Monday, 30 November 2009

LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson, USA 1997

Ever since I happened to see Chinatown a second time after having not liked it the first time round, have I discovered that it’s very worthwhile to give a film you disliked - or didn't get - a second chance. Needless to say, I’ve since seen Chinatown many times over, but just tonight the very same thing happened to me with the film that many people consider to be ‘the new Chinatown’, or ‘even better than Chinatown’ – Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential.

I vividly remember having seen LA Confidential with a friend at the Barbicon cinema in London at the time when it was first released, but for some reason I fell asleep during the screening and found the film incredibly boring and laboured. The fuss that was made about the film was entirely lost on me. Maybe I didn’t want to like it because it galled me hearing LA Confidential being compared with Chinatown – and since Chinatown had since turned into my all-time favourite film, the fact that something so sacred to me should actually have an equal didn’t sit well with me, considering any kind of comparison with the original to be slander, a smear campaign by dim-witted critics to throw Chinatown off the pedestal, exchanging it for the latest flavour of the month until something else comes along which then, too, will be unashamedly hyped and showered with praise until they run out of adjectives … Well, I’m aware that I can be quite opinionated when it comes to films, – especially my favourite ones!

However, tonight, 11 years later, I saw LA Confidential again for the second time, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was absolutely riveted; in fact, so engrossed and immersed in it was I that I watched it twice in a row! Well, regardless of the fact that it’s quite advisable to see the film more than once for a variety of reasons, but apart from everything else - how else are you to grasp the highly intricate plot, the cascade of names, the storyline that emerges, slowly, not quite halfway through the film - but almost - just when you thought there wasn’t one?! But of course all the conversational titbits, seemingly insignificant details in the narrative at the beginning – all of that pertains to the story, only that you deemed them peripheral until it’s too late; and that’s why the film -just like Chinatown- requires your attention from the moment the credits roll until the film’s bitter end.

LA Confidential is a tour de force of taut, sinewy screenwriting, with fully fleshed out characters and witty dialogue that’s tight like a fist. True to neo-noir form, LA Confidential takes place chiefly at night, in the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles and the plush and ritzy mansions of the Hollywood Hills. Most every character either has an axe to grind or skeletons in the closet, and there are few heroes but plenty of villains, though it takes you a while to figure out who exactly belongs to which category. The inevitable femme fatale inevitably comes in the disguise of a hooker; however, she’s no Phyllis Dietrichson, nor an Elsa Bannister, although Lyn Braken sure is dressed to kill. Lyn Braken, actually is probably one of the very few individuals in LA Confidential who has practically no hidden agenda. She is just another one of the scores of hopefuls that flocked to Hollywood during its infancy in the - more often than not - vain hope to be in pictures but ends up as a high-class prostitute instead. In that respect her character is reminiscent of Faye Greener in Nathaniel West’s/ John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust although Lyn entirely lacks Faye’s guile and cruelty. In the early day of Hollywood, the hopeful, arriving on a bus from, say, Idaho, was as much part of Los Angeles as the police officer. And with many hopefuls turning from starlet to prostitute in a city that is filled to the rafters with movie folk, a lot of whom with no morals but money to burn, the only people who were busier than police officers were those who did the dirty work for them – or those, who took their job seriously. One such guy is Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, who is the embodiment of righteousness and decency. His character is juxtaposed by Russell Crowe’s Bud White, who is all muscle and no brain, and by Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes, who in turn is the one who bends with the wind, jumps on every bandwagon, just as long as he can make a buck on the side and doesn’t get found out. If Ed and Bud portray two different faces of how to stand up and fight for your principles - a brainy and a brawny one - Jack is a third, the flipside – the one that has no morals or principles to speak of.

But even though Bud is too trigger-happy, Ed too priggish and Jack far too cynical, the truly bad guy, the one who equals the Noah Cross character in Chinatown, is their boss. While Noah Cross was wealthy enough to buy off politicians and police officers as he needs them, in LA Confidential money and power are united in the same person, Police Captain Dudley Smith, chillingly played by James Cromwell.
Like Chinatown, whose screenplay is based on a real-life water scandal that rocked LA like an earthquake in the 1910s, LA Confidential, too, is inspired by true incidents, James Ellroy - on whose book the film is based - drawing upon heavy and blatant corruption in LA’s Police Department during the 1930s and 40s.

Actually, being someone who’s always had a soft spot for Los Angeles, I just marvel at the amount of novels, short-stories and films in which LA is depicted as a gotham city, where disaster lurks behind every corner, full of “trashy cars and fancy women” and whose “streets are dark with something more than night”, to quote the city’s aptest chronicler, Raymond Chandler, to whose books, both, Chinatown and LA Confidential, owe a lot. It must be because I just don’t come across that seedy, sordid side of LA, being totally under its spell as I am. However, I can certainly imagine that it’s there, somewhere, but by looking at the palm tress swaying in the wind, with the sun high up in the eternally blue sky shining down on those gorgeous hacienda houses, you would simply never guess… but, I suppose, you only ever see what you want to see…or came to see.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The International, Tom Tykwer, USA/ Germany 2009

When Tom Tykwer's The International opened earlier this year the reviews were such that I decided to wait until it's out on DVD. In other words, they were bad, and that's putting it mildly. As a result, Tykwer's film disappeared quickly from the screens, and wasn't helped a bit by the fact that it was chosen as the opening film of this year's Berlin Film Festival. Anyway, therefore I was quite surprised when watching The International for the first time last night, that it is actually not an uninteresting film. Not a masterpieve, to be sure, but it does indeed have its merits.

The International is a slick thriller, a cross between the James Bond and the Bourne franchises - although unlike those two, it has the additional twist - or bonus - of touching on a subject that has been on everybody’s lips recently: banks. At the time the film opened, this was expected to give Tykwer’s film some added momentum - which it didn't. Nevertheless, it injects it with a relevance which two years ago, when the film went into production, few people guessed the film might have.
Although the plot is difficult to follow and best be not held up to scrutiny, Tykwer and his scenarist, Eric Singer, get away with because The International is so fast paced, so nervy, hopping from location to location whereby exchanging one swanky hot spot for another, that Tykwer’s film at times looks like his location scout is a subscriber to Architectural Digest. The climax of The International is taking place in one such architectural highlight - the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, no less - only that in order to stage the elaborately choreographed showdown, Tykwer’s art director had to reconstruct the Guggenheim’s interior at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios. With all the bloodshed, the disaster and distraction caused by the shootout, which, by the way, pays homage to the best films by De Palma, Schlesinger, and Pakula, filming at the actual location would have been impossible. Clearly, the locations are as important to the plot as are the protagonists - played by Clive Owen and Naomi Watts - and sometimes they even outshine them since given the action-driven plot, they don’t have that much to do. However, this remark is not intended as a putdown, but simply to highlight the fact that The International is an action-thriller, and as such is up there with the best of them.

The International is out on DVD.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Jesus de Montreal, Denys Arcand, Canada 1989

Jesus de Montreal is one of my all-time favourite films, and one that I watch periodically, discovering new things every time I see it.

Arcand’s film begins with a priest, Frere Leclerc, hiring a young, aspiring, actor, Daniel, in order to breath new life into the Passion play. Audiences have been dwindling over the past years, and Frere Leclerc realises that his only chance to win them back, not to mention recruiting new ones, is by bringing the play up to date, by modernising it. Thus, Daniel sets out to hire a group of actors and it is only slowly that it dawns on us that Daniel embodies Christ himself, out to enlist his disciples. The parallels to Jesus’ own life are evident, yet they are cleverly conceived. For instance, as Maria Magdalene Daniel hires Mireille, who, not unlike the biblical lady she is to personify, is the kept woman of an advertising executive. The advertising and media world looms large in the film, and so it should, for in this day and age, its following outnumbers that of any religion by far, in fact, it has replaced it. On a similar note, Constance, who is hired for another part - presumably that of Maria - is first shown giving out soup to the poor in a shelter for the homeless and her own home is open to anybody who needs a place to sleep and a bite to eat. Daniel eventually makes it his home, and so does Mireille, hence it becomes the place where the actors live, meet and rehearse, and as such stands in for a sort of latter-day nativity which would give birth to their work - their - revised, modernised - play. This, of course, is a fitting metaphor to the Passion play itself, which, although, it certainly has happened in one way or another almost 2000 years ago, is essentially a production of man: it was written down, brought to paper, many years after the fact, and consequently it is our right, some may say, our duty, to question its facts.

