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2017 Summer Movies #6

Posted by Gerald on August 9, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #51 – The Man Who Haunted Himself (Basil Dearden, 1970): This marks the end of the Filmstruck Dearden collection, and was his last film.  He died in a car accident, and this film revolves around a car accident.  A pre-Bond Roger Moore plays a staid City of London businessman who has a car accident and dies on the operating table for a few seconds.  Then Strange Things begin to happen.  This is certainly the most visually interesting of the Dearden films I’ve seen.  The fantasy element seems to have led him to be more willing to play with color, superimposition, and other things.  Moore evidently took this role for next to no money (he was already a major star in Britain due to The Saint and other TV roles) because he really believed in the project.  He listed this role as one of his best.  I can see why, he gets to do a lot here in comparison to his usual action leading man thing.  On a personal level, there is something about these 1970s British Technicolor films with the swinging orchestral soundtracks that I have always responded too.  Just watch the opening sequence and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

2017 Summer Movie #52 – The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951):  This is kind of a film noir coming of age story.  A teenager celebrating his 17th birthday (John Barrymore Jr. – father of Drew Barrymore – in his film premiere) sees his father being caned by a menacing mobster during the party.  He puts on his father’s suit, picks up his father’s gun, and heads out into the night for vengeance.  Despite some overly melodramatic moments, Barrymore is good in this and the story becomes one of the pitfalls of seeking to hand out justice when you don’t know all the facts.  This was Losey’s last Hollywood film before he left for Europe after having been blacklisted.  His screenplay for the movie included uncredited work by fellow blacklist members Ring Lardner Jr. and Hugo Butler.  Losey was being pushed out even as the film was being finished and, as a result, wasn’t part of the post-production process, where he evidently intended to shape this into a series of flashbacks.  Interesting, but be aware that the print (and the sound) are kind of awful.

2017 Summer Movie #53 – Time Without Pity (Joseph Losey, 1957): A noir thriller with Michael Redgrave playing a father trying to save his wrongly convicted son from being executed for murder.  Redgrave is fantastic as a guilt-ridden drunk who can barely function as he tries to beat the clock.  There are a lot of familiar faces in this film including Peter Cushing and Leo McKern.  Lois Maxwell, the future Miss Moneypenny in the bulk of the Bond films, has a couple of good scenes as Leo McKern’s seductive secretary.  This was Losey’s first film under his own name after five years of working under various pseudonyms and it was written by fellow blacklisted artist Ben Barzman.

2017 Summer Movie #54 – The Criminal (Joseph Losey, 1960): This crime drama about a convict (Stanley Baker) who pulls a heist, winds up back in prison, and then has to deal with the police and the mob trying to get him to give them the loot, is made more interesting than this often-done tale by the way it centers on what prison does to the men inside, the dynamics of the relationships between prisoners and guards, and by some interesting camera work.  It also deals with a theme of Losey’s about how those in power, whatever side of the law they may be on, are likely to abuse that power.  It is a bit above the cut for “prison” movies even though it has almost everything you’ve ever seen in one.

2017 Summer Movie #55 – Eva (Joseph Losey, 1962): I hadn’t realized that Jeanne Moreau (who plays Eva) died just last week.  This film, about a writer who becomes obsessed with a femme fatale, is really at its best when we are just watching Moreau wander around empty rooms and look into mirrors.  However, it is also good when we watch her beating up on Stanley Baker, both metaphorically and literally.  Baker deserves credit for taking on the role of the drunken loser here, but one has to wonder what might have been if the role had been played by Richard Burton, the actor originally considered for this and the man who has turned in many of the greatest drunken loser performances in film history.  There is some nice camera work here, but there is also a “what if” surrounding some of that.  Joseph Losey said that the producers re-edited the film without his involvement and that because of this he found it a disappointment.  Still, this is worth watching, even just to watch Moreau vamp around Rome and Venice.

2017 Summer Movie #56 – The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963): This is one you watch for the art, not for entertainment – but if you love film it is entertaining.  There is no describing the plot for this because it isn’t really about that.  This is the first of three collaborations between Losey and playwright Harold Pinter.  It is about a servant (Dirk Bogarde) and his “Master” (James Fox).  It is a story about weakness and domination and sexuality and inversion and, like anything worthwhile done in England, class.  Great performances all around, but Sarah Miles as the coquettish and manipulative Vera is amazing.  Douglas Slocombe’s his black-and-white cinematography is incredible.  There are beautiful scenes of winter around claustrophobic and shadowy interiors.  He repeatedly constructs shots using mirrors to give reverse angles on his scenes – focusing action in imperfect reflections.  It is just great stuff.

2017 Summer Movie #57 – King and Country (Joseph Losey, 1964): It is World War I and a British soldier is being tried for desertion.  You pretty much know how this one is going to turn out.  This is much more a study of what war does to people than it is any sort of courtroom drama.  The court martial is actually just a small part of the film.  Tom Courtenay is very good as the hapless soldier.  Even by comparison with such films as “Paths of Glory” or “Breaker Morant” this is brutal.  Losey did this on a small budget for British television, which led him to make some interesting use of still photography.  Despite this the film was nominated for several awards both in Britain and at the Venice Film Festival, where Courtenay won an award for best actor.

2017 Summer Movie #58 – Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967): This is the second of Losey’s collaborations with Harold Pinter and it is brilliant.  Like “The Servant” the story here isn’t the real point.  This film delves deeply into desire and lust, jealousy and resentment, and middle-aged ennui… also, of course, the British class system  Pinter’s script freights innocuous lines with layers of meaning, while Losey’s camera lingers on small things that tell you everything about these people.  Dirk Bogarde is great as the thwarted Oxford don.  Just watch this!

2017 Summer Movie #59 – A Doll’s House (Joseph Losey, 1973): It is interesting to realize that when this premiered in the US it did so on ABC.  Probably the most interesting thing about this is that it is an adaptation.  Losey and David Mercer abandoned Ibsen’s one-room setting.  They took expository speeches and turned them into separate scenes.  Yet still, the film gives a sense of confinement and isolation – but without the literal confinement of the stage play.  I see this as an legitimate restructuring – making something into a movie rather than simply filming the play.  Still, it is also a very different thing than what Ibsen created, and unsurprisingly it upset many purists.  Jane Fonda is good in the lead role, David Warner is both sympathetic and alienating as Torvald, and Trevor Howard is wonderful as Dr. Rank.  Worth checking out as long as one leaves the expectation of seeing the play behind.

2017 Summer Movie #60 – The Romantic Englishwoman (Joseph Losey, 1975): One of the reasons I like watching strings of movies by a director is when I can start to see the patterns in their work.  Here, as in many of Losey’s movies, we can see themes of desire, jealousy, and how complicated relationships can be.  There are also visual elements that I’ve seen again and again through these films – the use of mirrors and reflections, contrasting tight interior spaces with wide exterior shots, and subtle hints – easily overlooked – that shape the meaning of the shots.  Another theme in his work that we can see here is the blending of reality, memory, and imagination.  I enjoyed this film for all of those things, but also because it stars two of my favorite actors.  Michael Caine as a writer trying to understand how his marriage is changing and the always fantastic Glenda Jackson as a woman discovering that her life isn’t what she wants, but not entirely certain how to find the other life she seeks.  Many similarities here to “The Doll’s House” and “Accident”.  Watch this!

2017 Summer Movie #61 – Roads to the South (Joseph Losey, 1978): This is a French language film and a sequel to a movie I haven’t seen (but want to now) entitled “The War is Over”.  It deals with a lot of Losey’s frequent themes about relationships and aging.  This one centers on the difficult relationship between a man and his son during the period surrounding the death of his wife.  It is also dealing with the end of the Franco regime in Spain, against which the man (Yves Montand) had fought in his youth.  An excellent and complicated movie – watch it.

2017 Summer Movie #62 – La Truite (Joseph Losey, 1983): The last of the Losey films on Filmstruck and not the best – but still interesting.  Again we have complicated people in complicated relationships made more complex because the people don’t really understand themselves or the people around them.  This film is also a bit more explicit in dealing with one of Losey’s continuing themes – the ambiguities of sex and desire.  One thing I’ve noticed through this series: I usually look up things about these movies and not one of the synopses I’ve read of a Losey film really does justice to what the movie is about.  His stories are used as vehicles for exploring people, rather than characters existing to fill in elements of a story – hence they don’t make for easy description.  Here ends the last of the reviews for summer 2017.

