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Personal Shopper (2016)
For all Victor Hugo fans; others can abstain
I've admired Olivier Assayas's films in the past: Irma Vep was an entertaining look at today's filmmaking, Les destinees sentimentales an old fashioned family epic, and Clean an account of a young woman trying to get off drugs. All with good performances and scripts. This one is a real puzzle; an uneasy mix of ecological satire, ghost story, murder mystery and you name it. I didn't have such a good time watching, although Kristen Stewart was fairly good. If Assayas continues to cast her he may end up doing something fascinating.
The Tempest (2014)
My pleasure with these Globe on Screen videos continues. This production of the Tempest is so rooted in Jacobean stage-craft that it makes me wonder that directors ever bothered with modern dress productions, or gimmicky stage effects. I can forget about Peter Greenaway and the other people who have mauled this play.
Jeremy Herrin, director and Max Jones, designer have done a fine job of bringing the play alive. Roger Allam is an excellent Prospero, Joshua James and Jessie Buckley are very appealing as the lovers, and Trevor Fox makes a funny Trinculo in a clown's hat. There is singing, dancing and musicians on stage who perform wonderfully. I'm going to order this one.
Twelfth Night (2013)
The best version I've seen
I have seen the BBC production from 1980 with Felicity Kendal as Viola, which was cut in many places, and the Trevor Nunn film from 1996 which had fewer cuts, but a really off-putting Feste in Ben Kingsley. So I was ready for this Shakespeare's Globe performance from 2012 which seems so ideal in all its parts: acting, music, singing, dancing. Once more I felt as though I was back in London circa 1600.
Stephen Fry is splendid as Malvolio, the equal of Alec McCowan or Nigel Hawthorne; he's very dry and punctilious until the love-bug hits him. Mark Rylance makes a touching Olivia, and that dead white makeup is very striking. His timing and gestures are just about perfect. As Olivia's love interest, Johnny Flynn plays very well (I think there can't be anything harder than being a man playing a woman playing a man). Feste is so natural, so lacking in affectations that his performance is easily the best of all I've seen. If I had one reservation it would be the crowded stage in Act V; there's just too much going on to take it all in.
Didn't like the play before, but...
This is a very appealing production of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays that should get wide attention. I can't remember Reinhardt's version from 1935, except for a bit of Mickey Rooney's part, and the BBC production from 1981 left me pretty cold, with only Helen Mirren making an impression, so this one will be my go-to version for the future. It is the most Elizabethan of all versions by far; you only have to see the choreography and hear Claire von Kampen's music to be transported back to the 1590's. The cast is good, John Light ably doubles as Theseus and Oberon, and Michelle Terry impressed me as Hippolyta and Titania. At almost three hours, this is the most complete version you are ever likely to see.
Devices and Desires (1991)
Overly plotted but still engrossing
My copy of the novel runs to 500 pages, and I feel it could have benefited by some severe editing. The miniseries runs to about 5 hours, and that's a lot of exposition and some unnecessary characters: the second killing of the power plant employee is set up so elaborately you want to say Get on with it! I'd like to give it a higher rating' because some of the acting is really superb, particularly Gemma Jones as the sister of the plant director, and Nicola Cowper as a reluctant activist in the protest against environmental hazards, but the tempo does drag at times.
For those who worry about Roy Marsden's quiet acting style, I'd like to remind them that Dalgleish is a poet who drives a sports car, thus he's at the antipodes of standard detective heroes (George Gently comes to mind). He does get the job done though, and that's all that counts.
Geraldine Somerville is terrific
Daphne Du Maurier has always been on the periphery of my consciousness, as the author of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, both of which I've not read but have seen the film adaptations. So the revelation that she was bisexual comes as a mildly interesting fact. She is having a hard time defining herself sexually. Gertrude Lawrence says Daphne is really a boy--her play about a young man in love with an older woman is really about her as a man-- and Daphne spends most of the film trying to establish whether or not this is true.
I said Somerville is terrific, and she proves how inward she is with the character. The trip to Florence with Ellen Doubleday that is so fraught with tension between the two women produces some funny lines: "I'm like the river Arno with its falls all pent up, that can't get out to sea... I want to flee to a monastery or a madhouse".
It's all about...
