Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Secret Ceremony

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, and Robert Mitchum

Director: Joseph Losey

109 minutes (15) 1968
Powerhouse / Indicator
Blu-ray region B
[Released 25th November]

Rating: 6/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

As a baby boomer, one must always remember that the cultural totems (I don’t like the i-word) of one’s own generation, are unlikely to be immediately familiar to the next, or even the generation after that (if you’re as old as I am). Liz Taylor, who’s she? But surely not? Surely someone like Taylor who, with her equally famous spouse Richard Burton, virtually invented the sort of celebrity that the Kardashians now enjoy, hasn’t faded from the blogosphere? Of course, celebrity was only part of Taylor’s life. Unlike the Kardashians, and various denizens of the weird and wonderful shallow puddle of ‘structured reality’ shows, Elizabeth Taylor had a proper job before she ever became a symbol of excess.

So fixed is Taylor in one’s mind’s eye, as a big Hollywood star, and mid-career as a global celebrity, that the actual work becomes obscured. One imagines that, following her stint as a child star, the only films she appeared in as an adult were blockbusters such as the ill-fated Cleopatra (1963), which nearly bankrupted Fox studios and kicked off the whole Burton-Taylor jamboree. Cleopatra was actually a box-office success but took years to recoup its budget. It’s also a terrible film, too long, and rather boring. Far better is Carry On Cleo (1964), which used some of the bigger film’s left-over sets, has a sexier Cleopatra in Amanda Barrie, and far better dialogue. Forget ‘Infamy, infamy, etc.’ and relish, ‘This is my cousin, he’s Agrippa’, ‘Oh yeah?  Well I know a few holds myself, mate!’


Taylor did make big budget movies, epics such as Giant (1956), with Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, after which she is reputed to have said it was the first time in a film her male co-stars were more interested in each other than they were in her. But she appeared in films with smaller budgets, and roles which stretched her as an actress, which were not always obvious choices for a big star who could presumably pick and choose - a fading career and the vagaries of the studio contract system notwithstanding.
Films concerning complex personal relationships seemed to be a particular touchstone throughout Taylor’s career. There are obvious stand-out moments like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where she and co-star Burton chew the scenery, winning Taylor an Oscar in the process. Others, like John Huston’s Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) are somewhat less accessible. I remember seeing this latter on TV in the 70s, and while I picked up on the various sub-texts such as Marlon Brando’s character’s repressed homosexuality, I realise now it must have been edited to ribbons for broadcast. 

X, Y, And Zee (1972), based on a novel by Edna O’Brien, sees jilted wife Zee attempt to win back husband Michael Caine by seducing his younger girlfriend. Boom! (1968), in which Taylor plays a wealthy terminally-ill socialite visited by the ‘angel of death’ (Burton again), was a box-office bomb, which only film director John Waters and I seem to have enjoyed. The film was based on a play by Tennessee Williams and directed by Joseph Losey. I liked this film because I love Richard Burton, and he gets to say ‘The shock of each moment of still being alive. Boom!’, in that wonderful voice. And Noel Coward, who turns up as ‘The Witch Of Capri’, is as wonderfully camp as only he could be. Taylor made two films with Losey: Boom! and this one, Secret Ceremony. So far, I’ve concentrated on Elizabeth Taylor, but what about her co-stars? Mia Farrow made Secret Ceremony on the back of her breakout role in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and around the time of her break-up with husband Frank Sinatra, 29 years her senior. Farrow’s subsequent marital trials and tribulations make some of the themes of Secret Ceremony uncomfortably prescient. The other lead in this film is the always-watchable Robert Mitchum, who never seems to have any qualms about depicting repulsive characters, having played the rapist Max Cady in the original Cape Fear (1962).


In Secret Ceremony, Taylor plays Leonora, a prostitute. On her way to church after turning her latest trick, she is followed by a young woman Cenci (Farrow), who confronts her at the grave of her dead daughter who drowned aged ten years. Seeing some resemblance to her dead child, Leonora allows Cenci to take her to the ornate house where the girl lives alone. Cenci treats the older woman as if she is her long-lost mother and Leonora plays along, not always convincingly. Soon installed in the luxurious house, Leonora observes the girl play-act a remembered scene of some sort of sexual encounter, which presumably led to her mother expelling her father from the house.  Leonora also observes a visit by Cenci’s aunts, who steal items from the house when the girl isn’t looking. Leonora, masquerading as Cenci’s mother’s cousin, visits the aunts’ antique shop, stocked with artefacts stolen from the house. The aunts, Hilda (Pamela Brown), and Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft), explain that their brother Gustav, Cenci’s real father, died suddenly when Cenci was a child and Margaret her mother remarried with unseemly haste to Albert (Mitchum), a college professor. Margaret expelled Albert when she caught him fondling Cenci’s breasts in the kitchen, then shut herself up in the house where she died of a mystery illness. The suggestion that Cenci may have been responsible for both parents’ deaths is never pursued as a plot point. Leonora calls out the aunts for their thefts, and in a struggle over an antique china doll which the women have purloined the doll is broken.

