Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flickers Flashback...

As I said last time, my film-going this year can be split into two new, two old...

The day after seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the O2, we went to the National Film Theatre (I still refuse to call it BFI Southbank) where Neil Tennant was introducing a screening of the great Russian classic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN which was being shown with the 2004 Pet Shop Boys score for the first time in a cinema.  Up until now it had only been shown in open-air screenings - so a big thank you to Yoko Ono for including it as part of her Meltdown festival!

As always, Neil gave good interview and told us of how they got involved in writing a score for the film and the challenges they overcame in getting it right, he even revealed that the score was written with the aid of a dvd which they watched while fitting the music to it!  I simply *had* to give him a huge round of applause as he exited - I hope I didn't attract too much attention wearing the new bright orange tour t-shirt.

I had seen the film before on TV (and with a rinkydink score) but you really need to see this on the big screen to get the full overpowering effect of Eisenstein's vision and the combination of the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra only added to a great experience.

Sergei Eisenstein based his film on an incident during the 1905 Russian uprising which was a response to the Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg.  The sailors on the Potemkin mutinied against their officers when provided with rotten meat as rations. The ringleaders were threatened with execution on deck but rioted when one of the mutiny's leaders Grigory Vakulinchuk was mortally wounded by the Chief Officer.  He was killed along with six other officers and the ship sailed to the town of Odessa where they were greeted as heroes by striking workers who were also rioting.

Eisenstein builds up the tension aboard the ship until the overthrow of the officers is seen as a great moment of liberation.  The excitement of this sequence is also ramped up by the Pet Shop Boys switching to a thumping beat with the repeated chances of "Da! Nyet!" The Revolution Will Have A Disco Beat!
Eisenstein wasn't interested in telling a linear story, he wanted to provoke his audience to revolutionary fervour, and with the next sequence he created cinema history.  Although there were instances of the army firing on the rioters in Odessa there was no massacre as Eisenstein portrays - but why let such details get in the way of good propaganda?  In a sequence which is still as thrilling as it is shocking, the inhabitants of Odessa are chased down the massive stairs to the port by a phalanx of Tsarist soldiers shooting rifles at their fleeing backs while a troop of Cossacks waits for them at the bottom with sabres slashing down on them.  For 88 years this ground-breaking sequence has been lampooned, ripped off and copied but still is one of the most exciting pieces of film ever.
Remarkable too are the faces he found to be the most iconic victims of the massacre: the woman walking toward the advancing soldiers holding her shot child, the old woman with the shattered pince-nez and the young mother whose dying fall launches her baby's pram to bounce down the stairs.  The time has come to give these women names - they were played by Prokopenko, N. Poltavtseva and Beatrice Vitoldi respectively.
Nothing can equal this sequence but it is not the end of the film as Eisenstein then shows us how the squadron sent to intercept the Potemkin capitulate at the very last second, lowering their guns and joining the mutiny.  After the ratcheted tension of the Odessa sequence, the squadron section is a bit dawdling - there is only so much tension to be gained from long shots of big ships going in opposite directions but once over, I almost staggered from the cinema, bedazzled by the imagery.
As propaganda it is unsurpassed - the film was banned in the UK for nearly 30 years - although as a film it's a trifle unsparing in it's severity but it still grips like a vice.
Otto Preminger's BONJOUR TRISTESSE from 1958 has just been re-released in a sparkling new print highlighting the lush cinematography of Georges Périnal.
It was also re-issued the same week as the 34th anniversary of the death of Jean Seberg.  TRISTESSE was the second film she made with Preminger who had chosen her from 18,000 submissions to be the unknown star of his 1957 film ST. JOAN.  The film was panned by critics who delighted in pointing out Jean's seemingly amateur-dramatic performance.  But determined to prove the critics wrong, Preminger cast his protégée in the role of 'Cecile' in his screen version of Francoise Sagan's debut novel.
The precocious Cecile lives with her playboy father Raymond enjoying a close relationship despite his constant relationships.  However Cecile's position is threatened when Raymond invites his late wife's friend Anne to their holiday villa in the south of France.  Unlike the flighty young women he usually has dalliances with, Anne is more mature with a career as a fashion designer and it's not long until Cecile finds her father becoming more sober and siding with Anne against her.  Cecile decides to try and ruin the growing relationship, using her own wiles and her knowledge of her father's weaknesses, with devastating consequences...
I have seen film before but this was my first time seeing it on a big screen and it looked great.  Preminger utilises black and white for the 'modern' setting in Paris and vibrant colour for Cecile's remembrances of 'last summer'.
Seeing it again made me fully appreciate the nuanced performances of David Niven as Raymond and Deborah Kerr as Anne as well as the vibrant supporting performances of Mylene Demongeot as Raymond's Bardotesque girlfriend, Martita Hunt as the gambling-mad mother of Cecile's boyfriend and Jean Kent as a bored English wife on the Riviera with a roving-eye and gossiping nature.

