Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965)



Quite a tough one to watch , this one, because I can’t quite recall any film so relentlessly portraying such an unlikeable anti-heroine, a black satire surely against the ‘Princess Grace of Monaco’ fairy story. We hear Julie Christie’s Diana giving a magazine interview reflecting on her life, and this acts as an ironic voice-over as the on-screen depiction of these events reveals her as a self-serving unreliable narrator. Always indulged, even as a child (she is forever being referred to, unironically, as ‘Darling’ throughout the film), she enters the world of modelling through interviewer Robert (Dirk Bogarde) and they set up home together, each abandoning their respective spouses, and he his children, until Diana gets the opportunity to ‘trade up’ to younger, wealthier Miles ( a wonderfully cool and malicious turn from Laurence Harvey). Always seeing herself as the ‘reasonable’ one, Diana is utterly unlikeable but there is no sense of an impending doom approaching, since the interview we heard at the very opening shot (as Diana’s face is plastered on top of a ‘War on Want’ poster, a recurring theme) was just as fawning as the action we see unfold as a retrospective.

As Diana progresses through ‘hip’ London society, we see her bluffing her way through, and we expect exposure which never seems to come, as people indulge her bullshit – beautiful people rarely get challenged on outrageous claims and behaviour, it seems. And, when she finds her relationships don’t always go the way she wants, it’s only because she is so fickle and needy, trying to have everything without regard to the feelings of others. The only times anyone challenges her are when they find out about her misdemeanors against themselves and take her to task about them – which will always turn out to somehow be their own fault, when Diana is forced to confront them. There can’t be too many films where it’s so clear that the lead character deserves a ‘comeuppance’ but seems likely to largely get away with it. Given the voiceover at the beginning, we know that Diana’s position in society is still going to be pretty assured at the end. Any retribution coming to her will have to be something secret to herself.

It would be interesting to know if the film was any more or less shocking at the time of release as it is now. In pre-1960s Britain, Diana’s acts would be simply ‘not the done thing’, a breach of the rules, whereas now we see them as unacceptably vain and selfish. But, in the ‘swinging ’60’s’? I wonder…

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The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)


The Crying Game
If you are worrying, like me, that knowing the ‘big reveal’ of this film (and is there anyone likely to watch it who doesn’t already know it?), don’t worry. That is almost two thirds of the way through and there is a lot more to this film than merely its twist.

I last watched a Neil Jordan film, Angel, when it was shown on Channel 4, UK TV, about thirty years ago. In this film, Jordan returns to some of the same themes – namely Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ and a gentle person’s immersion in the world of violence.

It also stars the same actor, Stephen Rea, in the lead role, here playing Fergus, a misplaced IRA man, too gentle for the role for which he has volunteered. This is not, however, our first impression of him as he is a member of a cell taking a British soldier, Jodie (somewhat oddly played by Forest Whitaker), hostage at gunpoint after Jodie has been led away from a fairground by a young woman Jude (Miranda Richardson, wonderfully menacing here) on the promise of sex. I say “oddly played” as Jodie is a London boy, Tottenham I think, and it seems odd to have an American play the role for such a geographically precise role when he can’t quite get the accent. It wavers and wanders a bit and was distracting at first, although it became less so after ten or fifteen minutes and the performance is otherwise terrific.

Fergus and Jude are among Jodie’s guards and it is while on guard duty that Fergus strikes up a tentative friendship with Jodie. It is by necessity tentative, as the IRA plan is to trade Jodie for one of their own, who is being held and interrogated by the British, under threat of death. If the British do not agree to the trade, the cell will shoot Jodie. With the cell leader Maguire’s (Adrian Dunbar) reluctant approval, against Jude’s wishes, and on the understanding that Jodie will not be allowed to see anyone else but him, Fergus removes Jodie’s mask to let him breathe properly and have a little comfort.