While Leonora is out, Albert, who has been stalking around the house, calls upon step-daughter Cenci who lets him in. He is sporting a rather dreadful beatnik beard which he tells the girl lulls the suspicions of his female students, who think him a harmless old man, allowing him to seduce them. Albert allows Cenci to cut the beard off after which they share a passionate kiss. When Albert has left, Cenci in a euphoric state disorders the rooms, and hearing Leonora return tears her own clothes intimating that Albert has attacked her. 


Leonora and Cenci go on holiday, and Cenci with a doll under her dress pretends she is pregnant while Leonora plays along with the sham. Albert has followed them and confronting Leonora insists that while he always had designs on Cenci it was the girl who took the lead. He explicitly describes her visits to him in his bedroom, and the massages she gave him. While this story has all the trappings of a male fantasy, Leonora chooses to believe it. Albert suggests that by playing along with Cenci’s fantasy world Leonora is colluding in the girl’s arrested development. Later that night Leonora rows with Cenci, forcibly pulls the doll from under the girl’s dress and in the struggle, it is torn to pieces.  Afterwards, Cenci has a rendezvous with Albert on the beach where they presumably have intercourse. When Leonora attempts to make up with the girl, Cenci accuses her of wearing her mother’s clothes and orders her to leave.

Back in London, Leonora pays a visit on Cenci in an attempt at reconciliation. The house is denuded of furniture and fittings and the girl has already taken the overdose that will kill her. Leonora talks about her own suicide attempt after the death of her child. As Leonora leaves, Cenci attempts to call her back but it is too late. Leonora visits the house again to see Cenci laid out in her coffin, when Albert arrives Leonora stabs him in the heart and kills him. The final scene shows Leonora back in her tiny flat telling herself the story of the two mice who fell in a bucket of milk: one called for help and drowned, while the other paddled around until the morning found it standing on a bucket full of butter.


So, a strange film, unpleasant at times, disjointed, but with its themes of consent, victim-blaming, and sexual grooming, rather in tune with current times. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the film-critic providing one of the commentaries on this disc, notes that a review of the time described it as Losey’s ‘sick ritual’. The film is based on Ceremonia Secreta (1960), a novella by Argentine writer Marco Denevi, a work which apparently reflects that writer’s admiration for Wilkie Collins, author of the ‘sensation novel’ The Woman In White (1859). I’m not familiar with Denevi’s original story, but what no commentator seems to have picked up on, and forgive me if I’ve overlooked someone referencing it, is another source for some of the film’s themes. Farrow’s character’s name Cenci, surely points toward Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play about incest and murder The Cenci (1891). In Shelley’s play, Count Francesco Cenci, a tyrannical patriarch, is implicated in a homicide, sends his sons to their certain deaths, and commits incestuous rape against his daughter Beatrice, leading the remaining family members to conspire in his murder. Is Cenci in the film intended to be both Beatrice and Francesco, abused daughter and potential murderer? Or is the film just top-heavy with too many themes and symbols?

A complex film, this doesn’t quite work, but it’s better to fail from over-ambition than just go through the motions. The fact that it suggests other stories or treatments, while stimulating, in the end is counter-productive. The play-acting between Leonora and Cenci at the beginning of the film, recalls some of Harold Pinter’s work, not necessarily his collaborations with Losey, The Servant (1963), and Accident (1967), but the game-playing in theatrical productions like The Collection (1961), and The Lover (1962). I’ve scored the film quite high because Farrow is outstanding, and the camera will always love Taylor. The highpoint for me though is the playing of Pamela Brown and Peggy Ashcroft as the larcenous aunts. Apropos of nothing at all, check out Pamela Brown as the wonderful Catriona in Powell and Pressburger’s classic I Know Where I’m Going (1945).


There is a mixed bag of extras on the disc. Audio commentary is by Australian critics Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; Heller-Nicholas being rather disconcertingly enthusiastic in her greetings from the outset, perhaps because she knows she is about to have her work cut out for her. The opening credits play against various green backgrounds, which Brandum describes as a mixture of oil and water, creating the sort of colourful patterns you see on the road. Presumably he thinks this is the sort of insight one brings to audio commentary. The green backgrounds are obviously architectural tiles, of the kind you see framing mosaics, you can even see the crackle in the glaze as Brandum claims they are something else; whereupon Heller-Nicholas jumps in and notes that they might also refer to the tiles decorating the house where most of the action is about to take place. Things go from bad to worse when Brandum starts to describe the TV version of the film in which two new characters were added, a psychologist and a barrister, he seems about to name them and then tails off as the audio is filled with the sound of him desperately shuffling his notes. Heller-Nicholas comes to his rescue once again. I’m sure audio commentary isn’t as easy as it sounds, Heller-Nicholas certainly soared in my estimation, but that was enough for me. 


