it's all delightfully watchable along the way. It is however, probably her last great moment.
"The stories that stay with you"
Of the three pictures in Peter Jackson's epic treatment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this one probably takes the most liberties in adapting JRR Tolkein's book. Middle sections in a trilogy are often problematic, especially in the movies. Tolkein would have expected his readers to work through the books chapter-by-chapter, the split into the three volumes being mainly to keep the actual tomes to a practical size. A movie however is more of a stand-alone thing, and it needs a satisfying beginning and ending even when it's the middle of a larger story.
Jackson, along with his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair have done a neat job. The Two Towers has an added problem in that the characters get split into three groups, and three separate narrative lines. The novel devotes half a book each to the different sets of characters. The script for The Two Towers must find more fluid ways of integrating the different story lines, and there is some canny balancing of pure action and 'human' themes. They insert a little episode of the romance between Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit dull in itself but provides a brief moment of tranquillity to build up tension before the next burst of action. There's also an implication that Eowyn slightly fancies Aragorn, which as far as I recall was not in the book, but it actually works far better than the official romance because it is tied into the sense of danger at the battle. Finally, the writers leave off some of the book's material for the third movie, to put more focus on the Helm's Deep climax and wind towards satisfactory conclusions for each of the story's strands.
Peter Jackson is very much a craftsman of his generation, with all the pros and cons of modern filmmaking. As with The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie is over-edited, with shots never lasting more than a couple of seconds. But this is Jackson's style and he knows how to do great things with it. He's especially good at switching between the inside and the outside of a situation. When Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas encounter the Rohirrim, the riders surge into view over the hillside, and Jackson really gives us a feel of the power of this army with breathtaking shots from above and then ones inside the throng with horses towering over the camera. Later he creates a mighty "wow" moment when the black rider appears, a gauntleted hand at first, before pulling back to reveal the massive winged steed. And the detail in Jackson's close-ups is if anything more meaningful than his massive CGI crowd shots. When we see Frodo's hand moving for the ring round his neck, his fingers are rough and dirty, just as they would on someone who has spent weeks travelling in the wilderness.
The breaking of the fellowship into smaller groups in The Two Towers allows individual characters to come out a bit more, and it's the better movie for it. As before though there are a few problems with the acting. Elijah Wood makes a dismal and unsympathetic Frodo, moaning his way across Middle Earth with a perpetually forlorn look. Andy Serkis's Gollum is certainly a spirited little fellow, but I feel he's just a little too pathetic, and not convincingly cunning enough – or perhaps that problem lies more in the way he's been animated. Once again it is Ian McKellen who brings most dignity to the proceedings, but this time he is aided by solid turns from the likes of Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto. Alongside the development of characters, most of the players from the previous movie perform a little better this time around, and John Rhys Davis is particularly good as a loveably comical Gimli.
Perhaps what really makes The Two Towers is Jackson's deliberate tendency to be somewhat silly. Who else would come up with a Tolkein adaptation featuring an Olympic torch-bearer orc or Legolas surfing down the steps on a shield, unless it was a deliberate parody (which it never for one moment feels like)? Above all, he seems to be having fun with what he's doing. I don't think the oliphaunts were supposed to be quite that big in the books, but Jackson clearly wanted the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back in his movie. It's his ability to adapt the material with dignity but without taking it too seriously, that means generally the audience is having as much fun as he is.
The Pianist (2002)
"That's what we have to believe"
The Pianist is a movie that often gets bundled together with Schindler's List as being "about" the holocaust. But this is a misunderstanding, a simplification even, of this picture (and of Schindler's List). It relates to the holocaust, but it is not the story of the holocaust – it's the story of one man. Władisław Szpilman was an artist, with great talent in his hands and his mind, and in him is represented something very precious in humanity. He also appears, as many such people really are, someone to whom the music mattered far more than current affairs. As such, he provides a unusual view on atrocity, that of someone who, rather than actively fight against it, for the most part tried simply to exist in spite of it.
This somewhat passive yet dignified stance is ably reflected in Roman Polanski's direction, which has always been characterised by an excruciating intimacy with his subjects and a certain detachment from the world in which they inhabit. Here we see Szpilman glimpsing the war through windows and doorways, yet often himself or his hands in close-up. But Polanski's boldest strokes of genius are in his creation and presentation of the ghetto and its inhabitants, especially as regards how he draws our attention. The soldiers giving a cigarette to an elderly Jewish man and the couple fighting over a can of stew are foregrounded. Seconds later, a corpse lies innocuously in the background. When Władek's father is accosted by two Germans, we see a couple of Polish women hastily get out of the way. When the shot changes to reveal the officer's back, the focus is suddenly on his gun holster – it draws our attention to things that give a little extra breadth and context to a scene.
