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I have been faithful to thee, Frida! in my fashion
At the age of 18 the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo suffered serious injuries in a road accident. She survived, and made a partial recovery, but was in pain for the rest of her life and always walked with a limp. She was forced to give up her ambition to go to medical school and took up painting during her convalescence. The film starts with this accident and then follows Frida's artistic career and her private life, particularly her marriage to a fellow artist, the muralist Diego Rivera.
Frida's relationship with Rivera was never an easy one as he was an inveterate womaniser, and marriage did nothing to moderate his sexual appetites. In the film we see Frida telling him that she expected his loyalty if not his fidelity. This phrase put me in mind of Ernest Dowson's protest (in "Non Sum Qualis Eram") that he had been faithful to his lover Cynara "in my fashion", but Frida was nevertheless able to turn Rivera's rather liberal interpretation of "loyalty" to her own advantage. It enabled her to take both male and female lovers- she was bisexual- with a clear conscience. In the film these lovers include Leon Trotsky during his exile in Mexico and Josephine Baker. At least, I presume that the black singer whom Frida meets in Paris is supposed to be Baker, although the cast list only names her as "Parisian chanteuse". (According to Salma Hayek, the explicit love scene between Frida and Josephine was included at the insistence of Harvey Weinstein as the price of his financial support for the project. Salma's experience of working with Weinstein does not appear to have been a happy one).
Although Hayek, like Kahlo, is from Mexico, she was perhaps not the most obvious choice to play her. Hayek is Lebanese-Mexican whereas Kahlo was of German descent. If a Lebanese- American actress were to be cast as a German-American character, or vice-versa, it would certainly raise a few eyebrows, but that sort of political correctness does not seem to apply with as much force south of the Rio Grande as it does on its northern bank.
Salma, one of the world's loveliest actresses, does not bear a great resemblance to Frida, who was, at best, belle-laide. The early 2000s saw an increase in cinematic uglification, with beautiful actresses like Charlize Theron ("Monster") and Nicole Kidman ("The Hours") hiding their beauty beneath their make-up, but here little attempt is made to alter Salma's looks. She represents her character by using Frida's trademark unibrow and centre parting as a sort of visual shorthand.
Despite (or perhaps because of) their many arguments, and multiple infidelities on both sides, Frida's marriage to Rivera lasted for 25 years until her death in 1954, with one brief interruption. (They were divorced in 1939, but remarried a year later). Because Rivera was both a larger-than-life personality and a famous painter in his own right, this is to some extent a dual biography and a portrait of a marriage.
The difficulty with dual biographies is that they require powerful performances from both leading actors, but fortunately director Julie Taymor is able to draw on precisely that from Hayek and from Alfred Molina. Molina's performance as Rivera, at the same time a genius, a Don Juan and something of a ruffian, is comparable in quality to the one he gave in the British drama "Prick Up Your Ears". In both films he portrays the life-partner of a real-life artistic figure, in that case Kenneth Halliwell, the lover of the playwright Joe Orton. Hayek has appeared in some rubbish, "Wild, Wild West" being a particularly egregious example, but here she is at her best. She might not look much like Frida Kahlo, but she portrays a brilliant, mercurial, courageous and passionate creative spirit to great effect. Unusually for a Hollywood movie this one does not attempt to play down the left-wing politics of its heroine and hero; both were avid supporters of the Mexican Communist Party and saw their artistic endeavours as inseparable from their political beliefs. (Rivera suffered the indignity of seeing the mural he had painted for the Rockefeller Center in New York destroyed when he offended his capitalist patrons by refusing to remove a portrait of Lenin).
Although I am an art lover, I must admit that I am not familiar, except at second hand, with the works of either Kahlo or Rivera; Rivera's, for obvious reasons, are unable to travel outside Mexico, a country I have visited only once. This film, therefore, was something of an education for me, enlightening me about two artists I had previously taken only a passing interest in. 8/10
The Aeronauts (2019)
Don't Go to See It If You Are Afraid of Heights
"The Aeronauts" is very loosely based on the career of the scientist James Glaisher who in 1862 was one of two men who set a new world record of 39,000 feet for the greatest height ever achieved in a balloon. Glaisher's aim in ascending to that height, however, was not simply to set a record for its own sake. He believed that by studying conditions in the upper atmosphere he could make an important contribution to scientific knowledge, particularly to the then young science of meteorology.
The film departs from historical fact in a number of ways, some of them minor, others more substantial. It has the balloon taking off in London, whereas in fact the ascent took place from Wolverhampton. Glaisher's father was also named James, but in the film he is referred to as Arthur. More seriously, when Glaisher refers to his belief that one day it will be possible to predict the weather, his fellow-scientists, almost to a man, ridicule him. In fact, the idea that the weather can be predicted was starting to gain scientific credibility in the 1860s; the forerunner of today's Met Office had been founded (by Darwin's friend Captain Robert Fitzroy of "Beagle" fame) in 1854.
The most significant change from the historical record concerns Glaisher's pilot. In real life this was Henry Tracey Coxwell who, despite that feminine-looking middle name, was definitely male. Coxwell, however, is written out of this story and is replaced by Amelia Rennes, a fictitious character based upon real-life female balloonists such as Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham. For some reason her surname is spelt in the cast-list as "Wren", but this must be an error as Amelia is the English-born widow of a French balloonist named Pierre Rennes, who met his death in a ballooning accident.
So what is the point of turning Coxwell into an attractive young woman? I initially assumed that the intention was to turn the story into a Victorian rom-com, especially as Glaisher here becomes a young bachelor played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne. (In real life, in 1862 he was a married man of 53). I was, however, to be proved wrong; no romance develops and the relationship between Glaisher and Amelia remains platonic.
Part of the answer, I think, is to make a feminist statement by providing us with a strong, capable and courageous female character, something of a rarity in period dramas. The heritage cinema genre has its merits, but it has never quite been able to shake off the accusation that it has perpetuated the stereotype of 18th and 19th century ladies as passive figures who spent most of their time sitting around in drawing rooms while the men did all the work. This sort of figure is caricatured here by Amelia's more conservative sister Antonia, who cannot understand why her sibling insists on messing about in balloons instead of settling down to domestic bliss with some nice young man. That is not, however, the whole answer; there are other reasons, connected with the circumstances of Pierre's death, why this particular story would not have worked with two male protagonists.
The film is more of an adventure-thriller than a rom-com. The central question is not "Will they fall in love?" but "Will they survive when things go wrong?" And, of course, things do go wrong; nobody is going to make a film about a balloon which takes off safely and then lands safely about an hour-and-a-half later after an uneventful flight. (The main action, the balloon flight itself, is shown in real time, with occasional flashbacks detailing the earlier lives of the protagonists).
If I had one criticism it would be that Amelia's feats of derring-do as she climbs out of the basket and clambers all over the balloon, several miles above the ground, to save the flight from disaster seem a bit exaggerated, even though the special effects involved are impressive. Could anyone really have done that without plunging to her death? I know that James Bond performs several similarly improbable feats in every episode of his adventures, but then the Bond movies are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, whereas "The Aeronauts" wants us to take it seriously in every other respect.
There are, however, good performances from Felicity Jones as the gutsy Amelia and from Redmayne as Glaisher. He rather reminded me of Newt Scamander, his character from the "Fantastic Beasts" movies, another young, earnest and slightly bumbling scientist. (I have never seen his portrayal of another real-life scientist, Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything"). Overall, "The Aeronauts" is not just an enjoyable period adventure; it also asks some serious questions about whether it is worth risking one's life in pursuit of fame, glory or scientific knowledge. Just don't go to see it if you are afraid of heights.
A goof. Glaisher's mother is here given the name Ethel. This is an unlikely name for an elderly lady who was probably born around 1790, as the name did not come into general use until the mid-19th century. Anyone called Ethel in 1862 would have been either a child or a much younger woman than old Mrs Glaisher.
His New Profession (1914)
What Mattered Was Slapstick
In 1914 Charlie Chaplin made no fewer than 36 silent comedy shorts. "The Good for Nothing", also known as "His New Profession", is one of them, released in late August just after the outbreak of World War I. Europe may have had more serious matters on its mind, but in America what mattered was slapstick.
Here Charlie is hired by a man to wheel his elderly, wheelchair-bound uncle around a seaside park. Dissatisfied with the amount he is being paid, however, he puts a beggar's sign and tin on the wheelchair while the old man is asleep. Further complications ensure, involving a real beggar and those two stock comic figures from Chaplin comedies, a pretty girl and a policeman. When the uncle's wheelchair rolls on to the pier we think we know what is coming. Or is it?
We are lucky that so many of Chaplin's films have survived, given that many films from the 1910s are now lost, although today some of them are of little more than historical interest. What strikes the modern viewer is how cruel some of them are. "The Good for Nothing" is not quite as bad in this respect as something like "In the Park", but even so it struck me as trying to get laughs at the expense of the elderly and disabled. The uncle is not treated as a human being in his own right, more like an item of property on whom virtually any indignity can be inflicted provided that it helps to get laughs.
Motion Picture News described the film as "a laugh throughout", which suggests that both audiences and critics in 1914 were more easily pleased than modern ones. This was, however, a period during which both Chaplin, and the cinema in general, were on an upward learning curve and needed to work out what worked and what didn't. And, although films like this one may seem a bit crude by modern standards, and indeed by the standards of any period alter than about 1930, the general consensus at the time seemed to be that they did work. They just don't make very interesting watching 100 years on.
Fantasia 2000 (1999)
And Now for the Bad
The original 1940 "Fantasia", consisting of eight animated sequences set to classical music, was a great favourite of its creator, Walt Disney, who saw it not as a one-off film but as an ongoing project. Disney's idea was that the film should be on continual release with new animated sequences progressively replacing the original ones, so that the audience would always be seeing a mixture of old and new. In 1940, however, "Fantasia" was not a great favourite with either cinemagoers or with the critics, so the idea was dropped. The possibility of a sequel was originally raised, but never came to anything until the 1990s, when the re-release of the original film in cinemas and on video proved a success.