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2017 Summer Movies #5

Posted by Gerald on August 4, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #41 – Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963): Despite some elements that are a bit problematic, this film is well worth seeing if you love good movie making.  Richardson was making a literary adaptation in 1963 for a major studio, yet he threw the rule-book about how one did that (serious tone, reverence for the material, …) out the window.  He made a comedy – but not just a comedy.  He plays with everything here – film speeds, use of stills, abrupt shifts of tone, breaking the fourth wall (in a time when that was unheard of rather than almost cliche), an opening scene done in the style of an old silent movie etc…  What is even more amazing is that audiences loved this.  This is almost as difficult to consider as the idea that “Twin Peaks” was once a ratings hit on a major TV network in the US.  You can see bits of what Richardson did here in everything from Monty Python to John Hughes.  Like the best examples of film, this is about creating images – painting with light, if you will – not just using images to support a narrative.  If anything, the narrative here is just a framework to hold the images together  It is part of that sensibility that came to dominate films in the late 60s and 70s, and which died in major releases with the “blockbusters” of 1977.  Watch this!

2017 Summer Movie #42 – Pool of London (Basil Dearden, 1951): Another workmanlike Dearden film with a hint of a social conscience.  In this case we have a pretty stock crime drama – there is a heist, there are chase scenes, the two leads are decent enough guys who get drawn into all of it almost by accident… This would almost qualify as noir, but it doesn’t have the visual style.  What makes this unusual is that one of the two lead characters is played by a black actor (Earl Cameron) and this is the first time a black actor had a starring role in a British film.  His character has a sort of interracial relationship with a white woman – light dating, but with overtones of possible romance; and even that was enough to cause some controversy in England.  The film touches on racial prejudice, but it isn’t the major plot element that homophobia is in “Victim”.  Frankly, you could have cast a white actor in the role and made a couple changes to some dialogue, and you would have had the same story.  Still, that it addresses the issue at all makes it stand out – and puts it into this set of Dearden films that address social issues.

2017 Summer Movie #43 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kenji Fukasaku, 1974): The last of the five films rounds out the story of the yakuza who featured in the other four movies and shows an attempt to take some of the Hiroshima families “legitimate” (to borrow Michael Corleone’s phrase).  As with the Godfather saga, there is no escaping the criminal past and the violence continues.

2017 Summer Movie #44 – The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith, 1952): This is generally considered the definitive film adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play.  This sort of thing was Asquith’s forte and he worked here from his own fairly faithful screenplay.  If you like the play, you will probably like the movie.  In a nice round of irony, the director of this movie originally went into film to escape his family reputation.  His father was H.H. Asquith, a Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister up through the first two years of World War II.  Prior to being Prime Minister, he had served as Home Secretary.  While he was Home Secretary, Oscar Wilde was tried, convicted, and imprisoned on charges of “gross indecency” (homosexuality).  At that time, both the police and the prisons were under Asquith’s ministry.  The guy who did a comps field on modern British social and political history loves this sort of thing.

2017 Summer Movie #45 – The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957): No social message this time, just a comedy about a young couple inheriting a run-down movie theater and its staff of eccentric characters (including an old drunken projectionist played by Peter Sellers).  This is in the style of the Ealing Studio comedies, where Dearden had made films for years, although Ealing had just closed before this film was made.  While looking up stuff about this film, I discovered it became the basis for a 2015 stage musical that also uses a lot of Irving Berlin songs.  Not really outstanding, but fun.

2017 Summer Movie #46 – The Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948): Dean Stockwell plays the eponymous boy; a war orphan whose hair suddenly turns green.  This movie is almost Wes Anderson-like in having this twee coating over a dark center.  It’s message, that war is bad and should be avoided, went a long way toward convincing America, embodied in HUAC, that Losey was a threat to all that was good and decent.  This led to his being blacklisted and then leaving the country to make better movies with the likes of Howard Pinter in Europe.

2017 Summer Movie #47 – Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017): Excellent.  Nolan managed to avoid most of the cliches used in making this sort of film.  Instead we get a series of converging stories that allow the drama of this epic event to be felt in small and personal brushes with war.  No jingoism, no empty celebration of military glory – instead we see how the glory of war is in surviving and being a human at the end.  Nolan, as always, knows how to create a fantastic shot and uses the channel and the beaches to great effect.  If there is no other Oscar here, one should go to Hans Zimmer for the score.  It is unrelenting, it NEVER stops, and it carries much of the emotional impact of the film – yet does so without the usual orchestral flourishes that epic movies usually have.  This is a great one.

2017 Summer Movie #48 – Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959): Another workman-like film from Dearden, this is a crime procedural.  Where it joins these other Dearden films is that the murder at the core is of a young “colored” woman who was “passing for white”.  With this, the film looks at racism of many different types.  It has that twinge of early “progressive” films where a no doubt well-meaning white guy rather clumsily addresses racism.  Still, there is some really interesting stuff here, especially about the lives of black Londoners in the 1950s.  Be prepared for a couple of unintentional but still pretty racist scenes in the midst of this film that is trying to say racism is bad.

2017 Summer Movie #49 – All Night Long (Basil Dearden, 1963): This is my favorite of the Dearden movies on Filmstruck thus far.  It is an adaptation of Othello set in an all night jazz party in 1960s London.  The script was written by “Paul Achilles” – a pseudonym used by American screenwriter Paul Jarrico when he was working in Europe while under the blacklist back home.  The movie features cameos by a LOT of jazz musicians, most notably Dave Brubeck and Charles Minges.  As with any version of Othello, the big question is the performance of Iago.  In this case we have Patrick McGoohan as a pot-smoking drummer setting up band leader Paul Harris and his retired singer wife Marti Stevens (McGoohan played the drums well enough that the shots of his playing show both his face and his hands, which are hitting the right drums at the right time).  His big move involves his skill editing audio tape.  Rounding out the major cast is Dearden regular Richard Attenborough as the host of the party.  Watch this one.

2017 Summer Movie #50 – A Place to Go (Basil Dearden, 1963): Dearden made films in several genres, this is an example of a British “kitchen sink” film.  These focused on very realistic depictions of working-class life.  This film stars Michael Sarne (who was a pop star in England for about five minutes and then went on to a career as an actor and director) as a somewhat rootless working-class Londoner who, in a frequent theme in Dearden’s films, gets pulled into a crime.  Still, this is less a crime drama than a depiction of how the lives of the English working class were being uprooted in the 1960s.  One major theme is the London version of “urban renewal” which, like in US cities in the 1960s, tore apart existing working class neighborhoods sending the more successful into suburbia and the less so into anonymous government subsidized apartment blocks.  The most interesting thing in this film is watching this transition happen to the family.  Despite the grim nature of this, the film is also full of moments of romance and comedy.  I liked it.

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2017 Summer Movies #4

Posted by Gerald on July 26, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #31 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match, or Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973): This is the second of the five films in the Yakuza Papers, or Battles Without Honor and Humanity, series Fukasaku released in 1973-4.  It picks up with the story of the post-war Yakuza gangs in Hiroshima.  Lots of murders and blood.  The point seems to be the de-mythologizing of these gangsters.  There is little in the way of heroism here, not even anti-heroes.  The violence is chaotic, brutal, and de-humanizing.  The aftermath of every fight is a shot of bloody corpses like chopped meat in a “ripped from the headlines” image.  The closest thing to a hero in this is the main character, a gunman named Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), who is rather callously used by a Yakuza boss in his fight with another faction.  Even his eventual death – although we are told he is still remembered as a great yakuza in Hiroshima – is shown as meaningless and ugly.

2017 Summer Movie #32 – The Ship That Died of Shame (Basil Dearden, 1955): What makes this movie interesting is that it deals with post-war England a bit differently than most films of the time.  It shows the sort of heroes of WWII that couldn’t find a way into civilian life.  Richard Attenborough is excellent as a man who willingly embraces corruption.  George Baker is the more stalwart everyman who made a bad decision.  The title refers to a central conceit – that the former navy patrol boat that is being used for smuggling is becoming increasingly unreliable – a moralistic tone that makes the film less interesting.  If something is going to break in a story due to choices, it should probably be a person.  Dearden is competent but not interesting in his direction.

2017 Summer Movie #33 – Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, 1947): Wow.  This is a film to watch – and I mean watch.  The story here is almost secondary to the visual and also somewhat problematic in its depiction of gender and race.  Still, this is an example of when problematic art should be engaged with because of its merits rather than rejected.  This was seen at the time as a technical masterpiece of early Technicolor film, and rightly so.  Powell and noted cinematographer Jack Cardiff construct a film where color, angle, shot composition, and art direction tell a story of growing madness and isolation.  You can see the legacy of this film in everything from David Lean’s famous sequence of flowers in “Doctor Zhivago” to Martin Scorsese’s use of extreme close-ups in “the Color of Money”.  Add to this memorable performances by Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron and you have a masterpiece.  Watch this movie!

2017 Summer Movie #34 – The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, 1948): This is one of the classic dance films and “behind the stage” films.  Another collaboration between director Michael Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, this film is a beautiful example of how color and light create art in films.  An absolute must see for anyone who care about film.