There is a subtitled interview with Joseph Losey from the French broadcast Cinema Critique. On this the critic suggests that Losey as auteur was preoccupied with the impact of society on the individual, which you could say about any filmmaker I guess; but anticipating some combination of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Marxist theory I swiftly moved on. Losey’s son Gavrik in ‘The Beholder’s Share’ gives some biographical details about his father’s career, and talks about his difficult relationships with women, which obviously would impact upon his ability to direct them. He also gives some detail about the screen and scriptwriter George Tabori. Gavrik notes how Losey’s direction warps time to make the audience think, and how he makes use of the set as a character in itself. Debenham House, the Arts and Crafts creation of the architect Halsey Ricardo used in this film is certainly that. Gavrik suggests that the complexity of Secret Ceremony probably leaves it feeling incomplete, which is a valid point. 


The disc includes the TV version of the film for NBC which, while cut down from the cinema release, includes extra scenes shot by Universal with a different director, as a prologue and epilogue wherein a psychologist ‘explains’ it. I skipped this. There’s the theatrical trailer, and an image gallery, and another feature which is a new one for me. In something billed as a trailer with commentary, young Larry Karaszewski presents ‘Trailers from Hell’, in which he comments over what looks like a trailer for the TV version, while giving some more detail about the vandalised TV cut of the film. He describes Taylor’s films post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as an almost gloomy sub-genre of their own, and repeats the aspersion, suggested by John Waters of Taylor’s performance in Boom! that she was often drunk while making them. Commenting on her wayward accent in Secret Ceremony, Karaszewski ignores the fact that the character of Leonora is play-acting for much of the time, and often slips between her put-on upper-class English and her natural American.


There’s no great malice in Karaszewski’s mockery, it’s one way in which youth expresses the need to become independent of the older generation, which is at least one sub-text in the complicated scenario of Secret Ceremony.

Friday, 15 November 2019

It's A Wonderful Life

Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore  

Director: Frank Capra

130 minutes (U) 1946
Paramount 4K Ultra HD  

Rating: 8/10
Review by Debbie Moon

It's A Wonderful Life has been a cinematic landmark for so long now that it’s difficult to get past the history and examine the film objectively. Indeed, society has changed so radically over the years that Bedford Falls has been transformed from an idealised present to a past that never really existed, a comment on the death of the ‘American dream’ itself.

Yes, there is saccharine here, but less than you might remember. The film is warm-hearted, even sentimental, but it retains a sharp humour and genuine eye for character that many modern films would do well to emulate. The glimpse we finally receive of a world without George Bailey is genuinely shocking, a moral catastrophe on a positively Shakespearian scale, and despite their logic problems, the final scenes will melt even the hardest hearts.


James Stewart gives a career-best performance as an ordinary man driven to the point of suicide by one mistake, who subsequently finds himself the unwitting key to the lives of everyone around him. The supporting cast are excellent and, despite its considerable length, the film simply flies by. In the unlikely event that you’ve never seen this world-class classic, go out and obtain a copy immediately. You won’t regret it.

This 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray release is digitally restored and re-mastered in B&W, with a screen ratio of 1.37:1 in pillar-box format.

Rating: 10/10
Review by Jeff Downes

What is the charm, or indeed ‘magic’, that director Frank Capra utilised in the making of this film that still gives it appeal today? Apart from its expert story-telling, there’s three universal themes: the supportive small-town/ community life, the strength of the family unit, and finally - a masterstroke - the Christmas setting, which grants added meanings to the first two themes. It is on Christmas Eve in 1944 that the film’s story begins. The central character, George Bailey, is about to commit suicide. On Earth, many people are praying for George, while, in Heaven, in answer to those prayers, trainee angel Clarence (whimsically played by Henry Travers), is to try and prevent George ending his life. Before he goes down to Earth, Clarence (and us) are shown highlights from George’s life up to the present.


As an aside, and to give you something to do later, watch the first five minutes of this Hollywood film and compare it to another picture of the same year, British fantasy drama A Matter Of Life And Death (aka: Stairway To Heaven). While the narratives are different, these two films have many themes in common and both, initially at least, present Heaven in much the same way.