"Fantasia 2000" is the result. (Despite the title, it actually premiered in December 1999). Like its predecessor, it contains eight segments. Each segment is introduced by a star such as Steve Martin, Bette Midler or Angela Lansbury. The producer, Walt's nephew Roy Edward Disney, originally intended to keep four sequences from the 1940 film, but in the event only one (Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice) survived. I haven't seen the original since my own childhood in the sixties or seventies, and even then I probably saw it on a black-and-white television, so I won't attempt a comparison. I do, however, remember that I enjoyed the Mickey Mouse section immensely.
Fantasia 2000 is like a number of films consisting of episodes which are either unconnected or else connected only by a tenuous thread. Such films- "Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex..." and Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" come to mind- tend to divide into three parts, the Good, the Bad and the Indifferent. Here the Good parts include:-
Mickey Mouse, for obvious reasons, and not all of them to do with childhood nostalgia. It is concise, funny and, of course, it tells the story that Paul Dukas's music was expressly written to illustrate. Some of the other sections use music which is not well suited to the style of animation or to the story being told. More of that later
Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. If you're going to produce a cartoon using this music, it just has to be set in Jazz Age New York City. I had never previously heard of the cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, but his work seems wonderfully suited to the mood of the music. The story follows four people- an unemployed man, an African-American construction worker, a young girl and a henpecked husband- and shows how they all realise their dreams. The colour scheme is perhaps inspired by Gershwin's title because it makes great use of blue, together with green and violet, the adjoining colours in the spectrum. Reds, oranges and yellows are used much more sparingly.
Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto. As a child I could never forgive Hans Christian Andersen for killing off his "Steadfast Tin Soldier" and his ballerina sweetheart. The gloomy Dane should have realised that children's fairy tales are the one literary genre which demand happy endings, so I am overjoyed that Disney gave this beautifully realised version the ending it should always have had. I doubt if Shostakovich wrote his concerto for tin soldiers to march to, but his jaunty music fits the story perfectly, and there is a suitably detestable villain in the shape of that evil jack-in-the-box.
Respighi's "The Pines of Rome". Owing to a defective English-Italian dictionary, someone mistranslated "I Pini di Roma" as "Humpback Whales in the Antarctic". I had my doubts about the wisdom of using programme music to support a programme quite different to the one for which it was written, so this one only just scrapes into the "Good" category. I was, however, won over by the quality of the animation, that cute baby whale and the surreal nature of the storyline in which the whales leave the ocean to fly through the air and into outer space. You wouldn't get that in a David Attenborough documentary.
Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals. If you're into flamingos who play with yo-yos, this is the film for you. If you're not, it probably isn't.
Stravinsky's The Firebird. I understand that Roy Edward fought hard to keep the "Night on Bare Mountain" sequence in "Fantasia 2000". He eventually had to settle for something in keeping with the mood of the original. The section, which acts as the film's finale, is based upon the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens and tells of how the Sprite, a benevolent female nature spirit and her ally, a stag bearing a certain resemblance to the adult Bambi, fight against the evil Firebird, the destructive spirit of the volcano. Occasionally effective, but overlong and a bit pretentious, and Stravinsky's music, written to tell a quite different story, seems out of place.
And now for the Bad.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Seldom can such great music have been put to so banal a purpose.
Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance. Elgar's marches- we hear snatches of all four- were written to conjure up some grand, solemn ceremony, so God only knows what they are doing here as the backdrop to the misadventures of Donald and Daisy Duck aboard Noah's Ark. The story itself could have been quite comical, but the music seemed quite out of place. I don't think that Disney were deliberately trying to satirise Elgar- I know some people don't care for his music- but at times it sounded like it.
With so many wildly differing segments, I can't really sum up the film in a single phrase, but as the good elements outnumbered the bad I will award it 7/10.
When the Whales Came (1989)
To celebrate my 1,900th review for IMDB, I turn to another of my favourite films. The Isles of Scilly, which form the south-westernmost point of the British Isles, are an archipelago of small islands off the coast of Cornwall. Five of the islands, St Mary's, St Martin's, St Agnes, Tresco and Bryher are inhabited, but until the mid- 19th century there was also a small population living on a sixth island, Samson. In reality the inhabitants of Samson were evicted by Augustus Smith, the autocratic Lord Proprietor of the islands, who wanted to turn the island into a deer park, but Michael Morpurgo, the author of the children's book on which this film is based, had a much more poetic theory about how it came to be depopulated. (Morpurgo's book is called "Why the Whales Came", but this was altered slightly for the film).
Today the main industries of the Scillies are tourism and growing flowers, particularly daffodils, for the cut-flower market, but during the 1910s, when the action of this film takes place, life on the islands was hard. The inhabitants survive on fishing and small-scale subsistence agriculture. The central characters are Gracie Jenkins and Daniel Pender, two children living on the island of Bryher, who befriend a reclusive elderly man known as "the Birdman". (His real name is Mr Woodcock; in the book his Christian name was Zachariah, but this is not used in the film). The Birdman is shunned by the other inhabitants of Bryher, partly because they believe him to be mad but also because he is the last surviving native of Samson, which he left as a small boy. The people of Bryher avoid Samson, which they believe to be an accursed place, haunted by the ghosts of its former residents. When war breaks out, the Birdman comes under greater suspicion than ever, because the locals believe him to be a German spy.
Of course, the Birdman proves to be far from mad, and certainly not a spy. Indeed, he is probably the sanest person on the island. It is from him that we learn how Samson came to be cursed and why its inhabitants were forced to leave. (And in this version it was something very different from the whims of an eccentric landowner). He treats Daniel and Gracie like the children or grandchildren he never had and he in turn becomes their trusted friend and confidant. He is a talented woodcarver, and teaches his skills to the children. The crisis of the story comes when, after a storm, a narwhal is discovered stranded on the beach. The people of Bryher want to slaughter it, and other members of its pod should they come ashore, but the Birdman and the children desperately try to dissuade them.
The late Paul Scofield was one of the major names of the British acting profession, but most of his work was for the stage and he made comparatively few films. Film buffs will probably know him best for his masterly performance as Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons", but the one he gives here can stand comparison with it. Of the other adult cast members the best is probably Helen Mirren as Gracie's mother, but special mention must also be made of the enchanting Helen Pearce and Max Rennie as the two children. Another feature of the film is its strikingly beautiful photography of the islands.
The plot is a simple one, reminiscent of a folk tale. Deceptively simple, because Morpurgo is able to use it to explore some surprisingly deep themes- relationships between man and nature, relationships between the generations, the treatment of those like the Birdman who are thought to be "alien" to the mainstream of the community within which they live and the origins and nature of violence. These themes are seen to be interrelated; there are clear parallels between on the one hand the islanders' hostility towards the Birdman, partly rooted in the fact that he is originally from another island less than a mile away, and their threatened violence towards the narwhals, and on the other the mutual hostility between the British and the Germans and the violence to which it has led.
I have never really known why "When the Whales Came" is so little known; I note that it has only received thirteen earlier reviews. To my mind it is one of the great movies made during the remarkable renaissance of the British cinema industry of the 1980s, able to stand comparison with the likes of "The Elephant Man", "Chariots of Fire", "The Mission", "A Private Function" and "Shirley Valentine". Perhaps adults tend to dismiss it as "a children's film", but there is a lot here (as there is in Morpurgo's book) that deals with some very adult concerns. 10/10
Priest of Love (1981)
They might just as well have filmed the Encyclopaedia Britannica
"Priest of Love" is a filmed biography of the novelist D. H. Lawrence, and concentrates on the latter part of his life. It opens during the First World War, which was not the easiest period for Lawrence. He was unpopular with the British public because of his opposition to the war and his marriage to a German. It didn't help matters that his wife Frieda's maiden name had been von Richthofen, the same as that of the air ace who was one of Germany's greatest war heroes, although the two were only distantly related. The couple moved to a remote part of Cornwall but came under suspicion from local people who believed them to be German spies; ironically before the war Lawrence had been arrested in Germany on suspicion of being a British spy. To make matters worse, his latest novel "The Rainbow" was banned by the censors on the grounds of alleged obscenity.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that after the war Lawrence and Frieda decided to leave Britain and to lead a peripatetic existence wandering around the world, a journey that would take them to France, Italy, Australia, Mexico and the USA. They did so partly because Lawrence needed a warmer climate for the sake of his health- he was suffering from the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him- but the way in which he had been treated in the UK must also have been a factor. The film follows them on their journey and also deals with the writing of Lawrence's last and most controversial novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover", compared to which "The Rainbow" is about as racy as a children's nursery rhyme.
Although the film features some major names of the British cinema and a bona fide Hollywood goddess in the shape of Ava Gardner, it seems to have aroused little attention. It was not a success on its release in 1981, and I had never heard of it before I recently caught it on television. I note that mine is only the third review of it on this site which suggests that few other people had heard of it either.
And the reason nobody seems to have heard of it is that, frankly, it is not very good. Probably the best acting comes from John Gielgud in a cameo as the pompous Herbert G. Muskett, the reactionary functionary charged with protecting the British people from exposure to literature and who seemed to take a particular delight in persecuting Lawrence. None of the other cast members, however, stand out. Although the title hints at Lawrence's passionate nature, you get little idea of this from Ian McKellen's surprisingly passionless performance. Janet Suzman's Frieda seems too unsympathetic, with the sort of cinematic German accent more normally associated with Nazis barking "ve haff vays und means". Both these performances came as a disappointment to me, because both McKellen and Suzman have been much better in other films.
The screenplay was based upon a non-fiction biography of Lawrence, not always the best source to use when making a fictionalised biopic. The resulting film is just a tedious drawn-out chronicle of two people, one of them seriously ill, journeying around the world, with various artistic and literary celebs from the 1920s occasionally popping up. ("Oh look! Is that Aldous Huxley over there? And could that be Katherine Mansfield? Quick, or else you'll miss her"). Screenwriter Alan Plater and director Christopher Miles might just as well have tried to film the entry on Lawrence from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Had they done so the result could hardly have been duller than what they actually came up with. 4/10
A Star Is Torn
"Judy" might be described as a partial biography as it does not deal with the whole of Judy Garland's life and career but with two episodes. The main emphasis is upon a series of concerts she gave at London's "Talk of the Town" nightclub in 1969, not long before her death, but there are also several flashbacks to Judy's teenage experiences making "The Wizard of Oz", today probably her best-known film, in 1939.