2017 Summer Movie #35 – Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Craig McCall, 2010): This is a decent documentary about Jack Cardiff released around the time of his death in 2009.  As documentary film goes, this is more interesting for its subject matter than for its film style.  It is mostly interviews with Cardiff himself and commentary by many figures, especially Martin Scorsese who is a huge fan of his work.  Cardiff was the first (and for a long time, only) Technicolor cameraman in Britain and went on to a distinguished career as a cinematographer and director.  His film credits range from classics like “Black Narcissus” and “The African Queen” to less classic films like “Conan the Destroyer” and “Rambo: First Blood, Part 2”.  This film is at its best, for me, when he is discussing the creative and technical issues of his work, but it is also fascinating for his stories about the people he worked with over the years.  Really good.

2017 Summer Movie #36 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973): Number three in the series features battles between underbosses who are associated with higher bosses.  Again, many people die.  I’m not sure I understand why most of the characters in these movies are doing what they do.  I am sure that these crime bosses couldn’t have dealt with Fredo Corleone in a fight, let alone Michael, Sonny, or Vito.

2017 Summer Movie #37 – Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961): In most ways this is a fairly standard suspense film.  There is blackmail which leads to suicide and a murder.  What maks all this stand out is that it deals with homosexuality.  This is the first English language film to actually use that word and is one of the first to deal with the issue openly.  By modern standards the film isn’t particularly “daring” but in 1961 the context was quite different.  Dirk Bogarde gives a great performance as the main character and took on the role of a closeted (even from himself, in many ways) gay man at a time when he was Britain’s biggest male lead – an act that took some professional courage.  Dearden’s work is competent, but not that exciting – which is true of most of his movies.  What makes him interesting as a director is his choice of subject matter, in this and in many of his other films.

2017 Summer Movie #38 – The Captive Heart (Basil Dearden, 1946): This film was one of the first POW films made in Britain after the end of World War II (oddly enough, the British film industry wasn’t big on producing films about British soldiers in captivity while the war was still going on).  This is pretty much a patriotic salute to Britain’s wartime heroes, but is made a bit more interesting due to the fact that one of the writers, Guy Morgan, had spend time as a POW.  The film shows us a bit of the sense of isolation and abandonment these men felt – but then goes back to stiff upper lip and musn’t grumble.  It is also intriguing because they filmed part of it in an actual POW camp in British-occupied Germany.  Outside of these things the film is pretty conventional, but is entertaining is you like 1940s era British films (which I do).

2017 Summer Film #39 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics (Kinji Fukasaku, 1974): The fourth film in the series sees a war between large yakuza groups being fought by the local gangs in Hiroshima and Kure (the situation set up in the third film).  Growing violence is contrasted with the booming economy in Japan and increasing public outrage stoked by press coverage pushes government officials and the police to take action.  As near as I can tell from the movie, the dramatic new “tactics” on the part of the police involved watching known yakuza and occasionally arresting them for crimes.  By the end of this film the major violence is over because the instigators are in prison and the police have negotiated a truce between the rival factions.  The lead detective we see in much of this comes across as a Japanese Columbo – messy hair, wrinkled raincoat, and all…

2017 Summer Movie #40 – Frieda (Basil Dearden, 1947): Dearden made “Victim” in 1961, which was an indictment of the laws against homosexuality in Britain.  That makes this film especially interesting.  The titular character is the German bride of an RAF pilot who brings her to his home in England during the waning days of the war.  The movie centers on the intolerance and hatred she finds in that community, on the idea of assigning collective guilt for the war, and on the dehumanizing of an enemy.  Like so many of Dearden’s films, we have a fairly conventional movie, but one that deals with a very interesting subject.

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2017 Summer Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on July 24, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #21 – Letters From Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum, 2016): This is a documentary about the life of Gertrude Bell, a prominent British Orientalist whose books helped inform British policy in the Middle East after World War I and who played a prominent role in the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq and the establishment of the antiquities museum in Baghdad.  Her story is a fascinating one.  The documentary takes an interesting approach in that it shows Bell through her letters and journals (voiced by Tilda Swinton, who was a producer on the project) and through faux “interviews” with actors playing figures from her life talking about her as if this were an Errol Morris documentary.  The comments seemed to be largely manufactured from the original sources, unlike Bell’s voice which is captured in her actual words.  I’m not sure I think that worked, at least not for me.  Another interesting choice is how the filmmakers remained absolutely focused on Bell as a person – to the extent of providing little context to the huge events she played such an important role in shaping.  Certainly worth watching – if for no other reason than the eerie prescience of some of what she was saying about Iraq in the 1920s.

2017 Summer Movie #22 – Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945): An early film noir that calls to mind “Laura” particularly in that it had the same cinematographer.  Outside of the visual style, this is most interesting as an example of how Preminger kept pushing the envelope of what was permissible in Hollywood movies.  Linda Darnell’s character – sexual and manipulative – casts a spell on all of the men in the film.  Dana Andrews is great, as always, playing a grifter who drops into the middle of this story.  Alice Faye is, frankly, a bit boring – but then she is playing the “good girl” who ultimately is there to redeem Andrews.  Worth checking out if you are interested in either Preminger or film noir.

2017 Summer Movie #23 – A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1945): Filmstruck put this into a collection of early Preminger film, but it is not really his movie.  Preminger took over directing the film after its original producer/director, Ernst Lubitsch, had a heart attack.  He did this at the request of Darryl F. Zannuck.  It is a light comedy set in the court of Catherine the Great and Preminger is not really the man for light comedy.  Despite decent performances, particularly by Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine, it just doesn’t work.  The scenes just aren’t light and quick the way they should be.  Had Lubitsch been able to direct the shooting, I think this might have been a better film.

2017 Summer Movie #24 – Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): I’ve seen and written about this before.  This is one of the great film noir and it is one of Preminger’s best known films.  On this viewing I was struck by the performance of Clifton Webb.  His depiction of seething jealousy and obsession barely masked by a veneer of upper-class arrogance is a bit beautiful.  I was also struck by the similarities between Gene Tierney’s Laura and Linda Darnell’s Stella from “Fallen Angel”.  Both are beautiful women who attract the obsessive interest of men around them, to the point of inspiring murder.  If you love classic films, you’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #25 – Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is a Technicolor costume drama about an ambitious woman in Restoration England.  We get to see Preminger demonstrating his ability to work on a large scale for the first time.  The story and performances are not very memorable.  In line with many of the films Preminger would eventually make, this one was condemned on moral ground – not so much for anything explicit as for the fact that the heroine (played by Linda Darnell) is sexually manipulative, has a child out of wedlock, etc… Preminger hated the film, as did almost everyone involved in it (this is an artifact of the studio system, where everyone from the Producer on down might only be doing the film because they were assigned to do so).  It is a competently made film with a few really nice looking scenes.  That’s about it.

2017 Summer Movie #26 – Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is one of those films that are often mentioned but that I’d never seen before.  This is an example of a “woman’s film” (Hollywood melodramas produced for a female audience, but made by men) featuring one of that genre’s usual tropes – the woman torn between two men.  Making this more interesting than many of these melodramas are the performances.  As the title character, Joan Crawford gives an unusually restrained performance and is excellent.  She is independent even as she obviously wants a relationship.  Henry Fonda plays a somewhat broken WWII vet (one of the coolest things about the film is when it deals with elements of life in post-war America) that becomes one point in the triangle.  Dana Andrews is just fantastic as the cool and manipulative married man Daisy is involved with.  Preminger is at his best making subtle films about nuanced characters.  Despite this being a formulaic melodrama in many respects, it meets those criteria.  Another feature is Leon Shamroy’s cinematography.  This is a melodrama shot loke a film noir (enough so that it is often described as film noir despite having none of the usual trappings of story or setting that make up that genre).  If the ending of this were a bit less conventional, this film could have been a feminist classic.  As it is, it is a well-crafted example of a Hollywood film.