...De Flores and Beatrice. The other characters don't have much weight. Alan Webb as Vermandero sounds an awful lot like Polonius most of the time and may be ignored. The two De Piraquo brothers are there to provide plot points and are forgettable. Frances Tomelty (Sting's first wife) has some effective scenes as Beatrice's lady in waiting; she has a good comedy sense. The lunatic asylum has the wonderful Norman Rossington (A Hard Day's Night) as keeper. He gets to spit out some funny lines.
Stanley Baker comes out best. His De Flores is at first cynical and distant, then as he realizes the depth of his involvement he starts to act with real force. Helen Mirren matches his commitment. To sum up: this is one of the better BBC plays; not too many scenes had to be cut. Beatrice's speech with the line "let the common sewer take it from distinction" is given whole, a good decision.
The Duchess of Malfi (2014)
John Webster saw the skull beneath the skin
You may remember the scene in Shakespeare In Love when Will sees the boy Webster playing with a dead rat in the street; he sees how Webster is going to grow up to be obsessed by sex and violence. So he proved to be, and we are the happier for it watching this production of The Duchess of Malfi. The set is wonderful--small but able to bring out all the subtleties of the text. Sian Williams did the choreography, those wonderful little jigs that we are learning were an integral part of Elizabethan stage practice.
Sean Gilder as Bosola is really the leading character in the piece. A killer with scruples and a mordant sense of humour who doesn't hesitate to castigate his employers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Ferdinand rages like an hysteric, while the Cardinal is all cold calculation (and very funny too). Finally we have Gemma Arterton as the Duchess. I've seen many actresses doing plays of this period: Helen Mirren (The Changeling, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream), Claire Bloom (Richard III), Maggie Smith (Othello), many more: I'd say Arterton holds her own in this company because she is so natural. I don't know if she went to RADA or not, but she has an ease on stage and can imagine what death feels like.
I'm going to look for more of the Globe productions because they look fascinating and have thought behind them instead of cheap effects that Hollywood gives us.
Very good production
I have the October issue of BBC MUSIC, with the cover story 20 Greatest Operas of all time, and I'm still staggered by the selections. They polled 172 active singers world-wide, and Carmen appears nowhere on the list. The people who actually sing the operas I love do not like Carmen. I guess it's too French, or too vulgar or too... whatever.
So I'm going to write about this film of the Antonacci-Kaufmann pairing at Covent Garden in 2007, in an attempt to redress the wrong. It's a good show: Pappano conducts well, sets and costumes are appropriate for the period (no Regietheatre here, thank God), the singers are out of the top drawer. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo whom I have admired as Figaro and Almaviva is not the Escamillo of my dreams--he's too laid back, too smiling--but he's in good voice. Antonacci really projects the sweaty physicality of Carmen, on the same level as the Rosi film of 1984, and Kaufmann is excellent as the befuddled Don Jose. Bound for his ruination, and we're happy to accompany him.
All the President's Men (1976)
Alan Pakula was a director with a limited range. He had his hits--Klute, Sophie's Choice and this film--but he also had misses like Rollover and Comes a Horseman owing to lack of empathy with these genres. Give him a thriller with lots of menace and he is in his element as he is here.
The acting is really fine. Everyone remembers Jason Robards and Jack Warden as the newspapermen, but Jane Alexander as the nervous CREEP employee is excellent, as is Stephen Collins as Sloan, a minor figure but touching in his desire not to get trapped in wrongdoing. Lindsey Crouse has a small part as a young reporter with scruples.
I watch this at least once a year, but this being the year of Trump, I know I'm going to be watching much more. There is no chance of newspapers bringing down a president--we are beyond that period of history--but it is comforting to remember when they could.
Markisinnan de Sade (1992)
I have been reading a great deal about Bergman's stage productions. I found Madame de Sade stunning, the work of these actresses could not be better. Mishima's play was new to me, and I was initially puzzled why Bergman had chosen it. The obsessive nature of Madame de Sade's love for her husband seems a bit distant from his usual preoccupations, but he brings it all to life superbly.
The scene between Stina Ekblad and Anita Bjork, in which the mother drops her cool detachment to tell her daughter just what she thinks of her daughter's participation in an orgy has a brutal force that sent me back to the Bergman classics of the 1960's. Marie Richardson has a scene in monologue in which she describes the death of a character so graphically and so disturbingly that she stops the show. Acting and directing like this comes so rarely to us.