Jodie is all too aware of his likely fate and gets Fergus to promise to look out for his girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson), in his local pub in London and make sure she’s ok. Sure enough, the British refuse the trade and although the execution of Jodie does not take place as planned, Fergus finds himself in London to look out for Dil. Meeting her first at the hairdressers where she works and then following her to the pub, Fergus strikes up a relationship, always trying to find out more about her relationship with Jodie but trying not to reveal any prior knowledge. As Dil takes him for Scottish, Fergus accepts his new identity, calling himself ‘Jimmy’ and starting work on a building site under that name so he can earn some money while he gets to know Dil and also hide from his past – which is nonetheless coming to find him…

This film was not at all what I was expecting. For one thing, it is very tender – unusual in a thriller, and very unusual in the early scenes of a kidnap and hostage situation. For another, the structure is a little unusual. It is in three very distinct parts. The first is the kidnap and imprisonment of Jodie in Northern Ireland; the second is Fergus getting to know Dil in London; the last is Fergus trying to resolve his relationships and his past. Each could be viewed as separate episodes, or even as short films in their own right, but when watched as a three-act play, the film looks almost formal in its construction. A terrific, moving and, most of all, warm film.

I’ve got Company of Wolves on DVD to watch, and Byzantium is released here shortly; it certainly won’t be another thirty years before I reacquaint myself with Jordan’s work.

Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)


Clueless

It’s pretty difficult – I’ve found it just about impossible – to discuss this film without ‘comparing and contrasting’ to its source material, Jane Austen’s Emma. This is so loose an adaptation as to be almost a completely new animal and yet I find myself drawn back to rereading the original, which is a favourite, and looking at the brutality done to Austen’s story and characters.

Ok, so in the original, Emma Woodhouse is twenty years old, is intelligent and accomplished, tactful (for the most part) and sensible (again, mostly). What she lacks is company of similar capability, any check on her wants (her family is chief in the area and people defer to her from social nicety rather than acknowledgement of her abilities) and experience of the world, so she is wont to overestimate her own capabilities.

The heroine of this film, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is also intelligent and from the top social echelon of her society though a little younger but, where Emma found she had outgrown the intellectual material available to her and found her regular society insufficiently thoughtful and productive for her taste, having lost the governess who was her only regular companion of intellectual prowess, Cher uses her intelligence to avoid doing schoolwork and is woefully ignorant of the world, taking an interest only in fashion, being seen with the ‘right’ people, and ‘reality tv’. Cher may be a more realistic picture of privilige without constraint than Emma, but she is a damn sight harder to like.

Nonetheless, Silverstone does a pretty good job of making Cher likeably silly. She is helped by a script that makes her the least worst of her contemporaries, the film having moved the action from a small English town society in the early 19th Century to a Beverly Hills high school in the 1990s. This rather smart move manages to translate much of the social stratification that otherwise would look unfeasably stuffy today. It does have the unfortunate effect of losing the sense of importance to Emma/Cher’s interference in her friends’ love lives as, in Austen’s time, making the ‘right match’ could be literally a case of life and death. Paul Rudd as Josh, Cher’s not-quite-brother is a good version of Knightly and, having to lose the story of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill for concision, Frank’s role as the pretend-suitor-who-is-clearly-not-really-interested is cleverly taken by the character of Christian who, in this version, is gay. The character most altered is probably her father, in the novel being a gentle and sickly man who gets his way on account of his status and a passive-aggressive solicitude for everyone around him, assuming them to share his views and tastes. In the film, we lose the ‘passive’, and he becomes a gruff and threatening lawyer, specialising in corporate disputes.

Overall, the film works. It’s fun and uses the basic plot of Austen’s novel to construct a new comedy. It is simply a comedy, though. Some of the subtlety of Austen’s original has been jettisoned for laughs, and there are fairly broad jokes here. It also lacks the emotional heft of the novel. There is no moment to compare with Emma’s mortification at insulting Miss Bates at the picnic on Box Hill and subsequent rebuke from Knightly, and the transformation from airhead to caring benefactor is only partial here. In the novel, Emma has to understand herself to realise that she loves Knightly, but the reader is in no doubt that she is worthy of him. In the film, Josh is still a world away from Cher and we have to take on trust that their attraction to one another is enough to overcome their very different temperaments.

(Edit: ok, I’ve gone back to the book and found that I’ve been giving Emma Woodhouse a little too much credit, and the filmmakers too little; Emma isn’t quite as accomplished as I remembered. Knightly discusses her education, early on, with her former governess and it’s clear that Emma, although clever, had never had the discipline to really stick at any one thing to the degree her talents demanded, and the film does reflect this more accurately than did my memory.)

Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)


Summer with Monika
Ok, this is Bergman so it’s not going to be a gross-out comedy but it’s a lot lighter in tone than the last couple of his films I’ve seen, even if you can see the writing on the wall as things start to go wrong.

