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a confidently wrought social reportage that dares to offer an unflinching look on the abject underbelly of a hand-to-mouth existence
You always chance to be trading on manipulation of the disadvantaged when approaching destitution and deprivation, especially when your subjects are children imposed under a vulnerable situation, but CAPERNAUM, Lebanese woman filmmaker Nadine Labaki's Oscar-nominated third feature, takes up the gauntlet with a reverberating bang!
That said, Labaki's camera is not entirely above hovering protractedly around our protagonist, the good-looking 12-year-old Lebanese boy Zain (Al Rafeea, a real-life Syrian refugee) and a cute-as-a-button infant boy named Yonas (Bankole, who is actually a girl), especially in the latter's case, adorable babies are the panacea to induce audience's inexhaustible outpourings of compassion, and Labaki's maternal side may get the better of herself.
Zain is our protagonist, living in the skid row of Beirut with a whole brood produced by his parents Selim (Yousef) and Souad (Al Haddad), eldest among his half-dozen siblings, he is precociously takes the responsibility to support the family in every possible way (from producing illegal drugs to selling beverage on the streets), a radical case of adulting that makes him as hard as nails. When Sahar (Izzam), his closest 11-year-old sister, is married off to their landlord Assad (El Husseini), Zain runs away and fetches up in an amusement park, soon is taken in by a sympathetic young Ethiopian single mother Rahil (Shiferaw), so Zain can look after her baby Yonas when she goes to work. After Rahil is nicked for her undocumented migrant status, Zain takes on the parental job in his own hands before doleful reality catches up on him, he eventually caves in and exchanges Yonas for money to buy a quota to be smuggled out of the country (a heart-rending manifestation shows even with steely resolution, the impoverished Zain must do the same like his parents under dire circumstances), only stricken by another tragic hammer blow which prompts his transgression of stabbing a "son of bitch", Zain is sentenced in jail for 5 years.
The film starts in medias res when Zain is seen in court suing his parents of child neglect, then Labaki's tactical guerrilla-style flashback kicks in with a visceral immediacy and poignancy, cleaving to Zain's viewpoint until the rousing moment, when he vehemently pleads that his parents shouldn't be allowed to have more children, a blunt anti-natalism statement addressing the elephant in the room, especially following Souad's desperate defense of "you cannot judge me if you are not in my shoes", in this case, actually we can, no matter whose shoes we are in, some blatant benightedness must be severely censured, it is somewhat less plausible Labaki puts the words in Zain's mouth other than delegating it to his lawyer Nadine, downplayed by herself. Ironically, in reality, the actor Zain is vouchsafed a Norwegian passport after the movie's success, and his family is resettled in Norway now, ergo, there are real-life miracles like that spur poverty-ridden household prone to procreation, in case one of the offspring will become their savior, out of wretchedness, people would put faith in anything, however slim the chances are. It goes without saying that the canker lies in a larger context, the thorny immigrant issue is given a harsh once-over in real prisons with detained refugees, and Labaki also flags up the issues in the legal system (both allowing a minor to buy prescribed medicine and an underaged girl to enter matrimony should be put paid to).
Not without its flaws (the plot is constituted of predictable mishaps piled upon unceremoniously to flog its sensible message to death, and its happy ending tends to feel cavalier), CAPERNAUM finds another wow factor in its amateur cast, Yordanos Shiferaw is especially touching in expressing sorrow and natural goodwill, whereas the extraordinary Zain Al Rafeea, whose down-in-the-mouth resilience magnificently reflects his suppressed ire singeing just beneath the surface, culminates his engrossing performance with a transcendent smile perfectly bringing down the curtain on a confidently wrought social reportage that dares to offer an unflinching look on the abject underbelly of a hand-to-mouth existence.
Edward II (1991)
a soulful transposition to exclaim Jarman's cri de coeur
Wearing his gay-right crusading heart on his sleeve, Derek Jarman's antepenultimate work EDWARD II is a post-modern interpretation of Christopher Marlowe's play about the eponymous Plantagenet sovereign (Waddington, a celluloid debutant), whose partiality towards his male lover Piers Gaveston (newcomer Tiernan), raises Cain in the court and prompts his wife Queen Isabella (Swinton), in league with Lord Mortimer (Terry), to usurp his throne.
Shot in Jarman's characteristic sparse, claustrophobic setting which avails itself of minimal indoor lighting and cherry-picked iconography to great effect (striking use of refraction, a quasi-black-box theater intimacy, etc.), EDWARD II radically strews anachronistic items into its theatrical foreground: a slick modern dance, characters sporting contemporary costumes and its trimmings (business suits for the members of the court and for Queen Isabella, a Hermes bag accompanies her entrance), brandishing modern weapons, notably a band of rioting gay right activists constitutes the king's army, Jarman has economically, but also impressively warps its source play's temporality and gives its story an exigency and immediacy that elicits strong topicality, when cruelty is wantonly lashed out at the beleaguered gay lovers.
Among the cast, every single one of the main cast robustly sinks his or her teeth into Marlowe's florid wording, a savage-looking Tiernan flouts the traditional aesthetics of a rakish lotus eater and brings about a fierce ugliness that contests for a basic human right which goes beyond its often beautified physicality and narcissism (a self-seeking whippersnapper still has his inviolable right to love someone of his own sex); both Swinton and Terry grandly chew the scenery of lofty operatics, but in a commendable way which resoundingly adds the dramatic tension and heft of their sinister collusion, and by comparison Waddington, looks unfavorably bland and wishy-washy in a role who pluckily hazards his monarchial reign in favor of one single mortal that he holds dearest.
As Annie Lennox's belts out "EV'RY TIME WE SAY GOODBYE" in her cameo appearance, Jarman's EDWARD II is a soulful transposition to exclaim his cri de coeur, and steeped in his sui generis idiom that sublimes a tenacious beauty out of its rough-hewn components, but with a proviso that an acquired taste is requisite.
Kuai can che (1984)
a testimony to the halcyon days of Hong Kong action cinema, fun, thrill and a bit of romance, recommended for the whole family
An emblematic Hong Kong action comedy in its heyday conjoined by legendary Kung Fu trio Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, shot abroad in Barcelona with Sammo also taking the director job, WHEELS ON MEALS sees Chan and Yuen as two cousins, Thomas and David respectively, who are adroit in martial arts (and skateboards), run a fast food van in the tourist spot, soon they will team up with Hung's amateurish shamus Moby to fight against the evil Mondale (Sancho), whose henchmen are relentlessly hunting down a young heiress Sylvia (the stunning former Miss Spain, Lola Forner), with whom both Thomas and David are infatuated.
The star trio (their third picture together, preceded by PROJECT A and WINNERS AND SINNERS, both released in 1983) brings about authentic bonhomie in their two against one raillery, with Hung often comically in the receiving end of the ribbing and pratfalls. Forner's deceptively virtuous damsel-in-distress (petty larceny merely a peccadillo) doesn't drive a wedge between the two cousins, instead, Thomas and David's gauche vying for her affection elicits abundant lulz, including one sterling idea from Thomas, by suggesting David's father (Paul Chang Chung) to marry Sylvia's mother (Sentís), both mental hospital residents (there are stimulating cameos from regular collaborators Richard Ng, Wu Ma and John Sam as fellow head cases) who are smitten with each other, to the utter dismay of Yuen, since he and Sylvia will become step-siblings.
Whereas the plot gives no spectacular twists or suspense to elevate WHEELS ON MEALS head and shoulders above its similar peers, the climatic action set piece is a captivating blinder, in particular, the fisticuffs between Jackie Chan and kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez, which gives a visceral flesh-to-flesh impact that bespeaks what makes martial arts actioner such an entertaining delight to watch, and Chan's epiphany of loosing up in the face of a formidable rival well speaks volume of his trademark amalgamation of levity and lethality that eventually would win him gazillion of fans in every nook and cranny of the world, an exemplar of how to take up the baton (from Bruce Lee, obviously) and pass it on with one's own distinctive style (Chan is in his sixties and his clout still rolls on).
Elsewhere, Hung relishes in the self-referential jokes of his (only slightly at then) portly figure (when Moby hollers around in looking for a man named Fatso, whose corpulence can legitimately pale him into insignificance, or the running jokes of being unable to keep up with a simian Chan in all the shinning and whisking), and in fact, Hung is famous for his disproportionate agility that lends him a unique presence among other uniformly jacked Chinese martial artists. Without any help of wire-fu, Hung really cuts it both in and behind cameras, and WHEELS ON MEALS is a testimony to the halcyon days of Hong Kong action cinema, fun, thrill and a bit of romance, recommended for the whole family.
Love on the Dole (1941)
when it comes to money, every darn pence counts!
A pre-kitchen-sink UK drama aiming to boost the morale of British Commonwealth during WWII, LOVE ON THE DOLE most importantly marks British cinema's grand dame, Deborah Kerr's very first leading role at a tender age of 19, who sports a cockney accent and still carries some dainty baby fat.
This 1930s Depression-era tale of woe pivots around the mews-dwelling Hardcastle household in Hanky Park, Salford, Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle (Carney and Merrall, both are excellent in resisting falling into operatics despite of their stereotyped roles) live in immiseration with their two grown-up children Sally (Kerr) and Harry (Hibbert). When the employment rate hits the nadir, and many are taken off the dole by the Means Test, The Hardcastles' life is critically hobbled by their financial difficulty, Sally's impending matrimony with her sweetheart Larry (Evans), an ideal socialist, is abruptly brought to an untimely end by a public demonstration which goes violently awry; and Harry, after marrying his gravid wife Helen (Howard), has an extra burden to carry with the patter of tiny feet and slumps into despondency and despair when no job is available, especially after having won a jackpot and savored a transient flavor of living high on the hog.