To call Arcand’s film blasphemous would be short-sighted and outright silly. However, conservative Catholics may take issue with the fact that Arcand ingenuously knocks Jesus off his pedestal, demystifies him, and by doing so turns him into an human being - quite literally - reminding us that he was first and foremost an ordinary person-on-a-mission and that only many years after his death his name became synonymous with God. Thus, Arcand highlights a simple, basic, fact which nevertheless is often overlooked, especially by staunch followers of Christianity. And yet, Arcand never questions or doubts Jesus’ existence, nor that of God himself. He just invites us to think, to reflect, on our relationship with religion, and, for that matter, with God, who, more often than not, has become a commodity - and as such is on an equal footing with the world of media and advertising.

Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau who shines in the leading role of Jesus

It becomes clear that Arcand’s problem is not so much with God, or Jesus, themselves, as with what they’re made into, namely by the Catholic Church, with its unwillingness to accept the fact that times have moved on, new ideas must be taken on board, and that change must be embraced if it doesn’t want to lose its following. The film addresses this issue by having Frere Leclerc happily having an affair with a woman, Constance, who has become part of Daniel’s stock of actors, yet when Constance suggests that Frere Leclerc might quit priesthood to move in with her, he declines. Needless to say, the question that automatically arises is why shouldn’t he have both? But aware of the consequences - to be defrocked, and thus stripped of his privileged status the Church, so dear to him - keep him from taking the plunge. It comes as no surprise then, that once Daniel and his troupe have modernised the Passion it is promptly rejected by Frere Leclerc and his superiors, regardless of the fact that the play is hugely successful with the public. Quite literally, the word - or gospel, as it were - of Jesus alias Daniel and his disciples is not understood. And although Arcand most probably intended to chiefly decry the notoriously conservative attitude of Quebec‘s Catholic Church, I would argue that outside Quebec things aren’t that different. Perversely, Leclerc himself appears to like the play, aware what Daniel intended to achieve, but, rather cynically and hypocritically, he dismisses it, suspecting that rocking the boat would mean disappointing and consequently losing, a part of his most ardent followers. Like with advertising, in religion people want to be deceived. As a result, the reactions to the play by some of the people - notably those of whom we know are working in the media and advertising world - are as arbitrary as if they were watching a commercial: no discrimination, no reflection or distinction - tears flow freely and whenever it’s convenient for in our fast-paced, media-obsessed environment, emotions only run skin-deep.

It is to Arcand’s credit, that in spite of all the solemnity of the subject-matter, Jesus de Montreal remains light as a feather throughout, in fact, is even hilariously funny at times. Perhaps, it is because rather than in spite, of this lightness, not to mention the sheer absence of any wagging finger, that by the end of film, we find ourselves deeply moved and overwhelmed by the evocative metaphors Arcand finds to put Jesus, his life and what he stood for, in a modern-day context, subtly pointing out that there is as little room for him now as there was then. Jesus de Montreal aptly ends on an unobtrusive, hauntingly beautiful note with two buskers chanting Bach while kneeling on the floor of a Montreal subway-station like Madonnas in mourning, above them a billboard of an actor, seen earlier in the film and who, like a Judas of sorts, betrays his profession by selling out to do commercials. And slowly, the camera tilts to the left into the big, dark nothingness of the subway-tunnel.

Quite simply - a gem, and most highly recommended!

Jesus de Montreal is available on DVD.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Invictus, Clint Eastwood, USA 2009

Watch the trailer to Eastwood's upcoming film, Invictus, which revolves around Nelson Mandela's life during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Invictus is based on John Carlin's book, Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Changed The Nation. Shot on a relatively modest budget of 50m $, Invictus stars Eastwood regular Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela, as well as Matt Damon and Eastwood's son, Scott.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Romy Schneider Season at the Goethe Institute London

A young and radiant Romy Scheider in Henri-Georges Clouzot's L'enfer (France 1964):

I don't seem to be able to get away from my favourite subject (or one of them, anyway): Romy Schneider. Having written about her film, Max et les ferailleurs (France 1971) yesterday - see post below - today I would like to draw your attention to the Romy Schneider Season that opened at the Goethe Institute London a few days ago:

For the full programme, go to:

One of the films shown is the part documentary, partly restored, L'enfer, by Henri-Georges Clouzot (France 1964), a project that was aborted at the time and which has been turned into a documentary and was received with critical acclaim at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

It is anyone's guess, of course, how it would have changed Schneider's career had Clouzot's film been completed. Prior to Clouzot, Schneider worked with Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Lucchino Visconti - all first rate names in international cinema. After l'enfer, however, Schneider's career went into a temporary decline that lasted for several years, until it took off again with a vengeance in 1969, when Alain Delon had the bold idea to offer the part of Marianne in La piscine (Jacques Deray, France/ Italy 1969) to Schneider, his ex-lover.

Princesas, Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain 2005

Princasas, which I saw last night, was an amazing discovery, a simply wonderful film about a Madrid-based prostitute and her colleagues and their experiences. At times, Princasas almost feels like a documentary as the camera accompanies and observes Caye, Caren, and Pilar on their various love-for-sale exploits. Yet, the film carefully avoids voyeurism, nor is it ever exploitative. What it also does avoid is sentimentality, and given the film's topic de Aranoa - who since Las lunes al sol has been hailed as Spain's next big thing - would have had plenty of opportunity to go that way. The good news is, he didn't!

Princesas is ultimately a character study of Caye, played by the wonderful Candela Pena (All About My Mother), her life and background. Without pitying her and her lot, the film nevertheless leaves any doubt that it was the circumstances under which she was raised that turned her into a prostitute, and over the course of the film, she gradually comes to terms with her life and, particularly, her past.

Rather racist at the film's beginning, Caye and her Spanish colleagues look down on the prostitutes from Africa, eager to defend their terrain against them, the immigrants. It is clear that Caye's racism is based, first of all, on the fact that knowing that she's at the bottom of the social ladder, her African colleagues are even lower, thus making her, Caye, feel better about herself. The other reason why Caye hates and fights them is because they are taking away some of her customers, or so she thinks, especially since they're to be had for less than Caye and her Spanish colleagues. However, much to the distress of Pilar, eventually Caye and the hated (illegal) immigrant Zulema strike up a friendship, thus making Princesas also a truly wonderful, moving and authentic film about the triumph of friendship over love, or, as can happen sometimes, of the merging of the two.

Princesas is out on DVD.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Max et les ferailleurs, Claude Sautet, France 1971

Yes, I admit, I love Romy Schneider even in the worst of films. However, this isn't one of them, as I decided last night upon watching the film again for the first time in, I think, thirty years. Shot in 1971, it was one of Romy Schneider's first films during her second French period, which was rung in by her first collaboration with Claude Sautet, Les choses de la vie (France/ Italy/ Switzerland 1970).

Max et les ferailleurs is a detective story - or more adequately put, it is a character study in the guise of a detective story. Set in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris, Michel Piccoli - playing the detective - uses Romy Schneider - who plays a prostitute, as so many actresses with an accent do and did (see Marlene Dietrich) - but by doing so falls in love with her without realising it. Or to be more precise, without being willing to admit it to himself. The relationship between Schneider's Lily and Piccoli's Pierre calls to mind Alan J. Pakula's film Klute (USA 1971), in which not only the roles of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland resemble those of Sautet's film, but also their - dysfunctional - relationship with each other. Curiously enough, Klute was shot the same year as Max et les ferailleurs, which means scrap dealer, alluding to both the profession of Lily's boyfriend as well as the human scrap - or remains - that Max is dealing with, including his own.

Schneider and Piccoli in Max et les ferailleurs

Piccoli plays the cold, cynical loner-cum-detective (or should it be: detective-cum-loner?) who hides behind a facade of professionalism, never giving anything away about his inner world or feelings. If it wasn't for the expression in his eyes, which speaks volumes about his vulnerability, his frustrations and his past disappointments, he'd be on a par with Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. He uses Lily, and by gaining her confidence, he lures her boyfriend into a trap, thus turning him into a person far worse than he actually is, simply because Piccoli's opinion of people is so negative, that without realising it, his pessimistic world view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in the inevitable, tragic ending.