Judy has gone down in legend as one of Hollywood's most tragic heroines, a hugely talented actress and singer whose career was damaged by her demons of alcoholism, drug abuse and anorexia, demons which also played havoc with her personal life- she was married five times- and were ultimately to lead to a tragically early death at the age of only 47. Now show me a tragic heroine and I'll show you a heroine- whenever a famous person becomes known as a tragic hero or heroine the truth is almost certainly that such a description does not do them full justice and that their life contained as much triumph as tragedy. (Marilyn Monroe is another film star who comes to mind).
This film does not really challenge the popular view of Judy Garland, but it does try to put it in some sort of context. We see the teenage Judy being alternately flattered and bullied by studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Mayer is shown as obsessed with Judy's public image; he forces her to take amphetamines to prevent her from putting on weight and interferes in her romance with her co-star Mickey Rooney. The ghosts of Judy's past continue to haunt her during her stay in London. She is still painfully thin, and although some of her performances at the "Talk of the Town" are excellent, her substance abuse issues mean that she is not always at her best. When she turns up drunk for one concert she is booed off the stage. She is still suffering problems in her personal life. She is involved in a battle with her third husband Sidney Luft for custody of their children. She marries her fifth husband, nightclub owner Mickey Deans, but they are soon quarrelling.
I had not seen Renée Zellweger in a film for years- I still mostly think of her as Roxie Hart, Bridget Jones or Beatrix Potter. She took a break from acting between 2010 and 2016, and "Judy" is the only one of her films I have seen since her comeback. All I can say, however, is "welcome back, Renée", because "Judy" must count as one of the highlights of her career. Yes, her Judy is a tragic figure, a woman with not long to live and torn every which way between the conflicting demands of Mickey, her children, her addictions and her loyalty to her fans, but Zellweger also makes us realise just why, in her heyday, she had become one of the world's greatest and most beloved stars. Particularly affecting is the scene where she breaks down while performing that iconic song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" but is able to finish it with the assistance of two loyal gay fans. (Yes, I know that song is sentimental corn syrup in its purest form, but there are times when even sentimentality has its uses).
For every "star is born" movie, to borrow the title of what is probably Judy's second-best-known film, there is at least one drama on the theme of "a star is torn". It has long been a showbiz cliché that life in showbiz is no bed of roses and that fame can only be bought at the cost of personal happiness. The script of "Judy" may seem that well-worn cliché to the letter, yet Zellweger brings such zest and compassion to her performance that she manages to transform the film from something clichéd into something out of the ordinary and well worth seeing. I hope that the Academy will remember her when the nominations are announced for next year's Oscars. 8/10
The Goldfinch (2019)
Jumps from flashback to flash-forward to yet another flashback
Let me state from the outset that I have never read Donna Tartt's novel, so my criticisms of this movie are not those of the "loved the book, hated the film" school of thought. A woman named Audrey Decker is killed in a terrorist bomb attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The film is not about the terrorists- we never learn who they are or what their motives are- but about Audrey's thirteen-year-old son Theo. He is with his mother when she is killed, but survives, and staggers out of the museum holding a painting, "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius. (Tartt chose this painting because of its history. Fabritius was killed in a gunpowder explosion in 1654, which also destroyed his workshop and many of his paintings. "The Goldfinch" was in the building at the time, but survived).
Audrey was divorced from her deadbeat alcoholic husband, Larry, who never showed any interest in his son, so Theo is placed with the Barbours, the family of one of his friends. He takes "The Goldfinch" with him and keeps it in his room; the museum authorities never make any attempt to trace it, assuming that it had been destroyed in the bombing. He bonds well with the family, who share his interest in art and antiques, and they consider adopting him, but before they can do so, Larry and his girlfriend Xandra reappear, reclaim Theo, and take him back to their home in the suburbs of Las Vegas. While living there, Theo makes a friend in Boris, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, who will play an important role in his later life. After Larry is killed in a car crash, Theo runs away from Las Vegas and returns to New York, where he is taken in by Hobie, an antique dealer and restorer whose acquaintance he made while living with the Barbours. Theo's love of antiques increases, and when he becomes an adult he goes into the antiques trade, becoming Hobie's partner. "The Goldfinch" will play an important part in all his subsequent adventures.
The critical consensus on the Rotten Tomatoes website describes the film as "Beautifully filmed yet mostly inert", but the word "inert" does not seem to me to be appropriate. The above synopsis is arranged in chronological order, but this is not the order in which events happen in the film itself, as its timeline has a particularly complex structure. The word I would use to describe it is not "inert" but "frenetic"; it jumps all over the place, from flashback to flash-forward to yet another flashback, making the story difficult, and at times near-impossible to follow. My synopsis also simplifies the plot considerably, omitting as it does Theo's two romantic attachments and the confusing thriller-style ending which involves Theo and his old friend Boris tangling with a drugs gang. (Don't ask why).
The film does have some positive aspects. There are also some interesting contrasts between two different Americas, the world of the Barbours, literate, cultured and metropolitan Manhattanites and that of the philistine Larry and Xandra who live in a largely deserted housing development on the edge of the desert, a long way from anything that looks like civilisation. Director John Crowley seems to be using the emptiness and barrenness of the desert landscapes as a metaphor for the emptiness and barrenness of their lives.
The "beautifully filmed" part of the Rotten Tomatoes verdict strikes me as accurate, and there are some good acting performances, especially from Oakes Fegley as the young Theo Jeffrey Wright as his mentor Hobie and Nicole Kidman (a star whose undoubted talent for acting is not always matched by a talent for picking the right films) in a supporting role as Samantha Barbour, the woman who almost becomes Theo's adopted mother and who nurtures his interest in the arts. (I was less taken by Ansel Elgort as the adult Theo or by some of the other actors). The film's few virtues, however, were never enough in my opinion to compensate for its manifest faults. 5/10
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
My Favourite Courtroom Drama
"Anatomy of a Murder" is based on a novel, which was itself based on a real 1952 murder case. The author of the novel, John Voelker, had been Counsel for the defence at that trial, although he published it under a pen name. The film was a controversial one when first released in 1959 because of its surprisingly frank treatment, at a time when the Production Code was still in force, of sexual matters. It is said to be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to use the word "contraceptive" (and also the first to use "spermatogenesis", although in that case it was probably the last as well). Even the word "panties" raised some eyebrows.
In a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lieutenant Frederick Manion, a US Army officer, is arrested and charged with shooting dead a bartender named Barney Quill. Manion does not deny killing Quill, but claims that he was justified in doing so because Quill had raped his wife Laura. His lawyer Paul Biegler has to point out to him that the fact that the victim was an alleged rapist, or even a proven rapist, is not a defence to a charge of murder. Biegler's suggestion is that Manion should claim that the killing was the result of an "irresistible impulse" amounting in law to temporary insanity. With some difficulty he persuades Manion to plead not guilty on this basis, setting the stage for a courtroom drama.
The odds at first seem stacked in favour of the prosecution. Biegler is a former district attorney who failed to be re-elected; since the election he has tried to revive his private practice, but with little success, and spends most of his time on his hobbies of fishing and playing jazz piano. He agrees to take the brief to defend Manion even though he has little experience of defence work. His assistant in the case is his old friend Parnell McCarthy, an elderly alcoholic. The prosecution are represented by Mitch Lodwick, the district attorney who defeated Biegler in the election and by Claude Dancer from the State Attorney-General's office.
Manion is clearly a man of strong passions with a hot temper; he has a distinguished war record in Korea, but the prosecution team are able to use this against him, showing that he is a man habituated to killing. All this makes the task of the defence team harder, especially as Laura comes across as provocative and flirtatious. Although she is only in her early to mid-twenties, Manion is her second husband. Biegler and Dancer are strongly contrasted. (Lodwick is something of a cypher). Biegler at first seems out of his depth, a second-rate small-town hick up against Dancer, a hot-shot trial lawyer from the big city. Yet it gradually becomes clear that beneath Biegler's apparently bumbling manner he is more crafty and experienced than he at first appears, not above using some dubiously ethical ploys to assist his client. Dancer can be formidable in cross-examination, but he can also come across as a bully and allows his feelings to run away with him. A key scene comes when he is examining Laura, trying to persuade her to admit that her sexual encounter with Quill was consensual and almost drooling over the attractive young woman as he gets much closer to her than courtroom etiquette would normally permit.
The acting in the four leading roles- from Ben Gazzara as Manion, Lee Remick as Laura, James Stewart as Biegler and George C. Scott as Dancer. Scott, hitherto better-known for his work in the theatre and not yet a major Hollywood star, received a "Best Supporting Actor" nomination in what was only his second feature film. (He was to receive another in his third, "The Hustler"). The film received a total of seven Oscar nominations, including "Best Picture" and "Best Actor" for Stewart, but did not win any. 1959 was the year of "Ben-Hur", and other films found it difficult to get a look in. Special mention should also go to the jazz score composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Perhaps surprisingly, Otto Preminger was not nominated for "Best Director". The running-time is around two-and-a-half hours, surprisingly long for a film which tells a single story with no subplots and contains no action scenes; neither the rape nor the killing is shown on screen, but this length can be justified by the need to explore some complex legal issues and the personalities of those involved in the case. Preminger handles his material superbly, never allowing the attention of the audience to flag or allowing them to feel that the length is excessive. Sixty years after it was made "Anatomy of a Murder" still holds up well. Unless you count "Twelve Angry Men", in which most of the action takes place in the jury-room rather than the courtroom itself, it remains my favourite courtroom drama. It reminds us that the law is about real people and that all those courtroom theatrics have a purpose. 9/10
'Neath the Arizona Skies (1934)
Without Wayne, few people today would ever have heard of it.
"Neath the Arizona Skies" is one of the innumerable B-movie Westerns in which John Wayne starred during the 1930s. The plot is well-nigh incomprehensible, possibly because, as with many B-movies from the period, the film has a very short running time of less than an hour, insufficient time in which to explain all the various complications.