But, like in any movies, there is always a way out, the comely Sally gets the attention of a seedy, middle-age bookmaker Sam Grundy (Cellier), so if she is willing to come across, Sam will reward her with material affluence, with two jobs for her father and younger brother, eventually Sally caves in after her marriage plan comes a cropper, after all, under that circumstance, any girl would love to trade their place with her. In her belated fur-donning transformation, Kerr makes an impassioned plea of Sally's inexorable moral corrupt, against her bemoaning mother and infuriated father, morality can be compromised, but dignity retains, no matter what, Ms. Kerr is definitely a revelation!
Journeyman director John Baxter does a presentable job in this studio-bound commodity, establishes its foggy environs and well-superimposed transitional sequences, but to this reviewer's lights, it is the risible quartet of biddies (silent film star Marie Ault makes a wonderful impression here) that gingers up the misery with their undimmed force of life, filtering scuttlebutt, passing snide comments and organizing séances, with subterranean libations to smooth over their troubled days, but when it comes to money, every darn pence counts.
The Member of the Wedding (1952)
Tantrums are only cute when their instigator is an innocuous child
Truly a curate's egg when it comes to hire the original Broadway cast to reprise their roles in the play's cinematic adaptation, best exemplified in year 1952 when Shirley Booth wins an Oscar in Daniel Mann's COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, whomping Julie Harris in Fred Zinnemann's THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, both parlay their theatrical success into the Oscar game, but with hindsight, the miscast of Ms. Harris looms large and serves a detrimental effect on the power of Carson McCullers's Southern Bildungsroman.
At the age of 26, it is somewhat unconscionable for Harris to play a 12-year-old tomboy Frankie Addams, whereas in theater, the physical distance between thespians and audience can effectively mitigate the age difference, here in the celluloid, albeit the endeavor of apparel team and sporting a high-pitch voice, with the camera breathing and gazing directly in Harris's freckled face, she is a full-fledged grownup alright, especially standing side by side with her 9-year-old co-star Brandon De Wilde who plays Frankie's younger cousin John Henry with an angelic innocence.
A mutable prepubescent who is ruffled by the forthcoming wedding of her elder brother Jarvis (Franz) and Janice (a comely if bland Nancy Gates), Frankie is beset by an inchoate existential crisis because of her "otherness" and the resultant ostracism in the small town, bent on an egress to skip the sticks, she desperately clings to the nearest possibility, to escape with Jarvis and Janice after the ceremony, which in no right mind that will happen, only after a night in the hard-knocks school, during which she escapes a rape attempt, does she finally come to term with the reality, rounded off with an unexpected bereavement.
Tantrums are only cute (or in this reviewer's case, tolerable) when their instigator is an innocuous child, therefore, that's why John Henry is a much less annoying pesterer, and no matter how emotive Harris is as an actress, her moody outbursts unfortunately edges towards vexing and callous, especially the occasional venom she shoots toward Berenice (Waters), the one-eyed family housekeeper who benignantly, patiently and sagaciously consoles, counsels, coddles her, trying to smooth her over the rough passage, not to mention she has her own troubles to worry, and in fact, Ethel Waters takes an upper hand in her equally hefty screen-time and counterpoints a child's whims with her cracker-barrel savvy and indiscriminate affection, although hobbled by the stereotyped treatment of a kindhearted, God-bothering mammy, Waters becomes a dynamo of emotion and compassion when her button is pushed, whether narrating the final night with her beloved, now deceased husband or belting out in invocation, someone up there is impelled to answer her prayers.
Preciously hinged on an underrepresented interracial correlation, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING is a doughty dissection of "queerness" right out of a preteen mindset and has every right to be seen by posterity, only Zinnemann's version is already marred before even leaving the casting room.
an above-average adaptation neither sully nor elevate its urtext's cachet and essence
A cinematic reification of Colette's belle époque novel CHÉRI, viewers can rest assured that its period glamor is superbly captured in the safe hands of Stephen Frears, who has a knack to sate our ocular desire of sumptuous costumes and scenic divinity, here aided by Alexandre Desplat's euphonious accompaniment. Elsewhere, the magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer gives a thoroughly self-reflective dissection of being a cradle-snatcher with stunning aplomb, lucidity and poignancy.
Tapping into the May-December romance between a bloom-is-off-the-rose former Parisian courtesan Léa de Lonval (Pfeiffer), and a shiftless trustafarian (avant la lettre) Fred "Chéri" Peloux, the decades-younger son of her quondam-rival-present-friend Charlotte Peloux (Bates), CHÉRI is headily permeated with a waft of faux-insouciance from the beginning, the initiation of their mutual attraction is prompted by Charlotte's solicitation of Léa to rid Chéri of debauchery and malaise (and it turns out Léa is a perfect remedy for that purpose), to the time when they put a kibosh on their 6-years-long "casual romance", in the wake of Chéri pending marriage with an 18-year-old Edmée (an underutilized Felicity Jones), daughter of another former file de joie.
The undertow only surfaces in the aftermath, both sense a void caused by each other's absence, while Chéri and Edmée head to their honeymoon in Italy, Léa finds temporary solace in the arm of a young beefcake during her sojourn in Biarritz, but absence makes the heart grow fonder. In Léa's case, what distinguishes Chéri's allure is his buttoned-up mystique (sometimes can be veiled by vacuity), and a tacit understanding (he knows her line-of-work perfectly well) which leavens their relationship with a rather relaxing overlay, for Léa, that can be lethally seductive; as for Chéri, he is an emblematic mama's boy, Léa represents a dyadic entity with motherly affection and amorous passion, it is a jones he simply cannot quit on his own volition.
Respective resolution is conceived by each when they meet again on their home turf, Léa, after realizing Chéri is the love of her life, looks forward to an elope, whereas Chéri naively wants to have the cake and eat it as well, his realization that Léa is the one will only strike him latterly (confirmed by Frears' own voiceover in the epilogue, seals his unfortunate fate), which Léa presciently discerns and ascribes to their massive age difference, then calls off their entanglement as a last-ditch proposition to elicit Chéri's response, but foreshadowed by his giveaway reaction to a horrid cameo presence of Anita Pallenberg, the answer is very much in evidence, no amount of wisdom can offset that image of furrows creeping on a woman's face in a young man's mind, Léa has to learn it the hard way.
Apart from a heads-turning Michelle Pfeiffer and a prime Rupert Friend whose curly charm might not be everyone's cuppa, the one-and-the-only Kathy Bates, although some hefty suspended disbelief is requisite to credit her as Pfeiffer's chief rival in her heyday, steals many a scene in her underhanded barbs and visible delight in earning the one-upmanship athwart a poised Pfeiffer, while both dressed to the nines in Charlotte's exotic and luxuriant conservatory, a curio at you own peril to savor.
Netemo sametemo (2018)
an auspicious discovery of a new Japanese auteur in the vein of Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase
Emergent Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, after his international breakthrough HAPPY HOUR (2015), is welcomed to Cannes' main competition for its follow up ASAKO I & II, an adaptation of Tomoka Shibasaki's 2010 novel.
The story traces a threadbare template of a young woman Asako's (newcomer Karata in her first film) internal struggle between two men Bako and Ryohei (both played by Higashide), who look just like each other but equipped with polarized personalities. After a prologue setting in Osaka, delineates the evanescent passion between Asako and Bako, the meat of the story relocates Asako to Tokyo, two years after Bako vanishes from her life apropos of nothing, she works in a coffee shop and bumps into Ryohei, a sake company salaryman with an uncanny resemblance of Bako, only, Ryohei turns out to be a gregarious, straight-arrow type that is nothing similar to Bako's enigmatic, ethereal insouciance.
Initially shocked to her core, Asako is gradually won over by many virtues Ryohei exhibits and after a tentative consent of his courtship, their wavering commitment is significantly cemented by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, 6 years later, the present day, they are still together and Asako truly grows into a deeper affection to Ryohei, but a reunion with Hayuro (Itô), her best friend in Osaka, augurs the ineluctable re-entry of Bako, now a celebrated heartthrob, into her life, just after she comes clean her relationship with Bako to Ryohei (who confesses that he has divined a thing or two in the past years) and gallantly waves adieu to that seemingly closed chapter in the life, when the crunch comes, her impulsive reaction betrays the complexity of her id, after a dreamlike nocturnal driving on the highway with her knight in shining armor, she comes to a sudden awakening, and has a daunting job to win over Ryohei's heart again, or maybe not, Hamaguchi imbues a realistic spin in their final shot, both looking right into the camera to their indeterminate future.
Conceptually and thematically evoking Ozon's DOUBLE LOVER (2017), plus as its English title reveals, ASAKO I & II, Hamaguchi's conceit actually zooms in on Asako's dual oscillation (the idealized versus the realistic version of her affection) rather than on his literally doubled male protagonists, but through Karata's passive gaze, quiet performance and greenness, that oscillation is all to well buried underneath whereas Higashide lights up the screen with his compassionate incarnation of an ultimate good guy unfairly taking the short end of the stick in their lopsided relationship, thus the twofold revelations come off as a shade over-dramatic albeit Hamaguchi proves to be a superlative raconteur, it is not an easy job to weave a banal love triangle into an organic entity of compelling watching, and somehow, he manages that with great distinction, especially by conducting a tooth-comb of the narrative arc through supporting characters.