Max et les ferailleurs is available on DVD.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 4: Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch was born in 1892 in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg into a middle-class Jewish family. Uninterested to follow his father's footsteps and enter the tailoring business, by 1911 Lubitsch had become a member of Max Reinhard's Deutsches Theater, which to this day still is one of Germany's most prestigious theatres. The following year Lubitsch started acting in films but gradually abandoned acting to become a director. His first film of note was the 1918 The Eyes of The Mummy, starring Pola Negri who subsequently became a Lubitsch regular. From the on, until his emigration in 1923, Lubitsch made nearly 20 films, most of which were critically as well as commercially successful, most noteworthy among them are The Oyster-Princess (Germany 1919), Madame Dubarry (Germany 1919), Die Puppe/ The Doll (Germany 1919), Sumurum (Germany 1920), and The Mountain Cat (Germany 1921).

Lubitsch's success as a film director did not escape Hollywood, which by this time started draining the Berlin film studios of their talent. Lubitsch followed a call from Mary Pickford, went to Hollywood for what was meant to be an interlude of a few years, and took his muse, Pola Negri, along with him. Due to differences, the Pickford-Lubitsch collaboration was short-lived, yielding only one film, Rosita (USA 1923), after which Lubitsch accepted an offer from Warner Bros. for which he worked the following three years with increasing success. By 1926, Lubitsch was under contract to Paramount, with which he would remain for well over ten years, at some point even becoming head of production. Lubitsch's early Hollywood period was marked by costume dramas and, following the introduction of sound, by musicals, some of which starred the French import Maurice Chevalier, who rose to star status due to his success in Lubitsch film such as Love Parade (USA 1929) and One Hour With You (USA 1932).

Today, Lubitsch is mostly associated with the sophisticated salon comedies he made between 1932 and his untimely death in 1947. Films like Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932), Design For Living (USA 1933), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (USA 1938), Ninotchka (USA 1939), or The Shop Around The Corner (USA 1940), have since all become classics and are also typical examples of the so-called Lubitsch-Touch, which has become synonymous with subtly, comically, succinctly and elegantly expressing the unexpected.

After 1933, Hollywood turned into one of the major destinations for refugees from Nazi Germany, particularly after the Anschluss and Reichskristallnacht in 1938 and after 1939, when those refugees stranded in France needed to escape the advancing German army. However, unlike Lubitsch, who by 1933 had long become one of Hollywood's most successful and pre-eminent directors, many of his fellow emigrants were not quite as lucky. To help those who had fallen on hard times, on the instigation of his friend Paul Kohner, the European Film Fund was founded, of which Lubitsch became president. Liesl Frank, wife of the writer Bruno Frank, and Charlotte Dieterle, wife of William, became the heart of the organisation by raising and disbursing funds, supplying affidavits, and aiding newly arrived refugees in finding jobs and adequate housing. In an attempt to help the increasing number of refugees, Lubitsch hired many refugees for his films either as actors or as in the case of Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, as screenwriters.

Germany's invasion of Poland inspired Lubitsch to one of his best and most sophisticated comedies, To Be Or Not To Be (USA 1942), based on a play by the Hungarian refugee writer Melchior Lengyel, who had already supplied the original story for Ninotchka.

In 1946, Lubitsch had his first heart attack, from which he never really recovered. He died in 1947, with his last film still in production (That Lady In Ermine, USA 1947), which subsequently was completed by Otto Preminger.

Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant, USA 1989

It seems hard to fathom that van Sant's films should have its 20th anniversary this year - Drugstore Cowboy comes along as so fresh, so contemporary, and so modern that one is led to believe that it's a new release.

Nevertheless, I'd remembered van Sant's now classic film about Matt Dillon aka Bob's pharmaceutical extravaganza in somewhat more vivid colours, since for all its lurid subject-matter, it is a very low-key film. But then there are also the 20 years that separate the young green-horn 'movie-buff' that I was when I first saw this film from the middle-aged, jaded 'cinephile' that I have since turned into, and which makes it increasingly impossible for me to get a rise out of almost any film.
Drugstore Cowboy is essentially a story of redemption - at times outright hilarious, at others eerily gripping - with a, perhaps, courageous, Greek-Tragedy showdown van Sant got away with as Drugstore Cowboy was an independent production. The showdown turns into an open ending which, it turns out, is also the film's beginning as the story is told in flashback.
The casting is excellent, starring Matt Dillon, who proves once more that he is almost infallible in picking his roles, as the junkie-lead and Kelly Lynch (whatever became of her???) as his renegade girlfriend. The cast's highlight, though, surely has got to be William S. Burroughs, who aptly plays a drug-addicted ex-priest. I mean, talk about inspired casting!

In hindsight Drugstore Cowboy, which was one van Sant's earliest films, can be regarded as a typical film of his in terms of pacing, subject-matter, production values (gritty, grainy cinematography, editing) and story-telling (non-linear narrative, open ending, etc.), foreshadowing masterpieces like Elephant (USA 2003) and Paranoid Park (France/ USA 2007). However, although not made by van Sant, Drugstore Cowboy also brings to mind Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream, which has a very similar storyline, but was made exactly 10 years later.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Werner Herzog Selected As Jury President Of The Berlin Film Festival 2010

It has just been announced that German director Werner Herzog has been selected as Jury President of next year's Berlin Film Festival, running from 11th - 21st February 2010. It is not yet known who his co-jury members will be, but it is not expected for the Berlinale Jury to be complete much before February.

Herzog has had two films in previous Berlinale Competitions: Signs Of Life in 1968, and Nosferatu in 1979. As a surprise to some and a disappointment to Herzog himself, neither of his two entries that were shown at the Venice Film Festival this autumn - Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done - won any awards.

Although Herzog has another project that is currently in production - The Piano Tuner - it is not expected that it will be ready in time to be shown at next year's Berlin Film Festival.

So far, no official announcements have been made regarding the selection of films for the 2010 Berlinale - neither for the Competition nor for any of the sidebars - and the programme may not be complete until shortly before the festival kicks off. However, as next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Berlin-Fest, expectations are high for Berlin's main rival, Cannes, showed an extremely strong line-up when it celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2007.

Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, star of Herzog's Abel Ferrara-inspired Bad Lieutenant (USA 2009)

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 3: Joe May

Joe May was born Julius Mandl on November 7 1880 into a Jewish family in Vienna. In 1902, he married the Viennese singer Hermine Pfleger who later called herself Mia May, a name Joe would subsequently adopt in an attempt to deflect from his Jewish origins.
He studied in Berlin before becoming an operetta director in Hamburg. By 1912, however, he started directing his first films, making a name for himself with a series of detective films whose central character was Stuart Webbs, later changed to Joe Webbs.
Increasingly successful, by 1918 May had his own studio in Woltersdorf outside Berlin, where he produced and directed a string of monumental dramas, the original Das indische Grabmal among them, for which Fritz Lang - who forty years later remade it - wrote the screenplay. May became one of the most prolific and successful directors of Weimar Germany. Among his other films from the 1920 are, for instance, Tragoedie der Liebe, starring a very young Marlene Dietrich.

Betty Amman in Asphalt (Germany 1929), one of May's most famous films from his Berlin period

Following Hitler's rise to power in January 1933, May emigrated to the US, and like many of his fellow emigrants, May's American career never really took off. Although it has often been claimed that May's failure to reconnect with his erstwhile success was due to the financial disaster of his first US offering, Music In The Air, based on the stage play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, H.G. Asper in his book Filmexilanten maintains that it was rather because May was considered difficult and arrogant. Under contract to Universal, May made several horror films, a genre the studio had became identified with, among them The Invisible Man Returns (USA 1940) and The House Of The Seven Gables (USA 1940). Despite the films' success at the box office, Universal did not take up the option on May's contract, and after only a few more films, May literally disappeared into oblivion.
In dire need of money and a job, in the late 1940s May and his wife were forced to rely on disbursements from the European Film Fund, until they eventually decided to open a restaurant. Called The Blue Danube, specialising in Austrian-Hungarian cuisine, the restaurant was founded with financial aid of fellow emigrants, including Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch and Hedy Lamarr, who donated a total $ 12, 500. However, The Blue Danube also proved a financial disaster for it shut as quickly as it opened. In the light of the considerable success of emigrants such as Billy Wilder, Henry Koster, Walter Reisch, William Wyler or Robert Siodmak following their escape from Nazi Germany, it is easy to forget that for the vast majority of emigrants exile not only meant the loss of their country, culture and language, but also of their careers and ultimately, their existence.