Wayne's character, Chris Morrell, is the guardian of Nina, a half-Indian girl who, through her Indian mother, is the heiress to a $50,000 Indian oil claim. (How Chris became Nina's guardian is never made clear). For some reason she needs to find her missing white father, who deserted her mother when Nina was young, before she can claim the money, so Chris and Nina set off in search of him. A gang of outlaws, however, are after them, believing that if they can seize Nina from Chris this will give them a right to her oil money. Again, it is never explained just why they believe that the State of Arizona will reward them in this way rather than sentencing them to a jail term for kidnapping. A love-interest is provided for Chris in the shape of Clara Moore, a young woman whose brother happens to be one of the outlaws. (Another brother, now dead, was Chris's oldest friend).
The historical period during which the action is supposed to take place is never made clear. The male characters all wear the traditional clothes associated with Westerns set during the late 19th century, and the main mode of transport is still the horse. Nobody is seen driving a motor vehicle of any description. Nevertheless, Clara dresses in the fashions of the thirties and there are a few other details, such as a typewritten notice, which suggest a more modern setting was intended.
As with all his "Poverty Row" B-movies. this is far from being Wayne's finest hour, but at least he does enough to show why he would eventually graduate to A-movies. As for the rest of the cast, the less said the better, with the exception of little Shirley Jean Rickert, a child-star I had never come across before and quite the best thing about the film, as the irrepressible Nina, a girl determined to prove that despite her tender years she can ride a horse as well as any adult, man or woman.
Shirley Jean is the main reason why the film avoids an even lower mark than the one I have assigned to it. With its confusing plot, substandard acting and badly choreographed fight scenes, "Neath the Arizona Skies" is an example of the sort of thing Hollywood used to do very badly but still did because there was money to be made from it. Were it not for the presence of Wayne, an actor who in later life would become an American icon, few people today would ever have heard of it. 4/10
The Running Man (1963)
Immunity from the Moral Laws
In the late forties and early fifties, Sir Carol Reed made a trilogy of films noirs all containing the word "man" in the title, "Odd Man Out", "The Third Man" and "The Man Between". When I recently caught "The Running Man" on television (there is no connection with the 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger film of that name) I wondered if it might be a belated fourth instalment in the trilogy, but although it deals with crime it is not made in the noir style, which was going out of fashion in 1963. (It was not wholly dead, however, at least in Britain, at this period; "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold" is a fine example from the following year).
The film opens at the memorial service for Rex Black, a pilot who has, apparently, recently died in a gliding accident. We soon discover, however, that Rex is still alive and that he faked his own death in order to claim £50,000 in life insurance money. Although no body has ever been found, the insurance company accept that Rex is dead and pay out the money without asking too many questions. Rex and his beautiful American wife Stella disappear to Málaga, Spain, where he lives under the assumed name of "Jim Jerome" (using the identity of an Australian tourist whose passport he has stolen) and Stella, using her real name, pretends to be his recently widowed girlfriend.
Things start to go wrong when a young man named Stephen Maddox arrives in Málaga. Rex and Stella recognise him as an employee of the insurance company who called at their home to discuss her claim with Stella. In fact, Stephen's presence in Málaga is coincidence- he no longer works for the company and is only in Spain on holiday from his new job- but Rex immediately suspects that the company have sent him out as an investigator. Rex asks Stella to try and find out how much Stephen knows, but things start to go even more wrong for Rex when Stella, who is tiring of her husband's domineering ways, starts to fall for the good-looking Stephen.
As I said above, this is not a film noir. The word "noir" is French for black, and such films were so called not merely because they tended to show the darker side of the human character but also because they were generally made in monochrome and featured a moody, expressionistic style of photography, with many scenes shot in darkness. "The Running Man", by contrast, is made in vivid colour; the scenes shot in Spain could be taken from a travelogue for the Spanish Tourist Board.
At one time the cinema took a highly moralistic attitude towards crime; there was a convention (in America made into an official requirement of the Production Code) that law-breakers were always to be portrayed as villainous and that their criminal enterprises should never be shown to succeed. The sixties, however, saw the rise of "heist movies", light-hearted dramas which could show the crooks as likeable rogues and by crime as an exciting caper. Admittedly, movies like "The Italian Job" and "The Biggest Bundle of Them All" ended with a twist of fate which thwarted the crooks' plans, but neither of these films ends with its protagonists behind bars.
"The Running Man" starts off like a film of this sort, portraying Rex and Stella as an attractive, personable young couple taking on The System, represented here by the insurance company, but then gradually becomes darker and darker, especially when Rex attempts to commit a crime far more serious than insurance fraud. The ending is, in moral terms, curiously ambiguous. Rex does indeed pay for his crimes, but Stella- who was a willing party to the original fraud- does not. The film ends with her free to keep her ill-gotten gains and to start a new life with her new lover Stephen. Perhaps screenwriter John Mortimer felt that attractive young women should enjoy a certain immunity from the moral laws that bind the male sex.
There are also a couple of plot holes; it is never explained why Rex is not arrested by the Spanish authorities as soon as the real Jim Jerome reports the theft of his passport to the police. Nor is it explained how Rex manages to enter Spain in the first place; he has not yet assumed Jerome's identity, but for obvious reasons would not be able to travel under his own name. (And if he has a forged passport in a third name, why didn't he continue using it?)
The acting is of a reasonable standard, but none of the three main stars, Laurence Harvey, Lee Remick and Alan Bates, were at their best. All three had already given better performances- Harvey in "The Good Die Young" and "The Manchurian Candidate", Remick in "Anatomy of a Murder" and Bates in "Whistle Down the Wind". The film makes for pleasant entertainment, but it is not in the same class as "The Third Man" (probably the greatest ever British noir) or "The Man Between" or even "Odd Man Out". I have always found this last film overrated, but it does have a commanding central performance from James Mason. "The Running Man" has nothing to compare with that. 6/10
Stiff-Upper-Lip War Movie
The Battle of the River Plate, the first major naval engagement of World War II, was fought off the coast of South America between the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and a force of three Allied cruisers, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles. On paper this should have been a German victory, as the Graf Spee heavily outgunned her three adversaries, but clever British tactics enabled them to inflict damage on the German ship, forcing her to take refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. She was eventually scuttled in the River Plate on the orders of her commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, who had been led to believe by British propaganda that a large fleet of Allied warships was waiting for him in international waters.
The film was made by the writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was their penultimate production as The Archers, the last being "Ill Met by Moonlight", and in some ways it was an unusual film for them to have made. They had, of course, previously made several films dealing with the war, indeed, given that they started working together in 1939 it would have been difficult them to have avoided the subject. Films such as "49th Parallel", "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and "A Matter of Life and Death", however, were all highly original, taking an oblique look at their subject-matter and concentrating more on individuals caught up in the conflict than on the actual military engagements. "The Battle of the River Plate", by contrast, is a conventional, patriotic "how we won the war" movie of the sort the British cinema turned out by the dozen in the fifties.
The film may be patriotic, but it still includes that typical Archers feature, the Good German, in this case Langsdorff, played by Peter Finch in an excellent performance as an honourable, chivalrous warrior. Langsdorff's mission is to sink Allied merchant ships, but he never does so without giving their crews the chance to surrender and take to the lifeboats. One of Powell and Pressburger's main sources for their story was "I Was A Prisoner on the Graf Spee", a book by Patrick Dove, a Merchant Navy Captain who was taken prisoner in this way along with his crew. Dove's experiences play an important part in the film. Langsdorff emerges as the lead character; none of the other participants in the battle emerge as rounded characters in the same way, even though the film stars some leading lights of the British acting profession. These include Anthony Quayle as the British commander, Commodore Henry Harwood, John Gregson as one of his captains and Bernard Lee as Dove.
The battle sequences, which mostly come in the first half of the film, are very well done. Many films about naval warfare have been filmed using model ships on a big tank inside the studio, but The Archers were able to use real ships on the real sea; including two of the ships which had taken part in the actual battle, the "Achilles" (by this term serving with the Indian Navy) and HMS Cumberland. The other British vessels were represented by Royal Navy warships of the same class. For obvious reasons the real Graf Spee could not be used, so she is played by the USS Salem.
The latter part of the film, which deals with the political machinations as the German, British and French governments all try to put pressure on the Uruguayan authorities, is perhaps less interesting. My main criticism of the film, however, is that it deals with its subject in a rather bloodless way. Both sides suffered numerous casualties, both killed and wounded, during the battle, but we see little of the human cost of war. None of the British characters- Langsdorff apart, we see little of their German opponents- ever display much in the way of emotion, whether that be fear, grief or even excitement. There is little human interest; the film even omits what could have been its climactic scene, Langsdorff's suicide after scuttling his ship. Pressburger may have been Hungarian by birth, but he seems to have bought into the British idea that war should be, and generally is, fought according to the principles of the stiff upper lip. 6/10
Un chien andalou (1929)
Because There Are No Dogs in It
When asked why he had given his film "Bananas" that particular title, Woody Allen famously replied "Because there are no bananas in it". Had anyone asked Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí the same question about "Un Chien Andalou" they could, with equal logic, have replied "Because there are no dogs in it and it is not about Andalusia".
So what is it about? The short answer, and the one that Buñuel and Dalí would have given, is that it is not about anything. (They would probably have added "Why does it have to be about anything?") According to Wikipedia it "has no plot in the conventional sense of the word", and probably not in any unconventional one either. It is an example of surrealist cinema, consisting of a series of scenes which bear little or no logical relationship with one another, intercut with a number of absurd, sometimes shocking, images. The most notorious of these, occurring right at the beginning of the film, shows a razor slitting an eyeball. Others include ants crawling over a man's hand, dead donkeys, two priests (one of them played by Dali himself) being dragged along the ground on ropes and a woman using a handkerchief to wipe a man's mouth off his face.
When first released in Paris in 1929, the film was very popular and it ran for eight months, something which seems to have dismayed its makers, who had conceived the project as a way of shocking and scandalising the intellectual bourgeoisie of France; Dali, it is said, had hoped that it would provoke a riot like the one which had greeted the premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" seventeen years earlier. The Parisian intellectual bourgeoisie, however, had grown more blasé over the intervening seventeen years and resolutely refused to be scandalised, instead greeting the film with enthusiastic praise. Their reaction disappointed Buñuel, who sourly railed against "the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?"