Apart from his gazing-at-the-lens MO (Asako, first meets Bako, then with Royhei in two Shigeo Gocho's SELF AND OTHERS exhibitions, tacitly carries off the parallels), Hamaguchi also struts his stuff with an aptitude with lights and scenic composition, betokened by the gradation of sunlight shadowing the rain-dappled field in the aerial shot near the end. All in all, ASAKO I & II is an auspicious discovery of a new Japanese auteur in the vein of Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase, that is something every cineaste should extol!
a hepcat led up the garden path by a hophead
Not really this reviewer's druthers to watch a real-life self-destructive personage's downfall, but Asif Kapadia's Oscar winning documentary about the late English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) proves to be a real knockout with true grit.
Unconventionally ditching the ho-hum format of lyrical-waxing talking heads, Kapadia and his editor Chris King assiduously concatenate chronological segments of Amy's life through hours of archive footage, live sessions and home videos, with off-screen interviewees elaborating their often wistful comments (segued by Antonio Pinto's jazzy score), and during the lion's share of Amy's vocal renditions, lyrics are inscribed on the screen, to efficaciously stress Amy's modus operandi, she only writes about what she experiences and feels, nothing is cod or manufactured, and in a way, it is this purist attitude in regard to her vocation that has an adverse effect on her mentation, bespoken by her frustration and eagerness to make a new album after her debut FRANK (2003), which might propel her into drug and alcohol abuse in pursuance of an authentic fount for her inspiration. One could hardly imagine how Tony Bennett, one of Amy's idols, could have released over 70 albums during his lengthy career if he hews to Amy's sacrosanct decree.
Tellingly, as Tony Bennett, the pair collaborating a duet version of BODY AND SOUL as Amy's last studio recording, sorrowfully states near the coda "Life teaches you really how to live it, if you live long enough". A counterexample of Amy is the success of Adele, who is patient enough to stay completely out of the limelight during the intervening time between her albums, who seems to be unperturbed by the urgency of releasing new materials, from 19, 21 to 25, her upcoming fourth album will be at least called 30 at present point, the gap elongates, but it is a requisite for a songwriter to quietly accrue his or her experiences before the inspiration finally hits, a luxury Amy doesn't have.
So, what is the whys and wherefores? Apart from her own addiction and healthy problem (a bulimia nervosa victim), Amy's undoing is collectively, and cumulatively occasioned by a cocktail of negative influences from her self-serving family, a toxic relationship, frenzy media circus and her ill-adjustment of sudden fame and the ensuing pressure (a responsibility easily shirked by the record label, it doesn't take long for them to simply see Amy as a troublemaker whom they are willing to dump than salvage). It is interesting to read about Amy's father Mitchell's vexed reaction of the movie, who is hot to trot to green-light the project (after losing his money spinner, he knows making hay while the sun still shines), but is wrong-footed by the none-too-flattering presentation of his own image, because he might surmise there is apparently a more high-profile candidate who is deplorable for Amy's perdition, her ne'er-do-well ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civl, a despicable hophead leads a hepcat up the garden path. But Kapadia conscientiously flags up Mitchell's own grasping nature in one telltale video recording, who has no patience to leave Amy in convalescence after her health is incontrovertibly impaired, to a certain extent, the last straw that pushes Amy off the deep end is his fast-tracked arrangement of her comeback in 2011, her disastrous and last public appearance in a Belgrade concert, and as the story edges near the sad coda, Amy's own voice also peters out.
All in all, not eschewing the knotty and unsavory cankers that perpetuate a gone-too-soon music genius, Kapadia and co.'s effort is a rewardingly eloquent and candid elegy of Amy Winehouse's extraordinary talent and cautionary tragedy, yet, one shall not despair, we still have Adele and her music to celebrate and cherish in our mundane presence.
Dao ma zei (1986)
THE HORSE THIEF is the living proof of Tian's humanistic aptitude and profound veneration to the ethnic heritage
Among Chinese "Fifth Generation" film directors, the name Tian Zhuangzhuang might not sound as resounding as his classmates Zhang Yimou or Chen Keige, both internationally and domestically, principally because his two most famous works THE HORSE THIEF (1986) and THE BLUE KITE (1993) are both under heavy censorship for pluckily tackling the hot buttons, the Tibetan ethnic minorities and the adverse affect of the Culture Revolution, respectively. Tian's directorial endeavor has reached a standstill since 2009, after the flop THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF (2009). With 11 features and 1 documentary under his bet, he, has since reinvented himself as an actor, giving consecutive affecting performances in two films made by female directors, Sylvia Chang's LOVE EDUCATION (2017) and her protégée Rene Liu's directorial debut US AND THEM (2018), awarded with coveted GOLDEN HORSE Awards nominations.
Made between Chen's groundbreaking YELLOW EARTH (1984) and Zhang's spectacular RED SORGHUM (1988), THE HORSE THIEF, already Tian's third feature, reverently lifts the veil of the myth around Tibet and deploys a cinéma-vérité guideline in peering through the mores of its denizens - mostly through their religious rituals (profuse with prayer wheels, floating prayers, as well as clinquant temples) and quotidian activities (a haunting living sheep burying sequence and the displacement caused by a plague) - and relishes in the sublime, pristine natural and architectural landscape, the seasonal changes in the Qingzang Plateau, the Roof of the World, from verdant green to an overwhelming snow white.
Opening and closing with authentic scenes of celestial burials, which signifies an ouroboric Buddhist transcendence, the film's elliptical narrative loosely hinges on the titular thief Norbu (Tseshang), whose contravention takes its toll when he and his nuclear family is punished into exile in 1923, bereavement and poverty will assail him and wife Dolma (Dan), even the blessing of pregnancy doesn't augur well for a family at the end of their tether (underpinned by a chthonic, eery traditional performance of masked deities watched by the couple). Yet, through his minimalist plot, Tian astutely points up the perpetuating conflict in Norbu's illicit métier and his indefatigable piety, who habitually allots a tranche of his haul to the Almighty in order to alleviate his sins, especially when the seeming reckoning is subjected to his young son, Tian masterfully conjures up a series of blue-tinted superimposed sequences manifesting the kowtowing couple's repentance, foreseeing the guilty-driven Norbu's ultimate fate.
Besides Hou Yong and Zhao Fei's mind-blowing photography, Qu Xiaosong's cavernous, otherworldly score is equally substantive in honing up the film's superlative aura of exotica and mystique, only the dubbed Tibetan dialogue sounds a tad dissonant, loud and out of synchronicity, although it is a small triumph since the original mainland theatrical release is histrionically dubbed in Mandarin at the behest of the harsh censorship. More of an ethnic reportage than a compelling exposé, THE HORSE THIEF is the living proof of Tian's humanistic aptitude and profound veneration to the ethnic heritage, not to mention he is also bestowed with a keen eye and a competent hand in finding divine beauty, whose oeuvre is in much exigency of rediscovery.
a beguiling divertissement that mocks the espionage profession and retains the essential Gallic funny bone
Successfully spawning a sequel and a Hollywood remake, Tom Hanks' starrer THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (1985), and augured from its ingenious legerdemain in the opening credits, Yves Robert's THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE is a beguiling divertissement that mocks the espionage profession and retains the essential Gallic funny bone.
Our protagonist is the titular tall (?, he looks very average), blond François Perrin (Richard), a French violinist, who is randomly chosen as a bait because he wears one black shoe and one brown shoe (owing to a practical joke) when he arrives in Orly airport from Munich, a whim of Perrache (Le Person), the assistant of Louis Toulouse (Rochefort), the chief of France's Counter-Espionage department, who clandestinely retaliates his treacherous second-in-command Bernard Milan (Blier) by deliberately letting the latter on that François is a top spy who has kompromat to hazard his position.
Milan rises to the bait immediately, with his whole team working in succession to stake François out, break into his apartment (and playing with a set of matryoshka dolls) and keep tabs on his visitors and telephone calls, trying to fish out what he knows, obviously, all to no avail. Only after a recoiling honey trap set by agent Christine (Marc), Milan finally loses his patience and demands François to be roundly dispatched, but unbeknown to him, Perrache assigns two agents to safeguard François, so the ensuing internecine shoot-out takes a heavy toll on both sides, and completely behind François's back.
Yes, the off-piste leitmotif is that, during the whole shebang, François is insouciantly oblivious about the happenings, resumes his daily routines - a tryst with Paulette (Castel), the harpist in the same orchestra and the wife of his best friend Maurice (Carmet), a percussionist - and plays in an evening concert (a cock-up to the dismay of the conductor, played by Robert himself), then a wee-hour consummation with the mysterious, sultry Christine, who even more mysteriously, falls head over feet for him and defects her superior afterward, and in the jolly ending, the pair flies to Rio together, in different airliner compartments though, only leaving Maurice, beset by his numerous encounters with the goings-on and its unsavory aftermath, firmly believes that he is mentally unstable and needs heavy medication.
Comédien Pierre Richard relaxedly inhabits François with a mix-bag of clownish, aw-shucks, yet louche facades (although gobbing gums in the airport doesn't leave a great first impression), playing off against the agents' collective callousness and dead seriousness, he is endowed with a Benigni-esque comical facility to dampen the plot's innate implausibility, so is Jean Carmet, a dutiful foil that nails the deadpan impression after his character becomes increasingly enmeshed with and befogged by contradictory situations, so much so that questioning his own sanity seems to the only possible way to justify it. All in all, the film is a thoroughly pleasurable vintage comedy that has enough sophistication and élan to spare for a second go-round.
