Friday, 23 July 2010

The Kreutzer Sonata (2008)

Synopsis: Husband with insane jealous streak winds up murdering his wife when he (wrongly) suspects her of having an affair.

Based on a Leo Tolstoy story which is itself a scathing attack on marriage, this film from Bernard Rose is first rate. I'd read about an earlier film that he'd made, Ivans XTC, again based on a Tolstoy story and starring (as this one does) the very talented (and very handsome) Danny Huston.

I've now read the Tolstoy story to get a good comparison and found it be pretty much spot on. It's uncanny how modern Tolstoy was in his attitudes/observations toward marriage and having a family. Even more so that Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata demystifies much of middle class, Western received wisdom on relationships and romance (more of which in Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch). He pretty much smashes any illusions that love between men and women is anything other than a bloody battlefield. Okay, so Levin in AK does come through and learn to appreciate his wife and baby son but on the whole, Tolstoy (a father of thirteen children himself) does not hold any truck with romantic novelists who espouse a 'love conquers all' line.

So, approaching this film with a healthy skepticism, I was not disappointed. I think Bernard Rose has crafted a really great little film. I say little as it's made on a digital camera and with only a small handful of 'names' (but two Hustons for yer money!). Even so, it is a very well constructed film, well photographed and edited, with a very tight narrative length.

I wondered if the cheap(er), digital format would bother me or detract from the film, but I can honestly say that it didn't. Apart from a couple of scenes with lots of visual 'noise', I reckon if using these smaller, digital cameras can allow directors more freedom, then great. Some of the newer digital SLRs with movie-making facilities on them are now churning out some very high quality images and will really change film-making.

Anyway, back to the story. The tale mostly translates well, although I didn't really buy the line that just because the couple at one point have unprotected sex this would have necessarily ended up in pregnancy. What about the morning after pill? That the female character, as a high-flying concert pianist, would sabotage her career so easily really didn't sit that well with me.

Apart from this one slip up, the story hangs as true today as in Tolstoy's time - that once a couple is married and have their first child, their lives and most importantly their joint life, is changed forever, often for the worse. There's a great line about women knowing that children are a burden that I didn't think could have been lifted from the original story, but it is. Here is a male writer that really understood that a woman's role as wife and mother is not every girl's dream and is often a big disappointment.

The tension of the alleged affair and the husband's jealousy is very well done with some of the arguments between the couple almost too honest and cringe worthy to watch. The climactic scene is very lightly done but so devastating - you can't quite believe what you've just seen. The performances are all very good, especially Danny Huston (where has he been all these years?? Edit: just rembered that I saw him in Silver City years ago - he was ace in that too) and Elisabeth Rohm as his wife.

I cannot wait to see what Bernard Rose makes next.'s a biopic of Howard Marks. Oh well, we can't make Tolstoy adaptations all the time I suppose...

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Monday, 19 July 2010

On the Waterfront (1954)

Synopsis: Corrupt union boss Lee J Cobb keeps Noo Joisey longshoremen (oh, look it up) downtrodden. Marlon Brando becomes the main man to stand up to them, with the help of a local priest Karl Malden and flaxen-haired lovely Eva Marie Saint.

This is one of those films that you are supposed to watch, otherwise you're not a proper film fan...blah blah when it was on telly one Saturday afternoon I didn't really have an excuse not to watch. Glad I did, as there are many great things about the film, but not quite what I expected.

I discovered that the film was made after the director Elia Kazan had testified against colleagues at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for being communists. Therefore, On the Waterfront became a justification of his actions. This makes watching the film interesting but confusing.

The story is about standing up to thugs, intimidation and poverty-inducing working conditions. I'm not quite sure what sort of parallels you can draw between this and Kazan's annoyance at his commie acting/directing mates giving him a hard time. However, politics aside it is an edgy, tense and brilliantly told story. The tension is ratcheted up with finding out pretty much from the get-go that the guy most obviously targeted to stand up to the baddies is brother to No.1 baddie's henchman. The menage-a-trois of frustration and hatred between Lee J Cobb, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger is brilliant and heart-breaking to watch.

The other aspect of it that intrigued me was Brando and Kazan's method acting. I'd never really paid much heed to what method acting was and how it differed from other types of acting, so I was paying close attention to Brando this time. There are some fascinating touches, such as Terry playing with Edie's glove rather than handing it back to her. But, but...I'm not sure if these were insightful or just distracting.

Interestingly, since watching On the Waterfront I've seen Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, in which Bresson's acting philosophy is played out by his actors, or models as he prefers to call them, do not 'act' as we know it, do not emote or pout or do much of anything apart from act in the purest sense. There is action, they stand up, walk, talk, do lots of other things but without any hint of emotion or thought. This is almost at the other end of the spectrum to Brando, who seems to expend all of his energy totally embodying his roles.

The story is angry and violent but ends with the hero triumphing at last. I loved the gritty look to the film. We only ever see New York in the very background, reminding us that this community are outsiders to civilisation and there is some ace contrasty chiaroscuro with dark, shiny blacks in the alley ways and corners of the docks.

This is meaty film-making, proper Shakespearean/Greek storytelling and a real testament to a director and lead actor making big statements.

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Synopsis: First World War - French pilots get captured, escape, get captured etc. until they end up in posh prisoner of war camp and hang out with Erich Von Stronheim. Much ado about social classes pre-war.