In the visual arts surrealism was to prove itself a major force in the 20th century, and although my own artistic tastes tend towards the traditional I can understand why. The work of artists like Rene Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Giorgio de Chirico, Dominique Appia and, yes, Dali himself with their extraordinary juxtaposition of quite ordinary objects, not only unnerves the viewer, forcing us to reconsider our view of reality, but also frequently displays both wit and philosophical insight.
Surrealist cinema, however, proved to be something of a dead end after a brief vogue in the twenties and thirties. Like it or not, the cinema has evolved not only as a visual medium but also as a narrative one. Indeed, it has closer links with the world or literature than it does with that of painting and visual art. Many films have been based upon great plays or novels, few upon great paintings. Many leading writers (Faulkner, Steinbeck, Greene and many more) have written screenplays for films; few leading artists have doubled up as cinematographers. The surrealist tradition might have been able to provide the visual element in the cinema; it found itself unable to contribute towards the narrative element. The most it could do, as Buñuel and Dali do here, was to deny that any narrative element is necessary, a riposte that has never seemed adequate to the film-making community. Dali was later to devise the surrealistic dream sequence in Hitchcock's "Spellbound", but that is only a short episode in a film which otherwise has a strong narrative drive.
So what should we make of this film ninety years on? Trying to award it a mark out of ten would be meaningless, if only because it is so different to anything in the mainstream tradition which has come to dominate the cinema. Personally, I find it pointless, even meaningless. But then, its admirers would reply, the point is that it has no point. And its meaning is that it has no meaning.
Against All Flags (1952)
Something of the Old Magic
Errol Flynn first rose to stardom as the title character in the 1935 pirate film "Captain Blood" and a played another pirate, Geoffrey Thorpe, in "The Sea Hawk" from a few years later. (Some will quibble with my description of Thorpe as a pirate, but he was closely based upon Sir Francis Drake, who was certainly regarded as a pirate by his Spanish enemies). In "Against All Flags" he plays a man who is not a pirate but pretends to be one. (The title refers to the fact that pirates saw themselves as fighting against the flags of all nations, unlike privateers who only preyed upon ships flying the flags of the enemies of their own country).
The year is 1700. Lieutenant Brian Hawke, a British naval officer, poses as a deserter in order to infiltrate the pirate republic of Libertatia, located on the coast of Madagascar. (It is uncertain whether Libertatia, also known as Libertalia or Libertaria, ever existed outside the realms of pirate fiction, but for the purposes of this film it is a real place). In Libertatia Hawke falls in love with the beautiful red-headed female pirate Prudence "Spitfire" Stevens and manages to acquire a second love-interest when he rescues Princess Patma, the daughter of the Moghul Emperor, after the pirates capture the ship on which she is travelling. He also makes an enemy in the shape of pirate captain Roc Brasiliano, his rival for Spitfire's affections who suspects that Hawke may not be all he seems. Hawke's surname may be a deliberate reference to "The Sea Hawk".
During the early part of his career, in the late thirties and early forties, Flynn was a major Hollywood star. He had a fairly limited range as an actor, but within that range he could be very good indeed, as he was in films like "The Sea Hawk" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood". By the early fifties, however, his star had faded somewhat. He suffered from alcoholism and health problems which made it difficult for him to play the lead in the sort of action movies in which he had first made his name. In something like "Kim" from 1950, for example, he is very dull; when I reviewed that film I said that he didn't phone his performance in- he mailed it, second class.
In "Against All Flags", however, he seems to have recovered something of the old magic and he is once again the dashing swashbuckler, sweeping the ladies off their feet and fighting epic hand-to-hand duels against all comers; in the big swordfight in this movie he takes on Anthony Quinn as Brasiliano. The heroines of earlier Flynn movies were mostly demure young damsels, mostly played by Olivia de Havilland, but here Flynn receives good support from Maureen O'Hara as Spitfire, a fiery young lady who is quite capable of fighting her own duels without male support. She can be seen as a member of the "Me Too" movement before her time; woe betide the man who dares to lay a hand on Spitfire without her permission.
The film is shot in attractive colour, always an advantage with the swashbuckling genre. I have always thought it a pity that the economics of the studio system meant that some of Flynn's early films, such as "They Died with Their Boots On" or "The Sea Hawk" had to be in monochrome. "Against All Flags" was never going to be deep, significant or anything more than a "Boys Own" adventure transferred to celluloid. But there is always going to be a place in the cinema for "Boys Own" adventures if they are as well-made and entertaining as this one. 7/10
Some goofs. As the daughter of the Moghul Emperor, Patma would have been a Muslim, so why does she have a statue of a Hindu god in her cabin? And why, if Prudence comes from Windsor, Berkshire, does she speak with an Irish accent? If Maureen O'Hara couldn't manage a Berkshire one, the script could have been rewritten to make Prudence a native of Ireland.
Downton Abbey (2019)
Does not really work as a film
Many Britons believe that theirs is a uniquely class-ridden society, but to me this is just a case of "What do they know of England who only England know?"; other parts of the world, including some that like to boast of their supposed classlessness, have differences in social class at least as great as those which exist in Britain. What is true is that the British have a greater enthusiasm for talking about and analysing class differences than many other countries. I couldn't really imagine a French or American version of "Upstairs, Downstairs", that highly successful 1970s British drama series about life in a London mansion during the Edwardian era, concentrating on both the upper-class Bellamy family and their servants. The more recent "Downton Abbey" told a similar story about a Yorkshire stately home. Both series featured a female servant named Rose, perhaps a hint by "Downton's" creator Julian Fellowes that "Upstairs, Downstairs" was his inspiration. "Downton" was such a hit that, although it came to an end in 2015, a film spin-off seemed inevitable.
In 1927, King George V and Queen Mary spend a night at Downton during a royal tour of Yorkshire. As is apparently normal protocol, they bring with them their own Royal Staff to cater for their needs during their stay. One might have thought that the resident domestic servants at the house would have been pleased at the prospect of a night off their normal duties, but they resent the fact that they are not considered worthy to serve the Royals, something they would regard as the pinnacle of their careers. The main plot of the film tells of how Downton's staff manage to outwit their arrogant, supercilious Royal counterparts and end up cooking for and serving the King and Queen.
If the main plot were all that there is, this film would qualify as a comedy. It is, however, surrounded by a host of subplots, all of them dealing with a much more serious subject. An Irish Republican sympathiser plots to murder the King. The Queen's Lady-in-Waiting hides the fact that she has an illegitimate daughter, whom she passes off as her maid. A butler has to accept the fact that he is gay at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. An aristocrat is asked by the King to accompany the Prince of Wales on a tour of Africa, but he hesitates to accept, even though the King's request is a great honour, because he has just discovered that his wife is pregnant. The King's daughter Princess Mary is unhappy in her marriage to the much older Lord Harewood. (That plotline appears to be based on historical fact; all the others, including the assassination plot, are fictitious).
I must admit that I was not a regular watcher of the "Downton Abbey" television series; I suspect that I would have found the film much easier to follow if I had been. Fellowes, who also wrote the film screenplay, seems to have assumed that its audience would already be familiar with his characters, and does not waste much time introducing them to the rest of us. Existing fans of the series will presumably not have a problem with this, but the film has another weakness which I think betrays its origins as a TV serial. There are too many plotlines, and the subsidiary ones are dealt with in insufficient detail. Several of these, such as the butler struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and the titled lady trying to conceal her guilty secret would justify a complete film of their own. As for the attempt on the King's life, this must be the only film in which a treasonable conspiracy which, had it succeeded, would have changed the course of history is dealt with in such an offhand manner. Over the course of a television season, typically consisting of thirteen hour-long episodes, there would be time to expand and develop all these plotlines. In a two-hour feature film the writer needs to be more selective.
The film has some redeeming features, such as its detailed recreation of the look of the historical period in which it is set, typical of British "heritage cinema". There are also some good performances, especially from Maggie Smith as the formidable and acid-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham, the mother of Downton Abbey's current owner. Fans of the television series will probably love it. For me, however, and for others unfamiliar with the series, the concept does not really work as a film. 5/10
Operation Pacific (1951)
More than a standard flag-waving actioner
After routing the Japanese Army in films like "The Fighting Seabees" and "The Sands of Iwo Jima", John Wayne now returns to the fray to take on their Navy. He plays the "executive officer", or second-in-command, of the submarine USS Thunderfish who later takes over as captain after his commanding officer is killed in action. His character is named Lt-Cdr Duke E. Gifford; was this name, I wonder, deliberately coined to reflect the fact that Wayne's nickname was "Duke"? The main action, as one might expect, tells the story of how Duke and his crew send large parts of the Imperial Navy to the bottom of the Pacific, but there are also two sublots. One of these deals with an investigation to find out why torpedoes are not exploding after hitting enemy ships. The other, and more important, subplot concerns Duke's attempts to win back his ex-wife Mary, even though she is now romantically involved with Bob, a handsome young Navy pilot who just happens to be the younger brother of Duke's commanding officer. (Of course, he succeeds in his romantic quest; Bob's youth and good looks count for nothing against the normal Hollywood rule that in any film involving a love-triangle the bigger name star will always end up with the girl).
The film was made six years after the end of the war, and there is a contrast with something like "The Fighting Seabees", which was made while the war was still going on. By 1951 Japan had become one of America's Cold War allies, so the film, while still patriotic in tone, is largely free of the anti-Japanese racism which disfigured "Seabees" and a number of other wartime dramas about the Pacific theatre. No Japanese characters appear at all; they are now merely a faceless enemy rather than figures of hatred.