Destitute and ill, May died in 1954 in Los Angeles.

The Red Shoes, M. Powell, E. Pressburger, UK 1948

Powell's and Pressburger's 1948 masterpiece, The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer, will be re-released across the UK on 11 December this year, just in time for Christmas. Playing Ratov, The Red Shoes was Albert Bassermann's last film. Until his emigration in 1933, Bassermann was generally regarded to be Germany's greatest actor. However, once in exile in the US and later, in the UK, he was often unable to obtain the parts that were deserving of his talent. The Red Shoe's Ratov is an exception - although only a supporting role, it gives Bassermann the opportunity one last time to show the full range of his exceptional talent.

See the trailer here:

Anonyma, Max Faerberboeck, Germany 2008

Anonyma, by Max Faerberboeck, is based on Marta Hillers' memoirs, and deals with her experiences in immediate post-war Berlin: the occupation of the city by the Red Army and particularly, how Hillers became a victim of rape by Russian soldiers. Acclaimed German actress Nina Hoss plays the lead, supported by a stellar supporting cast that includes former Fassbinder muse Irm Herrmann and Juliane Koehler of The Downfall fame.

Anonyma opens on 5 February 2010 across the UK.

See the trailer here:

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee, USA 2006

The recent release of Ang Lee's latest, Taking Woodstock (USA 2009), inspired me to rewatch some of his earlier films, notably Brokeback Mountain. While this particular film can never be considered underrated, it did, however, lose out on Oscar night, and, moreover, sparked quite a few heated debates upon its initial release. Brokeback Mountain quickly became a favourite with talk-shows, made headlines around the globe and nabbed a number of prestigious awards, including the Copa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival. And that although Brokeback Mountain is simply a love story between two cowboys, who, I might add, are played by actors -Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger- who both made it abundantly clear that they are not gay.
So why all the fuss?

It is true that on the surface Brokeback Mountain could indeed be written off as just that: a love story between two cowboys; and like so many times before, the love between the two men is not to be, the physical side of their love is merely hinted at, and one of the leading characters inevitably dies at the end.
So what else is new?


For a start, the film’s pacing is extraordinary, with a slow-moving camera that allows the viewer to size up its two protagonists. Furthermore, the anticipation, until Jack and Ennis relationship turns physical, makes their love, their desire and their hunger for each other almost palpable. Although the word love is never actually mentioned throughout the film, Jack’s and Ennis’ love for each other is nevertheless flagrant and tangible, suffusing the film from beginning to end. I can’t think of a single film where the love between two men has been portrayed with such passion, honesty and integrity. What’s more, it is just refreshing to watch two men falling in love without them meeting in some dingy club and without having them look like clones. That Jack’s and Ennis’ meeting is entirely accidental makes the love between them all the more real, all the more truthful. That their love is not just sexual, but that their physical as well as mental need to be with each other is brought to the fore, elevates Brokeback Mountain to one of greatest love stories of all time – gay or straight.

To anyone who’s about to suggest that the story lacks credibility or reeks too much like a gay fantasy, I’d like to remind them that the story is set in rural Wyoming of the 1960s and 70s – a world far removed from Greenwich Village or Castro Street; and even there wasn’t much going on in terms of gay life back in 1963, which is the year Jack and Ennis meet for the first time. But apart from that, I do believe that even in our day you won’t have to go very far to come across a gay man pretending to be straight, who has wife and kids. Thinking that with the rising tolerance level of society these things don’t happen anymore is, unfortunately, a delusion.

To me, however, Brokeback Mountain is above all a character study. A character study of Ennis DelMar and the effect his inability to free himself from the shackles of society and his own background has had on his life. For those of us, like me, who were born in the 1960s, and have always lived in a big city, it is easy to forget the repression by society gays had to endure until well into the 1980s. Although homosexuality was legalised in much across Europe by the beginning of the early 1970s, it would take another twenty years until the subject of homosexuality was openly talked about outside the gay community and another thirty years until gay marriage would finally become legal -to various degrees- in a handful of countries around the globe. And yet, in the majority of countries around the world homosexuality is still a punishable offence, and even to this day, there are several US states that have anti-sodomy laws. It is thus no surprise that when Jack suggests settling down together, buying a spread, Ennis won’t have any of it. By all his physical strength and intrepidity, courage is not Ennis’ strong suit. But can we blame him? Can we blame a man for his lack of courage, knowing that when he was nine years old, he was shown the mutilated body of a neighbour who was slaughtered -probably by Ennis’ father!- because he was openly gay? To say nothing of the fact that in 1952 - which must have been the year Ennis was nine years old - homosexuality wasn’t just simply anathema globally, it was also liable to be punished pretty much everywhere. Sneered at, laughed at, if you were lucky. The not so lucky ones ended up in the irrigation ditch, like Earl, whose dead body Ennis was forced to look at by his father. The concept of living with a man simply is something that absolutely petrifies Ennis, for so deeply ingrained is his fear of society’s backlash, the likely consequences of this bold move, that he doesn’t even dare to acknowledge that he’s gay. Seemingly strong, inwardly Ennis is a very weak man, a victim of his time and a casualty of his upbringing.

I also reject the suggestion that Ennis and Jack are pathetic for, as has been suggested in some reviews, they simply should have gone to California once Sexual Liberation had started to make its mark. Well, I rather doubt that men with Jack’s and Ennis’ upbringing and their lack of education, would even have heard of the relatively carefree life a move to California may have afforded them, let alone of Sexual Liberation. And even if they had – I believe that Ennis, given his background and traumatic childhood, still would not have stood for it. Jack maybe, but on the other hand, they’re both men of the soil, grounded, with the love for cattle being as much part of them as their love of each other. Nonetheless, Jack is serious about his offer of settling down with Ennis, however naïve or far-fetched we consider that to be. He is willing to give it a shot, against all odds. Ennis on the other hand, is so full of fear, so scarred by his upbringing, that he prefers to “stand it rather than fix it”. And stand it he must, for when Jack is dead at the end of the film we realize (we are not sure he does, too) that he missed his chance, he passed up a one-off opportunity to live a potentially happy and fulfilling life at the side of the one person he truly loved and cared about. It is up to the viewer to interpret the ending of the film. In my opinion, Jack did indeed die as a result of a homophobic assault, simply because the reaction of Laureen and Jack’s father are such that no other reading is possible. But even if you decide that the assault was nothing but a product of Ennis’ imagination (as suggested in the film) - in both cases it is society at large that has to take the blame for, either killing Jack or, for instilling Ennis with such fear that he is consumed by it to an extent that he flatly rules out the possibility of an accident. And it is there, of course, where Brokeback Mountain differs from its predecessors: Jack did not commit suicide, he was not killed accidentally, nor was he killed in a lover’s quarrel. The film leaves no doubt that it is society who has him on its collective conscience.

However, a correction is called for: Brokeback Mountain has no predecessors as such.
Not only is it virtually the first film to come out of mainstream Hollywood that has at its centre a gay love story, but it is also one of the very rare films that tackles the actual love between two grown up men and treats its subject(s) adequately, credibly and with respect – no comedy; no card-board characters; no shrill or flamboyant supporting characters here. Never does the film or, for that matter, the screenplay, betray its two protagonists as it avoids drifting into caricature, or worse still, into a maudlin melodrama. In terms of mainstream gay cinema Brokeback is certainly without equal. But even as far as independent gay cinema goes, a story like this, which is to say, one that focuses solely on the relationship between two men, has never been told; the bulk of gay films - independent as well as studio productions - if there is a love story at all, tend to revolve around other topics such as politics (Another Country; Yossi & Jagger; Walk On Water; Faustrecht der Freiheit, which, although having gay love at its centre, is ultimately a film more about the corruptness of society than it is about gay love), AIDS (Jeremy; Blue; Drole de Felix; Long Time Companion; Philadelphia; Before Night Falls; Les nuits fauves), coming-out (Sommersturm; Get Real; Beautiful Thing; Ma vraie vie à Rouen;), bisexuality (Der bewegte Mann; Le fate ignorante; Crustacés et coquillages; Sunday, Bloody Sunday), crime (Victim; Cruising), or are hapless tales of soul-searching and identity crises (Death In Venice; Love And Death On Long Island; Gods And Monsters; Carrington), or else are outright fantasies with little or no bearing on reality (Querelle; Maurice). Thus, it can be said that Brokeback Mountain for all its ostensibly run of the mill story, is indeed a departure from what we came to expect from a gay film. And although it is true that there are certainly films that may be more (homo-)sexually explicit, I consider that what’s lacking in actual sex scenes is more than made up by beautiful scenes of extreme tenderness and love between Jack and Ennis. Again, I take my hat off to Gyllenhall and Ledger for making the high voltage between the two men seem so real, so tangible and so understandable. But, I suppose, that’s why they’re actors. And good ones at that!