Queen Christina (1933)
Mamoulian's QUEEN CHRISTINA is shored up by its star's unbowed strength and volition
A posteriori, it is plumb conceivable why Garbo proactively facilitated a biopic of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626- 1689) at the peak of her games, not just because of her parentage, our Swedish goddess must have been profoundly attracted by the similarity between them in a more personal way, the uncanny life paths both chose, Queen Christina abdicated her throne and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1654, whereas Garbo, bowed out from the screen once and for all in 1941 at the age of 35, both unmarried and childless, no to mention their alleged queer proclivity.
Raised as a boy as an heir of the throne, Christina becomes the Queen at the age of mere 6 when her father lays down his life in the Thirty Years' War, her pacific attitude takes shape during the drawn-out warfare, and an adult Christina yearns for some sort of freedom unshackled by her monarchical duties and patriotic notions. During a secret outing under the disguise of a young man, Christina bumps into a Spanish envoy Antonio (Gilbert), who is on his way to meet the Queen in the capital, and after a jocose gender-revealing episode apropos of sharing a bed in a snowbound inn, they are smitten with each other, but Christina withholds her real identity, only to Antonio's chagrin when they meet again formally, he is tasked with a marriage proposal from the King of Spain, but Christina reassures him that she only loves him and declines the proposal.
Impelled by her excitable and xenophobic subjects, who are whipped up by the envious Count Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie (Keith) and demand a pure-blood heir from their queen and Antonio should be expelled from Sweden immediately, Christina has a cardinal decision to make, a choice between her birthright responsibilities and her own free will. but what awaits her is a so-near-and-yet-so-far scenario due to a sorry quirk of fate and bad swordsmanship.
Here, under the ever-spectacular guidance of Rouben Mamoulian, Garbo makes the most of her epicene carriage to redefine what femininity entails: sharing a pre-Code mouth-on-mouth kiss with Christina's favorite countess Ebba Sparre (Young), washing her face with a fistful of snow to embrace a new day, toying with fresh grapes and intoxicatingly memorizing everything in the room she has been sharing with Antonio; and when her duty calls, she is a gallant sovereign who can placate her people with words only, and in the climatic abdication scene, she augustly twins steely resolution with a thin but delectable air of reluctance.
John Gilbert, a silent-era matinee idol in his penultimate picture, who failed to sail through the transition to the sound cinema, and would die prematurely at the age of 38 three years later when his health is devastated by chronic alcoholism. In his fourth collaboration with Garbo, to whom he also stroke a romantic relationship before, Gilbert remains game and spry, but has no will to countervail Garbo's towering pizzazz and charm. Only Lewis Stone, as the loyal statesman Axel Oxenstierna, manages to eke out a sustaining presence of great gravitas and gutted despondency on the side lines.
Mamoulian's direction is meticulous but never unwieldy, his frictionless camera movement effectually counterbalances the film's lofty setting, and the masterful soft focus on Garbo's immaculate visage alone can leave QUEEN CHRISTINA enshrined as the ne plus ultra in her filmography, not to mention it is also such an emotional paean about pursuing what one's heart desires, a freedom that few are lucky enough to own, shored up by its star's unbowed strength and volition.
An Inspector Calls (1954)
Guy Hamilton's approachable parable is a concise adaptation of J.B. Priestley's acclaimed play, with a slightly different ending to redouble the mysterious revelation
One must appreciate the brevity of AN INSPECTOR CALLS, running a breathless 80 minutes and directed by future 007 helmer Guy Hamilton, the whole story is condensed into one single night in 1912, the Birlings, a silk-stocking British family celebrates the engagement of Sheila (Moore) and Gerald Croft (Worth), with the presence of her parents Arthur (Young) and Sybil (Lindo), and her already tipsy brother Eric (Forbes).
The festivity is precipitately interrupted by the advent of Inspector Poole (Sim), who simply materializes out of thin air in the dining room (instead of coming from the main entrance, which is differed from J.B. Priestley's source play), attendant with an ominous score, which foreshadows something that turns out to be rather surreal. Poole claims that he is investigating an apparent suicidal case of a young woman named Eva Smith (Wenham, first wife of Albert Finney), and in a sequential order, he tactically and competently proves that Arthur, Sheila, Gerald, Sybil and Eric, to different extents, all should be answerable for Eva's despondency and her ultimate demise, but cagily, he only shows the picture of Eva (who later rechristened as Daisy Renton) to one individual a time.
Flashback is concisely interspersed to reveal each of the quintet's respective involvement in Eva's downward spiral, to them, she is a recalcitrant employee, an impudent shop assistant, a low-hanging damsel in distress, an insolent charity seeker and a good-hearted sympathizer who cannot resist boyish charm. Subjugated to iniquity and cruelty (a cocktail of sexual agendas, moral haughtiness, peer jealousy, capitalistic cupidity and lack of empathy), Eva/Daisy represents the countless, down-trodden have-nots whose misfortune is cumulatively (if unintentionally) sealed by bias, selfishness, wantonness of those well-to-do members of the society, this message is bluntly blurted out by Sheila in a later stage, which shows Priestley's lenient stance towards the younger generation's repentance and malleability, at the same time counterpoises the older one's fossilized intractability.
But bewilderment remains, apart from whether Eva/Daisy is the same person, or even if she really exists at all, once Poole's identity is being challenged, and screenwriter Desmond Davis fine-tunes the play's ending by doubling down the mystical impact, not just Poole might be a compassionate soothsayer, also suggested by his entrance and attested by his egress, he might be entirely the figment of the Birlings's consciousness.
Performance wise, the core cast is solid if nothing too spectacular to bowl audience over, mainly thanks to the rote dialogue and narrative development (except that shark-jumping ending), Priestley has good conscience and intention, but his wording, more often than not, feels prosaic and didactic. Among them, Sim's gravitas vehemently holds sway; future director Forbes exudes a disarming facet that might alleviate Eric's cardinal foibles a bit; Lindo's matriarchal Sybil is a grand dame, but all things considered, her moral superiority is the least deplorable attribute in the context (where a lippy Eva doesn't pass muster as a sympathetic beseecher), yet, she has to take the blow for being a mollycoddling mother, a faint whiff of sexism plumes out inadvertently. Last but not the least, it is Wenham's embodiment of Eva's throbbing vulnerability that stands out, a young woman whose self-knowledge and kindness cannot save her from perdition, right from her hearty laughter in the very first scene to a misty-eyed dejection in the very last one, she is the soul of this approachable parable, proselytizing us to heed the collateral damage of our day-to-day comportment.
In This Our Life (1942)
John Huston's second feature film is a missed opportunity
Two decades before they duke it out in psycho-biddy melodrama HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), twice-Oscar-winning actresses Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland (who actually worked cheek by jowl in altogether six pictures, quite unusual for first-bill coveting leading ladies) has an intoxicating bout of partner-swapping in John Huston's second directorial assignment IN THIS OUR LIFE, only this time, who is good and who is evil, is clear as day.
Richmond siblings Roy and Stanley Timberlake (de Havilland and Davis), yes they are both male appellations, are diametrical in nature, a demure Roy is married with doctor Peter Kingsmill (Morgan), whereas a flighty Stanley is affianced with lawyer Craig Fleming (Brent), and pampered by her affluent maternal uncle William Fitzroy (Coburn), who has just reshuffled his tobacco business by easing out his brother-in-law and the sisters' father Asa (Craven), wonderfully, there is no bad blood between the two families, Asa is a tenderhearted man who seems to err on the side of being too placid about everything, much to the disappoint of his indisposed wife Lavinia (Burke).
On the eve of her matrimony and after receiving a munificent check from William as her wedding gift, Stanley elopes with Peter to Baltimore, leaving Roy, Craig and everyone else in the family at the receiving end of the bombshell. After her marriage dissolves, Roy bestirs herself to strike out and helps a dejected Craig get out of the gloom, and naturally mutual feelings grow between them and they all leave behind the bitter taste of being jilted.
Only things do not pan out well in Baltimore for the newly weds, Stanley's improvident lifestyle and Peter's drinking problem start to put on strains on their relationship, and is not helped by Stanley new friend Betty Wilmoth (Patrick, a delightful loudmouth), who finds kindred spirit in Stanley's spendthrift propensity. After reaching a tragic boiling point, a grief-ridden Stanley is back home and soon recuperates, single again and cannot bear the lovey-dovey affair between her former love and modest sister, just when she unrepentantly concocts a scheme to win back Craig, who is intelligent enough not to rise to the bait, a drunken Stanley causes a fatal accident that will soon become her own undoing, but not before she unblushingly imputes her crime to a young black man Parry Clay (Anderson), the son of their family's devoted maid Minerva (McDaniel, who has only two scenes but still can touch our heart chord).
First things first, Huston's movie is most acclaimed today for its realistic spin on thorny matters, like the racial discrimination towards African-American people, newcomer Ernest Anderson gives a dignified, superfine performance as an aspiring lawyer-to-be, whose decorous mien is radically refreshing from stereotypes, which makes his frame-up more egregious; then, on a lesser scale, William's incestuous overtures toward his niece are equally horrendous if not entirely in evidence, Charles Coburn boastfully and skillfully treads a dangerous path to portray a rather unsavory character.
However, he is just a mote in Stanley's eye apropos of likability, and Davis really goes off the chart to make Stanley an anathema sans any redeeming quality, one misstep is her age, clearly in her thirties if she is a day and eight years senior to de Havilland, yet she has to play the latter's younger sister, a self-willed, spoiled southern belle, not entirely dissimilar from her Oscar-winning turn in William Wyler's JEZEBEL (1938), only with more venom, who cannot cast her spell on audience when the bloom is slightly off the rose, not enough silver-screen soft light and cosmetic help can work out that miracle, although it is much to this reviewer's guilt pleasure to watch Ms. Davis unleashes her demon side without reservation.
