Movie Reviews II


     Blackboard Jungle (1955; USA) [D: Richard Brooks. Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Louis Calhern] I'd never seen this film, although I vaguely remember something of the controversy it caused at the time of its release. Still powerful, and it's obvious why the film caused a stir. The cliche characterisations of juvenile delinquents were of course not cliches at the time:  this film created the cliches (and Rebel Without a Cause perfected them.) It’s the first modern super-teacher movie, which inspired emulations such as To Sir with Love and Mr Holland's Opus, and of course the TV series Welcome Back Mr Kotter (which, at the time it ran, definitely inspired some kids to act up!)
     These movies are really about class, which in all of them supplies a more or less obvious subtext. Middle class morality is threatened by working class delinquency. (I  think Shaw's Alfred Doolittle has the most cogent comment on this class conflict.)  Rebel without a Cause deviates from this pattern somewhat, since it focuses more on middle class kids, but in that movie the instigators of their bad behaviour are working class kids. Blackboard Jungle is dated in many ways, but it was one of the first to create many motifs of the 60s: freedom, the questioning of a work-oriented life, the generation gap, the immorality of the draft, the importance of music as social marker and statement, etc. It is one of the first films to attempt a straight look at the social realities different from the Reader's Digest vision of suburban America. Worth watching for this reason alone, but still a good movie. ***  (2002)

     The Tango Lesson (1997; USA) [D: Sally Potter. Sally Potter, Pablo Veron, Morgane Maugran] An English film director sees a tango performed in a Parisian variety theatre, falls in love with the dance, takes lessons, and eventually dances in a performance with her teacher, a young Argentinean. They eventually fall in love too, so the film is about love as well as dancing. A gentle, and slow-moving movie that grows on you. **½ (2002)

     Spring in Park Lane (1948; British) [Herbert Wilcox. Anna Neagle, Michael Wilding, Tom Walls] Comedy of manners, nice fluff, with a few bits of sharp satire. The stock characters are well done by Michael Wilding, Anna Neagle, and their fellow performers. Wilding, a lord, pretends to be a footman so he can woo and win Neagle, niece and secretary to a rich art fancier. Enough plot twists (some of the Wodehousian kind) to sustain interest, and enough sentiment to soften the implicitly harsh critique of the English class system (again, a Wodehousian touch.) Fun to watch, dated in style, but worth seeing as an example of a time when movies were made for the whole family to watch. **½ (2002)

     Cinema Paradiso (1988; Italian) [D: Giuseppe Tornatori. Philippe Noiret, Enzo Cannavale, Antonella Attili] A coming of age story, Pablo befriends the projectionist in the cinema of a small, dirt-poor southern Italian town, eventually leaves to make his name as a film director, and returns for his friend’s funeral. The film is one long flashback. An Italian slice-of-life story, beautifully done. Lovely photography, very good acting, and nice rhythm and pacing to the film. The crises just happen, as they do in real life, and it's how people respond to these crises that holds our interest. We borrowed this from Rolf. In Italian with English subtitles. Worth seeing. **** (2002)


     The Doll's House. (1973; British) [D: Patrick Garland. Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins] An excellent interpretation. One of the things that has always bothered me in other versions is that Nora seems too strong to be so submissive to her husband. I think this modern interpretation of the play misses too much. We have a tendency to forget that what may look like small steps to us were great triumphs at the time. This is because the oppression of women, although expressed often enough in law and custom, is essentially a matter of relationship.
     And relationships are messy, paradoxical, and anything but logical. To become free means to change the relationship, perhaps to break it irrevocably, and few people have the strength to do that. Even Nora doesn't do so until she can do nothing else. The play is about Nora’s desperate attempts to save the relationship. It's only when Torvald shows that he doesn't value their union, he doesn't even understand it as a union, that Nora finally gives up. She is driven to freedom, she does not seek it.
     This version respects the text and the social milieu  of its time. In this version, Nora is a loving but manipulative wife, smart, but using her smarts to get what she wants. She is clever but unwise, and doesn't fully understand the consequences of her actions. The play is about her realisation of those consequences, and her discovery that her adored husband is a shell of a man. When she's faced with the crisis, her first instinct is to protect what she has. She sees clearly that she has risked a lot by borrowing money from a disgraced book-keeper; she doesn't see that her husband's first concern is for himself. When she realises what a shallow self-centred creature he is, she leaves him, not because she is striking a blow for womankind, but because she can no longer live with she has recognised is a lie. Her relationship with her husband, which she assumed to be based on mutual respect and honour turns out to have been one of mutual exploitation. Her husband's basic weakness, his moral cowardice, prevent him from acknowledging this. If he had, they could have rebuilt their marriage. As it is, it's over.
     The acting is very good, and makes what could be merely a soap-opera or a tract into a believable near-tragedy. The acting is occasionally too single-note emotionally, but otherwise this is a near perfect film. ***½ (2002)