I also reject the reproach that Ang Lee should have used gay actors for the film. First of all, openly gay actors are few and far between anywhere, but in the US even more so. And the few there are, such as Rupert Everett, for instance, I sure would not want to see in such a role. By all due respect, but Mr. Everett, with his killer looks and muscles to burn, is exactly the kind of actor that Ang Lee did well to avoid. Steering clear of stereotypes and clichés are a prerequisite if Brokeback wasn’t to turn into a parody, comic strip or soft-core porn flick, something Ang Less must have been aware of for the casting to me seems exceedingly careful and clever: two actors, not too handsome, not too plain, not too famous, with a just above average body, but who have it in them to pull off roles so demanding and challenging (particularly Ennis’!) that the credibility, the relevance, of the story is never questioned. In any case, casting Brokeback is a no-win situation: had he used gay actors, the film not only would have almost certainly turned into a travesty, but also (straight) actors would have been accused of not daring to star in a film with a gay topic. Using straight actors, he got chided for not daring to use gay actors or else, gay actors not daring to star in the film.

The irony, that it took a Hollywood studio to come up with what is without a doubt one of the best gay films ever made, is probably lost on very few. Hollywood, whose fear of homosexuality is notorious, has, at a crucial moment in history, come up with a film that could ease the way for gay marriage finally to become legal throughout the US. I hear that the film has now been dubbed Bareback Mountain by various members of the gay community. That statement alone speaks volumes about the current state of the gay community, its publications, its films, and its members – whoever they are. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why it took a straight woman to write the excellent short story on which Brokeback is based, why it took a straight director to put it on film, and straight actors to star in it - and a Hollywood studio to boot!

Brokeback Mountain is available on DVD.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Goldie Hawn

I've been going through a Goldie Hawn phase lately, yet I'm unable to recall anymore what exactly it was that triggered it. Anyhow, Hawn is one of those actresses - of which there are few - who are blessed with an inborn ability to make me laugh. And probably not just me. At the least, they put a smile on my face the minute they appear on screen. Diane Keaton is another example. Anyhow, as usual, when I'm into something - or someone - I'm into it 110% and so, going through this current preoccupation with Hawn made me want to rewatch all of her films I could get my hands my on. They included, The Cactus Flower (USA 1969) - her first feature film, for which she received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress - The Sugarland Express (USA 1974), Shampoo (USA 1975), Death Becomes Her (USA 1994), Everyone Says I Love You (USA 1996), The Banger Sisters (USA 2002) and the three I want to discuss in a little more detail, Private Benjamin (USA 1980), Overboard (USA 1987), and Bird On A Wire (USA 1990).

Private Benjamin was the only one of all her films which I had never seen before, and I must say, that while it is not a film which may leave much of a mark on film history, for a number of reasons it is nevertheless remarkable, one of them is that I somehow expected a totally different film - a romp, probably. In any case, some sort of unabashed, unadulterated comedy - when in fact Private Benjamin for all its, or rather: her, hilarity, has quite a few serious undertones. As a result, it really caught me by surprise as it was comedy that I expected when actually, it is in equal parts a serious - Women's Lib - drama. Hence, like several films from the same period discussed elsewhere in this blog, Private Benjamin also is very much a time capsule,a result of the times it was made in and I would argue that, with its ending in which Hawn deserts the man she thought was going to be her destiny and walks off into the forest alone, yet clearly not unhappy, this film could probably not be made today with its far more traditional and, in many ways, more conservative climate. In most major US films these days, a woman is only allowed to find happiness at the side of a man, usually with an assortment of children by her and her newly found husband's side. This trend already started in the early 1980s and was paralleled by Ronald Reagan's rise to power. And so, at the end of both Overboard and Bird On A Wire - both made roughly a decade after Private Benjamin - instead of finding happiness all on her own, in both films Hawn is safely reunited with her love interest (Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell respectively), and this being the 1980s, with a lot of money to boot, and in Overboard even with a host of children to bless the happy reunion.

Nevertheless, both films do have some redeeming features. For startes, there is Goldie Hawn herself, whose presence and innate comic quality add a much needed touch of irony which elevate both films and prevent them from being taken too seriously - which they shouldn't. They're fairytales, in fact. Moreover, Overboard has a positively promising start, in which both Hawn - aided by the incomparable Roddy Macdowall - are delivering an act of camp so outrageous, so hilarious, apt to even make the early Bette Milder blush. Unfortunately, for the better part of the second half, Overboard increasingly turns into a rather sugarcoated family melodrama with little or no comic relief. Bird On A Wire, on the other hand, is a spoof on films like His Girl Friday (USA 1939), The Awful Truth (USA 1939) or What's Up Doc (USA 1972) - to name just a few - in which a man and a woman decide that they're incompatible and subsequently the woman takes up with a solid and reliable new partner, only to realise that while the new partner may have all the hallmarks of an ideal husband, he's also incredibly boring. I had seen Bird On A Wire once before shortly after its release while crossing the Atlantic and I must admit, that my memories of it were not good. But then again, I don't think I have any good memories of any film that I watched on a plane which is why I've long stopped watching films while being on one: the small screen, plus the hubbubb around you is bound to spoil any film experience, no matter how good the film may be. Anyhow, seeing Bird On A Wire the second time round I'm not ashamed to say that even though it is a pretty predictable Hollywood genre piece, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed it - perhaps, it's because I was in dire need of some escapist fare, perhaps owing to the negative memories I had of it my expectations were so low that it was easy for the film to get past that.

And while watching Bird On A Wire, I realised that somewhere along the line there was a shift in Hawn's on screen persona as by the 1980s she had shed her girl-next-door image of films like The Cactus Flower, Sugarland Express or even Shampoo, and became the wealthy trophy wife or career woman. While the changing political climate may have required her to adapt her on screen persona as there started to be a bigger demand for wealthy trophy wives than girls-next-door, it nonetheless is testimony to Hawn's talent as an actress that she is equally credible - and at home - in both characters.

I just wish, we'd see more of her these days!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Hollow Triumph, Steven Szekely, USA 1948

At long last, tonight's film brought me back to what this blog is supposed to be primarily about: classic American cinema, in this case, film noir.

What's interesting about Hollow Triumph is not so much the film itself, which tells the tale of a man who assumes the identity of another, but its cast and production history as it involved a number of German-Jewish emigres, most prominent among whom is the film's lead, Paul Henreid. Henreid rose to fame as Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1943) and as Bette Davis' love interest in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper 1942). Hollow Triumph is essentially an emigre film for the director, producer, cinematographer, and lead actor were all refugees from Nazi Germany. More than this, Hollow Triumph is a bonafide film noir, a genre at which the emigres not only excelled, but which they also heavily influenced and shaped.

By 1948, the year Hollow Triumph was produced, Henreid's career had started to decline and he would soon be blacklisted, suspected of being a Communist sympathizer, which subsequently brought his career to a virtual standstill. Hollow Triumph marked his - humble and uncredited - beginnings as a director as the film's director, Steven Szekely, a refugee from Hungary, proved inappropriate and consequently, Henreid took over. Hollow Triumph is an independent, poverty row, production (Bryan Foy Productions) and has all the makings of it. Moreover, its title - presumably referring to the film's ending - is an unfortunate, misleading, choice, for given the importance of facial disfugurement in the film, Scarface (or Scarface 2) would have been more apt as a title. Nevertheless, the film's unpretentious, take-it-or-leave-it, fly-by-night approach works to its advantage as it makes the plot, which borders on the implausible, at least remotely credible. Quickly paced, the dense narrative and an almost documentary-like cinematography make Hollow Triumph although not a major, but certainly an unjustly overlooked, film noir. Best of all is the film's Macbethian-ending, reminiscent of Quai des brumes (Marcel Carne, 1939).

