Sunday, August 24, 2014

They Don't Make 'em Like That Anymore...

Here we are in late August and I have yet to mention any of the films I have caught at the National Film Theatre this year... yes you heard me National Film Theatre. I will never call it BFI South Bank.  It will always be the National Film Theatre.

I have been lucky to catch a few films that I have always wanted to see, and of course it's always a pleasure to see them as they were meant to be seen.  I shall try and review them each in 100 words...

Yes, I know I have THE GENERAL (1926) on DVD but it was a joy to see it finally on the big screen.  In his undisputed masterpiece Buster gave us a rollicking comedy, a sweeping adventure and a thrilling Civil War epic all in one.

War is declared and engine driver Johnny Gray is rejected by the army who think he is more useful driving his train.  His girlfriend and her family ostracize him as a coward but when she and his beloved engine The General are snatched by the Yankees, Johnny will stop at nothing to get them back!

Sadly, THE GENERAL was a box-office failure and Keaton was talked into joining MGM where he was not allowed the creative control he had enjoyed before.  Despite all the constraints placed on him THE CAMERAMAN is still a delightful, inventive comedy.

Buster is a street photographer who realises the big money is now in being a newsreel cameraman and we follow his hapless attempts to get a news scoop.  Highlights include a hilarious swimming pool changing-room scene with Buster sharing a tiny cubicle with a large, fat man and Buster getting caught up in a Tong street battle. 

The final Keaton film was his last silent one SPITE MARRIAGE (1929) although he had wanted it to be his sound debut.  Working under similar studio restrictions, Keaton still showed he was a supreme comedian and I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

Elmer lands an onstage job to be near an actress he has fallen for but the havoc caused on his first night get him fired.  However the actress (delightful Dorothy Sebastian) proposes marriage to Elmer to spite her unfaithful lover.  The comic highlight happens when Buster attempts to put a drunken (and slippery) Sebastian to bed!

Then it was time for a blast of 1940s British crime drama, GOOD TIME GIRL (1948), shown in tribute to Jean Kent.  Kent played bad girls in 1940s British films and this one gave her a stonking lead role which she handles well.

Judge Flora Robson tries to convince stroppy Diana Dors not to end up like Jean Kent who is seen in flashback making her wrong choices which leads to reform school, befriending bully Jill Balcon (looking alarmingly like son Daniel Day Lewis), later becoming the mistress of dangerously sexy Griffith Jones then falling in with murderous American soldiers!

Then it was time for a Gary Cooper double-bill, in roles not immediately connected with his image.  Ernst Lubitsch's frothy adaptation of Noel Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) dumped most of the plot but that left plenty of time to watch and enjoy the three stars: Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.

Although outshone by bustling March and slinky Hopkins, I still enjoyed Cooper's nonchalant performance as George, attempting with friend Tom to live in a sexless relationship with their friend Gilda.  He and March had a nice playing style together and Miriam Hopkins was born to play Gilda.

Then I blubbed at Frank Borzage's emotional-wringer A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932), based on the Hemingway novel.  Cooper was charismatic as Frederic, the American ambulance driver who meets and falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barklay in WWI Italy.

Helen Hayes was fine as Catherine but her playing style has dated somewhat compared to Cooper's relaxed persona.  Separated by war and the meddling of Frederic's friend Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), Cooper battles through war-torn Europe to find his lost love with Borzage unleashing his trademark deliriously emotional film-making to make a fabulously cinematic, over-the-top ending.

Speaking of delirious cinema, Rouben Mamoulian's debut film APPLAUSE (1929) is a rollercoaster starring the tragic Helen Morgan as Kitty Darling, a fading vaudeville star reunited with her convent-raised daughter April, born in Kitty's dressing-room on the night before her father was executed. April is appalled at Kitty's life with her abusive lover so grabs a chance of escape with a young sailor she meets while Kitty makes her own escape.

Mamoulian's film still fascinates as he explores the possibilities of the camera and sound as well as for the out-and-out melodrama of the film's plot.

We also saw a filmed stage performance of DRIVING MISS DAISY which I first saw in New York with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones before it transferred to London.  This however was from the Australian run where Angela Lansbury replaced Redgrave.

It was nice to see and interesting to compare the acting choices of the two actresses but I cannot say I found it a particularly good transfer.  The stage lighting did not work on screen and it plodded along.  The interview afterwards with Angela Lansbury however was worth the price of admission alone - she also hated the lighting!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dvd/150: KVINNODROM (Dreams) (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

A lesser-known Bergman that balances light-heartedness with the feelings of longing and loneliness that the director excelled in.