     Lost in Austen (2008) [TV mini-series written by Guy Andrews. Amanda Rooper, Elliot Cowan, Hugh Bonneville]
     Amanda Price, fan of Pride & Prejudice enters the the fictional world through a door in her bathroom, exchanging places with Elizabeth Bennett. Wikipedia has a plot summary.
     Question is, does this pastiche work? I think so. Andrews has rewritten Austen’s romance as a novel: the characters are more complex, they have back-stories, they react rather more like real people than genre characters. There is a consistent theme: these people are playing parts assigned to them by social constraints and rules. Amanda upsets this, primarily by insisting that the characters behave as prescribed in Austen’s novel. But she too is trying to play a part: the observer. But she’s actually a participant, and in her unwillingness to accept this messes things up, but good. People seek her advice, which she frames in terms of Austen’s book, not in terms of character and personality. “Destiny” is her buzzword, but she’s blind to the destiny created by her entry into a fictional world. (Or is it fictional? Andrews leaves that question hanging.)
     Almost all the characters reveal their true selves at different times. Caroline Bingley admits she is a lesbian, but will endure marriage for propriety’s sake. Lady Catherine reveals herself as conforming to rules and roles prescribed by her status; but she knows that Amanda is not what she seems, and so is not bound by status. She has seen that Amanda is afraid of what she really wants; and her last remark to Amanda is she wishes Amanda were her daughter.
     Wickham acts the cad but is really a deeply honourable man: he’d rather be hated by Darcy than betray Georgiana’s adolescent crush. Bingley eventually acts on the love he really feels for Jane instead of following Darcy’s advice to preserve his social status.
     Mrs Bennett finally revolts against the socially submissive role her status assigns, and instead of kowtowing to Lady Catherine, throws her out of the house. This reminds Mr Bennett that she is his wife, and his admiration for her long-suppressed spunk, as well as the realisation that he has dodged his duties as husband and father, move him to offer to sleep in the marital bed again, an offer that Mrs Bennett is delighted to accept. And of course Darcy will follow his heart rather than his social pride, and Amanda will accept her destiny.
     We spent four pleasant evenings watching this series on TVO. It is not the best Austen pastiche I’ve come across, but it’s still well above average. ***

      Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993) For more on the TV series look here
     David Suchet as Poirot is always a treat, even when (as here) the characterisation is so well established that the editor for the American version has snipped almost everything except the plot-related shots. We don’t get that luxuriating in character-revealing digression that makes British TV such a pleasure to watch. That being said, this episode is as usual made to a very high standard. The wife of an oilman, who’s up to no good in the Argentine, dies in an apparent suicide, but Poirot is not allowed to investigate. Now two years later, the whole scene will be restaged “in memory” of the dead woman. Her sister is the target of the murderer this time, but Poirot prevents the crime. If you are a fan of David Suchet as Poirot, this will be worth another viewing or two. If not, it’s still worth a first look. First class entertainment, a good example of its genre. **-½

      The Shipping News (2001) [D: Lasse Hallström. Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench, Julian Moore, Cate Blanchett, Gordon Pinsent] I wasn’t going to watch this, but after the first couple or five minutes I was hooked. Story is simple: shlemiel Quoyle hooks up with and, after she become pregnant, marries Petal, a “free spirit”, who despises him and sleeps around. His parents die, and Petal’s killed in a car crash with her latest lover, leaving him to look after their daughter Bunny. His aunt Agnis shows up and persuades him to take her to Newfoundland, where she wants to get back to her and his roots. He gets a job at the local newspaper, reporting the “shipping news”, which he develops into a kind of local history column. He also discovers unexpected strengths in himself, as well as a rather surreal and occasionally brutal family history. The movie ends with an expectation of a marriage, several reconciliations, and a general feeling of “What the hell, life is a gamble, and you have to make the best of what you’ve been dealt.”
     The movie’s based on Annie Proulx’s book, which is not a recommendation for me. I’ve tried reading several of her works, and bogged down within a few hundred words every time. I don’t know exactly why, but I dislike the film of portentous meaning that she overlays on everything, so maybe that’s the reason. As with many other writers, translating the work into another medium clarifies it, and adds gentle strokes of nuance where the original clobbers your imagination with a sledge hammer.
     So why did I like the movie? Mostly I think because of the matter-of-fact filming. There are few fancy shots, the story-telling is visually simple and straightforward. The actors are very good, presenting the most outlandish actions as logical common sense. This shoves the movie towards absurdity, and I suppose some people would argue it’s crossed well into that territory. But I don’t think so. Ordinary life as I have observed and occasionally experienced it descends into a bathetic soap opera often enough, so a movie that presents life as merely surreal and absurd has the ring of truth. Besides, there’s a nice little love story in it, and I’m a sucker for romance. As well, there’s the affirmation of second (or 3rd or 37th) chances. We can, and a old photographs may remind us, we do change.  Worth watching at least once. ***½