2017 Summer Movie #27 – Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937): The second melodrama today, this one in celebration of Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, and another TCM perennial that I’ve never seen.  This film is a tearjerker about A Mother’s Love – but with some completely unexamined class overtones.  The way Stanwyck’s Stella shows her Ultimate Maternal Love for her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) is by stepping out of her daughter’s life so Laurel can fully embrace the world of her upper-class father (John Boles) without the taint of her mother’s common manners and lack of fashion-sense.  In other words, we needn’t criticize the class structures that create this social divide, we should just feel moved by the main character giving up her only real relationship in acceptance of them.  One could also ask how coarse and common Stella raised the refined Laurel, but that just must be the genetic superiority of her father expressing itself.  Instead everyone just sniffles as the music swells and Stanwyck walks away in the rain from having secretly observed her daughter’s marriage to an upper-class drone.  Stanwyck was actually quite good in this.  There is a natural quality to her on-screen that one rarely sees in 1930s Hollywood films and she was nominated for Best Actress for this role.  This is something that I can appreciate without really liking it, and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

2017 Summer Movie #28 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1974): This is the first of a five-film series by Fukasaku that redefined the Yakuza film genre in Japan. Earlier films were set before WWII and were called “chivalry films” that depicted the yakuza as men living by rigid codes of honor – sort of latter-day samurai.  Fukasaku’s films were based on articles and an account by an actual yakuza and began a new type called “actual event” films.  These show the yakuza as brutal criminals who mouth platitudes about honor, but break their oaths when convenient.  This first one begins in Hiroshima province right after WWII as the local crime syndicate is growing out of the refugee camps.  Some of the most interesting parts are the glimpses of life during the occupation of Japan.  The style is frenetic and violent – very suggestive of later Hong Kong action films centering on the Chinese Triads.  Finally, it is impossible to watch this bloody depiction of organized crime in the post-war era without thinking about The Godfather, which Coppola released in 1972 – just before production began on these films.  I’ll be watching the rest.

2017 Summer Movie #29 – The Agony and the Ecstasy (Carol Reed, 1965): This is a big and beautiful spectacle, it just isn’t a very good movie.  Carol Reed was past his prime at this point (yes, Oliver! was yet to come, but really that isn’t a great movie, either).  Most of this film scans like the actual art history lecture that makes up the opening ten minutes.  Rex Harrison is his usual great self as Pope Julius, but Heston is awful as Michelangelo.  The parts as written are a bit too invested in eulogizing the subjects rather than finding some truth about them.  Another problem comes with the work of several Italian actors whose voices were then overdubbed by English-speakers, which just rings false.  Still, it has some visually beautiful scenes and is really nice as a depiction of what went into the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and so was perfect for my purposes in preparing for next year’s trip.

2017 Summer Movie #30 – The Shoes of the Fisherman (Michael Anderson, 1968): This is another movie I re-watched as prep for my upcoming trip to Rome.  On one level this movie is trying to say something about struggles of faith, but on another level it is pure “Vatican porn” – and the latter part works better.  This film is in love with the pomp and spectacle surrounding the Papal Monarchy, with the art and architecture of the Vatican, and with the city of Rome.  I think this is a nice example of where the major studios were by the late 60s – they weren’t sure what movie to make.  There are wonderful scenes of Oskar Werner playing a priest whose teachings are in conflict with orthodoxy discussing what faith means in the 20th century.  There is a major plot element about growing international tensions that the studio (MGM) seems to have latched onto as a way to market the film as a thriller.  Still, the most memorable parts of the film are the depictions of pomp and ceremony – the sort of grand visuals that Hollywood studios kept hoping would save them in the face of television and French New Wave.  Still, this movie has some interesting resonance with the stories of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.  Much like “The Agony and the Ecstasy” I recommend this mostly for the visuals, although both Werner and the redoubtable Anthony Quinn turn in good performances.

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2017 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #11 – On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951): Another of Ray’s noir films.  This time a cop who is turning increasingly sadistic due to isolation and the pressures of the job (Robert Ryan) is sent to a rural area to help in the manhunt for a murderer.  There he encounters the murderer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino – who also directed some scenes, but is not credited) and the vengeful father of the victim (Ward Bond).  Ryan is at his best while portraying the “cop on the edge” but becomes much less interesting as he is redeemed.  This being a 1950s film, the redemption is at the hands of Lupino, who gives as good a performance as a rather mawkish script would allow (she is blind and angelic and her character exists for no reason than to inspire the humanity of Ryan’s character.)  Bond is fine as the revenge driven father, but has little to do except be gruff and angry at these “city-slickers and their fancy trials”.  The contrast between the darkened city at the beginning of the film and the snowy countryside of the main action is interesting.  Worth checking out if you like noir or Ray (as often here, we get a rather sympathetic take from him on society’s losers and outcasts).

2017 Summer Movies #12 – Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956): Wow.  This is a slice of life film, when life goes off the rails.  James Mason plays an ordinary school teacher who suffers and inflammatory disease and is treated with cortisol.  He takes too many pills and the steroids drive him to psychosis.  What is brilliant here is Mason’s portrayal of the deterioration and Ray’s framing of the events.  It is also an almost subversive look at the “Father Knows Best” idea of American life in the 1950s.  His madness takes the form of an increasingly intense version of patriarchalism.  Side observation: there are several scenes here that show how unchanged America is in many ways: the first scene shows a school kid who doesn’t know his basic geography, Mason’s school teacher has to hold a second job just to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, the schools are burdened with bureaucratic nonsense, later in the film Mason – deep in the madness – gives a speech to a PTA meeting about how education “today” (in the mid-1950s) coddles children and America needs to return to traditional ways to save the morality of the youth… and gets much applause.  You’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #13 – Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel, 2015): This is a surprisingly insightful, and even hopeful, documentary about an almost unbelievable story straight from Reality TV America.  Two men get into a dispute about ownership of the severed left leg of one of the men.  What follows is a story about family, addiction, and the obsession with celebrity.  It is funny, touching, and horrifying all at once.

2017 Summer Movie #14 – Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958): While this deals with gangsters, etc… this is so different from the other Ray films I’ve recently written about.  In many ways, this is a pretty formulaic story – mob lawyer (Robert Taylor) falls for show girl (Cyd Charisse) and winds up betraying mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) so justice can triumph.  What makes this worth watching is the beautiful use of CinemaScope by cinematographer Robert J. Bonner (especially in Cyd Charrise’s two big dance numbers), Robert Taylor’s excellent performance (he does a lot with a fairly cliche character), and Lee J. Cobb’s wonderful over-the-top performance as the mob boss (I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t thinking of this with De Niro’s portrayal of Capone in De Palma’s “The Untouchable’s”).  Not fantastic, but still worth watching.

2017 Summer Movie #15 – La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962): This is a short film told almost entirely with still photographs about a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys is heavily based on this, and this film is credited as inspiring it.  It is an interesting movie in its use of still photography, its sound, and it’s themes of time and memory.  Worth checking out if you like the art house stuff like I do.

2017 Summer Movie #16 – Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997): This film is about a British journalist covering the siege of Sarajevo and how he came to adopt a young Bosnian girl.  What could have been sentimental claptrap is made into a compelling story through good performances and a fairly brutal visual style.  Winterbottom shot is Sarajevo and Croatia just months after the war and filmed some of the scenes of reporting with videotape and then also used actual news footage to heighten the sense of reality.  The violence in the film is not action-style, it is just random and brutal.  Very good.

2017 Summer Movie #17 – For the Love of Spock (Adam Nimoy, 2016): This is really for the fans and as one, I loved it.  Although I had backed Adam Nimoy’s Kickstarter campaign and received a digital copy as soon as it was released, I’ve been putting off watching this for some reason.  There isn’t much about Star Trek or even the impact of Spock on the culture that is very surprising here.  The film is at its best when it focuses on Nimoy and his life.  We get to see his family (of course) and insights into his art and career beyond Star Trek.  Much like his professional life, though, the film keeps coming back to that show – which makes sense.  I loved it.

2017 summer Movie #18 – Chaos on the Bridge (William Shatner, 2014): I was much more impressed with this than I expected to be.  I think Shatner did a decent job of navigating between respect for what Star Trek is to so many people and being honest about the making of a TV show.  This is a documentary about the creation and the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and particularly about Gene Roddenberry’s role in all of this.  It is a funny and often brutal depiction.  If you weren’t clear on why the first two seasons of the show are (to quote Ronald Moore) “almost unwatchable,” this gives you a good set of answers.  I liked Shatner’s documentary “The Captains” but this is even better. Worth watching both for fans and for anyone who is interested in how TV shows get made.

2017 Summer Movie #19 – Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016): I don’t get the positive reviews.  I thought Idris Elba was given next to nothing to do, the only real emotional moments were either associated with tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin or were echoes of the original series, and in place of a story we see empty jokes connecting overblown action sequences.  Also –  a note – not every villain is motivated by vengeance and not every Star Trek story needs to be about a battle.  I came to terms with the idea that many of my problems with the last film were that it wasn’t “my” Star Trek, but I think this was just weak movie making.  The performances were fine and the visuals were big, but I just didn’t care about it.

2017 Summer Movie #20 – Hail, Caesar!(Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016): I love the Coen brothers’ movies.  I particularly love how they manage to make comedies that are simultaneously cynical and sentimental.  This is one of my favorites.  It is a love song to post-WWII big studio Hollywood that is also a brutal parody of post WWII big studio Hollywood.  There is so much here I can’t even get started.  If there is one perfect shot, though, it is Eddie Mannix in a moment of profound crisis silhouetted against a Calvary scene on a sound stage.  This is just perfect.  BTW – make sure you know who Eddie Mannix and Nick Schenck really were and brush up on the story of the Hollywood 10.  You don’t have to do this to enjoy the film, but knowing this stuff add many layers.  Watch more movies!