La mort en ce jardin (1956)
Not so great
I often turn to the Time Out Film Guide, to see what they think of films... They got it wrong for this one: "Its garish, vicious action beats Sam Fuller at his own game". Well it does no such thing. This is sub-par Bunuel at best. The first part, set in the little town in Mexico is easily eclipsed by Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a much funnier and tougher film. Just think of the interplay between Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt and grimace at the clunky efforts of Marchal, Vanel and Piccoli. From a John Huston classic, we pass to a whimsical jungle story that Howard Hawks could have told with much better pace and wit (I think of Hatari!). Oh the waste of all these talented people.
Simone Signoret has a thankless part of a prostitute (which she played much better in Dédée d'Anvers), a misconceived part that does not fit in the story very well. Piccoli cannot play a priest and should have known better than to try. He is much better as a libertine--he played Sade in La voie lactée. Gérard Philipe would have been much better as the priest. Marchal is no great shakes but at least fits the part. He reminds me a bit of Stewart Granger. Vanel is somewhat at home as the old prospector; at least he had often played action roles.
At first glance, a writer like Alice Munro is a very odd choice for Almodovar. I can't think of an artist less like the Spanish director. Her quiet, restrained and disciplined writing is the polar opposite of the man who gave us Todo sobre mi madre. Yet it works, because Almodovar is seeking a more profound way of communication, without the glamour and tawdriness he came to prominence with.
Emma Suarez is very effective here; she reminds me of Annette Bening at her best. Adriana Ugarte is less accomplished, relying on a fetching smile to make her points. The other actors give good support. I liked Daniel Grao as the fisherman who wins Julieta's heart.
Not so great
Luigi Comencini made a couple of mildly entertaining films: La boheme with Barbara Hendricks and L'ingorgo. Mostly the tone is bitter-sweet, the colour scheme soft, somewhat washed out and the dramatic level is low. So it is here, with Laura Antonelli (her body could revive a dead man, I sometimes think) and Alberto Lionello playing this silly charade of brother and sister. Michele Placido has some fun playing the chauffeur--and how long does it take him to get her out of her clothes so they can have sex? The plot twists and turns would take too long to recount, and I don't want to use spoilers anyway. The scenes with Karin Schubert and the ladies who obsess over D'Annunzio are really tiresome and should have been deleted.
Un conte de Noël (2008)
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
I've sat through a couple of Desplechin-Bourdieu films (Esther Kahn, Comment je me suis dispute) that I've hated. Long, talky and pointless, I thought. But Un Conte is different; it carefully brings a family to life in all its complexity. The father is patient with those around him when he could easily be bitter and harsh: it is a superb performance by Jean Paul Roussillon. Catherine Deneuve as the mother glides through her part but we can't be critical because she gives the movie so much star power (just as Cary Grant did for four Hitchcock pictures).
The children are very well acted. Henri will be a screw-up for the rest of his life but will win people's affection, certainly he did mine. Ivan's easy fatherhood skills and laissez-faire approach to his wife's infidelity are memorable. Elizabeth's attitude towards Henri is the most problematic thing in the film. We have to take it on faith that his behaviour has been so awful that she is justified in taking the action she does. Anne Consigny gives a moving performance as the sister with a grievance.
It's very good
I suppose the best way to watch opera videos these days is to ignore the plodding, philistine production--often designed by someone who has never seen an opera--and just concentrate on the singers, as though we are back in the days of LP's. The singers are very good here, especially Diana Damrau as Konstanze, and Franz Selig as Osmin, oily and so much fun to watch. Then too there is the Blonde of Olga Peretyatko, a singer new to me whom I will have to watch for in the future (I'd love to hear her Rossini album).
The preceding review describes the visual flaws in this production better than I can. I had a good time looking at the photos in the Victor Book of the Opera, and dreaming of a time when operatic kings dressed like kings, bishops like bishops, dairy maids like dairy maids and so on and so on. Sigh.
Carta a Eva (2012)
Terrific performance by Julieta Cardinali
Spain emerged from the Second world war with its cities and infrastructure more or less intact--bearing in mind the bombardments from the rebel air force--but with a terrible political problem: no big western country wants to trade with a country that had supported the Axis during the war. The only country that wants to trade with Franco's regime is Argentina, run with an iron fist and cynical humour by Juan Peron. Desperately, with his people on the verge of starvation, Franco asks Peron to visit. Peron counters with an offer of Eva, the spectacular goddess of the poor. The two episodes of Carta a Eva have a running battle between Dona Carmen, Franco's wife, and Eva Peron whose love of the working class smacks too much of Marxism for Dona Carmen's liking.
