In DON’T LOOK NOW, Nicholas Roeg’s spooky supernatural thriller, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie find themselves in Venice after the death of their daughter. Amidst the narrow maze of canals and bridges—a perfect setting for getting lost and some what’s-around-the-corner anxiety—they encounter blind psychics, strange visions, and ominous warnings. I’ve seen enough Nicholas Roeg at this point to recognize his hallmarks: story told through unexpected editing and the juxtaposition of imagery. Here, that collage style of filmmaking is at its most refined, and ramps up the sense of unease that permeates the film even when nothing bad is happening. It all leads to a jarring conclusion which, very unfortunately, I had already seen a clip of years ago. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But in this case, I think I missed out on the full impact of the film’s slowly building sense of mystery. So my advice this Halloween is if you haven’t seen this film yet, and you don’t know what happens, consider yourself lucky and see it now! Quick! Before the spoilers get to you, too! Consider yourself warned.
Happy new year! Remember, there’s only a week left to buy this and all of my other Criterion illustrations as prints.
I can be picky about films depicting disaffected teens, but the 1963 kitchen sink drama BILLY LIAR is perfectly subtle and charming. The titular liar Billy, played with a ton of range by Tom Courtenay, relies on fantasy to get himself through his dull middle class life. He’s a lazy clerk for an undertaker, juggles two girlfriends he doesn’t much care about, and dreams of ruling an invented struggling nation. It’s all very sweet, but the film comes alive at the introduction of Liz, played by an absolutely dazzling Julie Christie, who is living the carefree freedom that Billy only pretends at. The interactions between the two are beautiful to watch, and drive the film towards a moving end. I particularly appreciate that most everyone in the story is treated sympathetically, fitting for the on-location realism that marks the film’s visual style. Outside of Billy’s make-believe world, there are no real villains, no right or wrong decisions, and nothing is quite black and white.
Hey, it’s Saturday, so I thought I’d celebrate the weekend (not to mention Pride Weekend here in NYC) with the film WEEKEND. Appropriate, no?
I was blown away when I first saw Andrew Haigh’s moving, poignant romance WEEKEND, and naturally enthusiastic when Criterion decided to release it. Taking place between a Friday night and a Sunday evening, the film follows Russell and Glen, whose one-night stand turns into a beautiful two-day affair where they discuss their aspirations, their relationships and family, and their experiences as gay men. Their conversations resonate with me deeply, in a way that few contemporary queer films do. I love how their characters straddle either side of the imagined “too out” or “not out enough” fence. And I particularly enjoy the cheekiness when Glen questions why straight people will see films about murder and rape, then claim that they can’t relate to a gay storyline. The acting from Tom Cullen and Chris New is natural and wonderful, and the filming is so intimate it feels voyeuristic. I can’t recommend it enough, even if you’re not very interested in romance (which I’m not), or not very interested in queer cinema (which I am).
Don’t forget, you still have three days left to purchase a BRAZIL tee, here at Mister Dress Up!
It’s hard to categorize THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, one of the many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and my favorite of the ones I’ve seen. The film spans 40 years in the life of General Candy as he navigates three wars, a changing society, friendship, love, and loss. So it’s both a historical epic and a lovingly rendered character portrait. It’s also a comedy, when it’s not being a heartfelt drama. The film manages to be both satirical and sympathetic towards the old British ideals that Candy represents. And in 1943, at the height of WWII propaganda, it gives some of its most beautiful monologues to a German officer. The amazing feat of the film is that it does all this without contradiction, and without losing its focus. What could easily be a sprawling mess is instead a tightly woven tapestry of British history and life experience. Special mention goes to Deborah Kerr, who takes on three distinct roles with aplomb, and a downright gorgeous use of Technicolor.
When Hitler’s Germany marches into Prague, a young woman is arrested in an attempt to reach her scientist father. What follows is an adventure that spans Europe by boat, train, and gondola, chock full of thrills, lies, and hearty anti-Nazism. The film was released in the early days of World War II, so it’s not exactly an accurate picture of the times—the Germans don’t even speak German. But who needs accuracy when a movie is so entertaining? Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison have some nice chemistry as the scientist’s daughter and the British officer determined to get her back, although romance is barely a plot point. Like any good thriller, it’s all about the deceit and close calls, especially the nail-biting conclusion. There’s even some injected comedy by way of two buffoonish Brits who find themselves roped in. All in all, NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a great bit of entertainment from the early days of the war.