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Summer Movies 2017 #1

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #1 – From Caligari to Hitler (Rüdiger Suchsland, 2014): Summer 2017 Movie #1 – This is a documentary based on a 1947 book which analyzed Weimar era German film to show elements of Nazism. I’ve not read the book, but the film loses that thesis repeatedly – and often to its benefit. The film is really at its best when analyzing popular genres of Weimar movies and bringing in elements of cultural and social history. It suffers from a lack of structure but has enough interesting details to make it worth watching.

2017 Summer Movie #2 – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016): Okay, I’ve finally seen it. I’m sorry, but I just don’t like Zack Snyder’s version of all of this. Martha Kent telling Clark he doesn’t owe the world anything… A middle-aged Batman who is still primarily motivated by his parent’s deaths… a long and grinding series of fights mostly motivated by everyone’s daddy issues… a big funeral scene for a character no one in the audience really believes is dead… Not really exciting, fun, or thought provoking. I’m hoping Wonder Woman might work.

2017 Summer Movie #3 – Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016): Figured I’d get them both in today. The humor wasn’t funny enough, the action wasn’t thrilling enough, the drama wasn’t moving, and the ending was just terrible.

2017 Summer Movie # 4 – The Seven Five (Tiller Russell, 2014): This is a decent documentary about a famous police corruption case in NYC. Frankly, if you watch this sort of thing you’ve probably seen this before – interviews with cops and crooks (and cops who were crooks) interspersed with archival footage; the corrupt cops who feel invulnerable because of police loyalty right up until The Thing happens that brings it all down; the central figure who lies so well you can’t tell whether he is lying to himself or just to everyone else and who may not know himself, all building up to the final fall and then credits backed by a Rolling Stones song that references New York. This is at its most interesting when it deals with the complex negotiation of loyalty and morality these guys use to justify what they did.

2017 Summer Movie #5 – CBGB (Randall Miller, 2013): I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. Given the comic-book framing device it used (I get why it was used, but it didn’t really work well) I suppose it makes sense that the film feels more like it has a series of caricatures rather than characters. It just seems to me that there was a fascinating subject here and some good acting talent on hand, but the film-makers did little with them.

2017 Summer Movie #6 – Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965): If you know Kurosawa from “Seven Samurai” or “Yojimbo”, this film might be a surprise.  It follows a young doctor in Tokugawa era Japan who winds up working in a clinic in a poor area run by an older doctor (Toshiro Mifune) who becomes his mentor.  There really isn’t a single narrative here so much as a framework that is being used to examine humanism and social injustice.  In the hands of a lesser director this could have been sentimental melodrama but in Kurosawa’s hands it is a thing of beauty.  Great.

2017 Summer Movie #7 – They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949): Ray’s directorial debut is a film noir about a young couple on the run.  There are many parallels here to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”.  It has good performances by Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger as well as some interesting touches, including what seems to have been the first use of a helicopter to capture arial footage of action (as opposed to landscape shots).  Well worth checking out if you like the genre.

2017 Summer Movie #8 – X-Men Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016): Another superhero movie I hadn’t seen yet.  I thought this had some good sequences and performances, but I’m not sure the whole-world-is-in-peril structure can work in every entry in a franchise.  I knew what was going to happen most of the way through the film.  Of course Magneto’s happy family isn’t going to make it, of course Storm will eventually switch sides, of course the Big Bad will be defeated and the world saved.  This is, of course, true of many types of films and sometimes everything else happening makes it all work.  In this case I think it almost worked, but not quite.  I’m glad I saw it, but I didn’t love it.

2017 Summer Movie #9 – Snow Trail (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1947): This was Toshiro Mifune’s film debut and the script was written by Akira Kurosawa.  The story follows three bank robbers attempting to evade police by crossing the mountains in winter.  While there is some action, it isn’t really either a cops-and-robbers movie or a survival film, instead it is mostly about themes of innocence and redemption.  There are some really good landscape and weather scenes and decent performances all around.  If you like Japanese cinema, this is very worth checking out.

2017 Summer Movie #10 – In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950): This is a great movie.  Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter with a history of violent outbursts who becomes the suspect in the murder of a young woman.  Gloria Grahame plays a woman who becomes involved with him and is increasingly suspicious about his guilt.  Both are just amazing in this and the film manages to leave you wondering about the truth right up until the end.  If you love film noir and haven’t seen this, do so immediately.

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Random Films 2016

Posted by Gerald on May 30, 2017

Here is a bunch of mini-reviews from last year that I had scattered across several draft posts and just never published.

 

Film #1 – You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937): This is Lang’s second film after coming to the US.  Lang is well-known for his influence on film noir, and already in this film you can see elements associated with those movies; the anti-hero, a sense of moral ambivalence, and – of course – those touches of German Expressionism that Lang played so significant a role in bringing to Hollywood.  The movie is also interesting for Henry Fonda (the male lead, but second billed after Silvia Sidney).  I always find the contrast of Fonda’s very naturalistic style with that of almost every other actor he works with in his early films to be fascinating to watch.  Finally, this movie is worth watching for the ending, which is just odd.  Either it is a rather forced attempt at being spiritually uplifting, or it is a satire of the spiritually uplifting endings of Hollywood movies, or Lang was hiding the satire into what was supposed to look like sincerity… or I’m overthinking it all…

Film #2 – War and Peace, Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This is it, the mother of all film adaptations, a four-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel.  It took six years to make and the whole thing clocks in at over seven hours.  This first part is two and a half hours long alone.  It is huge.  The sequence dealing with the Battle of Austerlitz is on a scale like the battle scenes in “Lord of the Rings” – except this was the 1960s, there was no CGI, and every one of the LITERAL cast of thousands is a real person.  I loved it, but would offer a few caveats to anyone planning to watch this.  First, this is a 1960s Soviet film re-released by Criterion; the print has some issues and the transfer is odd, to say the least.  Second, this is NOT a Hollywood epic.  The visuals are fascinating in their use of angles, multiple exposures, varied time, shading and color, and point of reference – but this doesn’t look like a Hollywood epic.  This has Eisenstein and montage theory all over it, and if you aren’t familiar then you’ll want to know who that is and what that is before you watch this.  The sound editing is also striking for its use of contrast and blending – but it won’t sound familiar unless you are really into European film.  Check this out, just be ready – and make sure you have enough time free…

Film #3 – War and Peace, Part II: Natasha Rostova (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): Grand balls, hunts, love and its pitfalls, all done with more interesting use of montage.  Ludmila Davelyeva is wonderful as the young Natasha Rostova.

Film #4 – War and Peace, Part III: The Year 1812 (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967): This chapter is basically the portion of the novel that deals with the Battle of Borodino.  The battle takes up an hour of the film but at no point is it anything of military history.  Instead it is an epic, grinding, but somewhat ponderous examination of war.  There is a jarring moment at the end where the viewer is forcibly reminded that this film was made in and supported by the Soviet state – and during the early transition from the Khrushchev to the Brezhnev years.  Having finished an hour of looking at the human costs of war, the film ends on a note of strident patriotism – asserting that the battle was a “moral victory” for Russia and the beginning of the Napoleon’s “inexplicable flight away from Moscow” and the beginning of the end of his empire.  Triumphant music then swells, in absolute contrast to the scenes of corpses and wounded men that had preceded it.

Film #5 – War and Peace, Part IV: Pierre Bezhukov (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967):  One last quibble, Sergei Bondarchuk should not have played Pierre Bezhukov.  He was, and looked, too old for the part.  So, the end.  Still very faithful to the novel (yes, I did read the whole thing) but within the constraints of a Soviet film.  In the latter portions of the book, Tostoy is ruminating more about his philosophy of life and death, which is bound up with his Christianity.  Removing the religious elements makes it hard to parse some of the story – such as Bezhukov’s great moment of revelation during his captivity.  Despite this, the last part retains the virtues of the whole.  For those who love big historical dramas, and enjoy a more European style of movie-making, this is very much worth the (considerable) time investment.

Fall Movie #1 – Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946): This is one of those films that film people talk about a lot and I can see why.  It is this dark fantasy whose only real flaw is the flaw of the Beauty and the Beast story – the message of the value of perceiving what is beyond the surface is undermined by the idea that the reward for doing so is surface beauty.  The film is lush and beautiful and the fantastic vision of the magical house being realized with 1940s camera work and practical effects is more impressive, to me, than the modern equivalent with CGI.  Also, one can see the debt the popular Disney version owes to Cocteau’s vision of a house full of spirits and of life.