I give the highest rating to Julieta Cardinali, who not only plays Eva very well but looks so much like her they could be twins. Ana Torrent, the little girl in Erice's Espiritu de la colmena, plays Dona Carmen very well: dry, obsessed with propriety and tiresome for everybody around her. Jesus Castejon is Franco, the calm that hides a ruthless temperament (at one point he says his hand doesn't tremble as he signs execution warrants and you believe him). The second plot of the terrorists arrested after they plant a bomb is not as effectively worked out, although Nora Navas is good as one of the condemned.
Il grido (1957)
Aldo's way takes him through the northern Italian region he knew in his youth. Gianni di Venanzo's photography is superb, capturing the bleak atmosphere of small towns: houses run down, cheap gas stations, a school in the middle of nowhere. There is nobody like Antonioni for portraying empty spaces leading nowhere.
Aldo is as confused a character as one can find in European cinema. His life with Irma is over-she doesn't love him anymore-but he insists on moving on with his daughter. Elvia and her sex pot sister Edera offer no shelter to this man, who can't afford to bring up a child. He gets lucky, it seems with Virginia and her crazy dad at the gas station, but still he manages to alienate her. The last stop is a rundown shack with a prostitute. The four actresses--Alida Valli, Betsy Blair, Dorian Grey and Lyn Shaw--all play well. Steve Cochran at least has the advantage of a sturdy build even if his acting skills are limited.
If Il grido is not as fine as L'avventura or Le amiche from the early period, it is still very good work.
Les caves du Majestic (1945)
Albert Prejean as Maigret
This film was made in the last year of German occupation, when things were really difficult for the French. That's why you'll see women wearing fur coats in restaurant scenes for added warmth--there was hardly any coal left to heat buildings. The story is told well enough--we get Suzy Prim for about ten minutes at the start, when other versions dispense with her character altogether, and that's a bonus. Denise Grey as a lonely rich woman, Gabriello as Lucas and Rene Genin as Ramuel all do well. The problem is Prejean as Maigret.
I've seen him played by Gabin, Cremer, Gambon, Pierre Renoir and a few others, and I have to say Prejean is ineffective in the part. His reedy voice, slim figure and breezy, bullying manner just don't bring the man to life. The solidity and grace the character always showed are missing. One scene will serve to show what I mean: Maigret arrives at Donge's house to question him and his wife. Satirical remarks instead of probing questions are the style. We learn nothing here, when Gambon and Cremer make so much more of the material.
Au bonheur des dames (1930)
Skimps on character and content
Zola's novel starts with Denise arriving in Paris and finishes some 500 pages later in what might be called a happy ending. In between are so much character detail and socio-economic ideas that the BBC could have made a six-hour miniseries out of it. Alas, that option was not open to Duvivier in 1929 as he was shooting this film. The young (early 30's) director had studied the Soviet artists closely; Dziga Vertov and Fritz Lang must have been familiar to him. As a result, we have some very impressive split screen work for the delusions of Baudu.
Dita Parlo keeps looking like a girl scout most of the time--she does not take direction well. Pierre de Guingand as Mouret is given little to work with; we don't know why he's so smitten with Denise. Germaine Rouer as the grasping socialite does impressive work; she's one of the few characters who is given a personal story to work with.
Un air de famille (1996)
Please let it be over
It's a struggle to get through this family drama, or maybe nervous breakdown would be a better description. The Menards are a grim bunch: Philippe is near the top of his firm, but is a miserable bully who can't stop running down his wife, siblings and anyone else who comes into view; Henri is without ambition or even contentment with his place as manager of the family restaurant--bitter wisecracks are the only contribution he's able to make to the proceedings; Betty is 30 and drifting with no husband and few job prospects. Some flashbacks to 1967 when the three were children offer some relief from the gloom.
The action is interrupted only twice; once when Denis the waiter, who functions as a sort of chorus, takes the morose Yolande onto the dance floor as the run-down Scopitone machine plays a Patti Smith song (surely an exotic number for a down-market place like this?). The other break comes when Henri leaves to try to coax his angry wife into returning to him--you are entirely on her side. I find that Cedric Klapisch enjoys making us miserable, else why would he have bothered with this story?
