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I had my reservations before sitting down to watch Clint Eastwood’s mid-90s weepie: this was exactly the kind of slow, autumnul, po-faced drama The Academy seemed to favour throughout the 1990s to the detriment of more abrasive, interesting, daring and exciting movies; plus I’ve heard many times over the years that this film progresses at a snail’s pace, and I have a love/hate relationship with Clint as director precisely because of that I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, and perhaps it’s partly to do with the mood I’m in at the time, but sometimes I find the generally ponderous style and slow, methodical pacing of mid-to-late period Eastwood fits the material well on occasion, while at other times I find myself wanting to tear my hair out through sheer frustration and boredom. I was worried The Bridges Of Madison County would fall into the latter category, given that the focus for this auburn-tinted melodrama is the four-day mid-1960s affair between taken-for-granted, unfulfilled housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) and Nat Geo photographer/stranger-in town Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), who is in Madison County, Iowa to shoot the titular covered bridges for the magazine. (Well, there is also a framing device involving Francesca’s two children, now grown up and discovering the details of her affair in the 1990s, but that’s only moderately involving and the state of their lives ties a little too neatly into the experiences of the main characters 30 years earlier for my liking; really this is a story about two people.)

Anyway, cutting to the chase (and hopefully avoiding any accusations of being slow and ponderous myself), I needn’t have worried; this may be a straight, bittersweet romance, but it’s wonderfully played by the two stars, who effortlessly show off their charisma and their chops during a series of intimate conversations around the kitchen table at Francesca’s house (a space we initially find chaotic, but which is suddenly rendered quiet when her husband and kids take a trip to the State Fair). Streep is excellent as the tortured woman who quickly falls in love, resisting her urges partly out of respect and affection for her family, while Clint proves his range by playing an unusually soft, entirely respectful romantic lead, who is never forceful with any demands and who, for once, is a fish-out-of-water in the working class Midwest. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a real emotional button-pusher, but it’s very well done and there’s some terrific indoor and outdoor cinematography by Eastwood’s regular 80s and 90s DP Jack Green, as well as a memorable soundtrack by Lennie Niehaus. Though it’s surprising that Cahiers du Cinéma went as far as naming it the joint best film of the 1990s in a poll, I suppose it’s still worth considering the above-mentioned factors, and the excellence of Eastwood’s direction here. Here’s a brief example: he manages to wring every last bit of tension and sadness out of a key scene in which one character drives away from another, much in the same way Kelly Reichardt did in Certain Women over thirty years later, and though the rainswept nature of said scene is a little on the nose, it still had me reaching for the Kleenex. As for the pace Clint employs… well, the slowness suits The Bridges Of Madison County perfectly, allowing both the relationship and the characters’ reactions to the situation to develop in a reasonably believable fashion, and ensuring that you understand how a mere four day period can have such a long-term effect on two different lives. (****½)

[Note: this is the third film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

So, somehow I’ve reached the ripe old age of 40 without ever seeing Gone With The Wind, but don’t be alarmed; it’s but one of a numer of classics that are ‘blind spots’ for me, and I’ve rectified this particular situation by watching it over the Bank Holiday weekend while recovering from a bout of flu. First and foremost there’s no denying the film’s grandeur, which is manifest by a number of different factors: the running time (close to four hours including overture and intermission), the epic scale of the story, the quality of the production (including the set design and all those flamboyant costumes) and the way the use of Technicolor – still in its early days in 1939 – accentuates the drama of love and war, creating all those fiery red skies. In terms of plot, Gone With The Wind covers so much ground that comparitively films today seem far more conservative in their approach (oh, the irony). It’s a one-sided American Civil War film, a drama about the plantations of two families during that period, an intricate – and fairly satisfying – love story, a paean to land and the idea of home, and a wholly one-eyed and romanticised account of the lives of slaves and the southern way of life more generally.

What’s interesting is the film’s ability to be all these things and more, especially given its troubled production; you get the impression that it was a minor miracle that it all fit together successfully. Producer David O. Selznick spent a fortune, forced re-writes on Sidney Howard’s script before reverting to the original, fired the director and replaced him with Victor Fleming, while reports suggest Vivien Leigh was hard to work with at times and didn’t get on with co-star Leslie Howard at all, with whom she shares a few key romantic scenes. Then there’s the small factor of a long search for the female lead, and the near-two year delay while Selznick waited for his preferred leading man, Clark Gable, to become available. That was a good move, as it happens, as Gable is memorable as the wealthy cad and eyebrow juggler Rhett Butler, veering between the two extremes of cheeky hero and marital rapist. But Gone With The Wind is really notable for its women, and the character of Scarlett O’Hara in particular. Leigh’s petulant but strong-willed southern belle is eye catching, and she irritates and later inspires in equal measure; Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Hamilton is the heart of the movie even if the character is a little grey when stood next to the tempestuous, noisy Scarlett; and there’s Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, playing the house servant Mammy, one of several black stereotypes found in the film.

