Finally Sunday! / Vivement Dimanche! (1983)

April 21, 2009

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“so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock

I’ve got such a list of films that I haven’t made notes on that I’m having to rattle through them at great speed.  I’m not even going to mention Jules et Jim, which I saw recently and again at the weekend.  I think I’ve got the balance right but I do find my notes useful, so it’s a shame.  I saw Jules et Jim because speciality French movie channel CineMoi had advertised a showing of Vivement Dimanche! but decided to show the 1962 classic instead.  I started watching and couldn’t stop but I couldn’t help being miffed as I’d missed the chance to see the one Truffaut that I haven’t seen and don’t own and then a little digging revealed that I do own it!  It was released in Australia as Confidentially Yours, though having seen the film I can’t see why, and was part of a box set I picked up some years back.  So, I got to see a Truffaut double-bill.  “Who’s the Daddy now?

This is smashing.  It is Truffaut working through his Alfred Hitchcock fixation (the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews make fantastic reading) by making a perfectly-executed homage.  This being a (pseudo) Hitchcock it revolves around a man who is accused of a crime that he may or may not have committed and his attempts to elude the authorities for long enough to clear his name.  It’s suspension-of-disbelief time of course, this is a film where the police have set up road-blocks and search the city for a man who is sat comfortably in his office which they’ve neglected to check.  But it doesn’t matter, the film is so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock that you can let anything go.

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the innocent victim of circumstances- by turns confused, afraid and indignant- with the glorious Fanny Ardant as the secretary who is secretly in love with him and does his investigating for him whilst he is ensconced in the office (a nice nod to Rear Window).  Both are excellent and their chemistry is lovely to watch.

But it’s the Hitchcock motifs that matter the most.  The film is immediately suspenseful from the shooting of Massoulier which opens and is undercut throughout with a tense string soundtrack which is tremendously reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s best.  There are images of telephones ringing in empty rooms, scenes shot from outside through windows, the first person the couple suspect is dramatically revealed to be a Priest, Fanny Ardant’s Barbara zips from city to city looking or clues, she witnesses a murder but can only see the murderer’s legs, the audience is manipulated to believe then disbelieve then rebelieve in Trintignant’s character…

I don’t believe that this focusing upon the Hitchcock angle is doing the film down at all, it is certainly a tense but enjoyable thriller in its own right and the reverence it shows for the Godfather of all modern thrillers is a strength.  There is also a brief reference to Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory– a film which was once banned in France- and, as this was to be Truffaut’s last film it is almost as if he is saying goodbye and expressing his thanks to great filmmakers from before.  Like when Bob Dylan played ‘Song For Woody’ at his 40th Anniversary tribute concert.

It’s far from flawless but I loved it.  Can’t wait to see it again. 7/10

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A Passage To India (1984)

March 29, 2009

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I don’t know why I watched this.  I probably own a couple of hundred films that I’m yet to see and want to see.  I have access to movies on TV and online which are less likely to rouse my chippy working class indignance.  On principle I won’t watch a film of that length without a good reason; reputation, subject matter and so on.  And I’ve yet to see one of those eighties period pieces about colonialism or punting on the Thames or running round an Oxbridge courtyard that didn’t make me furious with myself.  I mean come on, a near three hour adaptation of a classic novel stuffed with upper class, stiff upper lip, soulless, heartless, amoral Victorian cunts treating the indigenous population as slaves or worse and featuring Alec Guinness blacked up like a fucking minstrel when I could be watching Animal House or Scream, Blacula, Scream?

There are thousands of great reasons for me not to watch this fucking film.  Even David Cairns a David Lean fan and a man who knows more about films than I could learn in ten lifetimes warned me via the miracle of Twitter that it isn’t much of a film.  And still I went ahead- against sound advice, against my instincts, in the face of my deeply-ingrained class prejudices, and in spite of all rational sense I sat down for the one hundred and seventy minute duration with a cup of tea and a mind as open as I could prise it.  Inevitably the payoff to this preamble would be that I loved it in spite of everything and, while I can’t honestly say that I loved it, who am I to fly in the face of the immutable universal law of inevitability?  Well, just as Edgar Allen Poe’s imp of the perverse made me watch it, the same streak of wishful unpredictability ensures that I thought it was okay.  Pretty good.  A bit better than average.  But probably still unworthy of such a fine director or of the vast effort that had clearly gone into it.  Which is something it has in common with these notes, I suppose.