Wayne is not an actor one would normally associate with films about love and romance, but the Duke/Mary subplot plays a surprisingly large part in the film. In this case, however, the characterisation works better than one might expect. We learn that Duke's marriage broke down because was a strong, silent man of action whose first love was the Navy and who found it difficult to express his emotions, even after the death of his and Mary's infant son. And who was better than Wayne at playing strong, silent, unemotional men of action? Except that here he not only does his normal action man thing but also portrays a man forced for the first time to look inside himself for feelings he did not know he possessed and who learns how to say "I love you" and mean it. The result is not only an unusually nuanced and complex Wayne performance but also a war drama which is something more than a standard flag-waving actioner. 7/10
Circle of Danger (1951)
Tell, Don't Show
Clay Douglas, an American, travels to Britain to discover the truth behind his brother's death during the Second World War. (The film was made in 1951, six years after the war ended). We learn that Douglas's brother, Hank, had joined the British Army in 1940, before America entered the war, and was killed during a commando raid against German positions in occupied France. Douglas, however, soon realises that getting at the truth will be difficult. Although Hank was the only casualty on that particular raid, several other members of his unit were killed in later operations and another has recently died in peacetime. The survivors either know little about the circumstances of Hank's death or refuse to talk about it.
Douglas's quest eventually takes him to the Scottish Highlands where he meets Hank's commanding officer, Major Hamish McArran. Although McArran greets him courteously, he is obviously unwilling to tell Douglas all he knows. While in Scotland Douglas meets, and falls in love with, an attractive young woman named Elspeth Graham, in whom McArran also seems to have a romantic interest. Returning to England, he eventually tracks down another witness who is prepared to tell him more. He begins to suspect that Hank was not killed by enemy action but was deliberately murdered by one of his comrades.
The above synopsis would suggest that this is a serious drama, but in fact it can never really make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a romantic comedy. Too much attention is paid to the Elspeth subplot, especially during the middle part of the film when it comes close to eclipsing the main plot. The part where Douglas, forgetting that Elspeth suffers from hay fever, brings her a bouquet of flowers and sends her into a sneezing-fit is the sort of scene which would be more appropriate in a rom-com than in a thriller. Even those scenes which form part of the main plot can sometimes seem inappropriately comic. Two of Douglas's interviewees are a hilariously camp ballet dancer (whom we are supposed to accept as an ex-commando) and a dodgy car salesman who will not give Douglas the information he wants until he has agreed to buy an expensive car; the others all fit in with various British ethnic or regional stereotypes- garrulous Welshman, cheerful Cockney market porter, dour and taciturn Scot.
Were "Circle of Danger" being made today, it would probably be made in a very different way. Following the maxim "show, don't tell" the events of the commando raid would be shown in a series of flashbacks rather than simply being related to Douglas piecemeal by various witnesses, with the final flashback revealing the shocking truth about Hank. In 1951, however, the film-makers probably did not have a big enough budget to recreate scenes of wartime combat, so were forced to "tell, don't show". The final revelation, although I think we are supposed to accept it as the truth, is weakened by the fact that it is told to Douglas by a character who would have strong reasons to lie. The film-as-it-could-have-been might have ended up as a gripping mystery-thriller. The film-as-it-is takes what I would have thought was a naturally exciting subject, a World War II commando raid, and turns it into a rather dull, talky and passionless movie, largely free of excitement. 4/10
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Married couple Larry and Carol Lipton are invited in for coffee by their neighbours Paul and Lillian House and they spend a pleasant evening together, but the following day they learn that Lillian has died of a heart attack. Carol, surprised by how cheerful Paul seems after his wife's death. becomes first suspicious and then convinced that Lilian has been murdered. Larry remains sceptical, telling Carol that she's inventing a mystery where none exists, but Carol takes it upon herself to investigate with the assistance of Ted, a friend of Larry who shares her suspicions. Larry reluctantly gets involved, largely because he is becoming jealous of the amount of time Carol and Ted are spending together. And then Carol claims to have seen the supposedly dead Lillian on a bus.
1992/1993 was a difficult period in Woody Allen's life, the time of his break-up with Mia Farrow after becoming involved with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Farrow was originally slated to play Carol in this film, but after the split this became impossible, and Woody's former lover and muse Diane Keaton was cast instead. Apart from a brief cameo in "Radio Days", this was her first film with Woody since "Manhattan" in 1979, and it remains their last collaboration to date. (Unlike his break-up with Farrow, Woody's split from Keaton was relatively amicable, and they continued to work together even when they were no longer romantically involved).
Although he is not obviously Jewish, Larry is in other ways a typical Woody Allen character, a middle-class, intellectual New Yorker. He is also emotionally insecure, something shown by his jealousy of Ted and Carol, who are not romantically involved with one another. Unusually, however, Woody here plays the straight man to Keaton's frenetically neurotic motormouth. Carol might eventually be proved right about Paul's villainy- there is indeed plenty of skulduggery going on- but the fact that she initially suspected him on so little evidence suggests that she is not the most stable or rational of people.
The style of film-making here is similar to that in Woody's previous film, "Husbands and Wives which was distinguished by muted colours, oblique camera angles and two (or sometimes more) characters trying to speak at once, at times giving it a rather amateurish feel. The same features occur in "Manhattan Murder Mystery", especially when Larry and Carol are having one of their verbal duels. (She normally wins; for once, Woody finds himself up against someone who can talk more, and talk faster, than he can). Woody also seems to be avoiding using close-ups as much as possible; conversations are often filmed from a distance, with both parties in the shot at the same time and neither of them in focus.
Woody, of course, has a vast knowledge of film history, and frequently likes to make reference to older films in his own works. Sometimes this cannibalising of the past can be productive; "Play It Again, Sam", for example, with its ghostly Bogart, is one of his best. Here, however, I couldn't really see the point of turning the ending into an homage to a similar scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai", unless the idea was to make the audience think "Gosh, Woody really does know his film noir!" Those audience members who haven't seen Welles's film- as I hadn't when I first saw "Manhattan Murder Mystery" in 1993- will probably find the whole scene a bit baffling. In order to set up this scene Woody came up with a plotline whereby Paul is restoring an old, disused movie theatre, a detail rather at odds with the front Paul likes to present to the world of being a dull, unambitious middle-class retiree.
When Woody deals with serious crime, especially murder, the result can be something very dark and metaphysical, as in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" from 1989 or the more recent "Match Point". In "Manhattan Murder Mystery" and Carol and Ted's suspicions prove well-founded, but the film is surprisingly light in tone, a murder mystery comedy rather than an investigation into the meaning of life, the universe and everything. This tone came as a bit of a surprise to the critics, as the film came after a run of several more serious dramas, including "Crimes and Misdemeanors", "Alice" and "Husbands and Wives". Woody explained that he made the film as a form of therapy after his emotional problems- "I wanted to just indulge myself in something I could relax and enjoy"- so it is perhaps not surprising that it turned out rather lightweight by comparison with some of his other films. There are some occasional funny lines, but "Manhattan Murder Mystery" does not really rank among Woody's best. 7/10
The Shallows (2016)
Suspense in its Purest Form
While surfing from a remote Mexican beach a young woman named Nancy Adams is attacked by a shark. She manages to swim to an isolated rock about 200 yards offshore, but cannot make it back to the beach. To make matters worse, the rock is regularly submerged at high tide.
And that, in a nutshell, is the plot of "The Shallows". This is essentially suspense film making in its purest, most simplified form. No subplots. No detailed character analysis or development. Little dialogue. One sole location (apart from the final scene). An adversary who has no complicated psychological motives, only blind killer instincts. This being a suspense thriller there have to be a few false hopes of rescue first raised and then dashed, otherwise the film would have been over in about half an hour.
The nearest the plot comes to complexity is when it explains something of Nancy's back-story. We learn that she was a medical student but dropped out of medical school after being traumatised by the recent death of her mother. (Her medical training has some relevance to the plot as it explains how she is able to treat her own injuries). The reason why Nancy chose this particular beach is because her mother visited it while pregnant with her. We also learn that Nancy has a father and a younger sister, Chloe, back in Galveston, Texas.
This is, of course, a one-woman film. Blake Lively who plays Nancy is on screen virtually the whole time; no other character plays anything like a major role. Well, no other human character. The second most important character is the shark itself and the third most important a seagull whom Nancy names "Steven". Steven Seagull (geddit?) is also injured by the shark and is the nearest thing Nancy has to a companion during her ordeal. I would agree with the critic who described Lively's performance as being "as much an athletic feat as an aesthetic one", as this is a film which depends upon its action sequences for its effect. Some people have described the efforts to provide Nancy with a back-story as unnecessary, on the grounds that in a battle between girl and shark the audience are always going to root for the girl even if she is an escaped convict rather than an aspiring doctor. I think, however, that the film-makers were right to provide their heroine with an identity and a life and thus establish her as an individual with whom we can identify rather than a mere plot device.
In a sense the title of "The Shallows" is an apt one; there is little that is deep or significant about it, but then the film-makers never set out to make a deeply significant meaning-of-life movie. They set out to make a gripping thriller which would hold our attention for an hour-and-a-half, and in this we can say that they succeeded. 7/10
A goof. The film is supposedly set in Mexico, but Steven Seagull is a silver gull, a species native to Australia and not found in Mexico. The reason is that, despite its ostensible setting, the film was shot on location in Australia.
Of Necessity Experimental
No, nothing to do with the Aussie soap opera. This "Neighbors"- I keep the original American spelling- is a silent comedy short from 1920. The plot is a comic take on the "Romeo and Juliet" story. Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in flats in adjoining buildings but whose families are constantly quarrelling with one another. Both families are, of course, hostile to the young people's relationship, and the film is the story of how Buster and Virginia overcome the obstacles to their love. (I use the names of the actors because we never find out the names of their characters. The cast-list simply refers to "The Boy" and "The Girl").
Modern rom-coms also often deal with how young couples deal with the obstacles to their love, but today such "obstacles" are generally metaphorical- not only parental disapproval but also things like differences in social class or a fear of commitment. This being a silent comedy, however, the obstacles in "Neighbors" can be literal, physical barriers such as a wooden fence separating the two properties and the fact that Virginia's bedroom is on the third floor. Buster has to use his acrobatic skills to overcome these barriers with circus-style stunts involving a trapeze and much balancing on top of ladders.