The onscreen relationships reflected Bergman's own dwindling affair with Harriet Andersson who plays the mercurial fashion model Doris opposite the more statuesque Eva Dahlbeck as Susanne, a fashion photographer who is using Doris for a new campaign.

On a day in Gothenburg, both women confront the limits of happiness.  Susanne suggested the location as that's where her married lover lives and Doris, wandering around the city, meets Otto, an older, wealthy man who lavishes presents on her, doing so because she reminds him of his now-insane wife. 

But Otto rejects Doris after a visit from his sarcastic daughter while Susanne's happiness at being reunited with her lover is dashed when his wife appears.

Exquisite performances from Dahlbeck, Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand as Otto and Kerstin Hedeby as his daughter Marianne.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf, in a Bergman box-set

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dvd/150: NIAGARA (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

After six years of supporting roles, 1953 saw Marilyn Monroe break though to stardom with the musical GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and thriller NIAGARA.  Directed by Henry Hathaway, Marilyn played an unfaithful femme fatale and even good actors like Joseph Cotton fade to grey against her sheer screen magnetism.

The plot is film noir hokum: Ray & Polly Cutler are honeymooning to a motel overlooking Niagara Falls and make the acquaintance of a 1950s Madame Bovary named Rose Loomis.  

Rose is bored with WWII vet husband George with his unpredictable mood-swings and, on a visit to the Falls, Polly sees Rose with her secret lover.  The couple plan to murder George at the Falls, but when it goes wrong, both Rose and Polly find themselves in danger.

As a thriller, you never engage with the perfunctory characters but as a star vehicle, it does exactly what it needs to do.  

Shelf or charity shop?  Neither, NIAGARA is in DVD limbo by living in a paper sleeve in a plastic storage box!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dvd/150: SECRET AGENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)

For SECRET AGENT, Hitchcock kept elements from THE 39 STEPS: espionage, mistaken identity, trains and star Madeleine Carroll but while STEPS is regarded a classic, SECRET AGENT has met with less favour but I find it great fun.

In 1916, writer Edgar Brodie is given a new identity by MI5 as 'Richard Ashenden' and is sent to Switzerland with fellow agent Elsa - posing as his wife - and The General, an eccentric, enigmatic assassin, to catch a German secret agent. 

While Elsa encourages the humourous advances of Robert Marvin, an American guest at their hotel Ashenden and the General suspect the spy is a seemingly benign Englishman.

The General kills him but to Ashenden and Elsa's horror they have targeted the wrong man.  Can they unmask the real spy?

Gielgud's austere performance sits oddly with the relaxed charm of Carroll, Robert Young, the magnificent Peter Lorre and a young Lilli Palmer.

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Love and Politics in the 1990s

I was thinking the other day that we seem to be in a very good season for excellent performances onstage at the moment - Michael Xavier, Joanna Riding (Pajama Game), Julian Ovenden, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Lewis Reeves, Matt Bardock, Richard Cant (My Night With Reg), Clive Wood, Eve Best, Phil Daniels (Antony & Cleopatra),  Helen McCrory (Medea), Billie Piper, Aaron Neil, Robert Glenister (Great Britain)... and now you can add two others to that list, Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in the revival of David Hare's SKYLIGHT at the Wyndhams Theatre.

I never saw the original production of the play which starred Michael Gambon and Lia Williams which did the usual hop, skip and jump of National Theatre - West End - Broadway.  After it's Broadway run it reopened in London with Bill Nighy in the Gambon role and he is revisiting the role again, 18 years later.

This production also has Carey Mulligan in her West End debut and she was the reason I wanted to see it as her performances in AN EDUCATION, NEVER LET ME GO, DRIVE and SHAME have been exceptional.  Luckily she did not disappoint, with both her and Nighy giving sparky, memorable performances.

Set in that ancient, long-gone time - the early 1990s - the action takes place in a small council flat in West London which Kyra is subletting from a friend.  Kyra is a teacher in a struggling school in East Ham and has a quiet, untroubled private life.