Le deuxième souffle (1966)
Not the masterpiece we wanted
I'll start with a quote from Alphonse Boudard, regarding the tendency to make crime films like Greek tragedy: Melville wants to remake the Atreidae among criminals. He means that these stories of desperate men settling scores between themselves in the bloodiest fashion possible (I lost count of the corpses in this picture) can't carry the weight of classical tragedy. The excessive length of the film (Le Samourai clocks in at 100 minutes, Un flic at 94--these stories are not much less complicated than Deuxieme soufflé) means there must be scenes that drag on, until the dramatic effect is totally lost. The platinum heist seems to last forever, and it is meant to be the one big suspense moment.
The actors don't do well in general. Pierre Zimmer, playing Orloff, is given silly lines about what he has to do with Gu, if there's betrayal, but he comes off so stiff you want to fast-forward through his scenes. Lino Ventura plays well, has lots of charisma, but looks old--and his age is commented on by the younger thugs. Christine Fabrega is so terribly stiff and sculptural, you wonder how she was hired to play Manouche. It seems Simone Signoret was intended for the part, but dropped out--a great pity. Signoret would have delivered the vitality and strength that are so conspicuously lacking in Fabrega. There's only one stand-out performance: Paul Meurisse is so elegant and smart as Blot that the story takes off every time he comes into the frame. If you have seen Les Diaboliques, you'll know how good he is.
The camera work is mediocre; a washed-out b/w that looks more like television than Melville's great pictures of the 50's. Le deuxieme soufflé is one of the lower points in this man's output.
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Western is not my favourite genre, but when I run across one made with the skill and genius of Howard Hawks, I just sit back and let the story unfold. Two and one-half hours may be excessive for some, but the story really needs to be told without time constraints (Budd Boetticher would have done it in little more than an hour, and it would have been poorer for that). I liked the way Hawks kept the story within the confines of the town, not bothering to soak up the magnificent scenery so beloved of Ford and Mann.
Russell Harlan's fine camera-work serves to increase the tension throughout (Harlan did To Kill a Mockingbird, Witness for the Prosecution and many more fine pictures). The performances are excellent. Many have said Dean Martin has never been better--he outdoes himself here, makes me reflect on how good he was in Some Came Running. Angie Dickinson gives a tremendous performance as Feathers; she seems assured for much of the time, yet there is an underlying insecurity. We keep waiting for her to get on the stagecoach and she never does. Walter Brennan gives a lovely impression of Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing--endearing confusion. John Wayne is still handsome at 52, and carries himself with that assurance we knew so well. His acting skills were never the point. If Ricky Nelson is hardly a great actor, he is a capable one. I liked the way he says "I speak English, sheriff" as a form of introduction to Chance.
Peyton Place (1957)
New England secrets
I was 10 the year this came out; I remember seeing the trailer (on TV?) and thinking it must be wonderfully salacious. Seeing it for the first time today, I can say it is wonderfully sexy, even erotic in a restrained way. The Code was weaker by the late 50's, but you still couldn't show sexual positions--Norman and Allison are vertical on that rock, not horizontal.
The excitement is verbal more than physical: Cross haranguing his stepdaughter Selena, before raping her. Rossi berating Constance for her coldness to him, just after she delivers the memorable line about men always being the same at heart, even if the situation changes. Norman and Allison circle around each other coolly, as do Rodney and Betty, not wishing to commit themselves for fear of parental disapproval, which comes anyway.
Lana Turner and Diane Varsi are excellent as mother and daughter. Russ Tamblyn outshines the rest of the young actors easily. I guess they couldn't get Rock Hudson for Rossi and had to settle for a nobody--it's a shame. Lloyd Nolan gives it all he's got in the courtroom scene. This is one of my favourite films from the 50's.
The Furies (1950)
Tangled emotions in the west
I've seen only a few of Anthony Mann's films; I find him to be an engrossing story teller but not in the first circle of American directors--Welles, Hawks, Ford, Ray. The Furies held, my attention for the first hour or so, then some of the unlikely elements of the story started to distract me. The relationship between Darrow (Corey) and Vance (Stanwyck) had some unlikely aspects, passion mixed with self-seeking, that posed some problem for me. Otherwise the acting especially by Huston, Anderson and Stanwyck was excellent. The scissor scene is shocking because we don't realize until too late the hatred between the two characters played by Anderson and Stanwyck.
The camera work by Victor Milner is superb. Those blacks and deep greys are really impressive: the tonalities at the Herrera house at night, with the armed family fighting TC's men are striking. The supporting cast especially Thomas Gomez is first rate.