A Passage To India opens with English rain on a crowded London street with black umbrellas jostling for position on a pavement outside a P&O Office- Les Parapluies de Cherbourg this is most certainly not and then, after a brief scene-setting interlude within that office- cuts to a vast Indian port decked out in full regalia to welcome eminent British arrivals.  The bright, colourful and noisy scenes juxtaposed with the claustrophobic drabness of England throws up a contrast which demonstrates how discombobulated Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the kind of showy supporting role that actresses will slay young babies for) are upon arrival.  We also see a recurring visual theme of the film introduced here, the opulence and splendour which the British enjoy in contrast with the local conditions of poverty and destitution.  Okay, it’s not what you’d consider groundbreaking stuff but it’s neither a whitewash (bad choice of words that) of the situation, nor a Slumdog Millionaire-style comedy at the expense of the starving.

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The British, meanwhile, are portrayed, as the British always are, as buttoned-up and overly civil who seethe with resentment for everyone and everything else, who value nothing more than their privacy, treat everyone ‘below their station’ with hostility and sneer as frequently as they breathe.  If Miss Quested and Mrs Moore are surprised that the British have nothing to do with the locals socially- “East is East, it’s a question of culture”, then everyone else is far more taken aback by the idea that they would even want to. And this cultural/colour divide is what gives the story its interest for me, not only because I am still surprised to hear people express in all seriousness “what I believe to be a universal truth: the darker races are attracted to the fairer, but not vice-versa” but because Lean’s treatment of the topic is admirably even-handed: “they all become exactly the same, I give any Englishman two It is interesting, though, that I didn’t hear one racist term used throughout the course of the film- as if the very mention of the British or Indians is sufficient to generate the impression that they are being maligned.  Maybe the use of racist terms was progress from this state of affairs with its tacit acknowledgement that they’re not all bad.  Interesting idea that.

The script itself doesn’t really justify the lengthy running time, there are wonderful scenes in amongst the self-indulgent going nowhere scenes just as the are some truly wonderful shots amongst some pretty pretentious ones.  The pace picks up a little for the last hour but I remember thinking how this was ‘as pretty as a postcard and almost as full of intrigue and drama as one too’ (what was that about pretentiousness?) and really the whole thing is overblown and unnecessary.  My lack of formal knowledge of film-making means that I don’t know if Lean’s dual role of Director and Editor contributes to this, or if it is simply his reputation preventing the producers stepping in and saying “come on Dave, how many shots of the sea at night do you really need?” or if it was just the done thing to overdo it in the eighties (it certainly was when it came to hair and shoulder pads after all).

The saving grace of the film- aside from my joy in seeing the upper classes slapped down by the masses- is the performances.  And they are also one of its great handicaps.  Aside from Alec Guiness doing his best It Ain’t Half Hot Mum turn as the Sikh cleric Godbole, the actors are credible and hold the interest.  I think the world of Alec Guinness but what in God’s name persuaded him that this was a good idea- I’d honestly rather see him fannying about in Star Wars than selling himself short in this.  Peggy Ashcroft gets the showiest role and makes the most of it, Judy Davis is very strong as the lead female (she’s pretty new to me, I only know her from Who Dares Wins and I wouldn’t judge anyone on that shambles), James Fox is excellent and understated as Richard Fielding, Nigel Havers plays Nigel Havers as he always does but for me the outstanding player on show was Victor Banerjee as Dr Aziz.  It is only after the trial, that the strength of his earlier performance is revealed.  He had been charming and urbane, civil to the point of obsequiousness and horribly grateful for even the merest civility.  Following his ordeal he is pointed and callous, unable to distinguish between friends and enemies and the contrast between his wounded blitheness is and his prior subservience gives the film a human authenticity it would otherwise have lacked.

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And that is the problem too.  In spite of all of the colour and pageantry and the exotic locales and the often wonderful soundtrack (Maurice Jarre) and sumptuous cinematography (Ernest Day), this is a little human drama which is ill-served by Lean’s epic style.  However hard you try, you simply cannot make Up The Junction work like Lawrence of Arabia and the same applies here.  The scope is too big and too ambitious and the plot is too small and concentrated and the gap between these extremes (like the perception gap between the British and Indians) is where failure lies.  6/10 for all its useless beauty.