Fall Movie #2(?) – Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): It isn’t that many directors who have two films nominated for best picture in a single year. Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” won best picture in 1941 (his only Best Picture winner) – this is the other film he had nominated for that award that year.  It is a well-paced action thriller and a wonderful piece of propaganda (a fact noted by no less a connoisseur than Joseph Goebbels).  Good performances and some brilliant production design and photography make this film stand out from similar entries in the genre.  There are two particularly impressive scenes.  The first is a sequence set around a rural field of windmills in Holland.  It combined exterior location shooting on a California beach and a matte painting for the long shots with a full reconstruction of a windmill in a studio soundstage for closer angles and then interior sets of the windmill itself.  Second there is a climactic sequence involving a passenger plane being shot down that featured a brilliant use of rear projection and practical effects.  As the plane is crashing we see the pilots against a projection of film taken by a stunt pilot diving as close to the ocean surface as he could without crashing that was displayed on a rice paper screen so that when the plane hit the water Hitchcock could trigger a flood of actual water that breaks through the screen and floods the cockpit set.  Even the opening shot is all about Hitchcock’s visual sense and carefully planned scenes.  It uses a model of a newspaper office building with a rotating globe on top, begins with the globe (which was in close-up all through the opening credits) pulls back to an establishing shot of the building and then zooms into the window of the office where the movie begins.  Great stuff.

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953):  Even as film noir goes, this thing is fairly brutal – and it works. Glenn Ford plays a cop whose drive for justice, and then revenge, manages to kill all four major female characters in the movie.  Great performances all around, especially by Lee Marvin (I even love that guy’s worst movies) as a sadistic mobster and Gloria Grahame as his girlfriend.  Grahame manages to project the idea of a “good girl” who has become a “bad girl” but wants to be a “good girl” yet is okay with being “bad” anyway.  A couple days ago I was listening to Karina Longworth’s account of Grahame’s life and career in an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast.  She is kind of fascinating for many things, including for having foreshadowed Woody Allen by a few decades and marrying a man (director Nicholas Ray) only to later divorce him and wind up marrying his son (her stepson who lived with them as a teenager) Tommy Ray.  Grahame’s story aside, this is a great film from a world-class director.  Check it out.

Strokes of Genius Film #1 – Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952): Very much not Baz Luhrmann although this film and his won the same two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design).  This is a sort of biopic/artist portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Huston seems to revel in the contrasts of seediness and grandeur in this film, echoed in the “destruction” of the Moulin Rouge through its rise to respectability.  Jose Ferrer is wonderful in his savage and witty self-destructiveness.  His physical performance – often shot walking on his knees with his legs bound behind him – is probably the most famous element of this film.  I was struck by the cinematography.  Huston and Oswald Morris used a special process with the Technicolor print to allow more control over the colors.  The result is a less saturated and vivid palette than the usual Technicolor film; a palette very similar to the artists paintings.  This is a celebration or art that also tries to evoke fin de siècle Paris and does both well.  Still don’t see the point of casting Zsa Zsa Gabor, though.

Strokes of Genius Film #2 – Lust for Life (Vincent Minnelli, 1956): Not Iggy Pop but Kirk Douglas.  Appropriately this film is more about depicting an impression of the art and the artist than a biographical account.  It is at its best when it uses lush cinematography and exact shot placement to echo Van Gogh’s painting.  Although this is one of Kirk Douglas’s most famous roles, I’m not convinced it is his best.  He is good but, perhaps, if finding his way to the consuming passion he wants to show in the character he lost his ability to restrain his own performance when it needed it.  Just one man’s opinion, though.  Anthony Quinn feels much more nuanced in his portrayal of Paul Gauguin.  The film also finds a solid center in the always dependable James Donald.

Strokes of Genius Film #3 – Rembrandt (Alexander Korda, 1936): Alexander Korda produced and directed many films, but historical biopics were pretty much the core of his work.  This is one of those.  Nothing is terribly surprising here for a 1936 film – we have the artist who is misunderstood in his time, lots of Biblical references to maintain the proper moral tone, and an ending suggestive of the poverty of the artist’s later years while also the triumph of genius that lives on.  Charles Laughton is wonderful as always in the lead role.  A young Elsa Lanchester (remembered mostly for “Bride of Frankenstein”, lots of 1960s Disney movies, and “Murder By Death”) plays Rembrandt’s second wife and brings some spark to the role.  Not the greatest film but still worth a look.

Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015): I wanted to like this film. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it either, but I just didn’t care. It has big visuals, but then what major SF film these days doesn’t? It has a sweeping orchestral score, so check off box number two on the Big Budget SF Movie Elements check-sheet. The performances were fine, but in service of a cliche-ridden story; the only twist being it is a “Girl with a Destiny” rather than a “Boy with a Destiny” (but the girl still isn’t the hero; she has to be saved by her boyfriend… repeatedly…). It couldn’t work up any tension in the big climactic scene because it never even occurred to me that our happy couple wouldn’t live or that our villain wouldn’t be vanquished. Seriously, save your time and skip this one.

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John Ford in the 1930s (FilmStruck Collection)

Posted by Gerald on November 6, 2016

Film #1 – The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934): This film is like Ford’s “Stagecoach” in that the most interesting thing about it is the way it inspired so many re-makes. It is a traditional Ford film – you could easily transform the British soldiers into US Cavalry and the Arabs into Indians and have the same movie. That isn’t a slight. Ford was a master at formulaic film-making, to such a point that he established his own formulas. This is one of them.

Film #2 – The Informer (John Ford, 1935): Ford won his first (of six) Best Director Oscars for this film. It is a wonderful study of temptation, betrayal, and guilt. It is also a showcase of John Ford’s ability to craft images. There is a wonderful short sequence where Margot Grahame is shown in close-up with a shawl pulled tightly about her face – an image full of innocence – the Madonna, if you will. Then we cut to this disturbing shot of a man leering (this film has the imprint of German Expressionism all over it) and right back to Grahame as she slips the shawl around her neck to show tousled hair and an air of weary seduction – the Whore, if you will. It says so much, and takes maybe ten seconds of film time. There is too much to describe here. If your only experience of Ford is his westerns with John Wayne, check this out to see why he is justly considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th century.

Film #3 – The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, 1935): This is a comedy featuring Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as a mild-mannered clerk named Jones and a dangerous gangster named Mannion.  It is a quick-paced comedy of mistaken identity that works both because of Ford’s direction and because Robinson is just so good.  Adding to this is Jean Arthur who was one of the best when it came to the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s.  This is a fun movie to watch.

Film #4 – Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936): Not one of Ford’s best, but then a sub-par John Ford film is better than many other directors’ best efforts.  Maybe it is that Ford’s best films tend to focus on characters at the bottom of society – he wasn’t a director of glittering period pieces.  Maybe his devout Catholicism led him to overplay the idea of Mary as Catholic martyr.  Or, maybe, the fact that he was falling for Katherine Hepburn effected his instincts.  Certainly this film lacks many of the characteristic elements of Ford films – such as meticulously designed shots – while substituting more long close-ups of his heroine than we usually see.  The film is at its best though when it deals with something we can see in many of Ford’s best efforts, the power that loss has on people.  Again, not his best, but still worth seeing.

Film #5 – The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1937): This is a film adaptation of a play about the 1916 Easter Rebellion.  Ford hated it.  He fought with the playwright over the adaptation and with the studio over the finished product (which included re-shoots which he had no role in making.) Ford left RKO and didn’t make another film for them for ten years (and when he did it was as an independent producer).  It is fairly uninteresting except in its juxtaposition of duty to one’s country and duty to one’s family (without any real resolution of that conflict).  The highlight of it is Barbara Stanwyk, who makes the movie worth a look.

Film #6 – The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937): This is almost like one of the 1970s disater films in that the whole story is mostly just a set-up for the big storm at the end.  This is one of those “exotic south seas” genre pictures, but it features a dichotomy you can see in many of Ford’s westerns as well.  The Polynesian natives, played by Dorothy Lamour (I think this is the only non-“Road to…” film I’ve seen her in) and the startlingly white Jon Hall, are depicted as simple, pure, and naive – the racist pastiche of the noble savage.  At the same time though, the French colonial system is depicted as rigid and brutal (Raymond Massey’s governor is almost like Javert in his devotion to law and John Carradine’s sadistic jailer is the picture of unchecked power)  and the main action of the film centers on an encounter with a overtly racist white guy.  Ford did this in many of his westerns where he shows some level of awareness of what the US did to the Native Americans, but still pictured them in pretty stereotypical terms.  The film ends with the eponymous hurricane which is quite a special effects scene for a 1930s film.