Anyway, back to the plot and the highlights of George’s life. We see how he saves his brother’s life, and stops a chemist from accidentally poisoning someone. Then, as the young man grows up, he turns into Jimmy Stewart. George’s ambitions remain the same: to leave behind the town of Bedford Falls, and go off to explore the world. However, all of his attempts to leave end in failure. George Bailey’s life becomes inextricably linked to his father’s Building and Loan company, a small firm that offers the only real hope for the people of Bedford Falls. Everything else, including the bank, is owned by old man Potter,  a mean old miser. His ambition is to destroy the Building & Loan Co. - and Potter almost succeeds when George’s father dies.

George realises that if he leaves town, the family firm would fold, and so he stays there. The years pass and every time George organises a way out, something conspires to keep him in the small town. Eventually, George marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), and they raise a family of four children. All this time, George keeps his frustrations at being unable to leave Bedford Falls hidden. 


We are now up to date, Christmas Eve, 1944. George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy has the job of transferring the company’s takings to the bank. Billy accidentally places the money in Potter’s care, and Potter seizes his chance to discredit the Building & Loan Co., as well as have George Bailey arrested for fraud. Now desperate, George believes the only way out is suicide, giving his family the means to survive this crisis. Leaving Bedford Falls, George prepares to jump from a bridge into the fast-flowing river below. At that moment, another person jumps into the river and, forgetting his intentions, George dives in to rescue the other man. He soon finds he has rescued a strange looking man named Clarence, who then proceeds to tell George that he has come to save him. In a moment of self-pity, George remarks that he wishes he had not been born at all - a request that Clarence grants.


When the two return to Bedford Falls, they find it no longer exists. The town is called Pottersville. The people’s only hope, the Building & Loan Co., had closed when George’s father died. Pottersville is a town of squalid accommodations for rent, cheap alcohol-related entertainment, and peopled by men and women whose spirits have been crushed by Potter’s power. In short, a town based on rampant capitalism. Confronted with this Hell on Earth, George begs Clarence to take him back to his reality. And, in an emotion-filled finale, George finds that his many friends have raised the necessary money to save him, and that he has learnt the true meanings of family and community life.


This sounds clich├ęd and sentimental, and, to a degree, it is. The trick is, Capra was aware of going too far over the top into farce. It therefore plays far better than the synopsis above makes it sound. After repeated viewings, the film’s ending never fails to be moving. Even with all of these elements in its favour, like many other classic films, It’s A Wonderful Life was a flop on its initial release. This fantasy was ignored in favour of the realism found in William Wyler’s The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946). The de-mobbed soldiers and their families just didn’t want to watch a film in which the hero wants to escape from his home-town. They had just done so (admittedly, not at the best of times for a European holiday), and now wished only to settle in the towns and suburbs that George Bailey wanted to leave.

Times changed and the death of Capra provided many retrospectives of his work, with this film being heralded as his masterpiece. Justly deserved, but at the same time, let’s not undermine the performance of James Stewart, who does his very best work in this feature. At that point of his career, Stewart was looking to switch from the rom-com roles, that he had been mainly associated with, to more dramatic parts. It’s A Wonderful Life showcases his comic talents and is a foretaste of the dramatic challenges yet to come. His comic timing is much in evidence in the early part of the film, such as the dance night at the school, and George’s initial courtship of Mary. However, as the film continues and becomes darker in tone, George’s inner frustrations are expertly captured by Stewart.


All of the actors turn in fine performances. Many of the cast were never better, and some, like Donna Reed, continued to play that type of role for the majority of their careers. Lionel Barrymore most certainly portrays Potter as “the warped, frustrated old man,” that George calls him at one highpoint. It is interesting to note, however, that while George triumphs at the film’s finale, the evil that is Potter is not defeated. Indeed, to take this idea still further, the film can be seen as politically to the Left. George (the ‘Everyman’ character) fights for the rights of the individual against a capitalistic overlord - a seemingly continual struggle during which battles may be won, but there can never be a complete victory.


Of course, it is not for its politics that this film is remembered, but the upholding of traditional values. In cinema terms, these values have inspired a direct remake, the TV movie It Happened One Christmas (1977). Despite the novel idea of changing the lead character’s sex - James Stewart is replaced by Cloris Leachman - the movie was something of a disappointment. In less direct terms, the influence of Capra’s classic can be seen in such diverse movies as Gremlins (1984), Field Of Dreams (1989), and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

It’s A Wonderful Life might never been acclaimed as the greatest in cinematic Art, but its influence continues to inspire, and it remains of the very best moving movies of all time.    

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Scarface

Cast: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer

Director: Brian De Palma     

170 minutes (18) 1983
Universal 4K Ultra HD  

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Unlike the more respectful melodramatics in Italian family traditions for mafia characters and killers in Coppola’s Godfather movies (1972, '74), this displaced remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 picture - that was inspired by Al Capone - transplants its gangland scenario from Chicago in the 1920s to Florida, but then also aims to maintain and transcend many of the grotesque attitudes for excessive reactions that made the original Scarface such a controversial production in Hollywood, before the Hays Code censorship.    