It’s been well documented elsewhere but it bears repeating here: time hasn’t been kind to Gone With The Wind. The depiction of happy slaves and the glorification of slavery is the most troubling factor, while the film’s fervent anti-Yankee, anti-Reconstruction sentimentality is surprising for its vehemence, as is its romantic idealisation of the south, here a verdant land of elegant young women, noble, innocent male suitors and little else of note. One wonders what watching black audiences made of Butterfly McQueen’s turn at the time – Malcolm X said later that it made him want to crawl under a rug – and there are elements of McDaniel’s award-winning performance that presumably induced mass cringing at the time, too. There are valid reasons, therefore, to really dislike Gone With The Wind, but for me fully resisting the charm of its central romance and romantic sub-plots – as well as the film’s desire to impress you with scale – feels impossible; perhaps if I was a black American, rather than a white English guy, I’d feel differently. Anyway, for what it’s worth I preferred the first half, which includes most of the iconic silhouette shots and red skies, and the story builds deliciously to a dramatic crescendo before the intermission. Butler and O’Hara escape a burning, war-torn Atlanta. Scarlett returns to her home at Tara, and all the while Max Steiner’s grandiose score hums along. At points such as this it’s one of those films that screams ‘look what cinema can be!’, and…well…I like that kind of thing a lot. For many reasons it still feels genuinely risky today: imagine a major studio making a four-hour-long romance, and then imagine them making one that ends with death, death and more death, as well as the male lead walking out on a still-defiant, never-broken female lead. Who on earth would green light a film like that?

Directed by: Victor Fleming.
Written by: Sidney Howard. Based on Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia De Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Evelyn Keyes, Thomas Mitchell.
Cinematography: Ernest Haller.
Editing: Hal C Kern, James E Newcom.
Music:
Max Steiner.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
221 minutes (without overture, intermission etc.).
Year:
1939.

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[Note: this is the first film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’m going to be watching for the first time this year see this post.]

Today Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, which features an Oscar-nominated original screenplay by the late Nora Ephron, is seen as a kind of touchstone for the romantic comedy genre. It was well-received when it appeared in 1989, too, filling cinemas despite being up against two of the year’s biggest blockbusters (Batman and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade). Critics were mostly forthcoming with praise, with Roger Ebert claiming that Reiner was ‘one of Hollywood’s very best directors of comedy’, a statement I wouldn’t dispute nearly 30 years later. It may not be on a par with his earlier masterpiece This Is Spinal Tap, but When Harry Met Sally is a thoroughly enjoyable hour-and-a-half nonetheless, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in career-defining roles as the will-they, won’t-they couple at the heart of the story.

The two share chemistry from the off. The lengthy (and excellent) prologue shows them meeting and travelling from Chicago to New York, with their individual characteristics firmly established within five minutes. Crystal’s motormouth Harry is a borderline offensive provocateur, and has more than a touch of boyish arrogance, while his dark(ish) ramblings and opinionated nature mask a few obvious insecurities. Ryan’s Sally by contrast is prim and proper, a little bit ditzy, but quick to stand up for herself and keen to establish equal footing in the face of Harry’s attempted dominance: so when he raises the topic of sexual experience because he knows it’s likely he’s got more of it, she gives him short shrift and bluntly rejects his come on. Once their faults and idiosyncracies are established the subsequent meet-cutes develop quirks just as much as they highlight mutual attraction, though the pair are initially hampered as they’re in relationships with other people; years pass quickly but fate keeps bringing the two together in ways that are easier to accept in a romantic comedy than they would be in, say, a serious romantic drama. In between these chapters we see faux interviews with couples who have supposedly been together for a long time, and these vignettes are delivered in mock-documentary style straight to camera. Ephron’s script is at its sharpest when it’s gently taking the mickey out of coupledom and suitability, and never more so than during these brief scenes, in which unnamed men and women trade telling glances or finish one another’s sentences.

Reiner’s film settles eventually on the year 1988, and New York, and that’s when we get the famous scene in which Sally fakes an orgasm in front of the customers of a packed Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s quite tame by today’s standards, but I remember the era well enough to know how risqué the scene was for the time, and the same can be said for some of the franker discussions about sex and marital life that take place elswhere in the film. When it comes to these Ephron’s script has a flavour of Woody Allen’s New York-set romances about it, and the shadow of Allen looms large over other aspects of the film, with regard to the trad jazz soundtrack, the design of the credits, the use of Casablanca, the characters and the setting (though I would hasten to add it’s not like he has any kind of exclusivity rights in place when it comes to fast-talking New Yorkers or Central Park). I’ve seen comments that suggest When Harry Met Sally is like an Allen film with all the hard edges smoothed over to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences, though I think that’s unfair on Ephron, Reiner and the performers, all of whom did good work here.