Police Story / Ging chat goo si (1985)

March 17, 2009

I last saw this when Channel Four ran a series of Jackie Chan films one Christmas.  It must’ve been fifteen years ago, maybe longer.  I’d forgotten how breathtaking this truly is.  As a film it’s pretty shady- cop sees drug dealer go free and goes outside the law to bring him to justice- but the stuntwork is completely mind-boggling.  If you haven’t seen any of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films then you literally will have seen nothing like this.

Chan directs himself in this and his two great loves come to the fore: slapstick Kung Fuaction and childish humour.  This is not a weighty or cerebralwork by any means.  It opens with the police staking out a drug dealin a shanty town, one of the cops (the cops and the bad guys are universally stupid and incompetent by the way, it just saves time making the plot plausible) is seen and the bad guys try to shoot their way out.  The chase scene where cars plough down hill through shack after shack is a spectacular way to move the action from the gunfight to the street where Jackie hangs onto a bus by an umbrella hooked into an open window- truly amazing- and then brings the bus to a halt.  A magnificent breathless opening.

From this opening we see Chan’s career as a police officer go down the pan and his personal life in tatters as he single-mindedly tries to keep the star witness Selina (Brigitte Lin) and bring down the bad-guy (a pretty good Yuen Chor) and keep on the right side of the meddling, bureaucratic- and extremely young- chief of police (Fung Woo).  There are other nice turns by Chi-Wing Lau as a crooked lawyer keeping Mr Chu out of the law’s reach, Kwok-Hung Lam as Chan’s supportive but powerless immediate superior and a very young Maggie Cheung as Chan’s girlfriend.

The film proceeds through various comedy/action set-pieces.  It’s not really a kung fu film as such, the kung fu is incidental (like the dialogue and plot) to the stunts that it requires.  And so we see Chan having a fake fight with a colleague and then- when his ‘adversary’ is inadvertently knocked out- propping him up and carrying on fighting by manipulating him as if he were the corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s, fighting off gangs of adversaries in a car park, an apartment and a shopping centre.  The only thing that there is more of in Police Story than stunts is glass.  Every fight takes place within easy access of some glass and every single bit gets smashed (including a pane smashed face first by Jackie straight in front of the camera).

It sounds like I’m talking the film down but I’m not.  Stunts in an action film are every bit as important as dialogue in a drama or the soundtrack in a thriller.  And the stunts are- I may have mentioned this already- magnificent.  The closing fight in the shopping centre is superb- it isn’t just the glass that gets broken or the sheer athleticism involved, it isn’t even the audaciousness of the stunts, it is the visual inventiveness and the use of props employed.  Okay, so Jackie isn’t the best director and there are some dodgy “I won’t attack you until you’ve finished with the last guy” moments but so what.  This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia for fuck’s sake and without harping on about it, as much as I love David Lean I wouldn’t want it to be.  The climactic ‘big’ stunt in the shopping centre deserves 4/10 on its own- Chan leaps from the top of a railing to grasp a fifty foot pole and slide down it bursting through loads of electricity bulbs which are decoratively wrapped around it and crashing through- yes, of course- a plate glass window.  It is so good (and Jackie is so proud of it) that it is played three times from different angles.

In terms of brain-in-neutral, bang crash wallop cop films this is miles ahead of the output of Jerry Bruckheimer et al.  6/10

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First Blood (1982)

March 11, 2009

This movie is unfairly remembered because of the misquote “don’t push me”- it was “don’t push it”, is that so hard to remember?- and the increasingly ludicrous sequels it spawned.  Even the name of the film has now been changed in the same way that the original Star Wars has, this is now apparently called “Rambo: First Blood”.  Fuck that, why would I go along with that.  There are similarly named characters with vaguely similar characteristics in the sequels but no other similarities.  This is an unfairly maligned film; much, much better than its reputation.  In First Blood a Vietnam veteran Green Beret John Rambo (Stallone, obviously) is the innocent victim of a bullying small-town Sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who simply picks a fight with the wrong man.  Rambo escapes and takes to the woods where he is hunted by policemen and the National Guard with machine guns and helicopters.  It’s a Western, a modern-day Western.  Rambo goes to great lengths to avoid killing any of his hunters, despite the constant and excessive provocation, the threat upon his life and despite suffering flashbacks to his torture in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.