Al Pacino stars as flamboyant Cuban gangster Antonio ‘Tony’ Montana, arriving in the US with sidekick Manny (Cuban actor Steven Bauer) and teaming up with American mobster Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia, doing his top sleazy act), after a drug-deal with Colombians goes horribly wrong when an interrogation by chainsaw results in machine-gun retaliation for a messy business intro. Frank presents his classy squeeze Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), who looks bored with Frank, and so delusional ‘grease-ball’ Tony thinks that he can win her over. Eventually, Tony marries her but, inevitably, Elvira becomes a junkie.


“Every day above ground is a good day.”


Art deco buildings are cheery pastel back-drops to violence, as homicidal Tony swaggers and struts about, and rages with crazy-eyed ambition, clearly over-compensating for his modest size with abnormally maniacal intensity. After one particularly vengeful double-murder, Tony sees an advert proclaiming ‘the world is yours’ flashing across the display of a blimp and, obviously, imagines its sky-message was meant just for him. Visiting his pious yet honest mother, and little sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), Tony finds himself rejected by his own family, but he is later welcomed by stereotype portrayals of crooked cops and money-laundering bankers. The brittle slickness of gangsterism here is often overlooked as Tony is actually a tragic figure whose magnificent downfall is utterly predictable in this movie’s undisputed anti-drugs scenario. He wants to be the dictator of a vast empire and to live like a king, but his wealth and power means nothing more than an empty promise. Tony also seems to believe that his intention is really to protect Gina, whose purity has a fairy-tale charm here. However, despite all his brotherly concern, he simply wants to control her, too.


The Bolivian cartel’s snake-head, Sosa (Paul Shenar), has Frank’s closest associate Omar (F. Murray Abraham) betrayed and hanged from a low-hovering helicopter. It is an iconic scene, vitally important as a metaphor for flying too high and taking a ghastly fall, that is repeated with variations in later crime thrillers. Various glamorous settings, and splendid locations (Ocean Drive, Coconut Grove, etc.), used for Scarface, partly, at least, inspired Anthony Yerkovich’s popular TV series Miami Vice (1984-9), produced by Michael Mann.


This 4K Ultra HD Gold Edition’s bonus features include:
  • Scarface - 35th Anniversary Reunion: director Brian De Palma, with actors Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer, in conversation at the Tribeca Film Festival
  • The Scarface Phenomenon featurette
  • The World Of Tony Montana featurette
  • Scarface: the TV version
  • Deleted Scenes

Monday, 11 November 2019

Upgrade

Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, and Harrison Gilbertson

Director: Leigh Whannell

100 minutes (15) 2018
Second Sight
Blu-ray region B
[Released 18th November]

Rating: 8/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Combining elements of cyberpunk and body-horror, Upgrade cleverly updates the basic sci-fi of popular 'bionic hero' TV show The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8), while also acknowledging its thematic borrowings of genre concerns from Frankensteinian bio-tech. In a capitalist future, a private vehicle tells passengers: “Please do not touch the steering wheel while the car is in motion.” It’s a simple and throwaway joke that slightly undermines the SF affect of this admirably intense cyber-thriller, but the movie’s level of humour very soon improves.



The retro-lifestyle of protagonist, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus, TV series Damnation), establishes a context that deals with his apparent Luddite philosophy as a cultural view, not just backwards thinking. Grey survives a hijacking and crash but his wife is killed. He is left paralysed, stuck in a bed or wheelchairs, a mild technophobe served by robots, and suffering from suicidal depression. An implant of new technology, Stem, repairs his nerves, revives his dying spirit, and prompts Grey’s quest for answers to his wife’s death, and ultimately a soul-crushing revenge upon his renegade attackers.



Playing detective, Grey gets himself into serious trouble with RoboCop-mode actions. His new abilities turn him into an effective super-soldier. Secrets and lies accumulate quickly as Grey takes to feigning invalidity to keep all police suspicion away from him, while his robotic ninja skill-set inflicts grisly horrors on low-life criminals. Can our vigilante retain his mobility and win independence before his fearful creator hacks a system shut-down? A whole catalogue of lethal weaponry, not unlike stuff deployed by comic book characters in some of Warren Ellis’ best work, is found to be hidden in various human bodies - for a display of chillingly ultra-violent effects, recalling Cronenberg’s first and best movies.


Briskly plotted and well acted, Upgrade is a more than competent sci-fi movie, frequently inventive and cleverly composed with striking designs, dark futurism themes, and several combinations of stunts and gory special effects that result in outstanding urban combat sequences. Perhaps inevitably, for a story about machines taking over, the Stem devices become like odd techno-cousins of typical demonic possession, with the moral dilemmas of such a science and supernatural cross-over intact. 