Central to The Pianist is Adrien Brody's portrayal of the title character. It's an incredibly sedate performance, with everything below the surface, utterly commanding of our attention despite its understatement. His emotions seem muted – when reunited with a friend the merest ghost of a smile plays across his lips, but by now we know the character and understand that this is a deep and sincere expression. Brody virtually carries the movie alone, and one of the unfortunate things about The Pianist is that not one other performance stands out at all, and the inadequacy of some of the supporting players does hurt the earlier scenes a little.
But perhaps the greatest thing about The Pianist is in the fine construction of its story. Although most of it is based incredibly faithfully on Szpilman's own memoir, the adaptation by Ronald Harwood gives it a certain dramatic course. There is one intensely poignant scene, and one of the few entirely fictionalised episodes, in which Szpilman is being sheltered by Dorota, wakes to the sound of her cello-playing and, just for a moment, he can imagine what life would be like if she had been his wife. Finally, the scene where Hosenfeld asks Szpilman to play for him seems to be the key to the whole thing. It's as if every moment, every narrative line, points towards that scene. We've seen Germans forcing Jews to dance for their entertainment, which makes us first question Hosenfeld's motives. We've seen Szpilman's desperation to be reunited with a piano, his fingers making keystrokes in the air. In retrospect, this all seems a set-up for that encounter. In effect, The Pianist becomes a tale of a harrowing time, filtered through the beauty of a musical performance.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Over the years, Martin Scorsese has established himself as the cinematic biographer of New York City. In Gangs of New York, he recounts one of its lesser-known but intensely fascinating chapters, in what was a long-cherished project. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, a similarly personal picture, it seems a perfect vehicle for his ostentatious directorial style.
The inspiration for this movie was a non-fiction book of the same title and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan have woven a decent action story around a few kernels of historical truth and half-truth. The documentary-like detail is there, although it's more about period background than recreating events, as the main plot is largely fiction. Within this plot certain themes are writ large - the honour of one-on-one combat, the idea of revenge as something almost sacred, the hero's coming of age and so forth. There's also lots of rather obvious religious symbolism both in the script and Scorsese's imagery – the bible in the water, the rosary beads tossed aside, crucifixes popping up all over. There's even a bit of a Christ allegory going on with Amsterdam's betrayal by the Judas-like Johnny and his subsequent resurrection. It's clichéd, to be sure, but it's rather good fun too.
And Scorsese's portrayal of old New York is as surreal and baroque as it is factual. No doubt this was a strange time and place to be around in, but Scorsese whoops it up to almost operatic proportions. Take for example, in the opening scenes, the various gangs' campy self-introductions, or Daniel Day-Lewis's top hat disappearing off the top of the screen like it goes on into infinity. To be honest, it's all a far better match for Scorsese's zooming, swooping camera-work than his straighter dramas were. Scorsese also gets big plus points for doing almost all of it with real people and real sets without resorting to CGI. The movie looks far richer and livelier for it.
This was the director's first outing with his new fave lead man Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is not exceptional here – it's simply another good-looking hero role that doesn't tax him much. The part that commands most attention is that of Daniel Day-Lewis. His ability to disappear into a role so different from his real background and persona is commendable, though at times his Bill Cutting comes across as a hammy impression of Robert De Niro. But such theatricality is all very much part and parcel of Gangs of New York. Many of the smaller parts are in a similarly extravagant vein; most worthy of mention are Gary Lewis and Jim Broadbent.
Stylised as it is, the movie couldn't really afford to be too esoteric, and there are a fair few concessions to commercialism. Some moments have a modern action gloss, typified by the "schwoomp" noise when we zoom in on Day-Lewis's glass eye. Then there's the fact that, even though the script says DiCaprio will "walk among you as a freak" his scarring only amounts to a faint white blotch; actually marring his pretty-boy features presumably not being viable. But these are minor quibbles. From its haunting introduction to its apocalyptic finale, Gangs of New York makes a mighty yarn.
As with most movie franchises, the later Astaire-Rogers vehicles are repeated attempts to keep the formula fresh without losing the original magic. With its altered settings and characterisations, and an emphasis on comedy over music, Carefree was the biggest departure of the series thus far.