Paul Henreid

Little Big Man, Arthur Penn, USA 1970

I remember years ago reading Faye Dunaway's memoirs, Looking For Gatsby, which then had just been published. Somewhere in them Dunaway, by taking stock of her career, she says that she has three films to her name that are considered classics, referring to Network (USA 1976), Bonnie And Clyde (USA 1967) and, of course, Chinatown (USA 1974). But it occurred to me some time ago that Miss Dunaway was rather modest in her judgement, for (film-)history has been kind to her - and her films. I'd say that her list has at least doubled since her assessment as films like The Thomas Crown Affair (USA 1969) and The Three Days Of The Condor (USA 1972) can now also safely considered to be classics, while the canonisation of Little Big Man happened two years ago at the latest, when Arthur Penn received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Berlin Film Festival.

I must admit, that being someone who despises Westerns, the main reason for me to re-watch Penn's anti-Western was, because I'm an ardent Dunaway admirer. That is, the pre-plastic surgery Dunaway, the Dunaway of all the above-mentioned films as well as Mommie Dearest (USA 1980) which, actually, should also be included in the Dunaway list of film classics for by dint of its succes-de-scandale, it has attained the status of a camp classic. And yes, Dunaway does deliver in Little Big Man, playing the bigot housewife-turned prostitute with conviction, yet with a twinkle in the eye which perfectly matches the tone of Penn's film. As I said above, I don't like Westerns, and that includes those by Howard Hawks and even John Ford. Saying this may well be considered sacrilegious by die-hard Western fans and film historians and fanatics alike, but frankly, their alleged greatness completely eludes me. However, give me any kind of anti-Western, or one that isn't genre-conform, and I'm game.

Little Big Man is one of them, and having not seen the film in a very long time, I'd forgotten its tragic-comic undercurrent, its sheer epic proportions, and just how beautifully crafted and written this story - which is centred around Dustin Hoffmann's character: a sort of Western version of Forrest Gump - actually is. Penn plays with - and makes fun of - many of the genre's long-established clichés and turns them on their head. What struck me, for instance, is the fact that unlike most Westerns from Hollywood's so-called golden age, notably Ford's, in Little Big Man Penn sides with the American Indians, relentlessly portraying their slaughter at the hands of the generals and their armies. But Little Big Man is, of course, very much a product of its time, of a Hollywood on the brink of change, and it is obvious that Penn and his screenwriter, Calder Willingham, intended to avoid any kind of resemblance to the Westerns of yore by turning the genre on its head, which resulted in an - often comic - anti-Western, one that has no heroes, only villains and their victims.

Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffmann in Little Big Man

Little Big Man is available on DVD.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 2: William Wyler

William Wyler was born as Wilhelm Weiller into a well-to-do Jewish family in Mulhouse, when it was still part of the German Empire. Unsure as to what to do with his life, William nevertheless had no inclination to work in the family business. Consequently, after some bumming around, his mother had a word with one of her relatives, Carl Laemmle - the founder of Universal Pictures, who was born in Laupheim in Southern Germany - who promised to take William under his wing.

With another of Laemmle's recent recruits, Paul Kohner, William was put in Universal's New York office, learning the trade from the bottom up. Kohner and Wyler hit it off immediately and struck up a friendship that would last until Wyler's death in 1981. And later, when Kohner decided to leave the film business to become an agent, Wyler became one of his first clients. William worked in various departments of Universal - production, writing, etc. - but eventually realised that directing was what suited and interested him most. Once he was transferred from New York to Los Angeles, Wyler became one of Universal's most prolific and reliable director or 'programmers' - Westerns shot quickly and inexpensively. After leaving Universal in the mid-1930s, Wyler signed with Samuel Goldwyn, for whom he made some of his most successful pictures. His first film for Goldwyn was an immediate critical and commercial hit. These Three, based on Lillian Hellman's play of the same name, revolves around female homosexuality, which then was still punishable by US law. Wyler would remake the film 25 years later under the title, The Children's Hour, however, unlike his earlier version, this one was rejected by critics and audiences alike.

After Dodsworth (USA 1937), based on Sinclair Lewis' novel, which earned Wyler the first of 12 Academy Award nominations, Wyler began his collaboration with Bette Davis, which yielded three films, all of which became critical and commercial successes (Jezebel, USA 1938; The Letter, USA 1940; The Little Foxes, USA 1941) and certainly are among Davis' and Wyler's best films. Although kept a secret by both, Davis and Wyler, embarked on a stormy affair during the filming of Jezebel. Wyler, who was then dating Margaret Tallichet, ended the affair and married Tallichet, staying with her until his death in 1981. After Wyler's death, however, Davis publicly acknowledged that Wyler was the one true love of her life.

After having been nominated for Academy Award several times, Wyler received his first for the war drama Mrs. Miniver (USA 1942). On loan-out to MGM, Wyler was instructed by Louis B. Mayer to tone down the anti-German sentiment, regardless of the fact that German bombs were then raining down on London, but Mayer was anxious not to compromise foreign sales, a concern, however, which soon proved unnecessary, when Nazi Germany banned all Hollywood productions from its screens. Wyler became one of the most generous donors of the European Film Fund, an aid organisation founded in 1938 by his pal Paul Kohner with the aim to grant financial as well as moral help to refugees from Nazi Germany and German occupied territory. Unlike Kohner and Wyler, who by the time the refugee crisis came to a head were both in possession of a US passport, many of their fellow countrymen were stranded penniless in some European port - Marseilles, Lisbon - waiting for their affidavits, visas, or job contracts, in order to legally enter US territory.

Wyler continued his immensely successful Hollywood career with films such as The Best Years Of Our Lives (USA 1946), for which he would receive his second Academy Award, The Heiress (USA 1949), Carrie (USA 1952) and Roman Holiday (USA 1953). Wyler may be best known today for his remake of Ben Hur, on which he worked as an assistant director when Niblo first filmed it in 1925. Ben Hur received a total of 11 Academy Awards, among which Wyler's third for Best Direction. Wyler made his last film in 1970, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (USA 1970), but by then his style, like that of most of his colleagues from the Old Hollywood, was considered old-fashioned, and the film was only a moderate success.

William Wyler died from a heart attack on July 27, 1981.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Soul Kitchen, Fatih Akin, Germany 2009

Akin's film, already hailed by critics as taking the indigenously German genre of 'Heimat-Film' out of its mothballs and injecting it with new life, has won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in autumn. It is scheduled to open across Germany at Christmas, but has already been sold to numerous foreign territories, including Spain, Italy, France, Greece, and the UK, where it is slated to open early next year. Watch the trailer here (in German):

A Single Man, Tom Ford, USA 2009

The trailer for Tom Ford's critically acclaimed, A Single Man, based on Christopher Isherwood's novel, has just been released. The film stars Julianne Moore and Colin Firth, who received the Golden Lion for Best Actor at this year's Venice Film Festival. Watch the trailer here:

Thessaloniki Film Festival, 13th - 22nd November 2009

Founded in 1960, the Thessaloniki Film Festival is among the longest running film festivals in Europe.

Titles in the competition line-up this year include Missing Person, by South Korean director Lee Seo, The Day Will Come, by German director Susanne Schneider as well as the UK's Samatha Morton's directorial debut, The Unloved.

This year's retrospective is dedicated to German director Werner Herzog.

The festival will conclude on 22nd November when the Golden Alexander Award will be bestowed on the best films.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Michael Haneke Retrospective at the BFI

Haneke receiving ths year's Palme d'or from the hands of jury president Isabelle Huppert

The BFI's South Bank Theatre has joined the Cinematheque Francaise in showing a retrospective of the work of German-Austrian director Michael Haneke. The retrospective finishes on 30th November and includes almost his entire body of work. On Sunday, 22nd November, there is a screening of Haneke's Palme d'or winner, The White Ribbon, followed by a discussion with Haneke in attendance.