Looking back to Surrogates (2009), building upon the dramatic successes of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), Luke Scott’s Morgan (2016), and TV remake Westworld (2016-8), writer-director Leigh Whannell has fun with Australian locations, while his bleak movie’s character-study tackles the trauma-victim social-problems of a quadriplegic, and explores the potential benefits and gloomy downsides of A.I. interactions with people in civilian and military areas.


The superb Blu-ray limited edition comes with a 40-page booklet and poster artwork.

Bonus features:
  • Not Action. Not Sci-Fi. More: a new interview with director Whannell
  • Permission Granted: a new interview with producer Kylie Du Fresne
  • Future Noir: a new interview with cinematographer Stefan Duscio
  • Hacking Upgrade: a new interview with editor Andy Canny
  • The Art Of Fighting Without Fighting: a new interview with fight choreographer Chris Weir

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Birdy

Cast: Matthew Modine, Nicolas Cage, and John Harkins

Director: Alan Parker    

120 minutes (15) 1984
Powerhouse / Indicator 
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Peter Schilling

Compared to Robert Altman’s fantastical satire, Brewster McCloud (1968), this off-beat buddy-movie might, in today’s busy market-place, be called a bromance. Telling its story of friendship, before and after the Vietnam War, it also carries vague echoes of Michael Cimino’s multi-Oscar winning The Deer Hunter (1978). But such similarities are a fuzzy mirage, merely overlapping tracks in American cinema’s vast cultural background, not strong generic links, thematic references, or narrative connections. Based upon the first novel by William Wharton, Birdy forges its own unique pathway through the combined histories of masculinity and madness, trippy dreams with flights of fancy, and perilously obsessive compulsions.    


Romantic extrovert Al (Nicolas Cage) seems an unlikely friend for weird introvert Birdy (Matthew Modine), and yet they become the best of mates in a working-class area of Philadelphia. From the start, it’s a bit disconcerting to see how evocative recreations of 1960s rundown Americana are directed so perfectly by British visionary Alan Parker. His work is often under-rated as a contemporary artistic oeuvre, but Parker’s ability to blend grim realism with poetic values generates a rare Hollywood fusion of visual powerhouse and traumatic intensity of human dramas, despite the contrast between theatrical styles and magical realism that are deployed here, so astutely.


After being MIA in the war, Birdy ends up in psych-ward rehab where Doctor Weiss (John Harkins) administers fair treatment because the socially withdrawn Birdy hardly knows the difference between a fall and flight. With his head bandaged following reconstructive surgery, army sergeant Al feels that he looks like the Invisible Man. Birdy’s flashbacks are numerous, exploring and illuminating all of the highs and lows of their neighbourly relationship. 


There’s Birdy having fun while flapping his arms on a rollercoaster, aptly called Flyer. Birdy argues heatedly with Al’s father, while Al just cowers from his dad’s bad temper. One man-powered flight scene uses a glider that splashes down in a pond. The singular dream sequence of flying uses a modified Steadicam rig to capture some bird’s-eye-views of suburban streets. In hospital scenes, Karen Young (Handgun, 1983) delivers an excellent performance as compassionate nurse Hannah.


Animal dramas includes an extraordinary a rogue mouser’s hunting attack upon Birdy’s pet canary, in a scene that plays like a live-action version of cartoon series Tweety and Sylvester. The canary’s escape from isolation, in the social cocoon of Birdy’s bedroom aviary, is also a stunningly composed metaphor for warfare that has clearly damaged both of the main characters here. Peter Gabriel’s memorable score inventively recycles themes from his fourth solo album (‘Security’, 1982), especially classics like San Jacinto, and the drumming sequence from The Rhythm Of The Heat, while Ritchie Valens’ always popular La Bamba brightens up this movie’s comedy pratfalls.


Lively shenanigans, with something of a understated performance from live-wire Cage, and the uncanny portrayal a fragile soul by Modine, ensure that Birdy is an imaginatively presented treat, as both character study and searingly unforgettable anti-war message-movie. 