     Tuesdays with Morrie (1999) [D: Mick Jackson. John Lemmon, Hank Azaria] Made for TV, won four Emmys. Based on the book recounting a student’s (Mitch) reconnection with his professor (Morrie Schwartz), who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Tuesdays were office hours, so Morrie and Mitch meet on Tuesdays. Mitch must also fix his relationship with his lover Jeannine, who wants marriage and a family, something that Mitch is afraid of. This works out, too.
     It’s a straightforward movie, very competently filmed and acted. This movie depends on its premise, that the dying professor has wisdom to impart, and that his former student needs to learn the lessons. It succeeds in fulfilling that aim, albeit with a little too much sentiment; but it’s an American movie, and Americans like a little sugar with their medicine.
     And what is Morrie’s lesson? “We must love one another, or die”, quoting a line from Auden’s “September 1, 1939". True; and a hard lesson it is to learn. It’s the lesson all the religions and philosophies teach, and after 6,000 years of teaching most of us are still afraid to learn it, and even more afraid to live it.
     Good movie. Marie said it was better than the book. ***

     Men in Black (1997) A secret agency monitors the aliens that use earth as a "neutral zone", and occasionally have to up against the bad ones. This time it's a bug who's come to earth to steal a weapon.
     I've seen this movie four or five times now, and of anything, I enjoy it more every time. What in the first viewing were lovely surprises and twists (tabloids used by aliens to disseminate news about each other?) have become familiar punctuation marks, markers of the rhythm of the narrative. I also appreciate details that I almost missed in other viewings, such as the party-animal aliens buzzing on nicotine and alcohol. Or the “Sorry” appended to one of the Arquillian warnings that Earth will be destroyed pretty soon.
     Apart from some of the most wonderfully gross special effects ever created, the swift pacing of the story, the precise (if limited) characterisation, I most admire the writing. Very few movies are as tightly plotted as this one, multiple story lines are interleaved so well that we never lose track of the story. We know of course that Agents J and K will win their conflict with the bug, and we know how, but it’s still fun to see how they figure out what they need to know. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, which may tempt one to ignore its lessons: live your life; love matters; there are more things to be known than we can ever know.
     I suppose that the pleasure of seeing this movie again harks back to the pleasure we experienced as children hearing a familiar story over and over again. If you’ve never seen it, watch it soon., If you’ve seen it, watch it again. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy this movie. ***½

     Bullitt (1968) [D: Peter Yates. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett] This is a noir film in colour. The situation is simple: protect a mobster who will give evidence at a grand jury hearing. An ambitious D.A. wants to ensure he gets credit for bringing down “the organisation”. But the man is killed, and Bullitt knows something is seriously wrong. The dead man was not in fact the mobster, so Bullitt has two tasks: to find the killers, and to find the real witness. He must also fend off both the ambitions politician (played creepily by Robert Vaughn) but also the mob (who want the victim truly dead).
     Bullitt’s an honest cop who doesn’t like being pushed around by VIPs. He goes his own way to find his quarry, but knows how to work with his team. At the turning point, he sees he’s being followed, so he dekes up a side street and begins to follow the car that pursued him. It turns into a deadly chase, one that film makers have studied and borrowed from ever since. I recall seeing it on a large screen. It looks pretty good on the smaller TV screen, too. It really is one of the best ever filmed. Many of its tricks have become standard, so anyone seeing this movie for the first time would probably be somewhat blase about the car chase.
     The plot is intricate but clearly delineated, step by procedural step. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt is laconic, unwilling to show his deeper feelings (there’s a perfunctory love subplot), and he’s finally worn down by the violence he must perforce witness and commit. The final act shows us another classic sequence, a chase across the runways of the airport at night.
     A good movie, well worth seeing again, or for the first time. ***
   