Film #7 – Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939): FilmStruck had to end its series about Ford in the 30s with this – it was made in 1939, it is the only western he made during the decade (he’d left westerns in the late 1920s), and it is THE western.  To really appreciate it you need to realize that all of the well-worn tropes of the western that you see in this movie are showing up here for the first time.  Also, pay attention to the artistry of the film.  Fords was a painter and you can see his painter’s eye at work here.  Finally, this movie is also very much a reflection of the New Deal.  A group of disparate people come together in the face of common problems and cooperate to survive.  You also just have to love the ending (SPOILER) – Many people criticize media today for its lack of a moral compass.  Well, here you have a director who was a devout Catholic making his best film ever and in the most American of all genres, and what do we have at the end?  The convicted felon/escaped prisoner and the prostitute ride off into a bright future while the banker goes to jail.  Happy ending indeed.

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2016 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on June 24, 2016

Summer Movie #11 – That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941): This movie is as different from the last I watched – Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” – as it is possible to be. This is a piece of classic polished film melodrama portraying the illicit affair between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton. It has major stars in Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier who give typically capable performances. It is overtly romantic, patriotic, and moralizing. It was Winston Churchill’s favorite movie. It portrays the full national mythology of Nelson’s career and death while also dropping large parts of Emma Hamilton’s life as a performer and as the “muse” of painter George Romney. It is a wholly classic piece of work. It is more approachable and entertaining than “Jubilee” on every level. It is also far less daring and memorable, in my opinion. If you love the classics (and I do enjoy them) you’ll love this movie.

Summer Movie #12 – Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1956): This is the second of Wajda’s “War Trilogy” – the third being “Ashes and Diamonds” which I watched and wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  “Ashes and Diamonds” alluded to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, but this deals with it directly.  Basically it follows a company of Polish resistance fighter who journey through the sewers of Warsaw to try to escape destruction by the Nazis.  The movie is lass about war than about how humans deal with despair and the loss of hope.  It is powerful, dark, and really depressing (any film that BEGINS by telling you that you are watching the last hours of the characters’ lives is not going to be a light-hearted romp).  The cinematography is great – claustrophobic, shadowy, and gritty (most of the movie is set in a sewer, after all).  The performances are remarkable.  This movie is neither entertaining nor fun, but it is worth experiencing.  Like all worthwhile art, it says something about being human – in this case about being human in really bad times.  Side note – Vladek Sheybal plays a composer who hooks up with the resistance fighters and this was his first major film role.  You probably don’t know the name, but you’ve probably seen this guy – most famously as the chess master in “From Russia with Love” but he did a lot of movies and late 60’s early 70s TV (including many Gerry Anderson series).  This movie is hard to watch, but it is worth the seeing.

Summer Movie #13 – Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980): I love Walter Matthau, so when I noticed his face on the banner for this movie while searching the Criterion offerings on Hulu, I clicked on it immediately.  I felt like I should have watched this at a drive-in.  This is a lightly-comic dark spy thriller – if you can process that.  It has the late-70s vision of the CIA – manipulative, ruthless, institutional – the one depicted in movies like “The Parallax View” or “Three Days of the Condor”; but it has also been written to be a shaggy-dog comedy of the sort Matthau specialized in by this period.  The story was based on a novel written by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel “Death Wish” was based on.  The director, Ronald Neame, is best know for “The Poseidon Adventure”.  As Matthau’s character rebels against the CIA, by threatening to write a tell-all book (this in the era of Frank Snepp and Victor Marchetti) you get wit and comedy rather than Jason Bourne-style action and violence.  He is constantly showing up his pursuers as incompetent and violent, but he never kills any of them.  The movie is just fun in that sort of dry and witty way movies made for adults were once upon a time.  Glenda Jackson is wonderful as his romantic interest/accomplice.  Sam Waterston plays his protege who is reluctantly hunting him at the orders of Ned Beatty, playing one of his many roles as the evil careerist.  Herbert Lom plays a Russian spy who was his long-time rival.  If you would like to visit a very 70s movie and just have fun, watch this.

Summer Movie #14 – The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960): I watched this movie simply because it started right after I finished watching “Hopscotch”.  It is a well-made caper film dealing with a group of former army officers (headed by Jack Hawkins and including Richard Attenborough) pulling off a bank robbery.  There is an interesting undertone of social commentary in that the idea seems to be that these former “Officers and Gentlemen” (all of whom, other than Hawkins, had left the army under various sorts of clouds) were never quite able to find their way to civilian life.  It is also interesting that as they organize and prepare the soundtrack is the sort of heroic score one would associate with war films – underscoring the idea that it was their military training that is allowing them to be daring criminals.  It is all very British – but it is also somewhat reminiscent of the original “Ocean’s Eleven”.

Summer Movie #15 – Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975): This isn’t so much a war movie as it is a movie about being alive during a war.  The film follows a young soldier from call-up through his first experience of actual battle.  There are few surprises in the narrative, but that isn’t really the point.  What Cooper did here was to use very familiar elements from a very familiar story, but he did so with interesting visuals and sound choices and, most notably, great use of archival footage.  This isn’t a movie to watch to unfold a story – you’ve seen this story before – but to experience it in a different way.  This isn’t a “life-changing” sort of movie, but it was an interesting exercise in visual story-telling.

Summer Movie #16 – The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979): There is a lot going on in this film.  It is a sort of rumination on innocence and depravity while also using those extremes to look at the German community in Poland, and Nazism generally, before and during WWII.  It tells a story from the viewpoint of Oskar, a preternaturally intelligent child who deliberately stops growing at age three.  The imagery is fable-like and surreal, then brutal and ugly.  If there is one scene that kind of sums up the movie for me, it is one where the local Nazis (including Oskar’s ostensible father) hold a Nuremberg-style rally to hear a speech from a senior party member.  Schlöndorff is quite deliberate in using moments from “Triumph of the Will” to show these local idiots who see themselves as masters of the world celebrating their vision of their own greatness.  Oskar begins playing his eponymous tin drum in counterpoint to the marching music of the rally, which confuses the band musicians and slowly transforms what they play into the Blue Danube Waltz, at which point the gathered party members begin to waltz with one another to the consternation of the higher officials, and then the whole thing dissolves into chaos as a rain storm breaks.  If the humor of that appeals to you, as it did to me, this film is something you should watch.

Summer Movie #17 – Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): This is a movie I’m embarrassed to say I’d not seen before, given its significance.  This and “The Bicycle Thief” are always mentioned as the beginnings of the whole neorealist movement.  This film, shot and the premiered in an Italy still ravaged by the war, tells a story of the period when Rome was under occupation by the Nazis.  The film has many moments of pure melodrama, but the things that really hit home are the moments of just brutal honesty – about the violence of occupation and about the small moments of courage or compromise that Italians showed then.  The movie is worth seeing on its own, but it is also worth seeing as a moment in film history, as the launching of the careers of figures like Rossellini and star Anna Magnani, and finally as a movie whose making has itself spawned myth and legend.

Summer Movie #18 – A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1991): This is a film from one of my favorite documentarians and shows what makes his work successful.  Rather than a simple narrative of Stephen Hawking’s life, this takes the form of interwoven discussions of his breakthroughs in cosmology with people telling stories about their encounters with him.  The result is a film that leaves one knowing a bit more about the universe and with some insights into the man who discovered so much about it.

Summer Movie #19 – Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946): This was the second of Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” which I’ve been watching out of order (since I wound up watching the last one, “Germany Year Zero” first).  The movie is made up of six vignettes set during the Allied Sicilian and Italian campaigns.  Each of the stories is almost trite – the American soldier and the spunky Italian kid, the GI and the girl he met the day the Americans liberated Rome, etc… – but Rossellini’s unflinching realism and unwillingness to romanticize the characters makes the film rise above what it could have been in the hands of a lesser director.  It is also interesting that his depiction of the American army in Italy is more diverse than those in America at the time.  We see a Black GI, a story about an American nurse, and a group of American chaplains that includes a rabbi.  Still, this is are Italian stories and not American ones.  As was so often the case, Rossellini added to the realism by casting real people – a village girl, a street urchin, etc…  Brilliant and real.

Summer Movie #20 – Jour de Fête (Jacques Tati, 1949): This was Tati’s feature-length directorial debut.  The only other Tati film I’ve seen is the 1971 film “Trafic” and there are a lot of similarities.  Both films have a theme of lampooning the modern search for efficiency and the use of technology (and both films use America as the very symbol of those things).  However, that isn’t really what the movie is “about”.  Like “Trafic” the story, about a fair in a small farming village and a bumbling postman (played by Tati) is really just a vehicle to string together a set of visual comic set-pieces.  His films are quite reminiscent of silent-era comedies.  There is a strong sense of seeing people as both ridiculous and endearing that marks his work; mocking with love, if you will.  If you appreciate Chaplin or Keaton, you’ll probably like Tati as well.

Summer Movie #21 – 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963): I’ve always loved “All That Jazz” but hadn’t been aware that every non-musical thing I really liked about that movie had been done sixteen years earlier by Fellini. It is impossible to sum up this movie, so I won’t try. It is about vanity, lies, faith, truth, doubt, and creativity… and almost everything else. It weaves between reality and fantasy and finally underscores that this is a movie, so it is all fantasy – especially the “real” parts. The cinematography and score are justly renowned and Marcello Mastroianni is fantastic. This movie is on lots of the “top films” lists and has joined the list of my favorite movies of all time.