Extras include:
  • Limited edition 48-page booklet includes writing by Alan Parker
  • Director’s commentary track
  • Abstraction Of War: Matthew Modine interview (25 mins.)
  • Bird Watching: Keith Gordon - star of John Carpenter’s Christine - talks about novelist Wharton, and brilliantly critiques Birdy (16 mins.)
  • WW2 romantic drama, No Hard Feelings (1976), a short TV film by Parker
  • Image galleries


Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Time Without Pity

Cast: Michael Redgrave, Ann Todd, and Leo McKern

Director: Joseph Losey

85 minutes (PG) 1957
Powerhouse / Indicator
Blu-ray region B
[Released 28th October]

Rating: 8/10
Review by J.C. Hartley  

I was thinking I was unfamiliar with Michael Redgrave’s cinematic work beyond The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), and his part in Cavalcanti’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, the stand-out story in British portmanteau horror film Dead Of Night (1945). But of course, I’ve seen him in far more than that - The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Browning Version (1951), and The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952), to name a few. In Time Without Pity he plays washed-up novelist David Graham, an alcoholic recently released from a Canadian sanatorium, who has travelled to England in a forlorn attempt to save his son Alec (Alec McCowen) from the gallows, after the young man has been convicted of murdering his girlfriend. 

We know that Alec is innocent because, in a pre-credits sequence, we have seen the deed perpetrated by Robert Stanford (Leo McKern), motor-car magnate and father of Alec’s best friend Brian (Paul Daneman). The Stanfords have almost been surrogate parents to Alec, given his father’s problem with the bottle, but that relationship has led to a burgeoning intimacy between Alec and Stanford’s wife Honor (Ann Todd), as we are to discover. Despite the early reveal of the true killer, this is no episode of Columbo where a dogged investigator eventually entraps the murderer, rather with just 24 hours in which to save his son, Graham twitches and sweats, succumbs once again to the booze, and eventually sacrifices himself to implicate Stanford. 


The film is directed by Joseph Losey, and is the first of his British movies to carry his own name, after he had settled in the UK in 1953 following his black-listing in Hollywood.  Losey directed a trio of outstanding films in the UK when working with Harold Pinter as screenwriter: The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1967), as well as some bonkers camp ‘classics’ that I have a bit of affection for, such as Modesty Blaise (1966), and Boom! (1968). There are some neat stylistic touches in Time Without Pity which attest to Losey’s quality, a scene in a lift with Redgrave and Daneman which makes use of infinity mirrors, and a sequence where Redgrave follows McKern down a corridor, where the audience see McKern’s expression as Redgrave follows him a few yards behind.


This is a powerful British noir raised above the pedestrian through the quality of the performances and a strong supporting cast. Peter Cushing is Alec Graham’s lawyer, Joan Plowright is the murdered girlfriend’s sister, Lois Maxwell is another of Stanford’s mistresses, and Renee Houston plays her mother. McKern snarls and shouts and generally chews the scenery, but his character’s relationship with Graham senior hints at some deep psychological trouble, and it seems as if at any point he may confess to his crime. Redgrave is the standout turn, alternately aggressive or pleading, sucking on his squeezed sodden cigarettes, or juggling double whiskies as he almost abandons his quest for the truth.


There are a handful of extras on the disc. A 1973 John Player Lecture with Dilys Powell interviewing Losey, presented in audio but with the film playing over it for some reason.  An audio commentary to the movie by Neil Sinyard, Emeritus Professor of film studies at the University of Hull. Losey’s son Gavrik discusses his father’s work in ‘Sins Of The Father’, pointing out some Brechtian influences; Losey worked with Brecht, a relationship which counted against him in his dealings with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Also included is an advertising short that Losey made for a beverage known as Horlicks in 1960, this film Steven Turner introduced the eponymous character suffering from ‘night starvation’ in 30 seconds of noir imagery.


Monday, 21 October 2019

Young Winston

Cast: Simon Ward, Anne Bancroft, and Robert Shaw

Director: Richard Attenborough

157 minutes (PG) 1972
Powerhouse / Indicator
Blu-ray region B
[Released 28th October]

Rating: 4/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

I remember seeing an interview between Sir Ralph Richardson and Bernard Levin, in which Sir Ralph recalled a play he appeared in early in his acting career. At one point during the performance someone had called out from somewhere in the auditorium: “Is there a doctor in the house?” There was a pause, and then the reply came: “Yes, I’m a doctor.” Following this initial exchange, the original questioner concluded: “Doctor, isn’t this an awful play!” Without the benefit of a General Practitioner handy, I had to sit through this cinematic travesty alone. This really is an awful film.

I see from Wikipedia that Young Winston was one of the most popular films of 1972 at the UK box office, and one can only conclude that this was down to clever marketing and the residual affection for Winston Churchill himself in the hearts of the British people. Director Richard Attenborough, in an interview - ‘Reflections Of A Director’, included here as an extra, notes that despite being opposed to Churchill politically, he believes that WW2 could not have been won without him. This is how a lot of people feel, and despite the revisionism of later historical scholarship pointing out many of Churchill’s flaws, and some arguably reprehensible acts, it is hard to hold that against him. I feel the same way about John Wayne. 