Harry Lund (Lars Ekborg) is a young, quiet and shy man working, not too assiduously, at a packing centre for glass and ceramics. Whilst taking a not unreasonable but nor sanctioned by the bosses coffee break at a nearby cafe, he is basically chatted up by flirty, flighty Monika (Harriet Andersson) and they start going out together. We see how Harry, raised by his semi-invalid father after the early death of his mother, is brought out of his shell a little by the younger and seemingly more confident Monika though, she too, has family issues, with a riotously chaotic home life and a drunkard father. Monika is also the object of some pretty rough sexual harassment at her job in a grocer’s and is pursued by an ex-boyfriend whose attentions she cannot shake.

Both giving up their jobs, they take their little money and the boat belonging to Harry’s father and chug down the river and along the coast to enjoy an idyllic summer of love away from the city and its unwelcome associations. Dreaming of their perfect future, they are clearly going to have to face some uncertain times when their summer is over, and neither of them seem quite ready to grow up yet.

The two leads seem real to me and there is something a little heartbreaking in seeing their dreams unravel, even if they can each be just as irritating as real people can be. It has to be said, also, that the end of the film is a little miserable but, then, what do you expect?

The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997)


Full Monty
The curse of the “Great British Movie”.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked this film. It was fun, moving in parts, well acted and lovingly constructed. It was just that it has been, like so many British films of its ilk, oversold. I never really found Four Weddings all that either. Fortunately, my expectations were sufficiently realistic that the slight sense of letdown was just that, slight, and I could get on and enjoy the film for what it was.

It sits in that peculiarly British vein of comedies set against a gritty, realistic backdrop that observes the harsh realities, stays within the plausible and believable and yet manages to be escapist and romantic at the same time, incorporating some of the most hackneyed of Hollywood cliches.

Recession Sheffield and Gaz (Robert Carlyle) is out of work and separated from his wife, who has taken their son, Nathan (William Snape), and set up a new home with a new man. Gaz owes maintenance and is going to be forbidden to see Nathan unless he can raise the money. Gaz, always ready with ideas if not with prospects, is reduced to trying, rather ineptly, to trying to ‘salvage’ steel to sell from the closed-down factory with his friend Dave (Mark Addy). Foiled in this, and even more desperate, Gaz is inspired by a poster advertising celebrated male strippers The Chippendales (a real troupe) to form his own group and appear, just the once, at a local club to try and raise money. Auditioning at the factory Gaz brings in fellow desperate men, including their old supervisor Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), willing to appear near-nude, not out of vanity but out of desperation.

There are a couple of scenes which have, out of context, become iconic for the film, most of all the dancing-in-the-dole-queue one so cringe-worthly restaged with Prince Charles joining in (no, really). These scenes work much better, though occasionally still making me wince, when restored to their narrative context.

The film covers several themes quietly and not too bluntly – the damage done to communities and families by recession, men’s self-esteem and how it is so often tied to economic value, homosexuality in macho, working class cultures, and how men and women often talk past one another. And yet, none of this really matters in terms of the film; it’s just a backdrop for the real point, which is basically a “let’s stage it right here!” setup for the denoument of Carlyle and buddies taking their kit off in front of a raucous crowd of women.

So, a good film and great fun, but not the great film it’s sometimes made out to be – at least, not to this viewer.

Three Kings (David O Russell, 1999)


Three Kings

This might have been a tad miss-sold, as I definitely had the impression that it was a ‘crime caper’, a tale of three marines in Iraq retrieving stolen Kuwaiti gold. I mean, it has that as the initial set-up but it becomes so much more.

Ok, so Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) retrieves a map hiddenin the anus of a surrendering Iraqi soldier and, with his friend Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), decides not to declare this to his superiors but to find out what it is himself. Before he can act, he is interrupted by Special Services Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) who has found out about the map and wants in on the discovery, taking control of the situation which he runs as an unofficial military operation. Deciding that this is Kuwaiti gold, they set off, having set some misdirection in case they are followed (Gates’ job involves liasing with US TV reporters) and giving themselves an alibi in case they are discovered by US troops.