For the full programme, go to:

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 1: Max Ophuels

Max Ophuels was born Maximilian Oppenheimer on 6th May 1902 in Saarbruecken, Germany. After having started his career on the stage, Ophuels was advised to change his name as Oppenheimer would immediately give away his Jewish origins which, at the time, was deemed to be disadvantageous. These name changes were common practice. Other artists who succumbed to these name changes included Nathan Kohn - who became Fritz Kortner - and the famous operetta star Fritzi Massary, whose real name was Massarik. Ophuels was first trained as an actor before branching out into directing, and it was not until the advent of the talkies, that Ophuels became interested in film. However, he quickly rose to one of Weimar Germany's most prominent directors. His biggest success, Liebelei, starring Magda Schneider - mother of Romy - coincided with the Nazi-takeover following which Ophuels left Germany for France. Having been raised in the Saarland, which was a French protectorate following the Treaty of Versailles until 1935, Ophuels had an easier time making France his new home than did many of his fellow-emigres. Almost immediately after his arrival in Paris, Ophuels continued making films. Among his best known films during this, his first French period are, La tendre ennemie (France 1936), Sans lendemain (France 1939), and De Mayerling a Sarajevo (France 1940). After the German invasion in May 1940 Ophuels was forced to emigrate yet again, and along with him all other German-Jewish emigres still stranded in France. With the concerted effort of friends, the agent Paul Kohner, and various aid organisations, most notably the European Film Fund and the Emergency Rescue Committee, Ophuels managed to obtain a visa, an affidavit, and subsequently emigrate to the US. However, it took him several years until he was able to take up where he left off when leaving France, and at least his early years in the US are a prime example of the hardship many of the refugees were forced to endure as a result of Nazism. Nevertheless, his exile in the US resulted in some of his best films, which since have also have become classics of American cinema, most noteworthy, of course, is his collaboration with Joan Fontaine and her then-husband William Dozier, Letter From An Unknown Woman (USA 1948). Although a commercial failure, the film opened to wide critical acclaim and considered an improvement on Stefan Zweig's novel on which the film is based.

After one last film in the US, The Reckless Moment (USA 1949), Ophuels returned to Europe. Suspicious of both the Federal Republic as well as the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany, Ophuels returned to France rather than his home country. It is primarily his output of his second French period on which Ophuels' reputation as one of Europe's most influential directors of the 20th century is based. Of the six films Ophuels made during the last eight years of his life, La ronde (France 1950), Madame de ... (France/ Italy 1953), and Lola Montez (France/ West-Germany 1955) are especially revered by film aficionados for their camera work, particularly their tracking shots. Among the film makers who are said to have been inspired by Ophuels' use of the camera are, for instance, Stanley Kubrick, whose film, Barry Lyndon (UK 1975) is clearly influenced by Ophuels's work.

Max Ophuels died on 26th of March 1957 in Hamburg as a result of a heart disease. His son, Marcel Ophuels, is an established film maker in his own right. His Oscar-winning documentary, Hotel Terminus (West-Germany/ France/ USA 1988), is considered to be one of the best documentaries on the topic of the Holocaust.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Ophuels' Letter From An Unknown Woman (USA 1948)

'2012' Explodes At Box Office

Moviegoers said give us the apocalypse now as Sony's end-of-the-world epic "2012" topped the weekend boxoffice with a heaping $65 million in opening domestic coin.

Directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day"), the effects-filled actioner cost $200 million to produce. But with a $225 million worldwide haul from simultaneous openings in 105 foreign territories, the more than 2 1/2-hour tentpole delivered a planetary payout on that investment at the high end of pre-release projections.

Disney's 3D animated feature "A Christmas Carol" – another pricey event pic with a reported $180 million budget -- grabbed second place as the family title slid a measly 26% from week-earlier opening grosses to $22.3 million on the frame and $63.3 million in cumulative boxoffice. Some $3.1 million from high-grossing Imax 3D screens helped shape the leggy performance.

The session's only other wide opener -- Focus Features' British rock comedy "Pirate Radio" -- unspooled outside the top 10 with $2.9 million from 882 playdates.

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" continued to impress as Lionsgate added 156 theaters for a total of 174 in the gritty drama's second outing and grossed $6.1 million, or a whopping $35,000 per venue. That was good for fourth place on the frame and pushed cume for the Lee Daniels-helmed pic to $8.9 million cume ahead of a scheduled expansion to about 600 locations on Friday.

Overture Films' George Clooney starrer "The Men Who Stare at Goats" dropped 51% in its sophomore session to $6.2 million in third place with a $23.3 million cume, while Universal's horror thriller "The Fourth Kind" slid 61% to $4.7 million in sixth place and a 10-day cume of $20.6 million. Warner Bros.' thriller "The Box" dropped 58% in its second weekend to $3.2 million in 10th place, with a $13.2 million cume.

Collectively, the weekend's top 10 grossers rung up $125 million, or 7% less than top performers in the same frame last year, according to Nielsen EDI.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Grace Kelly: November 12, 1929 - September 14, 1982

There has, I believe, never been an actress with a shorter list of screen credits yet whose fame far exceeds that of most other film stars whose film career may have lasted decades while Kelly's own lasted a mere five years.

And a star is what she was first and foremost: Grace Kelly, born into wealthy Philadelphia family of Irish stock, Grace embarked on her acting career at the age of 18, before breaking into television. This led to her feature film debut as Louise Ann Fuller in Henry Hathaway's Fourteen Hours. Kelly made 11 films between her debut in 1951 and her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco in April 1956. Of those 11 films, only three have become classics, while four, perhaps five - if you want to include John Ford's Mogambo or her Oscar-win The Country Girl - can be considered memorable. The former three are, of course, Kelly's two collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and her role as Gary Cooper's pacifist Quaker girl friend in Fred Zinneman's High Noon. Her parts in Dial M For Murder and, to a greater extent, in To Catch A Thief, are the ones Kelly is most associated with today. In both films she played classy, well-to-do, women with excellent breeding and an impeccable taste in clothes, roles that foreshadowed her subsequent role in real life as the wife of Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Anthony Dawson and Grace Kelly in Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954)

In connection with Romy Schneider I mentioned elsewhere on this blog that when drawing up a list of her own films, Schneider realised that there wasn't a single classic among them, the fact notwithstanding that she made more than five times as many films as Kelly did. Consequently, that a conservative assessment of Kelly's films yields as many as three classics, makes Kelly's a very impressive career indeed.
Romy Schneider and Grace Kelly both died in 1982. Nine years Schneider's senior, on November 12 this year Grace Kelly would have been 80 years old.

"Leg or breast?" Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1955)

Friday, 13 November 2009

Romy, Torsten C. Fischer, Germany 2009, (ARD - German television)

A few days ago, on November 11, Torsten Fischer's long-awaited and much discussed biopic about the German-Austrian actress Romy Schneider was screened on the German national television channel, ARD. Predictably, the reviews were mixed. Romy Schneider's biographer, Michael Juergs, called it 'a great film, a film that does the ARD proud', while the influential daily Frankfurter Allgemeine ran a 'pro and con section' in which one critic, Johanna Adorjan, claims that 'the film is like a ticking off of Wikipedia entries' while Dieter Bartetzko defends Fischer's film by particularly highlighting Jessica Schwartz's performance and by specifying that 'Romy may not be a great film, but a precise one'.

Well, that's pretty much what could be expected considering the genre - biopic - and, moreover, the subject, Romy Schneider, an actress born in Austria but who had a German passport and who, misunderstood - or some would argue: rejected - by both countries during her lifetime, is now reclaimed by both: the Austrian Film Awards are named after her, Berlin is currently discussing to have a street named after her, and so on. Romy Schneider grew up in Berchtesgaden, but went to boarding school near Salzburg. Later, she lived in Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, and, of course, Paris, the latter surely being the most important station in her life and career ... But then again, some might argue that Sissi had more impact on her life and career than did her French films. There's no denying: Sissi is what made her, and without it there might not even have been a career in France. Nevertheless, Romy came to loathe her Sissi image. What's more, French directors such as Claude Sautet, Claude Chabrol, or Robert Enrico offered her roles so daring and challenging that she couldn't get in Germany as she was deemed a remnant of 'Grandpa's Cinema', which the then dominant New German Cinema took pains to distance itself from. In fact, Romy Schneider was one of many victims falling prey to their rigorous principles, which included looking down their noses on established stars of the German screen which included talent such as Nadja Tiller, Maria Schell - or Romy Schneider. The careers of Tiller and many others was thenceforth relegated to television, while Romy re-emerged as a star of international calibre. Romy: the only film star known beyond the borders of Germany (and Austria) since Marlene Dietrich. Seen in hindsight, it is a terrible, terrible, shame that none of the New German Cinema directors had any use for her.