     Rear Window (1954) [D: Alfred Hitchcock. James Stewart, Grace Kelly] I remember hearing about this movie while we were in England for a couple of months before coming to Canada. For some reason, I was not supposed to see it, and I never did. Instead, my siblings and I went to the Cinema Club on Saturdays, which offered a serial, a short feature, a couple of cartoons, and one or more documentaries, along with an opportunity to buy a Walls Ice cream bar. Did I miss much? Yes, it’s a very well done movie, and I would have enjoyed it a lot, even though I would have missed a lot of the adult jokes and innuendos. In the intervening years I’ve seen hundreds of movies, I’ve learned to “read” a movie very quickly, and the stories of these old ones from the 50s and earlier seem slow-moving, and their tropes and conventions quaint. But I’ve also learned to see how a movie is constructed, and to appreciate the skill with which it’s put together. Hitchcock was a master, no question. It’s a pleasure to see him give us the impression of a busy, crowded almost-community of apartment-dwellers who share a courtyard. The secondary stories also help to extend what would be a very short featurette into a full-length movie.
     The main story is quite short: L B Jeffries, convalescing from a leg injury, amuses himself by watching his neighbours from the rear window of his two-room apartment. He becomes convinced that a salesman living opposite has killed his nagging invalid wife. He’s proven right, but nearly loses his life when the killer comes to his apartment and demands an explanation. Only the last-minute intervention by the police detective who initially disbelieves his story saves him. On this simple tale  Hitchcock hangs enough complexities that we enjoy watching the movie for its almost two-hour length.
     The movie was skilfully restored in 1988, well before digital technology was available, and looks very good. Yes, it is slow compared to today’s movies. Yes, it is a contrived story. But the acting is superb: we know we are in the stylised universe of pulp fiction, but Hitchcock was always able to get the kind of performance out his actors that make us believe the characters were real people. ***½


     Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall (2011) As in Doyle’s original tale, Sherlock Holmes falls to his death, while Moriarty dies. But at the end, we see that Holmes has survived. Otherwise, a wonderfully realised series of new twists, with more insight into Holmes’ character (who in this version is emotionally much more complex). Moriarty is shown as a psychopath who has despaired, decides to suicide, and has arranged to use psychological pressure to force Holmes to jump. This insight, based on modern insights into this type of personality, makes Moriarty an almost tragic character.
     What else can I say? It’s not often that re-imagining of a character is as well done as here: the creators have conceived of this as a video series, not a text, and that makes all the difference. They also rely on our ability, well-trained in watching movies as we are, to follow jump-cuts, montages, multiple exposures, shifting camera angles, layered sound, and very fast and minimal narration in brief snatches of dialogue. They also expect us to watch this movie, our grasp of the narrative depends on the visuals.
     These movies are like collages, they create the illusion of a far more complex world than any one of their elements can induce. But in a well-made collage we see that complexity more clearly. Summarising this movie is difficult in text, I won’t attempt it. If you can see a rerun, watch it. I intend to do so. It also helps to have a large screen and large sound.
     Afterthought: we need a word for a fictional character who has become a part of our culture as much as any real person has. ****   

       Raising Arizona (1987) [D:Joel Coen. Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter] An early Coen brothers movie, this demonstrates their clear-eyed gaze at ordinary people, and genius for making the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary.
     Nicolas Cage is H. I. McDonough, a small-time crook who likes to hold up convenience stores, using an unloaded gun. He falls for Edwina (Holly Hunter), the mug-shot photographer. They marry, but she can’t conceive, so they steal one of a set of quints because their parents say five babies is more than they can handle. Just the kind of story that makes the News of the Weird (http://www.newsoftheweird.com/), in fact.
     As you might guess, the results are a wonderful mix of the funny, the sentimental, the cruel, the kind, the logical, the silly. Complicating factors are a couple of prison escapees, H. I.’s friends, and bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall Cobb). Great chase scenes, spectacular fights, and every character has enough hints of a backstory that we feel ourselves living in a real world. After all, we don’t know much more about our neighbours than we learn about the secondary characters in this (or any) movie. Everything ends well, since this is a comedy, not just a funny movie. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I found our VHS copy at a yard sale, but can't recall when or where. ***