By comparison, Ms. de Havilland gets a much better bargain, giving Roy a backbone that points up her courage, wits, mercy, and undimmed sisterly affection (after all Stanley has done, she still forgives her, yet not when it concerns the big question of right and wrong). A final note, what if the duo swaps their roles, which was actually Ms. Davis' original idea, she contended to play Roy, but was vetoed by the studio, the film would have a good chance to witness two actresses simultaneously challenge their acting chops and to an eye-dropping effect, alas, a missed opportunity with John Huston's direction is on the usual caliber of Hollywood assemble line.
Topsy-Turvy doesn't live up to Leigh's high-water mark, however boisterous and lavish the film looks, if its characters don't click with audience, the rest can do little avail
Mike Leigh's seventh feature is a sumptuous-looking biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the dramatist W.S. Gilbert (Broadbent) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (Corduner, a competent jazz pianist in real life), dramatizing the gestation and birth of their most successful work, the comic opera THE MIKADO, culminating on its opening night, 14th March, 1885.
With a running time edging 160 minutes, TOPSY-TURVY sees Leigh buckle down with exhaustive dedication to the period niceties, the sweeping characterization of a large ensemble and the lengthy preliminary works leading to the opening night, courageously using his troupers' own singing voice, although it doesn't always do the magic as he wishes, Leigh and co.'s endeavor deservedly earns two Oscars (costume design and makeup) for their craft, but fails to prosper in its box office revenue.
One major problem of the disconnection with its audience, particularly for those who are not hailed from an Anglo-Saxon background or unequipped with the reflexes of onrushing pride whenever hears the pair's names being mentioned, is that these two main protagonists are wanting either charisma (in the case of a stuffy Gilbert, a wasted Broadbent, all prim and proper) or characteristic (Sullivan, an afflicted sybarite but the movie has too much reverence, or too little guts to go deep down that decadent path), therefore, their stories barely bite, the initial sticking point of a creative difference wrought by Sullivan's stuck inspiration and physical exhaustion, which is presented as if he is fed up with the middle-brow librettos, that made his name and fortune, and decides to aim for a higher cause, writing a serious opera, naturally evanesces when Gilbert finally wades out of his comfort zone and mines into an untapped oriental culture. A waft of hypocrisy, yes, but there is no irony to sugar the pill.
The merely interesting note about the two arrives belatedly near the coda, the juxtaposition of Gilbert's seemingly asexual interest in his wife Lucy (Manville, who is indomitably affecting in her constant frustration about their self-conscious childless plight, and puzzlement of why her husband is so gentlemanlike in her chamber, often leaves her to her beauty sleep on her ownsome) with Sullivan's profligate proclivity, his mistress Fanny Ronalds (David) is pregnant again, finally sheds certain personal lights on top of their diametrical personalities, which triggers viewers a bigger question, apart from their respective talents, what makes them successful and long-time collaborators? Unfortunately, Leigh's film has little to offer on that front.
Be that as it may, TOPSY-TURVY gets its mojo back when it tackles the kaleidoscopic aspects of those more approachable thespians, toiling on the stage, haggling for a salary raise, caviling at the costumes, showing solidarity against Gilbert's willful decision or simply having a whale of time during their simulation process of a disparate culture. Among them, Timothy Spall is such a gas as the mainstay of the Savoy Theater in spite of his slightly hoarse and amateur vocal facility; a corset-strapped Kevin McKidd knows the trick of deadpan humor; both Dorothy Atkinson and Shirley Henderson are felicitous whether they are in or out of costume, with the latter stealing the show in the end to overpower spectators with her trademark high-pitched, child-like register.
By relating Gilbert's out-of-the-box inspiration to Leigh, who also, for the first time, detaches himself from contemporary working class stratum, the usual fecund ground of his creations, TOPSY-TURVY shows up a lack of communion between him and his subjects, and doesn't live up to Leigh's high-water mark, however boisterous and lavish the film looks, if its characters don't click with audience, the rest can do little avail.
Little Men (2016)
Sending out a well-meaning message of "letting go the past", Ira Sachs' LITTLE MEN is the whole package
Checking out of the gender-queer bracket, American indie urban aesthete Ira Sachs' LITTLE MEN continues with his concern of Brooklyn's gentrification, in LOVE IS STRANGE (2014), a senior gay couple cannot afford their apartment and has to live separately, a temporary arrangement eventually plunges into a precipitate farewell, here, it centers around a nuclear family, Brian Jardine (Kinnear), a seasoned thespian struggling to pay the bills, his wife Kathy (Ehle), a full-time psychotherapist, and their 13-year-old son Jake (Taplitz), move into Brian's father's two-story building, inherited after the latter's death. They have a tenant, the Chilean immigrant Leonor Calvelli (García), a single mother who operates an artisanal dress shop in the ground floor, by dint of a very low monthly rent arranged between her and Brian's father for many years.
Brian and his sister Audrey (Balsam), both need money to support their families, revises a new lease demanding a treble amount of fee (still, considerably cheaper than the ballooning market price), which builds a tension between the two families, and what is also at cost is the newfound friendship between Jake and his coeval Tony (Barbieri), Leonor's son, when their quotidian proximity is discontinued.
More than anything, the two kid actors are phenomenal, both first-time actors, Theo Taplitz remarkably imbues an adorable appearance of sensitivity and androgyny to accentuate Jake's painter's disposition, not to mention his heart-rending plea in the climax. Whereas Michael Barbieri is totally on the opposite of the spectrum, with his convivial, animated verve and a naturalistic elocution that betrays his age, which is fit as glove as Tony's aspiring actor identity. Their friendship seems very organic, albeit their polarized make-ups, mercifully and perspicaciously Sachs doesn't make a heavy weather of Jake's budding affection towards Tony, which is tacitly suggested but as in reality, like as not, those little torch-carrying secret is mostly saved for its originator to savor and wallow, bless Sachs for not sensationalize a young boy's vulnerable, inchoate sexual awakening.
Grownups are also a cracking cluster, almost 20 years after his Oscar-nominated breakthrough in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997), Greg Kinnear matures with an understated complexity that is given a full range here, he is a grieving son, a frustrating breadwinner, a glowing actor on stage, a devoted, grateful husband and a caring father, who is saddled with a daunting task to negotiate an unpleasant business deal with a tough-nut in the form of a magnificent Paulina García, nothing is above her Leonor to get what she intends, emotional manipulation, outright humiliation, tactical evasion, even if a child's innocent, heartfelt plea can do the trick, she has no qualms about leveraging it. García has so many strings to her bow, and each one adds a tangible layer to her character's humanity, warts and all, which is such an exceptional achievement that defiantly flouts the atrocious typecast of a downtrodden immigrant woman struggling in the land of freedom, here, she fervently digs in her heels and brazens it out in fighting a losing battle.
Sending out a well-meaning message of "letting go the past", Sachs' LITTLE MEN is the whole package, a school of hard knocks for an adolescent, a critical looking into the miasma of gentrification and a hyperreal examination of ordinary beings' interrelations.
To Sleep with Anger (1990)
TO SLEEP WITH ANGER deserves to be seen by a larger demography
Charles Burnett is the unsung vanguard of African-American cinema, who starts his career years before Spike Lee, yet whose output is far less prolific, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER is only his third feature, after KILLER OF SHEEP (1978) and MY BROTHER'S WEDDING (1983).
The life of South Los Angeles inhabitants Gideon and Suzie (Butler and Alice) starts to unravel when an old friend from the South, Harry (Glover) blows in one day, out of hospitality and bonhomie, they invite Harry to stay as long as he wishes. After backhanded remarks questioning the philanthropic work of Gideon and Suzie's elder son Junior (Lumbly) and his wife Pat (McGee), who is gravid with a baby number two, Harry finds his perfect target in Gideon and Suzie's younger son Samuel aka. Baby Brother (Brooks), whose immaturity, trivial grievance and maladaptive fatherhood gives the access of Harry's macho, wheedling male-bonding of going back to the South, which brings tension between Baby Brother and his family, especially with his wife Linda (Ralph), who is haplessly juggling between her career and traditional drudgery assigned to a wife, child-rearing and domestic chores.
Bad omen foreshadows Harry's arrival, the opening surreal self-combusted metaphor and the breaking of Gideon's charm all presage that it is a hostage to fortune to allow Harry overstaying his welcome. In Burnett's progressive thinking, there isn't much gray zone in the tradition versus urbanization tug-of-war, Harry, an incarnation of the vileness of a hidebound mindset (characterized by male chauvinism and superstition), is a menace with an elusive ulterior motive, and Danny Glover submerses deeply into Harry's dark side with a simian, hail-fellow-well-met expansiveness that is only betrayed by his piercing, menacing glint, shrouded in a mystical aura, he is mesmeric enough to hold our attention, but we have no idea what is he up to, because gradually Harry is reduced to a symbol, an unequivocal bad influence, which makes his comeuppance a bit blunt, if there is any redeeming feature in him, it is totally under our radar.
