Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan; Writers Jordan and David Leland; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016.

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

As the series has progressed, there’s been a definite move towards darker textures and emotions. The possibility was always hinted at by the looming gothic architecture of the main locations, but now that the leads are in the midst of adolescence, one gets the sense that the filmmakers feel safer venturing into rather more disturbing territory. Hence the presence here of the “Death Eaters”, a cult-like fraternity dedicated to the resurrection of the spectacularly creepy Lord Voldemort (played appropriately by Ralph Fiennes), as well as far more terror and peril than the previous instalments allowed — even the otherwise more assured Prisoner of Azkaban — reflected in its higher classification (a 12 certificate rather than PG for the previous films).

There’s still of course a fantastic amount of plot, as well as of wizardy nonsense, on show, making this also the longest film of the lot so far. We move breathlessly from a shadowy opening which introduces David Tennant as someone clearly evil, to the Quidditch World Cup, where the Death Eaters make their first terrorising appearance, straight on back to Hogwarts, where there’s yet another new Dark Arts teacher (Brendan Gleeson’s delightfully unhinged Professor Moody) and a big competition between three different wizarding academies which takes up the remainder of the film. Thankfully, with all this to shoehorn in, we don’t have to sit through too much Quidditch, still the silliest of all possible sports (where the spectators in the stadium get to watch teams scoring goals, while somewhere out in the ether far from view, a couple of wizards chase a little flying thing, the capture of which pretty much renders all the stadium play meaningless).

We do, however, get a sense of a far bigger world of magic, as students from two different countries enter the picture — the elegant French ladies of Beauxbatons, and the beefy Germanic boys of Durmstrang. One student from each academy gets to compete in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and while the French lady doesn’t fare too well, somehow the weedy Harry (who is also competing, much to everyone’s surprise) manages better pitted by now against the glowering East European chap (their provenance is all rather vaguely Teutonic). There’s also a second competitor from Hogwarts, the taciturn pretty boy Cedric (played by a gurning Robert Pattinson, in his first taste of adolescent-centred blockbuster franchise filmmaking). Meanwhile, threading through the whole thing are hints at the upcoming and unholy resurrection of Lord Voldemort, and his presence in the background makes everything in the film seem rather more grave. Even the Tournament is a treacherous and potentially deadly affair, as the wizards are pitted against huge fire-breathing dragons and sent into dangerous waters to complete their quests, though health and safety has never seemed to be a particular concern of Hogwarts or the wizarding world.

The visuals are all handled perfectly competently by the director and cinematographer roped in for this latest instalment (the director being the venerable Mike Newell, a journeyman who has shown competence on comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral as on the mafia drama Donnie Brasco), and if nothing impresses quite as much as in Cuarón’s film, at least it never gets too plodding. It all adds up to a fine two-and-a-half hours of entertainment, and at long last, with the arrival of Voldemort, has begun to resolve more strongly into an ongoing storyline that one suspects will be developed further in the final four films of the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Mike Newell; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

I was a bit underwhelmed I suppose by the first film in this series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and though I can hardly say the second part has assuaged my concerns and brought me fully into Harry Potter fandom, I can at least report back that it is no worse than the first part. In fact, it generally extends it down into the lower depths of Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures (thus bigger challenges) are lurking. If the shadowy (and non-corporeal) Lord Voldemort was alluded to a number of times in the first film, this is his first appearance as the actual antagonist, which makes it generally a stronger outing.

As it’s a film aimed at children, that still leaves us with the preppy and perky young trio as the leads, whose appeal I am still trying to appreciate, but which may never be possible at my advanced age. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have cannily recruited further British acting talent, this time emphasising the hammy, but in the best possible ways. Most prominently, we now have Kenneth Branagh playing, as he is wont to do (such as in My Week with Marilyn), a heightened and caricatured version of himself — or at least the self I want to believe is Kenneth Branagh. His Gilderoy Lockhart is a preening self-regarding celebrity-obsessed author whose cheerful pomposity is merely a cover for a lack of talent. And then there’s the wonderful Jason Isaacs fantastically overacting as a devilishly calculating Lucius Malfoy, father to one of the more interesting (because morally ambiguous) children, Draco.

However, for the rest of this (even longer) instalment, there’s still plenty of running about, doing stuff, discovering secrets and generally getting into silly japery on the part of the children. If it’s uninspiring in its details (those I can remember), it’s also undemanding on the viewer, though there a few little details added into the mix, such as the incipient racism trumpeted by Draco Malfoy, who objects to Hermione and Harry on the basis of their mixed-blood ancestry (part-wizard, part-human, or ‘Muggles’ as non-magical humans are called here, hence the portmanteau slur “Mudblood”). This is added to the first film’s blatant classism against Ron, ensuring that our trio of questing magical adolescents have at least our sympathy as viewers. The Chamber of Secrets thus keeps the story alive and moving forward, if not adding any greater insight into the trio’s developing stories, or extending the filmmaking skills on show beyond the merely workmanlike.

Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 21 December 2013.