This was the first of these pictures in which the duo do not play the part of dancers, Fred being a psychiatrist and Ginger his patient. Psychoanalysis was then vogue-ish, and the idea of the female patient falling for the doctor was already something of a cliché. And yes, it is Ginger this time who goes chasing after a hard-to-get Fred. It shows a marked shift from the usual harassment-cum-romance which usually stood in for a love angle in these movies, something which was particularly odious and unnatural in the first proper Ginger and Fred movie, The Gay Divorcée. Having said that, the final image of Ginger going up the aisle with a black eye is rather sickening even though its context is more innocent than it appears.
Both Astaire and Rogers adapt competently to their new types and these are some very fine performances from them both. Astaire shows his finest dramatic nuances to date, and Rogers brings out a flair for comedy. The opportunities for dancing are sadly fewer here, but choreographer Hermes Pan has eschewed the increasing spectacle of the last few movies for numbers that are more intimate yet still inventive. Fred's golf routine is simply delightful, and the dream sequence for "I Used to Be Color Blind" is the one touch of classic Fred and Ginger beauty, with an elegant slow-motion segment that works surprisingly well. It's a pity the number wasn't shot in Technicolor as was originally intended – that would have made it even more special.
The very look of Carefree is different – gone are the Big White Sets and in their place are offices, studios and even the open countryside. This was the last Fred and Ginger movie handled by their most frequent director, Mark Sandrich. Sandrich's forte in these pictures was the smoothness with which he segued dialogue scenes into musical numbers, but the way the songs fit into the narrative here there's hardly any call for that. I am however very impressed with the tenderness he brings to the hypnosis scene.
Carefree was a decent attempt to reinvigorate a series that had more or less run its course. It's not a bad little movie on its own terms, but its just doesn't feel quite like a Fred and Ginger movie should. For example, the lack of any Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore is glaring. There is a small part by a young (and surprisingly slim) Jack Carson, who is rather funny and seems slightly more in tune with this setting, but the point is, Fred Astaire was always magnificently in tune with Horton and Blore. It demonstrates perhaps, more than anything, that top hats, tails, swanky hotels and butlers were now outdated in the musical (as they certainly were in romantic comedy as a whole). Carefree is kind of a noble effort of a transition movie, but it isn't really anything more than that, and it doesn't represent any kind of mould that Fred or Ginger could now settle into.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
"One hundred caskets to fill"
After the success of Saving Private Ryan in 1998, the war movie was rebranded from the moral fable of the Vietnam era to something that was essentially an exciting experience for its audience. Black Hawk Down was perhaps the most extreme example of that approach, a pure video-game movie that pares down all the camaraderie and humanising to just a handful of brief exchanges, and puts almost all its attention upon the actual business of killing each other.
However Black Hawk Down differs from a lot of modern action pictures in its pacing, as orchestrated by director Ridley Scott. Eschewing the usual frenetic overkill, Scott takes a relatively relaxed approach. In the first Lord of the Rings movie, which was released the same week, the average shot length must be something like two seconds. In Black Hawk Down the average shot length is more like three to four seconds, and it makes all the difference. There is time to savour expressions and notice tiny details, making up for the lack of rounded characterisation earlier in the movie. Scott allows the interplay between the men to come out, not in the script, but in glances, grimaces and carefully-placed props. The earliest scenes are eerily calm, providing a moody build-up for the action that is to come.
And it's all done with such grace and smoothness. The timing of shots is rhythmic and the images are beautiful. Scott and his cinematographer Slawomir Idziak create some extremely stylised colour schemes which evoke temperature as much as mood. When we move from Garrison's meeting with Atto (browns and yellows) to the hanger with his troops (blues) you can practically feel a whoomph of cool air hitting you. Add to this mix a musical soundtrack that dances from the power of contemporary and classic rock tracks to the haunting sounds of Denez Pringent and Lisa Gerrard. Black Hawk Down has an aesthetic quality rare in war movies.
Although this isn't really a movie about deep performances, it's worth making a few points about casting, which seems to follow types rather than talents. For example, Tom Sizemore was then your go-to man for mean-faced sergeant characters. It seems unusual to cast Scotsmen Ewan MacGregor and Ewen Bremner as US soldiers, especially as MacGregor in particular can't really do the accent. However I think the fact that they are outsiders among the rest of the cast feeds into the impression they give of combat virgins.
The trouble with Black Hawk Down is that it actually needs to be as visually sumptuous as it is. There isn't really much to go on here, dramatically; apart from a little chitchat in the first half hour, the whole movie is essentially one very long battle scene. When there are talky scenes, all we get is bland, one-dimensional dialogue – the usual trite "A man's gotta do " stuff. The only way it actually really conveys anything meaningful is through putting us into that combat zone and giving us a little taste of the terror and the exhilaration. And perhaps, for this, it is a stronger war movie.