Again, Jean Seberg was heavily criticised when the film was released but her performance now looks fresh and constantly intriguing.  She draws your eye constantly and Cecile's conflicting emotions are fully understandable through her.  In the 'modern' Cecile, she is brittle, bored and closed-off and looking great in her Givenchy evening dress but in the devastating closing scene, the mask slips and as she smears her face with cold cream, she cries like the lost girl she still is inside. 
Seberg, who was bullied relentlessly by Preminger during the filming, finally had a box-office hit in 1959 with THE MOUSE THAT ROARED and in 1960 she starred in Jean-Luc Godard's A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (BREATHLESS) and her place in film history was set.  Ahead lay the disappointing film roles, disappointing love affairs and worst of all, the effect on her mental health when she was targeted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers which led to her miscarrying her daughter.  In August 1979, she was found dead in her car parked a few streets away from her Paris apartment, a seeming suicide although questions over what really happened will remain unanswered.

Monday, September 09, 2013


It's not been my finest year for cinemagoing... *flicks through diary* ...four times to be precise.  Two new films, two old.  I am nothing if not disciplined!

My first film of the year was Pedro Almodóvar's LOS AMANTES PASAJEROS (I'M SO EXCITED) and I was!  It has not been well-received with carping about it being too camp and too much like his early 'movida' films.  Which was probably why I enjoyed it as much as I did.  Pedro can't win, when his films went through a transition during the mid-nineties the general consensus was "Why isn't he doing more funny films like he used to make?"  The fact that he can move across styles and genres marks out his excellence.

Yes it was lightweight and ephemeral but it also had a wicked sense of humour - his characters here aren't given depth and deep emotions, they are brash, glossy and non-stop talking for longer than a full Madrid minute.

Taking his cue from the "Airport" film series, a plane on a routine flight is discovered to have damaged landing gear and only a limited amount of fuel and we watch as the passengers and crew react to the situation.  Only here the crew have access to copious amounts of drink and drugs - which they eventually share with the passengers!

As with any disaster film we have a motley bunch in first-class, a high-class bondage madame, a Mexican hit-man, a recently married couple, a psychic, a businessman etc. and of course we also get to find out what has brought them to be on that plane.  Mostly though we concentrate on the three gay cabin crew: the wonderful Javier Camara as Joserra who is having an affair with the pilot, Raul Arevalo as thin-as-a-whip Ulloa and chubby Fajas (Carlos Areces) who never flies without his portable shrine!

For us Pedro fans another treat was seeing Cecilia Roth (star of his first film PEPI, LUCI BOM as well as the magnificent TODO SOBRE MI MADRE) as the high-class dominatrix and Lola Dueñas (VOLVER, LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS) as the lovelorn psychic Bruna.  There are also two delightful cameos from long-time Pedro stars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz as the airport workers who accidentally damage the plane.

It was fun, filthy and flew by, the only time the film seemed to pall was when we left the interior of the plane and returned to earth.  The highlight of the film being the trolly-dollys choreographed dance routine around the plane to The Pointer Sisters' I'M SO EXCITED (which is where the English language title comes from) - and on the subject of music, Alberto Iglesias' score is a major component in it's success.  If you want to view the film as a satire on Spain's current malaise you can, if you want to view it as a hymn to camp gay men - hey that's there as well!