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2016 Summer Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on May 31, 2016

Summer Movie #1 – Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948): At the time I’m writing this, I’m about a week away from heading to Berlin, and here it is as shot by a master in August of 1947 – still then very much a city in ruins.  There are a lot of things in current culture that are labelled “post-apocalyptic”.   This film shows the real thing, a ruined city filled with ruined people and no real hope at all.  The people have been ruined by the poverty of living in the shattered remnants of a city, but they’ve also been poisoned by what came before.  There is a brilliant sequence with a recording of one of Hitler’s speeches framed against what his movement left behind.  The character story is also one of how evil remains in us, and maybe of how it has to be expunged.  It is a hard movie to watch, but I think it will be equally hard to forget as I’m looking at the gleaming city that has been built out of the one Rossellini shot almost seventy years ago.  A couple other things: It is amazing and heart-rending to realize that Rossellini had lost his own son not long before seeing this film.  I saw pictures of him in the Criterion extras, and there is more than a bit of resemblance between that young boy and Edmund, the major character in the film.  Second, Rossellini evidently shot this without any real script and you can see echoes of what Godard will be doing twenty years later.  It is also fascinating to realize that he had to be working out the precise movements that make up so much of the film (especially the ending scenes) as he was shooting them – no elaborate story-boarding, just his mind and his eye.  Amazing and shattering.

Summer Movie #2 – Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987): Here is a second film I watched because I’m going to the city where it was set – and it was a perfect choice.  There are films where the city itself is one of the characters (I’ve argued here, for example, that the biggest weakness of the second “Ocean’s” film is that it wasn’t set in Las Vegas) and Berlin is a character here.  I can’t wait to walk those streets, hopefully late at night, to see if I can capture a bit of this.  If you need a solid narrative, you won’t find it here – this is a collection of moments in people’s lives, in a city, around a theme of witnessing life and living it.  It is a movie about being in a story that doesn’t tell much of a story – which is fine.  This is film as art, to be experienced and internalized, not parsed and consumed.  It took me much of my life to understand how to do this, or to realize I wanted to, but it changed everything for me about not just film, but music, writing, everything.  BTW – if you have seen 1998’s “City of Angels” this is much less easily accessible, very different, and much better.

Summer Movie #3 – Closely Watched Trains ( Jiří Menzel, 1966): This film isn’t associated with one of the cities I’m travelling to, but it is one of the more well-known films from the Czech New Wave.  It is a comedy, of sorts, set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.  It is kind of a coming-of-age story, but not exactly.  I’m using all these qualifiers because this movie doesn’t fit into neat categories, it is funny, but also bleak, it is sexual, but not “racy” – it is a bit more than any of those terms would suggest.  I’ve been reading a fairly dense book dealing with modernism, surrealism, and the city of Prague and the author frequently comments on the bleak humor of the Czechs – created from having experienced every flavor of modernism in the 20th century and often in the worst possible ways (a nation born in world war, occupied by the Nazis in another world war, taken by the Soviets afterwards, and then being reborn into westernism and capitalism).  This film is filled with those sensibilities.  It celebrates while scoffing.  I’m really glad I’ve seen it.

Summer Movie #4 – 21 Days (Basil Dean, 1940): This is a decent suspense melodrama, though really only notable due to the cast.  It stars Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh and was shot in 1937, so early for both of them.  Lawrence Olivier is the “black sheep” wild younger son, Leslie Banks is his upstanding barrister older brother, and Vivian Leigh is his lover Wanda.  There is a murder, and a cover-up, and an innocent man.  Everything hinges on whether Olivier will own up to the crime or let an innocent man be punished.  It was fine, but not really noteworthy.  The only connection to my pre-trip films is thin – it was produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda.

Summer Movie (special) – Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984): I’m not counting this one in the “Summer of 100 Criterion Films” because a) I’ve seen it many times and b) it isn’t in the Criterion collection.  Despite all that I thought I’d watch it before the trip.  Many of the exteriors were shot in Prague – in the Mala Strana, which we will be visiting – and Vienna.  Also, Milos Forman is Czech, so there is that.  I don’t have much to add – beautifully shot, great performances, wonderful staging and choreography (by Twyla Tharp) for the opera scenes.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  I watched it via Netflix, and thus saw the “Director’s Cut”.  It wasn’t a short film when I saw it in the theater (161 minutes) and this adds twenty more.  Like many of these “restored” versions, you can often see why some of the scenes were cut.  Still a few of them are worth seeing in that they add resonance to things that were already in the theatrical cut.  Worth seeing, but be ready for the long haul.

Summer Movie #5 – Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958): This is a powerful film, cited as the best of Polish realist cinema, dealing with the end of World War II and the rise of the Communist regime.  It walks a bit of a tight-rope between nationalist sentiments and what the government would allow even in the aftermath of the reforms of 1956.  It is beautifully shot in a style reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” in many ways and features some interesting performances.  The story really seems to focus on the ultimate futility of war, even when one fights for a good cause.  A final sequence where people celebrating the new regime dance in an almost mindless fashion seems to be showing the worst of what was yet to come. Depressing but powerful and well worth seeing.

Summer Movie #6 – Gimme Shelter (Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970): I decided I needed a break from grim Eastern European films, so I went for a documentary that focuses on a concert that turns into a sort of riot and includes a fatal stabbing.  Somehow I’d never seen this before – at least in its entirety.  Footage from this has been used so often that I’d seen bits of it many times.  This works for two reasons, camera operators who knew where to point their cameras and when and great editing.  The content, well that pretty much confirms my opinions of the period as a whole.  This movie and “Woodstock” sort of encapsulate our whole visual memory of this cultural era, so see it if you haven’t.

Summer Movie (Special Transatlantic List):
Atlanta to Amsterdam
#1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
#2 All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
#3 Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Paris to Atlanta
#1 Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
#2 Trumbo (John McNamara, 2015)
#3 The Man From UNCLE (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Summer Movie #7 – Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974): This documentary about the Vietnam War has too many echoes with much more recent events.  It is powerful and brilliant.  This is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made and you can really see the influence it has had on later film-makers.  Michael Moore might seem an obvious example, but I think Errol Morris is a better one.  Unlike Moore and many other documentarians, Davis is rarely seen or heard in the film.  Instead he allows interviews and news footage to carry the message.  Adding to this is the breadth of figures interviewed – William Westmoreland, Walt Rostow, Clark Clifford, numerous veterans, Vietnamese from all sides of the struggle, etc…  This is a brilliant film.

Summer Movie #8 – Judex (Georges Franju, 1963): Sometimes reading up on a movie before watching it really helps, and this is an example.  The movie is a re-make of a 1916 French serial of the same name featuring a pulp avenger character named Judex.  Knowing this explains a lot of things left unexplained in the film (the pre-WWI setting, the use of silent film narration cards, etc…).  The movie is fun, but not really a send-up.  It is almost like “Raiders of the lost Ark” in that it tries to capture an earlier sort of movie.  It is almost surreal at times with visuals that seem influenced by German expressionism.  The thing it really reminded me of was the 1960’s series “The Avengers” – a similarity heightened by the Diana Rigg-esque black cat-suit occasionally worn by the villainess.  That character, played by Francine Bergé, is the most arresting thing about the film.  Fun, but be prepared for something that is self-consciously heavily stylized and effected.

Summer Movie #9 – The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958): Alec Guinness, who stars as well, wrote the screenplay for this film.  It is a comedy that ventures into some social commentary about art and society (especially about art and wealth).  Guinness is fun as the anti-social conman painter and delivers a wonderful monologue to his uncomprehending lady friend about how to view a painting.  Well worth the viewing, particularly if you care about art.

Summer Movie #10 – Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978): See “Cult Movie.”  This film is a bit hard to describe – think of it as existing at an intersection between British punk, no wave cinema, and magical realism… sort of.  There really is no story, but rather a framing device for a series of episodes (Queen Elizabeth I has John Dee summon the angel Ariel – from “The Tempest,” which Jarman adapted immediately after releasing this film – to allow her to see the future; a sort of collapsed nightmare version of Britain not too different from “A Clockwork Orange” in many ways).  The film-making is studiously raw (or punk) and the performances likewise.  Brian Eno scored the film, several punk figures appear in the film, most significantly Adam Ant, and also Richard O’Brien and Nell Campbell who are best known for “Rocky Horror”.  If you can appreciate the film for what it is – an early effort by Jarman to examine the sorts of things he would for the rest of his career but in this case through a late 70s British punk aesthetic – this is worth watching.  If that description makes no sense to you at all – or is already irritating you – best to avoid this one.

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