There is no deep underlying message in First Blood, unless you count ‘beware who you fuck about with’.  This is simply a documentation of an innocent man fighting for survival, waging a war of attrition and defying overwhelming odds to survive everything that is thrown at him.  It is, to some extent, an elegy to machismo.  Stallone is portraying every reactionary, right-wing, frustrated, pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged man’s dream- taking on everyon who has ever stopped him doing whatever he wants, wherever he wants with whoever he wants and however he wants.  Just like Michael Douglas’s D-Fens Foster in Falling Down, Rambo is a wet-dream for the insecure and the impotent.  That its appeal goes beyond that, however, says more for its quality than its limited macho hand-job appeal would have you believe.

And do you know what else?  Stallone is really, really good in this.  Not in the fat, lumbering “look at me, I’m stupid” way that he mistakes for acting in the likes of Copland and Rocky Balboa, but in a genuinely convincing, steely, haunted way.  At no point does Stallone’s performance fail him- even his ‘tormented by flashbacks’ scenes or his climactic breakdown where I expected him to struggle are fine.  He even looks handsome and hadn’t yet bloated himself into the caricature of a man that he became.  This is as good as it would ever get for Sly.  The second-stringers are solid and the direction by Ted Kotcheff (who I only know from the flimsy and disappointing Jane Fonda/George Segal comedy Fun With Dick and Jane) is straightforward enough to allow the story to work.

It’s a real pity that Rambo survived the film- he didn’t survive the source novel- allowing a fine and intelligent movie became a bloated, dumb, crash-bang-wallop series.  7/10

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Critters (1986)

March 5, 2009

Something unusual now.  My friend Shane asked me if I would watch this specifically so that it could appear on this blog.  I find that a bit odd but he’s a nice bloke and comes from West Bromwich, so I obliged happily.  I say happily, I obliged then watched it and it wasn’t a happy experience.  It isn’t a really bad film, it’s just a bit crap.  But it starts brilliantly.  Not the film itself, the credits- when Billy Zane has the most sensible name of any of the actors involved then you know that you’re watching a once in a lifetime credit sequence.  Seriously, look at the names!

M. EMMET WALSH

BILLY GREEN BUSH

DON OPPER

MICHAEL LEE GOGIN

DOUGLAS KOTH

ART FRANKEL

MONTROSE HAGINS

Why the hell aren’t these people stars while boringly-named actors like Will Smith and Tom Hanks have Oscars and multi-million dollar pay-packets thrown at them?  It’s enough to make you weep.  Billy Green Bush must curse at his petrol pump every hour of every single day.  And who can blame him?  Look at those fucking names.

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The film is pretty shit obviously.  It’s a Gremlins cash-in, without the wit or the cuteness but with added gore and a sci-fi element.  None of the actors are up to much, the plot elements (drunken local who knows the truth but no-one believes him, dysfunctional family learn that they really love each other, world-weary local sheriff rolls back the years to save the day…) are all pretty standard.  In fact I could probably write this film myself by cut and pasting from any five scripts from the same period.

On the other hand, I doubt that I’d cast 80’s DJ turned TV presenter Pat Sharpe in a lead role.  2/10 (great cast names and short running time).

Pat Sharpe in Critters


Wings of Desire / Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

February 10, 2009

This film makes me feel like I am a popcorn-chomping, blockbuster addict.  Not only do I not really ‘get it’, but I have now called it quits after making eight attempts to watch this over the course of a year and falling asleep every single time.  I don’t find the film boring at all- pretentious and self-consciously arty certainly, but not boring.  I just find that the film’s measured pace, somnambulistic progress through the streets of Berlin and snatches of conversation, music, private thoughts and dreams overlapping one another to be the perfect accompaniment to my drift toward sleep.  That this style has been done to death since by arty pop-video makers doesn’t help either.

From what I can gather it is a paean to Berlin and the people of Berlin as seen through the eyes of the angels who can “do no more than look, assemble, testify, preserve”.  There are a lot of references to children and the death of childhood- as if the people are the children and the angels are the adults watching over them.  We also see a dying man recount the things he will miss just as the angels continue to (“blackened fingers from newspaper”) again as if their existence is just an extension of our own lives.  It’s difficult to say having seen little more than a quarter of the film.

I like what I’ve seen of it- never much more than half an hour- and I’m intrigued to know what I’m missing.  But I’ve cut my losses on this one.  I’ll try again on a summer afternoon when I’m wide awake but, for now, it scores a pretentious but beautiful 2/10.


Never Say Never Again (1983)

February 5, 2009

I can only think that the title is one of the smug selling points the producers made when pitching this bloody awful idea to Connery- “just think how funny it would be Sean!  Imagine Roger Moore’s face when he sees you’re back- that’ll raise a few eyebrows.  well, one…”.  That said, nothing should have persuaded him to get back in the toupee for this.  Nothing.  To coin a phrase- the world is not enough.