As usual, I came out wondering where this remarkable film maker will take us next.

My second new film was Baz Luhrmann's much-vaunted version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY.  This one was always going to be tricky for me, firstly because GATSBY is my favourite novel (I re-read it again last August) and secondly, because I have a problem with Luhrmann.  I loved WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO + JULIET but his other films have always annoyed the hell out of me.

Luhrmann has stated that he made the film because he loves the book but I can't believe it's the same one that I do.

I have sat staring at this screen trying to find a way in to blogging about the film but I simply can't.  Let me try it this way:

What did I like?  Leonardo DiCaprio gave a performance of pure star quality, suggesting the loneliness and quiet desperation behind Gatsby's studied pose.  He also conveyed the unquenchable hope that lay behind all his efforts to win Daisy back.  DiCaprio also had real chemistry with co-star Carey Mulligan.  The trouble with Mulligan though is she is such an intelligent actress that I felt she was simply too grounded to play Daisy.  Mia Farrow was the perfect Daisy in the 1974 version, highly-strung, maddening, gossamer.
Occasionally a screen image would appear which made me gasp with amazement and his vision of the desolate valley of ashes, that stretch of misery between the rich worlds of West Egg and New York was exactly how I had pictured it in my mind when reading the book.
While I disliked Luhrmann having Nick Carraway narrating the story to a doctor in an alcoholic sanatorium, I did like his occasional use of the actual text disappearing on and off the screen.  It felt to me like Luhrmann was showing up all his outlandish visuals - in the end, there are Fitzgerald's words.
What didn't I like?  Have you got a while?  The sheer dizzying absurdity of his vision was so relentless that when the visuals stopped, it was difficult to concentrate on the quieter scenes.  The worst excess was splurged on the impromptu party that Tom and Myrtle have at their apartment in New York.  Fitzgerald gives us a scene with Nick trapped in a small flat with bores and boozers, Luhrmann instead gives us a wild orgy with a hallucinating Nick.  It's all so crass.
My real problem lies in the fact that Luhrmann strips his characters of any saving graces apart from Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, possibly Jordan.  Tom Buchanan is a teeth-grinding, moustache-twirling villain straight out of a bad silent movie, Wilson is a snivelling loser and Myrtle is a low-rent slut.  Compare this with the way the characters are represented in Jack Clayton's superior 1974 film.  They all have key moments which at least give them a humanity: Tom and Wilson both have scenes mourning Myrtle and crucially, Myrtle is given the speech at the party where she explains how she first met Tom on a train.  Of course it also helps having actors of the calibre of Bruce Dern, Scott Wilson and the late Karen Black.  In this film Joel Edgerton gives a truly lousy performance as Tom while Isla Blair and Jason Clarke bring nothing to the table.  Luhrmann even changes the plot to have Nick tell Wilson that Gatsby is the man responsible for Myrtle's death.
Damning as well - especially from someone who says he loves the book - is that he changes the conclusion of the story.  In the book, an old man shows up at Gatsby's mansion in time for the funeral who turns out to be his father who explains to Tom his son's determination to 'better' himself and to marvel at what his son achieved.  Here Gatsby himself tells Nick in a few lines of his background which robs the story of any real context.
But right at the end, Luhrmann surprised me by including Fitzgerald's haunting last lines which Clayton left out of his film:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I know I will be borne back to the book again, I'm not sure about this film version.  Even if we did get a free Stella Artois pint glass after the screening!

Friday, September 06, 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth flies away...

Last week I finally saw the Old Vic's production of Tennessee Williams' 1959 play SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH in it's last week.  When we arrived there was a queue snaking around onto Waterloo Road just to collect tickets.  When I finally got to the counter they hadn't even printed my tickets off for collection.  Jesu Christi - what on earth had they been doing all day?