A bit like Blackadder Goes Forth when Ade Edmonson as German flying ace Baron Von Richtoven. French and German pilots getting along in German prison camps. The officers, regardless of country loyalties, recognising the more important ties of social class.

This is one of those films where all the way through you're going 'Oh, so that's where so-and-so got that idea from!'. There's the digging tunnels/distributing of soil via trouser leg episode that we later see in The Great Escape. Then there's the scene when the French pilots all stand to sing the Marseillaise a la Casablanca.

Other lovely vignettes include the posh Brits rehearsing It's a Long Way to Tipperary and the wonderful moment when all the POWs are rifling through a trunk of women's clothes to find costumes for their gang show. One soldier dresses up and pretty much silences the other men, all no doubt dreaming of the women they have left behind. Later on in the gang show, we see one dolled up just like Hugh Laurie as the fair Georgina.

This film must have been one of the strongest influences on later tales of the ridiculousity of war, cf. Catch 22, Dr Strangelove. The constant escape attempts, close look at class/social relationships of soldiers and overall meaningless of war see this satire as a top class example of that genre (if there is such a thing).

The wonderful Jean Gabin stars, as do some familiar Renoir visages from La Regle De Jeu. The sublime Erich von Stroheim (complete with fake 'von') is just perfect as the gentleman pilot von Ruffenstein, trying to make sense of all these upstart working class men taking over the running of the world. There's a fab death scene (won't say whose), in which Erich gets to pontificate about the way of things and how everything's gone downhill that is really reminiscent of Renoir's other masterpiece (if you can have two masterpieces) La Regle De Jeu. This is a film about the change of the world order after the First World War and how seismic that shift was.

Later in the film the two French hero pilots have escaped and find themselves at the (rather lovely) mercy of Dita Parlo as a German farmer's wife who has lost pretty much every male member (now, now) of her family to the ravages of war. Dita and Jean fall in love but he is soon off to finally make his way into Switzerland and safety.

A great companion piece to Regle De Jeu, even though they deal with different wars. You could incorporate a drinking game into your viewing - taking a swig each time you see a scene that's influenced another film. I guarantee you'll be squiffy before too long.

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Monday, 12 July 2010

An Education (2009)

Synopsis: Middle class London suburbanite teenage girl makes some mistakes and almost messes up her future. Ends up as Lynn Barber.

I had avoided watching this film after all the attention that it got, and I thought that it looked a bit too smug for its own good. I got over that and have finally seen on DVD. It's not bad. Not bad at all.

The story rattles along at a nice nifty pace and Carey Mulligan is really natural as the lead character Jenny. So, in fairness she probably has deserved all the accolades currently being chucked her way.

All the supporting players do their bit, with Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper and the dishy Peter Sarsgaard creating a world of '60s indulgence and dodgy morals. Basically, whilst well on her way to Oxford, Jenny falls in with the 'wrong lot' and almost gives away her future by dumping Oxford and marrying a philandering thief. However, we see how more grown up than she is than those around her (Mum, Dad, boyfriend etc.) and she attempts to pull back from the brink and rescue her future. Her female teachers being the only moral centre for her to properly rely on, she realises the error of her ways and pleads for their help.

I'm still a bit confused about the message of the film. Jenny is drawn as very likeable and intelligent but also naive, although not the usual naivety of other, more obvious films and lead actresses. Carey Mulligan's performance as Jenny portrays a girl with a huge sense of self confidence, even in her own mistakes. We don't ever really see her 'suffering' for her idiocy; she just picks herself up, gets help and charges ahead with her original plans. The self-assuredness is frightening indeed.

The '60s dresses etc. are lovely to look at (as is Peter Sarsgaard. Did I say that already?) and the scenes at Walthamstow Stadium were particularly fondly watched (I'm from E17). Nicely done.

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The Black Stallion (1979)

Synopsis: Boy meets horse, horse saves boy's life, boy rides horse in important race. The end.

One of my desert island films, I first saw this film on telly years ago and it immediately struck me as a cut above the usual kid/animal story - Andre it ain't. The visual style (the director Carroll Ballard is also a cinematographer) is really elegant, classy and thoughtful. Beautifully composed frames and sequences take their time and create a really strong sense that here is a film maker that really loves looking at his subject matter, the locations and different types of light.

Dialogue is almost foregone completely for much of the film in favour of highly lyrical vignettes between boy and horse, into which Carmine Coppola's (Dad of Francis Ford, who produced the film) music melds really nicely.

The horse. There are some unbelievable sequences involving the stallion, including the angry, rearing horse on the ship, the horse's bridle and ropes caught up the sinking ship's rudder and of course the races. The sound editing in the final race is brilliant; the horse's thundering hooves and overworked, snorty breathing putting you right in the place of Kelly Reno as he struggles to cling on to his lightening fast steed.

I can't immediately think of many other films that capture quite the same inner worldliness of this one. There are plenty of emotional scenes but as I say above, these are largely without dialogue, the feelings of the grown-ups, the kid and horse portrayed visually rather than through schmaltzy speeches.

I don't care how naff it sounds, but this is special film, made in the 1970s, when Hollywood was going through another Golden Age. Much overlooked, I think The Black Stallion is real, proper gem of a movie.

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