I’ve decided, in my wisdom, to watch all of the Bond’s that I’m pretty unfamiliar with and after this and The Man With The Golden Gun I’m beginning to think I should abandon the plan- clearly there’s a reason that I’m unfamiliar with them.

Presently I’m just short of an hour and a half in and I’ve paused it to write a few notes on here as an excuse not to watch any more.  When Connery jacked it in because he was too old it was already an overdue decision- he had sleepwalked through the last couple he made- and this was made twelve years after that.  There are concessions to that time-gap with Sean having a grey wig and a new stiff upper-lipped bureaucrat boss who has semi-retired him into teaching new recruits but it isn’t very convincingly done.  Anyway, M (Edward Fox- just how many of these Foxes are there?) sends Bond to convalesce in a Health Farm where he stumbles upon SPECTRE’s latest domination plot!  And so I’m thinking “this is fucking Thunderball isn’t it?” and sitting and gradually growing in fury that they’ve got Connery in to remake a film he made nearly twenty years earlier, but I resolve to stay calm and give it a chance.

Never Say Never Again / Octopussy - Battle of the Bonds

From memory this was brought out in direct competition with the ‘official’ release Octopussy.  Now the Roger Moore film was embarrassing because of the slapstick humour, the fact that Moore is too old and fat and the all-round low standards of everyone involved.  I think this is worse.  One of the great things about Bond is it’s fantasy- in Octopussy Moore got to fight a seven foot Sikh on the wings of a plane, Never Say Never Again‘s comparable moment was Connery fighting a bloke from Wolverhampton on the set of Dinnerladies.  This is a very watered-down attempt.  It isn’t low-budget and, as I said recently, I often prefer low-budget movies- the problem is that the vast majority of the budget seems to have been spent on getting Connery in and flying the crew to Barbados, the South of France and wherever else they fancied going.  Everything else is done shoddily and with disregard- the interiors are appalling for example.  The purpose of the movie appears to be to get people in, irrespective of what they’ll tell their friends when they leave.  This is not a film that could ever be a word-of-mouth success.  Even the dialogue- which is appalling- seems to have been designed with the trailer in mind- like this exchange between Bond and Q (not dear old Desmond Llewellyn, obviously):  Q- “Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence“.  Bond- “I shertainly hope sho too“.  Speaking of Q- who Bond mysteriously keeps calling Algernon- there is a slapstick appearance by rubber-faced so-called comedian Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling bureaucrat called Small-Fawcett- for fuck’s sake!- who foresees John Cleese’s cringeworthy Q.  If this wasn’t warning enough, I don’t know what would have been.

But this could have worked.  The premise, as I said, has real potential and Connery was certainly capable of delivering in the role a wearied, ageing, vulnerable Bond- which he really doesn’t do here.  I’m thinking of something like McQueen in The Hunter which I watched recently.  It isn’t a great movie by any means, but McQueen’s “I’m getting too old for this shit” performance would have been a great example to follow.  Aside from that, you have a magnificent Blofeld in Max von Sydow- bizarrely asked to use a Dutch/Flemish accent and Kim Basinger as a lead Bond girl.  Both here, though, are wasted.  The attention instead is paid to Klaus Maria Brandauer’s appalling Maximilian Largo (a villain as sinister and threatening as a ball of wool) and Barbara Carrera’s hilariously bad SPECTRE number 12 Fatima Blush.  From water-ski-ing in a thong to throwing a hissy fit when Bond suggests he may have once had better sex with a girl in Philadelphia, she is hardly Rosa Kleb.  SPECTRE were clearly hard up for villains after years of good work by Bond.  The film also feature’s Hit Man‘s American Football-player turned slab of wood blaxploitation star Bernie Casey as Felix.  He is crap obviously.

So the film wastes the opportunities it has and instead focuses upon trying to out-Roger Moore Roger Moore.  Bond is variously shot in soft-focus during a saxophone-scored bedroom scene (they didn’t even bother covering Sean’s tattoo for that one), chased by radio-controlled sharks, plays a video game against the villain Largo and fails to catch a woman in stilettos driving a Renault 5 despite being on a gadget-laden motorbike designed by Q.

I said above that I’ve paused about three quarters of the way through.  I’ve decided that I’m not watching the rest- 1/10.  One mark for simply being a Bond film.