Above all, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER is an ensemble piece, great performances are actualized, barring the top-billing Glover, also by its distaff players: Mary Alice, who is not just a devoted wife, a capable ob-gyn doctor, but also a witty and sensible mother, and knows how to live up to be the pillar of the household when the crunch befalls; Sheryl Lee Ralph, whose suffering wife of a man-child is mostly poignant, and Ethel Ayler, who plays Hattie, an old acquaintance whose newborn faith projects a searing antagonism against Harry even before he reveals his true colors. Good impression is dwindled on the man's front, Paul Butler's Gideon is taken to his bed most of the time, Carl Lumbly is prone to be an empty vessel (by making the most noise) and Richard Brooks has the juiciest role, but is squandered by a script which portrays him as the good-for-nothing every has to condone with.
That said, TO SLEEP WITH ANGER deserves to be seen by a larger demography (it is a 4-times Independent Spirit winner if that doesn't mean nothing), for its steady deconstruction-and-reconstruction of familial bonds, for its unpretentious ethnic portrayal, and most prominently, for Burnett's unorthodox, pragmatic perspective on African-Americans' assimilation and adjustment in a modern society.
Petzold infuses TRANSIT with a melodramatic poignancy that stoutly holds its own concomitant with its allegorical connotation and metaphorical expression
The final chapter of Christian Petzold's "Love in Times of Oppressive Systems" trilogy, after BARBARA (2012) and PHOENIX (2014), both scripted by Petzold and the late German filmmaker/critic Harun Farocki (1944-2014), TRANSIT is an adaptation of Anna Seghers' Nazi-escaping novel and has a daring conceit that challenges the status quo of cinematic transposition.
On the face of it, the befogging disjunction between its narrative and temporality (an unspecified contemporary context) persists throughout the whole story, our protagonist is Georg (Rogowski), a young German refugee in France, who flees from Paris to Marseille, assumes the identity of a deceased writer of certain cachet, whose recent suicide hasn't yet been circulated, to secure a ticket to embark on an ocean-liner, destination Mexico. But in Marseille, he meets the dead writer's wife Marie (Beer), who relentlessly looks for her husband. Georg falls for her and also manages to get her a ticket without revealing his ulterior scheme, but their quirk of fate is far crueler than the truth itself.
Right out the box, audience will be fully aware that the story is not set in WWII but current times, Georg is obviously not running away from Nazis (reckoning that he gets the wind of Germans are coming), and a double take suggests he ought to be an illegal immigrant who tries to lay low and pulls out all stops to leave the Continent. However, curiously and diligently Petzold effaces any trace of modern-day trappings (no cellphone, television, or computer, signs of today's technology), what we are granted to see in lieu are manuscripts, trains, a flashlight, footballs, a broken radio, nondescript hotel rooms, ocean liners, taxis, embassies, etc., all have been well existed in the WWII period, as if he conspiratorially intimates that what we see is actually what happened during that time, only, in the film, those things are presented in an unmistakable milieu of our reality. Which makes one wonder, is this a new approach of re-imagination? Faithfully complying with the source material's time-line and story, then put it under the life as we know it without upgrading all its paraphernalia, only subtracting any anachronistic items, therefore, the plot doubly serves as a paralleled allegory, past horror is not so far from being repeated, time and again.
Relative to its innovative and sagacious leitmotif, Petzold's narratological disposition is unfortunately less impressive (abruptly killing off secondary characters for the shocking effect is blasé), dutifully crossing the t's and dotting the i's of the monotonous dilemma (a tentative father figure fell by the wayside in a transient sojourn, and an eleventh hour cop-out that becomes a blessing in disguise), although Franz Rogowski comports himself particularly striking with a searing dignity and a tormented reluctance written all over his face, and Paula Beer, often exudes an entrancing restraint and sophistication that is so incongruous with her tender age, comes into her own in the latter stage of the story with a difference, whose seesawing allegiance between three men, her husband, Georg and Richard (Giese), a doctor of her fallback position, keeps us dangling in a heartbeat. Even without a mind-blowing cadenza like he did in PHOENIX, to induce frisson, nonetheless, Petzold infuses TRANSIT with a melodramatic poignancy that stoutly holds its own concomitant with its allegorical connotation and metaphorical expression.
Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian (2016)
we must hand it to Feng Xiaogang and co. for braving a hornet's nest with vigor, style and a hard-earned discretion
Madame Bovary might feel slightly flummoxed why her name is in the English title of Chinese populism taste-maker Feng Xiaogang's 16th feature, literally, its Chinese original title means "I am not Pan Jinlian", Ms. Pan is a notorious woman in Song Dynasty, an adulteress in cahoots with her paramour murdered her husband by poison, whose enormity might even make Madame Bovary's countenance color, as far as occidental analogy goes, the transposition looks wobbly.
Based on novelist Liu Zhenyun's 2012 novel, the film bracingly tackles China's contemporary realism by centering around a woman hailed from a rustic backwater, Li Xuelian (Fan), who is ignorant but particularly ornery. After the fake divorce scheme of her and her husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan), to the ostensible purpose of acquiring a second property for the family (taking advantage of the loophole of current policies), unexpectedly backfires, Qin gets the property and on a moment's notice, remarries with another woman and leaves his ex-wife in the lurch. The hoodwinked and aggrieved Li takes on the legal recourse, to first, annul their fake divorce, then officially authenticate a real divorce from Qin, so that she can get the justice she thinks she deserves.
Of course, Li's case is a nonstarter from the legal point, as they are legally divorced, and further exasperated by Qin's insult of her being not a virgin when they were married, Li takes her petition to scale up the entire bureaucratic hierarchy to no avail (shunned by officials and sent to re-education camps), until an off-screen plea with the communist party leader (Gao) during the annual NPC (National People's Congress) meeting in Beijing, which leads the latter to deliver an impassioned homily denouncing the bureaucratic malfeasance and the lack of trust between officials and the vast mass, and many have to walk the plank in the aftermath.
After that, the narrative fast-forwards a decade later, during which, Li continues her crusade relentlessly, and on the eve of another NPC meeting, after consecutive visits from local officials, from the judge Wang Gongdao (Dong), county magistrate Zheng Zhong (Yu) to provincial governor Ma Wenbin (Zhang Jiayi), even she promises she will not petition this time, they refuse to take her at her word, provoked by a wanton demand of writing a guarantee, Li thinks better of it, and again embarks on a journey to Beijing with the help of her admirer Zhao Datou (Guo), which prompts the entire province to act in unison to prevent her reaching the destination, only in the end, after another significant deception from the stronger sex (she totally falls for the honey trap and reluctantly puts out, a borderline rape is a passing note), it only takes a morbid accident (or a man-made one to a cynical mind) to put the kibosh on Li's decade-long endeavor once and for all.
Visually, Feng ups the ante with a unique frame system, most of the time, the film is fixed within a round frame (capturing the scenic composition with Feng's usual keen sense), only when the scene takes place in Beijing and its environs, the frame goes square, a masterstroke that differentiates the local sector's slippery evasion and the central government's rigid authority, only in the epilogue, years later, Li finally makes peace with her situation, the frame reaches wide screen, during a one-on-one with a former county officer She Weimin (Zhao Lixin), who is deposed in the wake of her action, she lets on the real season of her bloody-minded petition, but in this reviewer's ear, it sags the overall impact, to pat imputes hoisted-by-her-own-petard decision to the one-child policy is a disservice at that point, more achingly inconsistent is that Li has no one single scene with her unseen child through and through, Feng's last-ditch attempt to garnish sympathy to a character who has been as yet rigorously flouted our compassion is a sorry mistake.
Mega-star Fan Bingbing painstakingly emulates Gong Li's deglamorizing tour-de-force in Zhang Yimou's THE STORY OF QIUJU (1992), a more sincere story about a simple-minded woman seeking justice against a patriarchal polity, physically exerted to a hilt and emotionally drained, she is nevertheless betrayed by wavering accent. However, sparks fly among the all-male supporting cast (even a cameo from veteran Fan Wei is spot-on for the ironic tone), among which, Zhang Jiayi is particularly eloquent as the senior governor who totally masks his stance on the issue with patient token mannerism which certainly rings a bell for Chinese audience.
After all, I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY is not a Manichaean retake of a wronged individual versus a corrupt Establishment to a gratifying outcome, but a more judicious overview of a society afflicted by the chasm between ordinary folks and functionaries, a deficiency of empathy to those who are mistreated, only appeal for some reasoning to justify their misery, yet, to most public servants, they are threats of their well-paid positions, the canker is down to the bone, and we must hand it to Feng Xiaogang and co. for braving a hornet's nest with vigor, style and a hard-earned discretion.
"If the plural of mouse is mice, the plural of spouse must be spice."
"If the plural of mouse is mice, the plural of spouse must be spice." a wisecrack from our protagonist Charly Gordon (Robertson), trying to convince viewers that it is something a genius would jest with his girlfriend, both sun-drenched, lying on a cozy meadow. But this is not the Charly we know in the beginning, and in hindsight, the opening scene has already presaged the downbeat payoff, Charly is a mentally challenged man who is miraculously cured by an experimental surgery conceived and carried out by the team of two extraordinary scientists Dr. Richard Nemur (Janney) and Dr. Anna Straus (Skala).
Based on Daniel Keyes prestigious short story, Ralph Nelson's CHARLY faces a daunting task to convince audience the inconceivable transubstantiation from a simpleton to a genius, not on the scientific level (since it is a fantasy as yet unaccomplished), but the giant mental leap of its subject which we can empathize with. So what the movie chooses to present is Charly enunciating a litany of scientific jargons and literary excerpts, as he masters the entire curriculum of an ordinary person's education within weeks, and his limit seems to be uncapped.