Films like this were a part of my childhood in the sixties and seventies because they were often shown on British television. I suspect that this was done to provide a nostalgic treat for my grandparents' generation, who would have remembered them from their youth, but they also proved popular with my own generation. My parents were both born in the thirties and, having grown up after the sound revolution, regarded silents as very old-fashioned, so I often ended up watching them with Grandma and Grandpa. I was certainly not alone among my schoolfriends in my enthusiasm for these old films; they were not expressly made as children's films, but there was obviously something about their physical style of humour which appealed to the young.
To the modern adult, this style of humour can seem as unsophisticated as it did to my parents; one of the gags, for example, involves Buster's trousers falling down during the wedding ceremony after his belt breaks. We have to remember, however, that the cinema of the 1910s and early 1920s was, of necessity, experimental. Silent acting, whether in comedy or serious drama, was something new, and film-makers could not rely upon the traditional skills of the theatre, where actors could speak. Pioneers like Keaton, who acted as co-writer and co-director of this film, had to be continually experimenting to find out what worked and what didn't. And in "Neighbors" he does sometimes succeed in making us laugh.
Mrs Lowry & Son (2019)
The Harridan of Station Road
Laurence Stephen Lowry is one of my favourite painters, so when I heard that a film about him had been released I rushed to see it. Lowry, of course, is famous for his paintings of industrial scenes; he is one of those artists who can express a deeply spiritual vision of the world by concentrating on a small geographical area with a particular meaning for him. What the Stour Valley was to Constable, the countryside around Arles to Van Gogh, Argenteuil and the Parisian suburbs to the Impressionists, his wife's native Perthshire to Millais and North London to Algernon Newton, the industrial towns of his native Lancashire were to Lowry.
The film is based upon a stage play, and with its small cast and limited number of settings is obviously a piece of "filmed theatre". Most of the action takes place in a single, very precise, location, a bedroom at 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, Lancashire. The year is 1934. Lowry is starting to win recognition, but despite his success he still works in a humble job as a rent collector and lives in a small terraced house with his elderly widowed mother Elizabeth, his father having died two years earlier.
Elizabeth Lowry is an embittered, bedridden invalid, but, surprisingly, her bitterness is caused not by the state of her health but by the failure of her ambitions, both professional and social. As a young woman she had dreams of becoming a concert pianist, but these came to nothing. She was originally from a middle-class background and still resents the fact that financial circumstances forced the family to move from the wealthy Manchester suburb of Victoria Park to the nearby industrial, predominantly working-class, town of Pendlebury, even though the move took place as long ago as 1909. I sometimes wonder how Lowry's art might have developed had the family remained in Victoria Park. Would he, for example, have become a Northern equivalent of Newton or a latter-day Atkinson Grimshaw, the Victorian artist who often took inspiration from city suburbs, especially in his home town of Leeds?
She disapproves of her son's career as an artist, particularly as most of his paintings depict industrial scenes in the surrounding area, a choice of subject-matter which she regards as "low" and "vulgar". She only shows any appreciation for him when one of his more conventionally picturesque works, showing sailing-boats on a river, is praised by a neighbour, Mrs Stanhope. (Mrs Lowry takes Mrs Stanhope's opinions seriously because the two women share similar pretensions to middle-class gentility). The film is essentially a dramatisation of Lowry's struggles to cope with the demands of his selfish, overbearing mother.
Timothy Spall may have been cast as Lowry because, after his success in Mike Leigh's "Mr Turner", someone has obviously got hold of the idea that he is a specialist in biopics about English artists. Here, however, he is too old for the part he is playing; in 1934 Lowry would still have been in his forties, whereas Spall is 62, and, in this film at least, looks older. In reality he is just about young enough to be Vanessa Redgrave's son- there are twenty years between them- but here they look more like two people from the same generation, brother and sister rather than mother and son.
If one can overlook this problem with the characters' ages, Spall and Redgrave are both very good. Elizabeth is in many ways a spiteful domestic tyrant, yet Redgrave manages to make her seem pitiable rather than detestable. The pity lies in the fact that a woman who could have given much to the world should have wasted so much time in petty, snobbish resentments and that someone who clearly had artistic sensibilities herself should have been so blind to her son's genius. Spall's Lowry is very far from the common stereotype of the artistic genius as temperamental egotist- a humble self-effacing man with no airs and graces, willing to sacrifice much for his domineering mother, but not his art.
I have never seen the original play, so do not know how it works on stage, but I do not feel it was the best starting-point for a film about Lowry's life. The film left me wanting to know so much more about Lowry- about the beginning of his career, about his discovery of local Lancashire scenes as his main subject-matter, about his father, who is only seen briefly in flashback. I even wanted to know more about Elizabeth Lowry herself, about how the beautiful and talented young woman we see in the flashback scenes ended up as the bitter old harridan of 117 Station Road. "Mr Turner" is a film with a great breadth of vision; the more restricted, claustrophobic "Mrs Lowry and Son" is not. 7/10
The Commerce of the Absurd
How do you improve on perfection? The first series of David Nobbs's "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" was as close to perfect as any British comedy series ever gets, and a great hit with both the viewing public and the critics, but there was a problem which wouldn't exist with a standard sit-com, where the TV executives could simply commission the scriptwriters to write some more episodes based around the same characters.
"The Fall and Rise...", however, wasn't a standard sit-com but the dramatization of a comic (or serio-comic) novel which, unlike a sit-com, had a beginning, a middle and an end. Nobbs therefore had to come up with an idea for a second novel, which was published as "The Return of Reginald Perrin", although the original title was kept for the television version. In the first series Nobbs's hero Reggie was a bored, stressed and frustrated middle-manager, commuting from his suburban home to his pointless job at a firm called Sunshine Desserts, where he was bullied and patronised by his dreadful boss CJ. (Did Nobbs, I wonder, hit on the name of the firm because the word "desserts" is "stressed" spelt backwards?) In desperation he fakes his suicide in an attempt to start a new life, but eventually ends up working for his old firm under an assumed identity.
In his second book and television series Nobbs inverts his original idea. As the story opens Reggie is still working at Sunshine Desserts, disguised as his alter ego Martin Wellbourne, but is sacked when CJ learns his true identity. As a despairing gesture against the System, Reggie and his wife Elizabeth open a shop called Grot, based around a concept described in the novel (but not in this series) as the Commerce of the Absurd. It has long been a commonplace criticism of the "Consumer Society", and one much heard in the seventies, that big business was, through the cunning use of advertising, seducing unwary consumers into purchasing useless items which they did not need. It is implied that Sunshine Desserts is a firm of this sort, with a business model based upon flogging the public overpriced, tasteless products with little nutritional value.
Reggie takes this idea one step further by being quite honest about what he is doing. Everything sold in Grot is absolutely useless and is advertised under the slogan "everything sold here is absolutely useless". Examples of Grot products include square hoops, cruet sets without holes and the home-made wines brewed by Reggie's son-in-law Tom. (During the seventies there was something of a vogue for making one's own wine from the most unlikely ingredients; Tom's noxious brews include such vintages as "sprout" and "nettle"). Against the odds, Reggie's venture proves a huge success, and he quickly becomes the millionaire boss of a big chain of stores. He ends up employing CJ and several other colleagues from Sunshine Desserts after that firm goes bust.
Reggie, however, finds that he does not enjoy life as a successful boss any more than he enjoyed it as an unsuccessful middle manager. He finds that he is still trapped by routine and tries to destroy Grot from within, first by hiring people whom he believes to be incompetent in key positions and then by relapsing into eccentric behaviour. He fails, partly because his new appointees all prove to have hidden talents and partly because behaviour which seemed odd and bizarre in a middle-class commuter seems refreshingly unconventional in a wealthy business tycoon. Reggie and Elizabeth decide it is time to take a drastic step.
Leonard Rossiter, Pauline Yates and all the other regulars from the earlier series return apart from David Warwick as Reggie's son Mark who was for some reason written out. Tom has shaved off his beard, and Reggie's brother-in-law Jimmy, now discharged from the Army, returns as a more sinister figure, involved with far-right politics and trying unsuccessfully to set up a secret vigilante force to intervene in some unspecified national emergency. Once again, Nobbs makes great use of the various characters' catch-phrases ("I didn't get where I am today...", "I'm a something-or-other person!", "Great!", Super!"). Other comedy series used similar phrases, "Dad's Army" being a notable example, but whereas the phrases used in that series ("Stupid boy!", "Don't panic!" and so on) were simply used for comic effect, in "Reggie Perrin" they seem to have a more satirical function, being the sort of lazy ways of speech people slip into as a substitute for thinking.
Like the first series, the second is essentially a satirical critique of British capitalism, but this time seen from the top rather than from the middle. Success and failure are shown as two sides of the same counterfeit coin, and neither automatically leads to happiness. Yes, there's a lot to laugh at in "Reggie Perrin", but behind the laughter Nobbs is holding up a mirror to contemporary British society. 10/10
Trois couleurs: Rouge (1994)
The Best of the Trilogy by a Considerable Margin
Three Colours: Red" is the third and final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, the other parts being Blue and White. These are, of course, the colours of the French flag, and according to Kieslowski these three colours symbolise respectively liberty, equality, and fraternity, although this is not an interpretation that has ever officially been adopted by the French government. Red in this scheme is the colour of fraternity. This was also the last film ever made by Kieslowski; he was to die in 1996 but had announced before his death that he would be making no more films after "Red".
Fraternity is the runt of the litter, the odd one out among the three revolutionary triplets. I doubt if anyone has ever exclaimed "Give me fraternity or give me death!" or "O fraternity, what crimes are committed in thy name!" Politicians rarely orate about their wish to build a more fraternal society. Liberty and equality have entered the political vocabulary in a way which fraternity has not, and this is possibly the reason why Kieslowski here feels free to interpret the concept of fraternity more literally than he did those of liberty (which in "Blue" refers to "emotional" rather than political liberty) and equality (which in "White" means approximately "getting equal with your enemies by taking revenge").
The main character is Valentine Dussaut, a university student from Geneva and part-time model and dancer. While driving she accidentally hits a dog and tracks down its owner, an eccentric, grumpy old man named Joseph Kern, who seems unconcerned about what has happened to his pet. Despite the cool reception she initially receives, Valentine gradually becomes friendly with the old man, who turns out to be a retired judge. This is Kieslowski's conception of "fraternity" in the sense of the bonds which can develop between people who might seem to have little in common.
