Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003)
My sense of late Fellini is that his filmmaking moved into a more determinedly nostalgic register — it’s certainly the feeling I got from 1973’s Amarcord — but if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of interest, much of it rather idiosyncratic. With And the Ship Sails On what we have is a story about the journey of a cruise liner in 1914, around the outbreak of World War I and the delineation of some of the class antagonisms onboard. Obviously, there are shades of another famous (real-life) story here, and some of the same terrain is covered: we have the plutocrats in their opulent dining rooms and cabins while beneath decks are men heaving coal into the boiler’s fires, and a boatload of Serbian refugees from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Fellini’s style, though, is more playful, and the audience’s entry point is a journalist, Orlando, played with admirable campness by Freddie Jones — indeed, much of the core cast appear to be English actors, albeit dubbed into Italian. Orlando shares his commentary directly to the camera, but all the actors are aware of it and frequently break the fourth wall with nervous glances, as if they are being unwillingly shadowed by a film crew. There’s also a very obvious non-naturalism to the sets and the sea-bound effects, particularly in a sequence near the end, in which the waves are evidently tarpaulins, and a battleship’s smoke is drawn on. It all contributes to a precarious sense of a stratified society teetering on the brink of collapse, something perhaps summed up best by the opera-singing haute bourgeoise characters memorably showing off against one another in heated competition in the ship’s boiler room, egged on by the sweaty men below.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Freddie Jones | Length 127 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015
There is, I think, a deceptive forwardness to this film: it’s about the woman of the film’s title (Ariane Labed) who works as a ship’s engineer and is torn between her dependable Danish artist boyfriend Felix, landside, and an old flame, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), a dashing ship’s captain, while on the sea. The ship’s name then, also part of the title (Fidelio), suggests already the key theme of fidelity, while the drama is presented without a great deal of fuss, and unfolds as one might expect, along with the kind of graphic sex scenes to which you might think censors would have given a higher classification. But it’s not prurient or exploitative, and the fact of her job being what it is and the way she takes pleasure from sex seem like aspects of a narrative which would have been cheered about in a film of 10 or 15 years ago (it shares some kinship with the films of Catherine Breillat in these respects), and which even here are worth acknowledging. That the film requires Labed to be a believable ship’s engineer is somewhat the least of her acting challenges in this film, as instead she needs to negotiate the tricky emotional terrain of having relationships with two men without making this seem like some flighty affectation. In any case, she does so admirably well, making for a fascinating psychodrama.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Lucie Borleteau | Writers Lucie Borleteau, Clara Bourreau and Mathilde Boisseleau | Cinematographer Simon Beaufils | Starring Ariane Labed, Melvil Poupaud | Length 97 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 6 October 2015
Watching the Criterion Collection in order doesn’t take long to throw up oddities, and I can’t help but feel the influence of a certain more recent Titanic-based drama on the re-release of this older version of the same events. And yet, for all the grubbiness of Criterion’s cash-in timing, there’s a lot to recommend the 1958 “original”, not least its beautifully-toned monochrome lensing, and unflashy way with its ensemble cast. With all the drama of the original events, director Roy Ward Baker and writer Eric Ambler don’t feel the need to add a spurious upstairs-downstairs romance or creaky moustache-twirling melodrama. Of course, there’s still class-based antagonism, as the steerage passengers are more-or-less locked in while the rich folk depart on the life boats — judgement on which is conveyed only subtly. However, overall this is from a far more genteel school of English filmmaking (think Brief Encounter), with all your favourite pip-pip what-ho Downton-style affectations manifested in that stiff-upper-lip stoicism in the face of certain death, which has its own affecting emotional depth, even as we don’t really get much in the way of individual passenger stories. The hero, if there is one, is the Second Officer (Kenneth More), who more or less takes charge as the tragedy unfolds.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Roy Ward Baker [as “Roy Baker”] | Writer Eric Ambler (based on the non-fiction book by Walter Lord) | Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth | Starring Kenneth More | Length 123 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 November 2014
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014 || My Rating good
I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Tobias Lindholm | Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck | Starring Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling | Length 99 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 February 2014 || My Rating very good
With this little Danish film about piracy in the Indian Ocean, the natural point of comparison is last year’s Captain Phillips (which of course came out afterwards, but such being the way of these things, I saw it first). There’s no doubt they cover a similar subject, but for various rather obvious reasons the way they go about it is quite different. Where the bigger budget film uses spectacular shots of the container ship’s crews fighting off the pirates and then the struggle for power onboard, this film is more about the way that the hijacking situation affects a couple of characters. One is the ship’s cook, a young man with a wife and child back home, and the other is the CEO of the shipping company in Denmark.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer J.C. Chandor | Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco | Starring Robert Redford | Length 100 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013 || My Rating excellent
The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.
I had not intended to review this most recent of Godard’s features, but then I had forgotten I’d put it on my rental list, and it just showed up the other week, so here we go. I could tell you that there’s a tripartite structure, like Notre musique (2004), and that there’s even a plot of sorts threading its way through the film (a young woman’s investigation into some gold which went missing during World War II). However, none of that would really capture Godard’s style, which is so elliptical and opaque as to make the film far closer to poetry than narrative. But if it’s poetry, it’s a densely allusive poetry that draws on influences that are largely unknown to me, meaning that like many of Godard’s late-period films, I find it difficult to connect with.
The bulk of the film is shot on board a cruise liner, intended by Godard to perhaps be the locus of late-Western capitalism in all its excesses (and a location which in real life, perhaps fittingly, came to its own rather controversial end a few years later, being the Costa Concordia). There are characters who flit in and out of the flow of scenes, but the chief way of describing the film is in the textures of its images — digitally shot, but alternately clear and cleanly framed, and degraded and pixellated, overlaid with white noise. There are certainly some beautiful shots, but by this point Godard’s cranky sense of “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has become a knotted tangle.
I don’t want to just write it off because it’s not to my taste. It’s just that there’s less a sense of characters and stories involved here, as ideas and themes. They are certainly grand themes at that, taking in the political history of the twentieth century (if not the whole sweep of Western civilisation) and all its traumas. Like Notre musique, Godard remains particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with Palestine, and Jewish and Arabic characters show up throughout. The film concludes with a brief section (“nos humanités”) taking in six sites of conflict from earliest times (Egypt and Greece) to the most recent (Barcelona in Spain, where the recent economic downturn has hit hardest).
The film moves from this wide focus, taking in the locations of world-changing events, to the minutiae of one family living in provincial France at a petrol station, but retains an interest in the grandest of themes (specifically those of the French Republic: liberté, egalité, fraternité) as the two children question their parents. However, by this point I must confess my attention had started to stray under the burden of the film’s unrelentingly discursive style. Perhaps it could be shown on loop in a gallery, but as a cohesive feature film, it is undeniably demanding, and for those with a taste for Godard’s allusiveness, it may well be a rewarding one. I fear I am not yet equal to it.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013
My Rating worth seeing
Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Paul Greengrass | Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty) | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi | Length 134 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013 || My Rating excellent
When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.