Those of us with parents and indeed grandparents who lived through the Second World War will already be aware of the gratitude that Attenborough expresses, and inevitably something of Churchill’s stature and reputation impressed itself upon our generation. Arguably, Churchill was a politician in the right place at the right time. Because if the War hadn’t happened, then, rather like his father Lord Randolph Churchill, he would have remained a footnote in political history, such are the fine margins at play. This takes nothing away from his achievement in leading the nation in war.

The film is effectively, and literally in this uncut version, presented in two parts. Part one deals with Churchill’s (Simon Ward) young life and his relationship with his parents, his father the political maverick Lord Randolph (Robert Shaw), and his mother the former American socialite Jennie Jerome (Anne Bancroft). Part two of the film deals with some of the young Churchill’s military exploits, and his early political career. In ‘Camel Blues’, assistant director William P. Cartlidge, who says that the film wasn’t a success, suggests that Attenborough and writer/ producer Carl Foreman had different visions about the film that they wanted to make. Foreman, who had High Noon (1952), The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), and The Guns Of Navarone (1967), on his writing credits, wanted to make an action movie; Attenborough was interested in a film about fathers and sons.  Attenborough, in his own interview, says that it is biography that interests him. Sadly, as a hybrid, neither vision of the film works, although perhaps as a straight-forward action flick it might have stood a chance.


Attenborough praises Foreman’s screenplay and script, but some of the dialogue is stiff and unrealistic and has a consequent effect on the performances. That wonderful actress Bancroft seems in the grip of a particularly uncomfortable bout of constipation throughout. Foreman was apparently very impressed with Attenborough’s work on Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) and some sequences in the film appear to be attempting the same stylistic approach. As Kitchener, John Mills struts and marches about in precisely the same manner as he was required to do as Sir Douglas Haig in the earlier film, to the extent that one half expects him to play leapfrog or burst into song. 

More bizarre is the insertion of three stylised ‘interviews’ in which a supercilious ‘voice off’ interrogates Lord Randolph, Lady Churchill, and Winston himself. Alternatively sycophantic and accusatory this unseen interviewer pitches somewhere between the Today programme and Hello! magazine. The interview with Lady Churchill is the weirdest. She has already learned from medical specialists that her husband has an STD that will lead to General Paralysis of the Insane, if the audience are in any doubt as to the diagnosis the doctors ask Lady Churchill when she last had ‘relations’ with her husband, declaring ‘Thank God!’ when she tells them it has not been for some time. 


In the interview, the interlocutor demands to know details of Lord Randolph’s final illness, she attempts to leave and his parting shot is that surely in this day and age there is no mystery about syphilis. Quite what these interviews are intended to achieve is never clear, but they do hint at the film that might have been, an approach such as that seen in Oh! What A Lovely War might just have worked. Young Winston, despite appearing in 1972, seems like a film from a previous era compared to Oh! What A Lovely War. Just four years later, in 1976, BBC2 presented a stylised version of the life of Major-General Orde Wingate with the excellent Barry Foster, partly driven by budgetary constraints that production showed what might be achieved by an almost Brechtian approach to narrative.


There are some effective scenes in Young Winston, Lord Randolph Churchill’s final speech in Parliament when he is already in serious mental decline due to his illness, and an exciting sequence where a military train containing the young Churchill is ambushed leading to his capture by the Boers. Simon Ward in his break-out role is generally very good, and certainly self-assured, but did Churchill’s voice really have his distinctive growling tones at the age of 27 when he entered Parliament? 


The film is too long, too slow, particularly in the first half, and as noted seems to belong to a previous era of film-making. I’m not suggesting I can detect the magic hand of the Illuminati here, but one does wonder why this has been released on Blu-ray at this particular moment of time. Will it be the best-seller in the Brexit Party’s Christmas wish-list on Amazon? Perhaps before the old statesman is co-opted by today’s union flag-waving swivel-eyed lunatics and chancers they should examine his liberal position on immigration. 


There is an extensive selection of extras on the disc. An audio-only of a John Player Lecture from 1971, with critic Dilys Powell interviewing Attenborough, and - bizarrely - the film starts playing with audio only. The cast and crew interviews are Attenborough’s ‘Reflections Of A Director’, Simon Ward in ‘A National Hero Brought To Life’, assistant director William P. Cartlidge in ‘Camel Blues’, and second-unit director Brian Cook in ‘Stars And Sand’, particularly praising Attenborough’s ability in casting minor parts. Stuntman Vic Armstrong explains how they had to rent 300 horses for six months and train infantrymen in North Africa as cavalry, John Richardson talks about special effects and the train ambush sequence which was filmed in Wales, in ‘Fires In The Sky’, and make-up artist Robin Grantham explains his role in ‘Making It Up’. Other extras are deleted scenes, amateurish footage from the US premiere at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills, lobby cards and posters, and the souvenir brochure.