For a man who spent his working life enforcing the law, Kern has little respect for the law himself. Some retired men might take up a pastime like stamp collecting, gardening or playing bowls, but Kern's retirement hobby is bugging his neighbours' telephones so that he can eavesdrop on their conversations. When Valentine discovers his guilty secret she is horrified, and threatens to inform his neighbours of what is going on, but decides not to do so because she does not wish to distress them; she is particularly concerned about a woman whose husband is involved in a sexual affair with another man. Despite her distaste for Kern's activities, Valentine does not break off her friendship with him. There is also a sub-plot involving Augustin, a young law student, and his girlfriend Karin, who is cheating on him.
Kieslowski's use of colour symbolism seems to increase as the trilogy progresses. In "Blue" a few scenes are shot under blue light and there is one prominent blue object, but otherwise the colour (and, indeed, bright colours in general) is little used in that film. In "White" there are rather more white objects, and some scenes take place among the snows and frost of winter. In "Red", however, there seems to be at least one prominent bright red object in every scene. Another way in which Kieslowski ties the three films together is by using recurring characters. Karol and Dominique, the main characters of "White", appear briefly towards the end of "Blue" and are referred to at the end of "Red", as are Julie and Olivier from "Blue".
Irene Jacob, who also appeared in Kieslowski's earlier film "The Double Life of Veronique", is the best female actress in the trilogy. Juliette Binoche in "Blue" is too emotionally restrained for a woman who has recently endured the death of her husband and daughter in a car crash. Julie Delpy in "White" has the thankless task of playing a woman who is written not so much as a rounded human being than as a sacred monster, an Aunt Sally set up for her ex-husband to knock down. Jacob, however, gives a well-judged performance as a caring, compassionate young woman who because of her chance encounter with Kern finds herself suddenly confronted with a situation which is beyond her experience and almost beyond her power to deal with. (It is perhaps significant that she is named after the patron saint of lovers). Another great performance comes from Jean-Louis Trintignant as the enigmatic Kern, a man who has spent his life sitting in judgement on others and who would seem to as a result to have developed a pronounced God-complex. He is not, however, altogether unsympathetic; he is capable of recognising his errors and admitting to them, including one case where his error turned out to have an unexpectedly happy outcome.
As I said when I reviewed "Blue", Kieslowski has never been my favourite director, and I have never regarded the Three Colours Trilogy with the reverence accorded to it by some of his admirers. "Red" is, however, in my opinion the best of the three films by a considerable margin. Although the sequence of events is not always easy to follow, a criticism I would also make of "White", there are two excellent acting performances. The film also seems to have a greater philosophical depth than either of its predecessors. It might ostensibly be about fraternity, but it also deals with some complex issues surrounding such matters as law and morality (not always the same thing), age and youth, loneliness and companionship, love and hatred, forgiveness and revenge and even that unfashionable subject, right and wrong. Not a bad end to its director's career. 7/10
Trois couleurs: Blanc (1994)
A Modern Count of Monte Cristo
"Three Colours: White" is the second part of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, the other parts being Blue and Red. These are, of course, the colours of the French flag, and according to Kieslowski these three colours symbolise respectively liberty, equality, and fraternity, although this is not an interpretation that has ever officially been adopted by the French government. White in this scheme is the colour of equality, although just as "Blue" dealt with "emotional liberty" rather than political liberty, so "White" gives a very different meaning to the concept of "equality" than the one which would be given to it by most political thinkers. (The interpretation of "fraternity" in "Red", however, is closer to the normal meaning of the word).
In "Blue", set entirely in France, and "Red", set in French-speaking Switzerland, all the dialogue is in French. "White", however, like Kieslowski's earlier film "The Double Life of Veronique", is set partly in France and partly in Poland, with dialogue in both languages. The main character is Karol Karol, a Polish immigrant in France. The story opens in a Paris court where Karol is being sued for divorce by his beautiful French wife Dominique on the grounds of non-consummation. The divorce is granted, and Karol also loses his job (he worked in a beauty salon jointly owned with Dominique), his right to residence in France and most of his money. Even though he no longer has the right to live in France, he does not have the money for the air fare to Poland and can only return to his homeland hidden in a suitcase, a scheme which goes wrong when the suitcase is stolen by dishonest employees at the airport.
Back in Poland Karol discovers a way in which he can make money and use it to get revenge upon those whom he believes have wronged him, especially Dominique. There is also a subplot in which Karol accepts money to kill a man who wants to die but lacks the courage to commit suicide. The "equality" with which the film deals is Karol's belief that revenge will make him "equal" to his enemies in the sense that he will have got his own back on them.
Zbigniew Zamachowski's Karol is the archetypal, put-upon "little man", a direct descendant of Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp", who much to the audience's surprise, and probably to his own, finds himself in a position to become a "big man". This plotline may owe something to one of the classic works of French literature, Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo", which also involves a man who is badly treated but after becoming rich discovers how to revenge himself upon his enemies. Karol's adventures in the suitcase may be based upon Edmond Dantes's escape from prison.
Kieslowski's use of colour symbolism seems to increase as the trilogy progresses. In "Blue" a few scenes are shot under blue light and there is one prominent blue object, but otherwise the colour (and, indeed, bright colours in general) is little used in that film. In "White" there are rather more white objects, including Karol's overalls and Dominique's car, and some scenes, especially in Poland, take place among the snows and frost of winter. In "Red", however, bright red objects abound throughout the film. Another way in which Kieslowski ties the three films together is by using recurring characters. Karol and Dominique appear briefly towards the end of "Blue" and are referred to at the end of "Red".
My main problem with the film is that it does not flow easily; the action can be hard to follow, and it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. There are some plot-holes; Karol's return to Poland in the suitcase is brought about through the assistance of a fellow-Pole, Mikolaj who has befriended him. Yet Mikolaj is clearly well-off and successful, so we are forced to ask why he did not simply give, or lend, Karol the money for the air fare. I thought that Kieslowski was too hard on Dominique, whose only crime was to fall out of love with the man she married; the ending seemed particularly misogynistic. Although there is a good performance from Zamachowski, "Three Colours: White" has never been my favourite film. The same could be said of "Blue"; "Red" is in my view the best of the trilogy. 5/10
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Putting the Show in Chauvinism
In May 1973 Margaret Court, at the time the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, lost a challenge match against former men's Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes", with Riggs winning surprisingly easily. I say "surprisingly" because at 55 he was old enough to be Court's father; his Wimbledon victory had come as long ago as 1939, before Court was even born.
Who would now defend the honour of women's tennis? Step forward Billie Jean King, the world No. 2, even though she had previously dismissed Riggs's challenge to Court as an undignified gimmick. The early seventies were a period when the leading professional female players, King foremost amongst them, were agitating for the right to receive the same prize money as the men, and King was clearly irritated by Riggs' frequent sexist comments about female tennis players. The film tells the story of the second "Battle of the Sexes" between Riggs and King.
The film also deals with the private lives of the two protagonists. Their "Battle" came at a time when both were having problems in their marriages, although for different reasons. King had begun a lesbian affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, although the film suggests that her husband Larry treated this with philosophical detachment. Riggs had become alienated from his wife Priscilla because of his compulsive gambling, although he took the view that he did not have a gambling problem because he never bet more than he could afford to lose and, in any case, generally won more than he lost.
Emma Stone in the leading role suffers what, in many other biographical films, would be a significant disadvantage, that of not looking anything like the character she is portraying. Here, however, that does not matter so much because King's public profile was based on a distinctive hairstyle and an equally distinctive pair of oversized spectacles, something few other professional sportswomen wore. All Stone needs, therefore, is a brunette wig and specs and... hey presto, Billie Jean!
The film-makers sometimes try to pretend that they are making a serious film about an event which played an important part in winning equality for sportswomen, although they never really have an answer to the argument that King's initial feelings about Riggs were actually correct and that the two "Battles of the Sexes" were indeed an undignified gimmick. Riggs probably had no strong views one way or the other about how much prize-money women players should receive, but he was as addicted to publicity-seeking as he was to gambling, and saw the two matches as a lucrative way of keeping his name in the headlines. His provocative comments ("putting the show in chauvinism", as he put it) may well have been made with the express purpose of goading King into accepting his challenge.
In many ways the film is as much a light-hearted comedy as a serious celebration of sporting feminism. This is achieved in two ways. The first is by treating Riggs as essentially a figure of fun. I have only seen Steve Carell in one other film, the serious drama "Foxcatcher" (in which he was excellent), but I understand that in America he is best known as a comedian, and here he gives a superbly comic performance, making Riggs a manic, wisecracking joker. (There is one very funny scene when, forced by Priscilla to attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, he enrages the other participants by telling them that their problem is not that they are gamblers. Their problem is that, unlike him, they are unsuccessful gamblers).
The second way in which the film-makers lighten the tone is by not telling the whole truth about King's romance with Marilyn Barnett. That affair could, in fact, have served as the subject-matter for a film in its own right, although it would of necessity have had to be much more serious than "Battle of the Sexes". King might today be regarded as a lesbian and feminist icon, but during her playing career she was never open about her sexuality, largely because she feared that the sponsors might pull out of the women's game at any hint of scandal. After the events depicted here, she broke off her relationship with Barnett, who in 1981 tried unsuccessfully to sue her under the "palimony" laws. Barnett eventually attempted suicide, an attempt which left her paralysed. Although King admitted sexual intimacy with Barnett she tried to pass it off as an isolated fling and did not "come out" about her lesbianism until after her divorce from Larry and her retirement from professional tennis. There is, needless to say, no reference to these matters in the film.
"Battle of the Sexes" is in many ways an enjoyable period romp, enlivened by Carell's lively contribution, although the way in which it glossed over Marilyn Barnett's tragic story leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth. Yet I can understand why the film-makers were so reluctant to explore that story, quite apart from the possibility of their being hit by a libel suit. The film received largely positive reviews from the critics, yet was not a success at the box office. It would appear that even during these supposedly liberal times there is little public appetite for a light-hearted movie with a lesbian theme. There might be even less appetite for a serious movie with a lesbian theme. 7/10