But as an axiomatic belief, intelligence shows more in one's action than words, what Charly does does not index with his surging I.Q., hyperbolically thrusts his "sudden awakening" libido into a horrendous rape attempt on his night school teacher Alice Kinnian (Bloom) is a low move, a Freudian instinct has very tenuous tie-in with "becoming smart", more prickly, a flaring-up's Alice's retort with that "R" word is a nasty slap on the movie's own face, maybe in the 60s, "pity sex" is not an option on the filmmakers' plate, which would be very probable under that scenario.
Weirder and weirder, after a jarring montage of Charly experiencing that era's counter-culture (aka. motor-riding hippiedom) in the wake of Alice's spurn, apropos of nothing, the latter has come to her senses that in fact she does love him, they become a pair and enjoy their ephemeral life of Riley, until bad tidings from Charly's erstwhile competitor, an intelligence-enhanced mouse named Algernon, suggests that Charly's progress may not be permanent, a reversion seems to be inevitable, but one shouldn't despair, Charly is always a gaily chump, there is chance that life would be better if he keeps that way.
Winning Cliff Robertson an Oscar for his diametrical impersonations from mentally handicapped to whip smart, Robertson's performance is anything but groundbreaking, saving from deploying Charly's before-and-after personas with trite tics and traits, he has little to ginger up the smart Charly's formulaic, stoical characterization when the story veers into a different direction. Whereas a well-coifed Claire Bloom and a steely Lilia Skala move with true grit in their thinly developed characters, if only Ravi Shankar's clattering sitar score could save the day, a rather ordinary cinematic adaptation of an instructive tall-tale, Robertson's Oscar win is a rare fluke, especially picked over Peter O'Toole's cothurnus-turn in THE LION IN WINTER, a choice the Academy definitely rues from the ground up.
Woman of the Year (1942)
Male chauvinism sneaks into George Stevens' promising take on gender politics
This is where it all starts, the first of nine film collaborations of Tracy and Hepburn, whose off-screen, extramarital romance would continue until Tracy's death quarter a century later.
Naturally, one would not expect a 40s Hollywood studio rom-com to be progressively egalitarian on the front of gender politics, although George Stevens' picture holds a grand promise by allowing Tess Harding (Hepburn), a polyglot, international affairs correspondent and Sam Craig (Tracy), her fellow fourth estate practitioner, a homespun sports journalist, falling for each other, which accentuates the rub, Sam's consternation and frustration living under the shadow of Tess, who defies every possible definition of what an American wife traditionally means, especially after she is bestowed with the title as "America's Outstanding Woman of the Year", can Sam live up to the standard of the husband of "the Woman of the Year"?
No, this film is not a whirlwind screwball inundated by ceaseless banters and repartee, in lieu a standard meet-cute that jostles the funny bone when Tess and Sam fumble in their respective new territories which are the other's turfs, opposite attracts, that is the axiom. But clearly, male chauvinism inexorably sneaks in when the plot makes Tess do many a gormless thing to irk Sam to a fault, not least by adopting a 6-year-old Greek refuge boy Charlie (Kezas) without giving Sam a heads-up, and finally suffixed with a reshoot ending that compromises the movie's initial liberal-minded stance, not every woman is a natural to the kitchen chores, if that simple fact can be construed as a laughing matter constructed with painstaking lengths, the movie forsooth has trouble to find empathy in today's audience.
Be that as it may, Hepburn is Oscar-nominated for her quintessential capacity of turning on the waterworks and ignites some magical chemistry with an avuncular if somewhat grumpy Tracy, who in the final scene, leaves Tess's scene-stealing secretary Gerald (Dan Tobin) at the receiving end of his petty protest, if that is not thinly-veiled male chauvinism, why on earth a man who is simply very good at doing his job (as a woman's secretary) deserves to be in the butt of the joke?
Desde allá (2015)
FROM AFAR intelligently excoriates the core of a cankerous male mentality concerning what constitutes the masculinity as we know it today
Propitiously won Venice's Golden Lion in 2015, FROM AFAR, the debut feature of Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas, ostensibly purports as a queer relationship drama exploring the class discrepancy in a sink neighborhood of Caracas, when a middle-aged, well-off denture manufacturer Armando (Castro) pays a street yob Élder (Silva) to quench his libido.
But Armando has an unorthodox proclivity, physical contract is strictly off limits, he is perfectly satisfied by a distanced wank, echoing the title "from afar" (even no need of visual genital aids from a youthful body), as if he is both aroused and repulsed by a young man's body, which underlines his own troubled past, it is a transaction solely thrived on monetary terms. But Élder appears different from his usual biddable commodities, he is more recalcitrant, incandescent and restive, which challenges and intrigues Armando to take a different approach aiming to tame this beast, ergo, go-arounds of earning one-upmanship pan out in Vigas' self-contained narrative with staggering restraint and unrelieved elisions, for instance, the missing father is an obvious vacuum in both men's lives, but Vigas has no intention to expound what happened between Armando and his estranged father (sexual abuse?), without even a medium shot of the latter, what we see is only the action of Armando dogs him relentlessly, and coolly articulates that he wishes him dead.
Eventually, it is Élder's bruised dignity, inherent impressionability and have-nots status altogether that puts him on the back foot, after Armando's munificent gesture of rescuing him from bovver, paying off his debts and contest of superior manliness, Élder avails himself of physical capital (the only thing he possesses) to show his gratitude, but is rebuff with a slap in the face. At that point the balance tips towards Armando, he now has Élder completely at his beck and call, who finally find a father figure to fill that missing hole, yet to Armando, Élder is nothing but a perfect executioner of his long-gestated vengeance.
After that, Armando vouchsafes Élder the physical satisfaction the latter hankers for as a thank you, then throws him as a spent sidearm to the mercy of police force in the gritty finale (like father, like son, Élder ends up exactly like his own father), which even triggers viewers to second-guess the verity of the man we assume as Armando's father, a telltale shot of both men in an elevator shows no apparent recognition from a father to his son might suggest the older man could be a target Armando is assigned to rub out, a theory supported by him being the same killer from Pablo Larraín's TONY MANERO, also played by Alfredo Castro with a peculiar gusto of perversity, and this time, he cunningly finds him a perfect whipping boy.
Castro gives an unforgiving, enigmatic impression as a victim-turned-victimizer out of a vicious cycle passing from fathers to sons, who is capable of projecting a soul-searching gaze that is smolderingly pregnant with manifold rays of emotions. Youngster Luis Silva, on the contrary, invests a throbbing directness that salts the masculine tug-of-war with his own macho swagger, perplex and conflict, vividly. Habitually playing up with his in focus/out of focus perspective, Vigas makes a big splash with FROM AFAR by intelligently excoriating the core of a cankerous male mentality concerning what constitutes the masculinity as we know it today, a scope well above his genderqueer front and accomplished with a refined difference.
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a sign of its times, high on royal prestige, noble legalism and religious adherence, low on human complexity, humility and nuance
An important lesson about going to the stake for one's indomitable faith, Fred Zinnemann's Oscar champ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS makes for an illuminating viewing, preponderantly predicated on Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning performance of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), an English lawyer, statesman and author (noted for his chef d'oeuvre UTOPIA), who opposed King Henry VIII's separation from the Catholic Church, refused to take an oath of acknowledging the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England, and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, ended up being executed for high treason.
One's mileage may vary versus monarchial idiocy and cruelty, but Robert Bolt's script (adapted from his own triumphant play) comes off as over-lofty by monomaniacally fixating on one through-line, viz. various personages, from King Henry himself (Shaw), his superior Cardinal Wolsey (Welles), his peers, the Duke of Norfolk (Davenport) his friend and Thomas Cromwell (McKern) his foe, to his closest kin, wife Alice (Hiller) and daughter Margaret (York), indefatigably try to persuade, wheedle, command or browbeat him into change his mind, ultimately for his own life's sake. However, More is far too obstinate on his way to his martyrdom, and the narrative hardly sheds any lights on his supposed inner struggle and oscillation, what transpires mostly is a virtuous More flouts any futile coercion with rapier-like counterexamples and repartee.
That said, one thing is for sure, Scofield's grand poise and sterling elocution can be indubitably ranked as the apotheosis of any thespian rendition, his lilting vocal register and a deeply affecting earnestness is pure magick to witness, and when it is time for him to grandstand, what content he utters does not seem matter anymore, he is a thespian who is endowed with a show-stopping charisma that few can match, period.
The rest of the cast is per usual (as in a British period drama), runs from cracking scene-stealers to serious luvvies (sorry, McKern and Davenport, both have ample chances to be less forceful and more mutable, which both dispense with bluster), Wendy Hiller arguably has only one shining moment in her last scene, and she proves that she is an equal force of Scofield in her intensity and pathos, which gifts her another Oscar nomination. Robert Shaw's highfalutin impression of the notoriously mercurial Henry VIII is also a delight (which garnered his only Oscar nomination), partially thanks to that he only appears in two occurrences - the lengthy exchange with More and a rather austere wedding celebration, with Vanessa Redgrave in a wordless cameo as Ann Boleyn, wordless but stunning nonetheless - because one might have doubt how to endure him in a lengthy run (please check Charles Jarrott's less pungent ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, 1969, which appears to share some of the settings), also Orson Welles makes a splash in his startlingly corpulent proportions and a profound gaze that can shatter through one's soul. But as this reviewer sees it, a young John Hurt also gives a vivid performance as the treacherous, prestige-seeking Richard Rich, telegraphs a palpable trace of subtlety that encompasses consternation, humiliation, vengeance and a moral vacillation that feels wanting in other key characters.
Not a worthy Oscar champ to this reviewer's liking, Zinnemann's A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a sign of its times, high on royal prestige, noble legalism and religious adherence, low on human complexity, humility and nuance that seem to only prevail in an utopian version of our world.