Initially, this really follows the template as expected – there is a hilarious scene in which the marines practice their assertive approach to the Iraqis in front of a cow – but it is when things start to go wrong that the film really starts to get interesting, casting a darkly ironic gaze on the well-intentioned but pusillanimous policies of the US in the wake of the first Gulf War, and the unintended harms done. We see how the Iraqi resistance was abandoned to Sadaam Hussain’s forces, effectively kept in power by the US policy of ‘non-interference’ in domestic Iraqi affairs.

Alternately hilarious and heart-breaking, Three Kings is a feelgood film that manages to throw in a little food for thought along the way.

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)


Django Unchained
Oh dear.

Never mind any concerns about whether Tarantino is ‘allowed’ to make a film about slavery (of course he is), nor any worry about overuse of the ‘N-word’ (Tarantino is surely right that it would be utterly incongruous to make a film about slavery and not have racists liberally use it).

No, my problems with this film are purely about the quality of it, which is indescribably patchy and is utterly abandoned at the end.

Based on a 1966 ‘Spaghetti Western’ which had the reputation of then being the most violent film ever made, Django Unchained starts off with an amazing shot of slaves being led across a rocky, barren landscape unlike any I’ve seen before, shot beautifully but intercut with schlocky titles and cheesy music. This deliberate homage to its roots is one of the big problems with the film for me (though not the biggest). ‘Cult’ is something that happens, it is not something that you design and Tarantino is simply trying too hard, for my taste.

These opening sequences set up the liberation of Django (Jamie Foxx) by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Taking Django to identify some of his targets, Schultz soon identifies Django as a ‘natural’ shot (though his preternatural ability as a horse rider is completely ignored) and enters into a bargain with him, to work together through the winter and then help Django recover his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington). Despite occasional lapses into blatently retro-styled flashback sequences and similarly heavy-handed nods to his inspiration, Tarantino generally sets up a rather enjoyable ‘buddy cop’ situation, and the story sets up nicely, even though it requires quite a hefty slice of suspension of disbelief.

By the time we encounter the main villain of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candy, and his butler Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), I was ready for a tense and dramatic encounter. It didn’t happen. What we got instead was a bloodbath of absurd and cartoonish dimensions that was only a preliminary to the finale. It was so over-the-top that I initially wondered whether – and rather hoped – that it was a dream sequence. This destroyed any engagement I’d had with the film. I was now just waiting for it to finish but had to encounter one of the most self-indulgent and poorly acted directorial cameos in movie history and then a finale that was as disappointing as it was absurd and long overdue.

I love Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, have yet to see Jackie Brown but, after the crashing disappointment of Kill Bill (both parts 1 & 2), I didn’t bother with Inglourious Basterds – it simply didn’t appeal – but this looked more interesting. Like Bill, it squanders any good will from me with cartoonish bad taste and self-indulgence at the expense of story-telling. Childishness can be refreshing, but it can also be infuriating repetition of inanity, and Tarantino now seems to have a regrettably free hand to shout the same old rubbish at his audience over and again.

I think I’m done with him now. Ditch this and watch Blazing Saddles instead – bad taste that is actually well made and funny.

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)


The Manchurian Candidate
The opening of this film, as a voiceover solemnly tells of the US Medal of Honor, how difficult it is to acquire and how few people have won it takes on a greater significance than is immediately apparent; it goes on to talk about the menace of communist China in a way that looks, misleadingly, as if this is going to be a piece of anti-communist propaganda. The film certainly treats the communists as a sinister threat in a way that is both supernaturally dangerous and simplistically motivated but there is very little that is simplistic about the situation presented to the characters here.

As the action starts, a platoon of US soldiers are relaxing in a bar in Korea, under the benevolent eye of their commanding officer, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), and the distinctly less warm eye of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), whose prissy dislike for the ‘common’ men could have been a model for MASH’s Frank Burns. On leaving, the men are kidnapped and brainwashed, Shaw being picked out for special treatment.

Marco is identified as important, required for the plan, but the plan revolves around Shaw who is made to commit an atrocious act that gives him little chance of a happy ending and yet, on their release, is credited with saving the platoon in a soul-stirring display of courage designed to win him that medal. All of the prisoners, including Shaw himself, believe the story, though Marco has nightmares that hint at the truth (as does another soldier, a black corporal whose story, disappointingly, isn’t developed) and Shaw has a nagging feeling that his medal is somehow tainted.