Those who know my tastes know that I love a good dystopia. And when it comes to building an anxiety-inducing world, both comedic and disturbing, Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL delivers. Jonathon Pryce plays Sam, a government worker who’s perfectly content with being an anonymous cog in a machine while daydreaming of being a hero. It isn’t until a clerical error introduces him to the woman of his dreams—literally—that he suddenly finds himself fighting against that machine. And losing. In Gilliam’s totalitarian alternate reality, stifling bureaucracy takes the place of Big Brother. Incorrect paperwork leads to murder, torture is just a day at the office, and competency is an act of terrorism. (Enter Robert De Niro as a rogue mechanic, doing battle with ducts and pipes.) The pacing doesn’t always hold together, and the story and characters seem a bit underdeveloped. But BRAZIL is all about the atmosphere: wonderfully detailed set design, unsettling imagery, darkly comic slapstick, and Terry Gilliam’s unmatched imagination.
Okay, I’m totally cheating here. The illustration below is something I created last year, for my own amusement. And while it was definitely inspired by the mod and rocker rivalry captured in QUADROPHENIA, it’s not specific to that film. But no matter—I’ve been eager to post it ever since Criterion announced they were releasing this title. QUADROPHENIA is The Who’s lesser known rock opera-to-film adaptation, although the movie itself isn’t a musical, but a character study with a great soundtrack. It centers around a teenager named Jimmy who defines himself by the clothes, scooters, music, and other trappings of being a mod. He’s eager to impress his friends, pick up girls, and beat up a few rockers in the process. But when real life doesn’t conform to his idealistic worldview, and his chosen subculture lets him down, he starts to fall apart. It’s a fun time-capsule of a film that seems to be both nostalgic and bitter about growing up in 1960s London. I really enjoyed the youthful energy and rising tension, not to mention The Who’s earnest rock weaving through the narrative. And really, you can’t go wrong with a young Sting playing the king of the mods.
I think the first thing that needs to be said about BLACK NARCISSUS from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is that it’s a stunningly gorgeous film. The story revolves around a group of nuns who try to set up a school and hospital in the Himalayas, but soon find themselves tested by the harsh weather, the fickle natives, and their own memories and desires. I was never quite invested in the plot, despite some engaging moments—particularly the dramatic ending. And the writing predictably suffers from some well-meaning racism. But that doesn’t detract from how beautiful everything is, with the film’s rich color and striking cinematography. The extreme bird’s-eye angles and careful pans of the camera set the mood without any story at all. And the tension between Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, who give wonderfully contrasting performances as two antagonistic nuns, is equally worth watching.
The Schlegel sisters, living in turn of the century England, are independent and compassionate, and capable of befriending anyone. This includes the wealthy Wilcoxes and the decidedly less wealthy Basts, whose lives intertwine (in a way too complex to summarize here) and leave everyone changed. This is one of those films where I read the book first, so I’m afraid I can’t help reviewing it without making comparisons to the source material. Fortunately for HOWARDS END, that works in its favor. Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory collaborated on a number of E. M. Forster adaptations, a handful of which I’ve seen, and they consistently have a talent for getting at the heart of Forster’s stories. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful period costumes and lush locations. But that’s just window dressing for the characters, their relationships and their lives, that make the narrative powerful and surprisingly contemporary. Of course, a cast that includes Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t hurt.
The 1960 thriller PEEPING TOM follows shy, soft-spoken Mark—a disturbed cameraman who films women while murdering them, and with the same device. When first released, critics despised the film for its overtones of voyeurism and sexual innuendo, emphasized by suggestive cinematography and a powerful lead performance. Today, it’s those seedy psychological elements that are completely engaging, despite being predictably outdated. I only wish the film had been a bit scarier. It failed to frighten even at its most suspenseful, but it was still worth the ride. This is only the second film I’ve seen by Michael Powell, one of the most represented directors in the collection, and I look forward to seeing more.