One wintry night, Kyra is surprised to receive a visit from Edward, the 18 year-old son of her ex-lover Tom, a wealthy restaurateur.  She learns that Edward's mother died from cancer a year ago and that father and son are struggling with each other's unspoken grief, sharing a house that is no longer a home.  Edward is also still angry that Kyra walked out of all their lives three years before with no word of explanation.  Edward, bristling with the sulkiness of youth, skulks off but who should appear later also unannounced?  Tom turns up, saying he just happens to have been in the area.  Just by chance he also has an unopened bottle of Whisky.

Prowling the small flat like a lion in a cage, straightening and unstraightening her school books, dragging a chair out with his foot only to push it back again, Tom obviously has come on a mission which slowly is revealed along with what really happened three years before.  Although their story starts six years before that...

That's when Kyra had landed a waitress job in Tom and his wife's Chelsea restaurant soon after arriving in London.  She proved indispensable to the couple and their children, eventually moving in to the family home. Needless to say, Kyra and Tom were soon lovers although she said she would leave if his wife ever found out.  When she did, Kyra left with no goodbyes.  Soon after Tom's wife was diagnosed with cancer and he did all he could to make her life comfortable in their home.  Finally he admits to Kyra that he is there to try and get her back but Kyra is a different person now and refuses to give up her new life, although she cannot help her old feelings surfacing.

What soon emerges in their barbed conversations - and out-and-out arguing - is that Tom, while railing at the political correctness and woolly liberalism that he sees all around him, can no more understand Kyra's wish to travel across London every day to deliberately work in a depressing job than she can for his ever-growing need for money and his selfish world view.

In their night of long knives, we see both sides of their argument - yes, Tom cared for his dying wife turning their home into her holistic paradise but was he doing it out of genuine love or guilt over the affair and yes, Kyra cares passionately for the sink-estate children she teaches but is her hair-shirt approach to life just a reaction against her upper-middle-class upbringing - is she a working class tourist?

Bill Nighy was on excellent form as Tom the misanthrope ex-lover, railing at a changing world while attempting to repeat the past with Kyra.  His comic timing was wonderful, gaining huge laughs at his withering responses to both life and Kyra's attempts at carving out a new career, as well as the physicality of his performance too, you could feel his revulsion having to handle the lump of cheese Kyra was intending to put in her ragu!  But underneath it all was a loneliness, an emptiness and his short-lived happiness at their resumption of intimacy was touching.

Carey Mulligan had a wonderful sense of gravitas as Kyra, firmly believing that she was making a difference to people's lives and ideologically stronger than either of her male visitors.  Her sly sense of humour was delightfully played and she also suggested the quiet gnawing loneliness of a young woman deliberately cutting herself off from love.  I do hope she makes the return to stage often, she is too good an actress to be lost to film.  She also proves she can multi-task by acting and cooking onstage at the same time!  And it was real cooking too... the smell of frying onions was delicious!!!

Matthew Beard was effective as the stroppy Edward - an archetypal teenage boy that his father likens to a character from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS - who surprises both Kyra and the audience in the final scene.

Stephen Daldrey directs with his customary insight and stages the ebb-and-flow conversations with variety and pace.  Bob Crowley's set design conjured up the drab flat perfectly, it's invisible inner walls seen against a life-like block of council flats with lights going on and off in the windows showing that, while Tom and Kyra are battling each other, life goes on elsewhere.

An excellent revival of a fascinating play, as relevant now as it was in 1995.

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Terrible things breed in broken hearts..."

People with any kind of breathing problems are advised to keep well clear of the Olivier Theatre on certain days until the start of September... their current production of Euripides' MEDEA might just finish you off.  It's rare to see a production of such brutal, in-your-face force that for a long time after I was still poleaxed.

At the climax of this intense production you could hear absolutely nothing in the auditorium, which believe me is rare in the coughing wards that pass for theatres these days and also a fine tribute to director Carrie Cracknell ratcheting up of the tension.

I have only seen the play twice before: the first was Pasolini's 1969 film version with Maria Callas in imperious form in her only non-operatic acting role and I saw Diana Rigg's award-winning turn at the Wyndhams in 1993.  However neither were as visceral as Cracknell's production.

On reflection, it's remarkable how few of the acknowledged great actresses have taken on this all-encompassing role - very odd.  Luckily Helen McCrory said yes when Cracknell asked her and she is giving a towering performance as Euripides' heroine.  Ah but is she a heroine? You have to decide.

Medea is the wife of Jason who managed to steal the Golden Fleece only after she provided the distraction of murdering her brother, something that would make most men think twice about marrying her but Jason does on his return to Corinth and they have two children.