      The Eagle Has Landed (1976) The Eagle Has landed (1976) [D: John Sturges. Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Sutherland] Well done adventure romance (“action movie”) about a Nazi attempt to capture Winston Churchill. IOW, a fantasy. Caine plays the leader of a paratroop unit tapped for this crazy job, Duvall the Colonel who backs the plan, Hagman a crazy Texan who itches for combat, Sutherland a much to pleasant IRA member, and Pleasence is Himmler.
     The set-up gives us the back-stories: Caine is a romantic, with far too much sense of honour. An intervention in the deportation of Jews earns him a court-martial, but he’s too skilled not to be called on for this job. Duvall is a cynical careerist, who accepts what fate serves up to him. Pleasence sees a chance for additional glory and approval from the Fuehrer. Sutherland wants to go home to Ireland. The English village is a backwater that has so far escaped the war. The Germans pretend to be a unit of the Free Polish army on manoeuvres. This works well until one of them jumps into the mill-race to save a child, and loses not only his life but most of his Polish uniform, revealing his Wehrmacht colours underneath. At this point, as things begin to go wrong, and the writer’s problem is to make the consequences seem both inevitable and controllable, and to mix in as many possibilities of reversal as possible. Random factors of course always intervene, but the outcome, as expected, is much death, and the failure of the mission, with credit for heroism and honour about equally divided between the Germans and the Allies.
     Well-plotted, well-paced, stereotyped characters, pop-history level, with the odd touch of realism to temper the fantasy. The Wehrmacht characters are too good to be true, but Pleasence does a very nice interpretation of Himmler. The most realistic parts  take place in Nazi Germany, with a nice mix of bureaucracy, careerism, cynicism, and paranoia. ***


      Starting Out in the Evening (2007) [D: Andrew Wagner. Frank Langella, Lili Taylor, Lauren Ambrose] Heather Wolfe (Ambrose) approaches Leonard Schuller (Langella) because she wants to write an M. A. thesis about him, bring his books back into public notice, and by so doing create a career for herself.  She flatters him as a writer and a person, and “brings some excitement into an old man’s life.” Schuller suffers from an inability to finish his novel (which will likely not be published anyway). Meanwhile, Leonard’s daughter Ariel (Taylor) has biological clock and relationship problems. The movie explores these relationships, and makes us care about the old man. Heather’s questions reveal both the insight of an intelligent reader and naivete about the creative process. Schuller’s answers display an old-fashioned dignity and reticence about personal matters. Ariel and her lover are caught between principle and love.
     It’s a complicated mix, which the movie presents rather than explores. It does so with sudden cuts, and slow narration of each scene, expecting us to have the patience to discover its place in plot and theme. Langella’s performance is rivetting, and saves the film from teetering over the edge into sentimental suffering-artist romanticism.
     The slow pace also distances us from the characters by giving us plenty of time to become aware of our responses. Paradoxically, this also gives us time to consider the questions answered in hints rather than revelations, and realise that people will make the best of what they have. Problems are either abandoned, or resolved through compromises.
     Leonard suffers a stroke, which changes all his relationships. When Heather visits, and patronises him by suggesting that “she has good feelings” about his unfinished novel, her patronising tone provokes the only unkind outburst by Leonard: a slap in the face. She walks out of his life into what will likely be a life of satisfying moments as a writer or academic. Ariel and her partner may or may not have the child that Ariel desperately wants: at 40, the odds are against her, but her partner has accepted that he must agree to participate in the hope of a child. Leonard has given up on his novel: the characters haven’t done anything interesting, and will never do so. But he must write or die. The movie ends with Leonard sitting at his typewriter and starting a new book.
     It’s an oddly compelling movie. ***

     Margaret (2009) This is not The Iron Lady, but a docudrama following Margaret Thatcher’s last few weeks in power. It was made by the BBC well before The Iron Lady went into production. I think it’s a very good movie.
     The depiction of political infighting is very well done, especially the dialogue freighted with multiple meanings, the body language, the covert glances. It seems Thatcher succumbed to the leader's sickness: she saw herself as indispensable. She wasn’t, of course; worse, she had become a liability. There have been few political leaders who went quietly. My cursory examination of the evidence suggests that the more ideology figures in a leader’s political ambition, the less likely (s)he is to depart willingly. The extreme case is of course the dictator, most of whom seem to have begun as ideologues. There is also narcissism, which in Thatcher’s case was stoked by Dennis Thatcher's unapologetic admiration and uncritical support. It’s only at the end, when he sees how much she will be hurt if she is ousted, that he tries to persuade her to leave.
     I don’t know how accurately the movie portrays Thatcher’s character, nor do I know what the narrative omits or skews, but it has the ring of truth. The Brits have always been very good at capturing the meanness of political infighting.  ***

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