As a film genre, there may be no other that has so many detractors and supporters, one that stirs up so much controversy, as the biopic. Any attempt to reconstruct the life and the persona of a person - alive or dead - is bound to upset those who disagree with the portrayal while, of course, it pleases those who are in favour of it. Hence, I can't think of any biopic off the cuff that was free of this controversy and which was universally critically acclaimed. In my opinion, biopics are not that different from literary adaptations, for what is the point of adapting a novel - or indeed: a life - for the screen, unless the screenwriter and the director have an angle, or manage to bring out something in the book, or someone's biography, that has been either overlooked or ignored.

Generally speaking, in my own experience, if my interest in a particular person reaches the point where I want to learn more about him or her, I tend to rely on books rather than film, choosing, if available, two biographies that take a critical approach towards the person in question rather than simply chronologically retelling their life. The trouble is, having read many biographies about Romy Schneider, there's not a single one that does her justice or which I consider even remotely good.

Below is a trailer (in German) to Torsten Fischer's Romy, followed by interviews with celebrities who attended the film's première at Berlin's Delphi Palace on October 28 (see previous blog entry about this event in the October Archives!).

Thursday, 12 November 2009

MGM Headed For Yet Another Sale

It has been reported in the trade press this morning that US giant MGM is in for yet another sale. There is even speculation that Las Vegas-based billionaire Kirk Kerkorian may be buying the label for a third time.
The lion plainly no loner roars - but merely cringes in despair!
In 1969, Kerkorian first acquired the already dilapidated studio, before selling to Ted Turner in 1986. Following that, MGM went through several owners and makeovers until, in 1996, Kerkorian acquired the moribund studio a second time, this time buying it off the French conglomerate Credit Lyonnais. Kerkorian subsequently sold it once more - this time to Sony - by keeping a  majority stake of 59%, which plunged to 39% in May this year.
This would now be his chance to regain control over the label. 
MGM has long ceased to be a studio as such, since its former back lot in Culver City was sold to Sony a long time ago. What's at stake - and what remains of what used to be MGM - is a vast film library of over 4,000 titles.
Kirk Kerkorian

Hard to believe, that this once was the name under which classics such as The Wizard of Oz - to name but one - were produced. And surely, if Dorothy knew this, she would turn in her grave, swiftly click her ruby slippers, and, once MGM was miraculously restored to its former splendour, exclaim: "Toto, I don't think we're in Los Angeles in the year 2009 any more ... (where instead of making good films, all they're concerned about is making big bucks ...!)".

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Wish You Were Here, David Leland, UK 1987

Having recently moved to the vicinity of Blackpool, I felt like re-watching some of the films that were shot there, including Funny Bones (Peter Chelsom, UK 1995) and Wish You Were Here. However, as I was to find out, for some reason I had wrongly remembered the latter to be set - and shot - in Blackpool. In fact, the actual town in which David Leland's film is set is never disclosed in the film, but after doing some research I found out that it was actually shot on England's south coast, in Worthing. The main reason, though, why I'd always associated Wish You Were Here with Blackpool is because of the tap-dancing lady, so wonderfully played by Trudi Cavanagh, and just the sort of wacky character you'd expect to find in Blackpool.

Regardless of the non-existing Blackpool-connection, seeing Wish You Were Here again after nearly 22 years was an altogether pleasant experience, for unlike many films which I had not seen in a long time, this one has lost nothing of its appeal, coming along as it does as equally fresh, effortless, and entertaining as I remembered it. Here's one film which has truly stood the test of time!

At the centre of the film is Emily Lloyd's remarkable performance as the precocious, sassy,shopkeeper's daughter who suffers from both, the recent loss of her mother as well as her cold and distant father. Unable to connect with him - let alone evincing any kind of affection from him - Lloyd's Lynda does everything to attract his attention, which eventually culminates in her turning into an enfant terrible, to put it mildly. Merely embarrassed and ashamed rather than alarmed or worried by his daughter's shenanigans, he subsequently rejects and disowns her. 

What could easily have turned into a soppy, sentimental, melodrama drenched in nostalgia, has, in fact, become a timeless, touchingly funny, sometimes even hilarious, coming-of-age story set in the conservative climate of postwar England. Lloyd's tour-de-force - no other word than this rather overused term are apt to do justice to her portrayal - is at the heart of the film. Like her character, Lloyd was 16 at the time of shooting, and Wish You Were Here was her first film. With her innocence and spontaneity she allows Lynda to sparkle while at the same letting her vulnerability shine through. Some scenes in the film are so outrageous and hysterical that I still remembered them vividly even after all this time, and, to be honest, was itching to see them again (e.g. the 'up-your-bum' and the 'Cafe-de-Paris' scenes) . Despite their underlying sadness, these scenes have become camp classics as far as I'm concerned, up there with the Party Scene in All About Eve or the Wire-Hanger Scene in Mommie Dearest. I must admit, though, that watching these scenes again as a man in his forties, I was more able to see the desperation behind Lynda's tomfoolery. Therefore, in spite of all the hilarity, my laughter was tinged with a hint of sadness, sadness also, because throughout the duration of the film I couldn't help deploring the fact that such a wonderful talent as Lloyd's had been put to so little use since. 

Wish You Were Here is available on DVD.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Song Of Bernadette, Henry King, USA 1943

The main reason why I've been wanting to see this particular film for some time, is because it is based on Franz Werfel's novel of the same name.
My PhD topic revolves around German-Jewish (or rather: German-speaking) Jews who fled Nazi-Germany and Nazi Occupied territory between 1933 and 1945. Werfel, of course, was one of them. The curious fact that Werfel, being a Jew, wrote about so Catholic a topic as the visions of Bernadette, is due to the fact that he, along with his wife Alma (the widow of Gustav Mahler), were stranded nearby Lourdes in 1940, desperate to get out of Vichy France. While there, Werfel familiarised himself with the story of Bernadette Soubirous, and pledged to write about her if ever him and Alma should manage to flee France. The novel, which Werfel started once they were safely ensconced in Beverly Hills, became a huge hit in the US, was named Book Of the Month and subsequently made it into the New York Times Bestseller List, where it stayed for many weeks.

Franz Werfel (b. 1890, Prague - d. 1945, Beverly Hills)

Having not read Werfel's book, I can't say how faithful King's film is to the novel. However, for the better part of the film, the presence of Jennifer Jones - this being her first film - carries the film. Jones received an Academy Award for her portrayal, and I admit that prior to watching the film I assumed that hers was just another of several incidences where an Oscar was bestowed on an actress - or actor - in their first perfomance where charisma and a somewhat unique personality were mistaken for great acting. Audrey Hepburn would be another example.

However, Jones' innocence, her purity and naivete - in the best sense of the word - serve the film very well. In fact, it is precisely this quality which gives the film its edge as the viewer - as well as the town's people of Lourdes - are never quite sure if Bernadette is just an imposter, a fraud, or if her visions were actually genuine. Reason tells you it's all a load of bunk, while on the other hand, Bernadette's personality, her purity - as portrayed by Jones - are apt to convince you otherwise. This ambiguity, unfortunately, falls gradually apart about 100 minutes into the film, when each and every one of her doubters are unnecessarily - and unconvincingly - persuaded that her visions are indeed real and that far from an attention-grabbing waif, she is, in fact, a superior human being, and very much worthy of the saintly status she has since attained.

King - and George Seaton, the screenwriter - would have done the film a great service, had they kept that ambiguity going. As is, what may have become an interesting film that challenges viewer, believer and disbeliever alike, the story eventually descends into a syrupy, sugar-coated melodrama which actually, make the last 45 minutes quite painful to watch.

Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943)