However Euripedes' play - here in a pared-to-the-bone version by Ben Power - starts with Medea in shock having learnt that Jason is to marry the daughter of King Creon that day.  Creon visits her and tells her she is to be exiled, her children taken from her and given to Jason.  She hysterically begs for just one day before this is done which Creon and Jason reluctantly allow her.  In her despair she is visited by King Aegeus of Athens who has visited the nearby Oracle of Delphi to ask will he remain childless.  Medea tells him she can cure this by magic if he will allow her to live in Athens which he readily agrees to.

Having secured somewhere to live, Medea can now exact her terrifying revenge on Jason and Creon.  She has her children deliver a present to the wedding feast of a beautiful gown for the new bride to wear - only we know that Medea has soaked the dress in a sulphurous poison that will destroy whoever touches it.  Soon she hears that the bride was burnt to death along with Creon when he tried to tear it from his daughter's body and now Medea is ready for the horrific coup-de-grace to punish Jason- to kill their children.

As I said earlier, Helen McCrory is spellbinding as the desperate Medea.  This is no statuesque 'diva' performance, McCrory's Medea is visceral, frantic, driven, almost possessed by her fury.  The moments leading up to her killing her children were mesmerising as the balance of her mind went from mercy to murder, sometimes within seconds of each other.  If she was not before, this performance puts her at the top table.

Cracknell also elicits strong performances from Danny Sapani as the proud, unthinking Jason and Martin Turner as a cold-hearted Creon, embodying a heartless patriarchal ruler.  There is an interesting performance from Michaela Coel as the children's nurse, her sing-song delivery at first odd but then making for a naturalistic, non-showy, performance.

There is interesting use of the chorus, first seen as guests at the wedding who then are dotted around the stage watching the unfolding action, doing the usual chorus thing of saying "I wouldn't do that if I were you" then later saying "I told you not to do that".  My heart sank when at the climax of the piece they suddenly lapse into the usual anachronistic modern dance steps - nothing illustrates the depths of hatred and revenge than kicking your leg out and whirling around.  I was reminded of Miss Nicola Blackman calling such segments "ten dancers looking for the toilet with the light out". 

As I have said Carrie Cracknell's direction grips like a vice, there is nothing - apart from said modern dance routine - to distract from the relentless drive to Medea's triumph over the expectations of her role in life.  Ben Power's translation hasn't an inch of spare meat on it either.  I was surprised that the ending does not make it as clear as in the original that Medea is leaving to fly to Athens and freedom with her heavy load, here she just trudges off but I guess it wouldn't fit with the general mood of this particular production.

Tom Scutt's large set at first seemed like a run-down middle eastern hotel foyer but it becomes more interesting with the reveals of an upper function room to illustrate Jason's wedding reception and a creepy, misty and dense forest in the back.  I thought it interesting that the choice was made to show the usual offstage marriage of Jason but Medea's murderous acts are still judged to be experienced offstage.

Lucy Carter's brutal lighting again focuses the attention totally on the action and I was surprised how effective the sonic beats score by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory was, made all the more effective by bearing used sparingly.

The production is now sold out until the end of it's run in early September - is it me or are productions getting shorter and shorter runs at the National? - but there are still seats available on the day as well as the now-obligatory NT Live cinema showing, this will be filmed live interestingly on the production's last night.

MEDEA however - and McCrory's searing performance - are best experienced live and in the Olivier auditorium.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Dvd/150: THE 39 STEPS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

Hitchcock's adaptation of John Buchan's novel is an unsurpassed espionage classic and all in a breathtaking 89 minutes.

A visit to a London Music Hall catapults Richard Hanney into a maelstrom of danger when a European woman who asks him to protect her for the night reveals herself as an undercover agent on the trail of a spy who's about to smuggle British military secrets abroad.

She is murdered as Hanney sleeps and he escapes from both her killers and the police to Scotland where she had traced the culprit.

He eventually gains an ally in unwilling travel companion Pamela and together they discover the secret of The 39 Steps.

An entertaining classic that glitters with wit, Hitchcock surrounds hero Robert Donat with a wonderful supporting cast of scene-stealing cameos, in particular a luminous Peggy Ashcroft as a Crofter's lonely wife and Frederick Piper as a helpful London milkman.

Shelf or charity shop?  A shelf to itself!