I had seen the play once before, in 1985 when Harold Pinter directed Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck (whatever happened to...) at the Haymarket in a production of which I retain the flimsiest of shadowy images.  I do remember Bacall being suitably domineering when her character flared into full diva status but unable to convince as the scared and frantic washed-up star. 

I had also seen Richard Brooks' 1962 film version in which Paul Newman (Chance), Geraldine Page (Alexandra), Madeleine Sherwood (Miss Lucy) and Rip Torn (Tom Jnr) recreated their original stage roles while Ed Begley won an Academy Award as the corrupt politician 'Boss' Finley.  Geraldine Page was memorable in only her fourth film role.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH was almost the last of Williams' run of 'classic' plays with just THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA to come.  In 1963, written in the shadow of his partner's death, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE started the decline in both quality and his popularity.  His alcoholism and drug dependency made the quality of his later plays more erratic and harder to like so he was judged by producers and critics to be a busted flush.

Knowing this, it makes SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH an unsettling experience as the air of desperation at the passing of time hangs heavily on the main characters.  Another reason why I like the play less than his earlier works is I feel Williams' ambivalence towards his characters.  None of his characters here are written with the love you feel he invested in Laura Wingfield, Blanche du Bois, Lady Torrence or Maggie & Brick.  Although both Alexandra and Chance can easily be seen as having the traits of Williams' 'fugitive kind', they both lack Williams' soul.

Chance Wayne (Seth Numeric) returns to his home town on America's Gulf Coast, hiding out in the shabby elegance of the hotel where he once worked in the bar.  Chance left with hopes of becoming a film star but his dream foundered and he ended up as the plaything of rich, older women.

His latest meal-ticket is film star Alexandra Del Largo (Kim Cattrall) who is travelling with him under the name of Princess Kosmonopolis.  She too is a fugitive from her life as she believes her screen comeback has failed disastrously and is lost in drink, drugs and hysteria.

However Chance wants to use Alexandra for one more... er... chance: wanting her to use her alleged star power to launch him as her new 'discovery'.  But he also has an ulterior motive - to win back his first love, the groanworthy-named Heavenly (Louise Dylan) who is unfortunately the daughter of 'Boss' Finley (Owen Roe) the town's corrupt and white supremacist politician.

What Chance doesn't know is that after his last visit, he gave Heavenly an STD which has resulted in her father forcing her to have a hysterectomy and he is now out for revenge...

Director Marianne Elliott threw everything at the audience: in the big climactic scene, we have flashbulbs going off, thunder and lightning as a storm breaks, 'Boss' Finley haranguing the audience on large TV screens and amplified sound and Finley's thugs beating up a heckler while Finley's mistress screams her head off.  The odd thing was that none of it seemed out of place!  She also kept the pace going until the final scene which seemed oddly becalmed.

In a cast where the accents swung all over the place, the best performance came from Owen Roe as 'Boss' Finley who cast a loathsome shadow over the play as an all-too-believable "Family & State" politician who approves of castrating black men and denies the existence of his mistress.  I liked Kim Cattrall's exhausted and suspicious Alexandra, in particular how she slipped back into the manner of the screen diva as easily as donning her fur wrap.  She certainly humanised Alexandra - but does a humanised Alexandra serve the play?  I'm not really sure it does.

For the most part Seth Numrich was fine as Chance, his self-belief radiating from him but in the last scene I felt he simply drained away the closer Chance got to his destiny.  This production knitted together several versions of the play and Numrich's poetic last lines seemed oddly out of keeping with his performance up until then.  Also a special mention for Brid Brennan's Aunt Nonnie, a woman used to being ignored and browbeaten in the Finley household.

I also feel compelled to mention Lucy Robinson playing 'Boss' Finley's not-so-secret mistress Miss Lucy who gave a performance of quite jangling inadequacy.  It's a role that gives some spark of humanity as the forces of darkness move in but her shockingly poor attempt at a Southern accent had me wishing one of designer Rae Smith's peeling columns to fall on her just to stop the noise.

I am glad I saw it as it made me reassess this play in contrast with Tennessee Williams' earlier plays but I left the theatre with the feeling that the full power this play is capable of had not been fully explored.