I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)
I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Black Star Director Dee Rees | Writers Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois | Cinematographer Jeff Jur | Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique | Length 107 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016
FILM REVIEW || Director Irwin Winkler | Writer Jay Cocks | Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts | Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally | Length 120 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014 || My Rating very good
I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.
Among the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.
FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen | Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen | Length 98 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 || My Rating a must-see
I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.
FILM REVIEW || Director Billy Wilder | Writers Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe | Length 122 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wednesday 31 July 2013 || My Rating a must-see
I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen [Snow White] by the Brothers Grimm) | Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica | Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013 || My Rating excellent
Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.
Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.
If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Baz Luhrmann | Writer Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald) | Cinematographer Simon Duggan | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton | Length 143 minutes | Seen at Vue Islington (2D), London, Sunday 19 May 2013 || My Rating good
Like any Baz Luhrmann film, this is a splashy, flashy exercise in surface textures, style and costume, set design and special effects, but like the best of his works it matches these stylistic traits to characters who are constantly telling stories about themselves as a way of ingratiating themselves into the world around them. Yet if it’s a story about adapting, it’s not clear that this adaptation is particularly necessary, and when it tries to visualise some of the novel’s grand metaphors (ones so grand they are writ large on vast billboards or flash brightly and insistently), it can get a bit clunky. Some things are best left on the page and in the reader’s imagination.
This screening was selected by the actor Terence Stamp as part of the BFI’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’ strand, whereby prominent figures from the worlds of film and the arts are asked to select an important film for them personally. In his introduction, Stamp spoke warmly about his early filmgoing experiences in Plaistow, East London (where he first saw this film), about his own encounter with Eastern enlightenment and mysticism in the 1970s, and about the quality of the actors in this particular film, especially the luminescent Gene Tierney (on whom he had a boyhood crush) and the resonant voice of Herbert Marshall.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Edmund Goulding | Writer Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham) | Cinematographer Arthur Miller | Starring Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb | Length 145 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 May 2013 || My Rating very good
As a film which pushes into melodramatic territory bordering on kitsch, and as a classic example of a “woman’s picture” of the era, this adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel is apt to be written off too easily by critics. It possesses in Tyrone Power (PS his real name) an apparently bland lead actor perhaps more valued for his matinee idol appearance than his acting ability (an apt modern comparison might be Zac Efron, likewise undervalued as an actor). It’s also somewhat uneven in tone over its extended running time, and turns on some rather hokey religious transcendence. However, despite these flaws, it’s a ravishingly expressive film.
This is my first post that’s about a film I did not see in the cinema. I hope that this can be excused, given the title of my blog. EDIT: It turns out that upon looking at my cinema spreadsheet, I did in fact see this in a cinema over 12 years ago. I just clearly couldn’t remember it at all.
It’s been long enough since this film came out that a lot has been written about it. It has an early and important place in the canon of American crime films, which largely started a few years before with Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), and of which there have been quite a few over the years. It also shows up in discussions of “pre-Code” Hollywood, that brief period in the late-1920s and very early-1930s before Hollywood started to more rigorously self-censor the content of its films (with a Motion Picture Production Code). Furthermore, the film’s story ties in closely with the prohibition that came about with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and which was still in force when the film was made.
It’s prohibition, in particular, that really precipitated the rise of the gangster in both real terms and in popular culture, and which led to the emergence of this new genre. The Public Enemy takes this up directly, by showing how quickly the protagonist Tom Powers becomes wealthy after prohibition is introduced, thanks to his involvement with the illegal brewing and distribution of beer.
Nevertheless, for all the punchy charisma of James Cagney’s screen presence in this role, the character of Tom is never anything other than low-level muscle for the real gangsters pulling the strings and making the deals (“Putty Nose” in the early scenes, then Paddy Ryan and “Nails” Nathan later on in the prohibition years). When a youthful heist goes wrong and a police officer is killed, neither Tom nor his friend Matt receive any support from “Putty Nose”, who has swiftly disappeared. In fact, none of the real gangsters find themselves much in the line of fire, and the only death among them comes via a horse-riding accident (a hazard of an entitled lifestyle, more than anything else).
The only power Tom seems to wield is over his partner in crime Matt (the actor playing whom was originally slated for the lead role), and to a certain extent over the women in his life, primarily his blissfully ingenuous and naive mother. His girlfriends don’t fare too well either (the film’s iconic scene features a grapefruit pushed by Tom into the face of one of them over the breakfast table), though none of the women who appear in the film have particularly prominent roles, and even Jean Harlow, who appears on the poster, barely registers in the film itself.
As an early sound film, there’s still a sense of the filmmakers learning what they can do, and some of the sound recording is patchy. The acting too comes across as a little forced, especially obvious when Cagney is on screen, as few of the other actors show his flair. There are a lot of frontal arrangements, though that said, the camera manages to be relatively mobile, clearly limited by what was technologically possible at the time. It remains a strong story, though, with a great lead performance, not to mention being a key early film in the development of the genre, and for that it’s worth watching.
FILM REVIEW Director William A. Wellman | Writers Kubec Glasmon, John Bright and Harvey Thew (based on the novel Beer and Blood by Glasmon and Bright) | Cinematographer Devereaux Jennings | Starring James Cagney | Length 83 minutes | Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 24 September 2000 (most recently at home on DVD, London, Thursday 18 April 2013)