Shaw has been targeted, it is clear, to be a weapon though the target and the exact plan is not yet revealed. His step-father, to complicate matters, is an anti-communist firebrand, a tub-thumping populist of limited ability, clearly a dig at Joe McCarthy, whose success depends entirely on the scheming of Shaw’s mother (the quite marvellous Angela Lansbury). It is up to Marco to try and work out how the pieces all fit together, and persuade the authorities to act, when he can barely himself understand what is going on.

The suspense is built up gradually, along with character, and there are a couple of moments of stunning power, one particularly that left us agog – did they really do that? And the climactic finale is a real tour de force, a demonstration of how to wrap up the threads of a story.

Sinatra is surprisingly good and very engaging, his personality developed and fleshed out in a burgeoning relationship with a young woman (Janet Leigh) met by chance on a train, their quirky, snappy dialogue really enlivening the proceeding. Harvey, too is marvellous, his cold fish act broken by a sweet middle act about his first love that shifts our sympathies 180 degrees around regarding him. But it is Lansbury who takes the laurels. Her psycho-mummy power broker is both calculating and intense and she adds the flourish to an already excellent film.

Ocean Waves (Tomomi Mochizuki, 1993)


Ocean Waves
Another Japanese animation but it’s back to Ghibli. This studio has become a byword for quality animation, in terms of both rendering pictures and storytelling, and they’ve not let me down yet (though The Castle of Cagliostro was a let-down by their very high standards). In fact, this offering is a little different from the others I’ve seen, each of which have had a fantastical element very strong in the mix. By contrast, this film is quite mundane in its setting, a young man discussing his transition from school to university and friendship and first love en route. There are no talking animals, no magical curses, no ethereal spirits, witches, other worlds or disguised royalty, just ordinary young people trying to get by.

It’s lovely.

It has that nostalgic, bittersweet slightly sad yearning that I got from (the book) Le Grand Meaulnes, Alan Bennett’s 1972 TV drama A Day Out or Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, though it is not dark like any of them. It also picks up on the complexity of relationships, how young people grow and change, sometimes in ways that confuse and enrage one another, and how, still, early friendships can endure. The passage of time, of a significant if not enormous span in people’s lives, is lovingly depicted, and overall felt real to me.

It has, of course, the attention to detail and visual beauty you’d expect from Ghibli. I’m sure that, lacking as it does all the magical stuff, it won’t be so attractive to younger children, who will probably find it boring. I’m not even sure it will speak to the age group it’s portraying; but, to me, it was one of the very best I’ve yet seen.

Vexille (Fumihiko Sori, 2007)


Vexille
Most of my Japanese animated film viewing has been Studio Ghibli but I was overdue to try something new. I have no idea why this was on our Love Film waiting list – neither of us have any recollection of hearing about it or ordering it and yet, here it was. Our best guess is that it was on a “Like that? Then you’ll love this!” recommendations.

Vexille is a curious beast of a film. It’s a Japanese sci-fi dystopia, in which the central and titular character is a US agent sent to find out what the villains of the piece, the Japanese, are up to. Ok, it turns out that the ordinary Japanese are victims, and it is the hi-tech robotics firms that are the villains but it’s still an interesting psychological move – and it’s all too easy to see this as an allegory for World War II and the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. It may or may not be that crude, because Vexille seems to lurch between subtlety and nuance and crass adolescent romance.

The setup is that Japanese companies have been experimenting with cybernetics and robotics to a point that has made the rest of the worlds scared into restricting them. In response, Japan has imposed complete isolation (another nod to history, the Tokugawa seclusion) and carried on developing in secret, blanketing out all scanning or spying from outside. The US, worried about what the Japanese might be doing, send in a crack team of rocket-suited agents to find out and report. When they get there, the team is attacked and only Vexille escapes, leaving behind her team leader and lover, Leon. Helped by an active Japanese resistance, she meets Maria, a local leader who also has a history with Leon. Shocked by Maria’s revelation of what the companies are planning, which has touches of a Terminator-style revolution, and what they have already done, Vexille offers her help in their struggle.

One of the most interesting things about the film is the nature of the graphics. This is not the subtly rendered world of Ghibli nor the more conventional animation I’m used to. This is more akin to game graphics, very clean and stylised. Sometimes it’s thrilling, sometimes it’s beautiful but, other times, it’s a little distancing. Perhaps this is a perfect medium for a film about robotics.