Wertmüller's eloquent allegory that nails the essence of stereotyped gender roles, class disparity and human beings' most primeval instinct
Not the blamed notorious 2002 Guy Ritchie-Madonna remake, this is Lina Wertmüller's original masterpiece, a tactfully veiled feminist treatment that removes the class barrier by marooning a snooty capitalist socialite Raffaella (Melato) and a plebeian Communist deckhand Gennarino (Gianninni), together in an uninhabited island in the middle point, and what ensues is a taming-the-shrew sex romp, that lives and dies with the island itself.
Doesn't see eye to eye with each other prima facie, the pair wears their heart on their sleeves with a mutual despite that feels both comical and vitriolic, and Wertmüller perceptively demands Raffaella to make a meal of her airs of superiority that naturally elicits our sympathy towards the downtrodden Gennarino, piteously cussing underhandedly with a puppy-eyed scruffiness, even when the duo is left drifting afloat in a dinghy on the Mediterranean Sea (nigh Sardinian Eastern coast), the unseaworthy Raffaella has nothing else to do but whinges about Gennarino's inadequacy.
Once they are shipwrecked in an island, Raffaella's peccadillo comes home to roost when their roles are inevitably reversed, totally at the mercy of Gennarino's survival skill in the nature, she has to endure numerous slaps and a rape attempt before completely submitting herself as a slave at the beck and call of her master, the almighty, proletariat Gennarino, who is confident enough that his virile masculinity can not only subjugate the vain, bourgeoise dame he finds attractive, but also make her fall in love with him (as there is no other competitions in sight), and ostensibly, that is what happens afterward, at that point, our sympathy is miraculously veered toward a docile and besotted Raffaella, a reborn woman, isn't she?
It is facile to accuse Wertmüller of being misogynist merely on the grounds that she subjects Raffaella repeatedly to physical abuse in the hand of Gennarino, she is astute enough to wield a Teflon shield not just because she is a woman herself, thus the violence can be viewed as a self-reflexive conceit to reflect the horrible reality, but more intricately, to point up the weaker sex's powerless physical plight is her ingenious approach to counterpoint a woman's staggering resilience, both physically and mentally, to the point that, Gennarino, as a macho man overtly boasting his dominant nature, has no rival to overpower her in the long run on the intellectual level, because he can never see her through if he cannot treat her as an equal (if not superior). Felt both smitten and suspect by her affection, Gennarino's fatal mistake is that he is tricked into believing Raffaella's oscillation, thinks that he has a chance of winning that kind of true love a man could ever covet.
Therefore when they return to the civilization, instantly the upper hand is returned to the rich party, and Wertmüller brilliantly enfolds Raffaella with an even more ambiguous halo, lachrymose and lovey-dovey during the telephone scene with Gennarino, yet, it is clear as day to audience that she will never return to that God-forsaken place of her own accord, the table has been turned and she wins, but instead of strutting in front of the vanquished (as usually a man inclines to do), being a sophisticated woman, she quickly learns from her mistakes and knows a really visceral revenge is to make the vanquished perpetually guessing, fancying, and ever longing for that pipe dream, which is exactly what happens in the end, a woebegone Gennarino is again, returns to his normal life of a loveless marriage, rues the day that he was once a king bestowed with a perfect consort.
Even most of the time there are only two main characters, an Italian film can still be persistently boisterous with flying vituperation and expletives intermittently assaulting our aural sensory to the four winds, both Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini are the crèmes de la crème, tearing into the battle-of-sexes with mind-boggling conviction, incredible physical facility and top-notch comic timing, and their raucous interplay can go from high skylarking to searing drama on a moment's notice, moreover, their distinctive personae substantially offset many unsavory traits in their characters, and altogether burnishes Wertmüller's eloquent allegory that nails the essence of stereotyped gender roles, class disparity and human beings' most primeval instinct. Intriguingly, the protagonist of most films and books about a sole survivor in the nature is man, which might obliquely certify that man is more of a nature animal whereas woman is a social one, ergo, it is fairly clear who occupies a higher standing in the evolution tree.
More often than not, an innovative gimmick falls by the wayside in the midstream
BORDER, Iranian-Swedish filmmaker Ali Abbasi's second feature, has an enticing beginning, a thickset, Neanderthal-looking woman Tina (Melander), works as a custom officer in a Swedish airport and possesses a psionic ability to sniff out contraband through the malefactors' aberrant emotions (guilt, fear, rage, etc.), and a subplot of a pedophile ring surfaces when she discovers a secretive memory card from a spiffy passenger, and later, she is recruited to use her superpower to locate his accomplices in the field work.
But the major story pans out around Tina's quotidian lives, dwelling in a sylvan neighborhood with a dog trainer named Roland (Thorsson), yet refusing his sexual advance, visiting her dementia-stricken father (Ljunggren) in the sanatorium, and most extraordinarily, she shares a mystic communion with the natural denizens, a fox (also seen on the movie's poster) manifests near her window one night, eager to communicate, Abbasi competently concocts a pervasive aura of animism and mysticism, all suggests Tina, albeit her human-lookalike attributes, may differ from the rest of us.
The answer slowly unravels when a similar-looking man Vore (Milonoff) crops up apropos of nothing, when they see eye to eye, soon one thing leads to another, after a mind-boggling roll in the sack amid the woods with a pre-mined gender-reversed shock (Vore, biologically speaking, is not a male, so what about Tina?), the bite detrimentally abates when the nature of their thunder-fearing species is uttered and explicated. Afterward, tepidly blending the half-baked pedophile atrocity (with which Vore is conveniently linked) with a generic political leaning of the abused seeking vengeance (a thinly veiled allegory echoes Abbasi's own ethnic minority), the narrative gives Tina the obvious decision to choose, joining in her own kind or, raised as a human, she digs in her heels to stay in the human world, and Tina's choice is nothing if not reassuring, as emblazoned by the ethos: compassion transcends among species.
More often than not, an innovative gimmick falls by the wayside in the midstream, but BORDER, the recipient of Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, shows up Abbasi's idiosyncratic streak that can promise a very different Scandinavian movie practitioner has emerged through his formative years. Notably for its Oscar-nominated craftsmanship in the make-up and hair-styling department (including sheer uncanny works applied to an infant), credited to Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer, both Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff overcome the hindrance of disfiguring prosthetics to achieve a Herculean task, to elicit the salient differences in spite of their similar instincts and extractions, for that alone, BORDER deserves a hearty pat on the back.
The Passionate Friends (1949)
A pluperfect pendant of BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945), the perennial conundrum of monogamy, is shredded to the core in David Lean's wonderfully tangy melodrama.
A pluperfect pendant of BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945), David Lean plumps for his wife Ann Todd (both thrice married then) in this cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells' lesser-known romantic novel published in 1913, a perfervid love triangle between Mary Justin (Todd), her older banker husband Howard (Rains) and her old flame, a biology professor Steven Stratton (Howard).
As if tempted to envision what would happen if Celia Johnson's Laura Jesson did go headlong with her extramarital affair with Trevor Howard's Dr. Alec Harvey at the end of BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Lean adopts a similar character-centralized approach with a toothcomb. Commencing in medias res, the narrative spirits Mary away in a Swiss resort with her first-person voice-over retailing the prescience of a chance meeting with Steven after a nine-year gap, although a communicating room coincidence looks wildly unlikely for those who at least sets foot once outside his or her dwelling turf, then the time-line rewinds nine years back, during a New Year's Eve ball, another chance meeting reunites former lovers Mary and Steven, and soon, they renew their romance against their best judgement.
Compared to Laura Jesson, Mary Justin stands precariously on a more inimical moral ground, as she confesses to Steven, she is not a good person who wants to have her cake and eat it as well. Attributed to her a "belonging to herself" modern attitude, the story counterproductively leaves her in the lurch for her fatal frailty that she simply forswears that attitude (which is ostensibly the only blockade to tie the knot with Steven), in exchange for materialistic stability, and we never know why Steven still wants to take her back after that blatant betrayal.
Anyway, nine years ago, Mary is granted a rare second chance with Steven, and again, she reneges when their assignation is uncovered by Howard, and Lean stages a brilliant coming-clean showdown with the triad, a combo of deft camera movements, expeditious editing choices and perfect reactionary response from all three thespians. Back to the Swiss resort, while Mary daydreams a third chance bestowed by kismet, reality finally bites hard when Howard arrives earlier to espy their "communicating room" arrangement and the ramifications will devastate two families, and Mary must do everything she can to redress her own fault, but when Howard finally flies off the handle, her fate is ominously foreshadowed by the whizzing Tube, who is her knight in the shining armor to save her from perdition? A conciliatory denouement is suffixed with an ironic change of heart that audience might not be prepared.
All three leads are more than adequate in subsisting their character's embattled conscience, Trevor Howard persuasively continues his naturalistic, none-too-impassioned amicability inherited from BRIEF ENCOUNTER, and Ann Todd, although doesn't have a prayer in emulating Celia Johnson's superfine poignancy and haunting inscape, leastwise holds fast with a palpable sensibility that channels Mary's ups-and-downs safely to its terminal, last but definitely not the least, Claude Rains, scoops up a rare chance to eloquently speak for the often overlooked role of a rich and prim cuckold, who must oversee a passionless marriage with an officious clause: If I forgo the demand of carnal knowledge from you, naturally it entails that you cannot get it from anyone else. A perennial conundrum of monogamy, is shredded to the core in David Lean's wonderfully tangy melodrama.