I doubt I’ll return to watch it again in the future, and I’ve found plenty of other rom-coms funnier over the years, but I still enjoyed When Harry Met Sally and can see it’s importance in terms of the rom-com genre, as well as its influence. The two lead actors deliver Ephron’s amusingly cynical lines about love and modern relationships with some fine comic timing, and there’s some neat support by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby too, even though they’re playing a completely unlikely couple. I was surprised to find that the screenplay actually kept me guessing right up to the very end, which was a bonus as I think it just starts to run a little short on laughs after the 70 minute mark. Up to that point, though, it delivers more than enough.

Directed by: Rob Reiner.
Written by: Nora Ephron.
Starring: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby.
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld.
Editing: Robert Leighton.
Music:
Marc Shaiman, Harry Connick, Jr, Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
96 minutes.
Year:
1989.

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comet-feature

Comet is the debut feature by the versatile Sam Esmail, a man who is enjoying considerable success at present as the creator, executive producer and head writer of the TV series Mr. Robot. This 2015 film, which he wrote as well as directed, may one day be viewed as an early career curio, given that it features a strong-but-forced visual style that could be developed into something special over the coming years: it’s a romantic drama that charts the six-year on-off relationship between cynical pessimist Dell (Justin Long) and occasionally-exasperated Kimberley (Emmy Rossum), with barely any screen time given to any other characters. Structurally it draws heavily from Marc Webb’s (500) Days Of Summer, opting for a non-linear path through the relationship from start to finish that means we’re aware pretty early on that they break-up at least once, although you could also describe Comet as a condensed version of Linklater’s Before trilogy (an homage, even, given that one passage takes place in a Paris hotel room). Several key moments from the six years are presented as vignettes, with some smart cross-cutting along the way by editor Franklin Peterson, allowing the viewer to form an overall impression of the couple’s love affair; to be honest they don’t actually seem all that compatible they meet and apparently live in LA but he’s drawn to New York, she wants to live in the present but he’s always looking to the future, and so on but despite the rows and the partings the ol’ flame of love refuses to go out etc. etc. and indeed etc.

I’m reminded of Linklater for another reason: this is an extremely talky indie, and perhaps one that is less clever than it thinks it is. There’s a depressing predictability about the casting of a vaguely-nerdy (but actually good looking man) playing opposite a woman who dresses and looks like (but thankfully does not act like) the archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As a kind of preemptive strike against the indifferent shrugs of everyone who is sick of watching relationship dramas about identikit millennials, Esmail tries to put a spin on things, supposing that the vignettes are taking place in a parallel, alternate universe. Unfortunately this comes across as an underdeveloped gimmick, and never more so than during the scenes in which we see twin suns in the background, which dutifully rise during the rooftop will-they, won’t-they finale. Still, arresting imagery like this is at least vaguely in keeping with the general theme of the couple’s fate being writ large in the stars; they meet-cute at an open air comet viewing event and the motif is continued via the dialogue and in the way cinematographer Eric Koretz occasionally emphasises the vastness of the sky. There’s a distinct colour palette too, with a range of indigos, pinks and violets used throughout, but sadly a lot of the time it feels like window dressing, and it can’t disguise the fact that watching Kimberley and Dell talk about the state of their relationship becomes boring all too quickly.

Directed by: Sam Esmail.
Written by: Sam Esmail.
Starring: Emmy Rossum, Justin Long.
Cinematography: Eric Koretz.
Editing: Franklin Peterson.
Music:
Daniel Hart.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
89 minutes.
Year:
2014.

11 Comments

magicinthemoonlight1This Woody Allen rom-com slipped out while I was on holiday in 2014 (you blink and you miss ’em these days) and can best be described as Allen-by-numbers, by which I mean that committed fans will enjoy it while being aware throughout that he can do better: typically there’s plenty of attention paid to period detail and its characters share a few droll exchanges, but it’s probably for the best if your expectations are low. Emma Stone appears to be Allen’s young actress of choice these days, and here she plays an American medium, who may or may not be genuinely gifted; opposite her is Colin Firth’s stuffy English illusionist, a man who prides himself in his ability to expose fake spirit guides (the joke being that he performs on stage in an unlikely guise as a Chinese man by the name of Wei Ling Soo).

Much of it is par-for-the-course, especially with regard to Allen’s late period European love affair: the characters are resolutely upper class; it features a young American abroad; the tone is light and frothy; marriages (both existing and potential) amicably dissolve at the drop of a hat when an older man (Firth standing in for Allen) falls in love with a younger woman; the setting (the south of France) certainly looks great but is once again a one-eyed vision of Europe that eventually seems as dull as a travel brochure; and there are virtually no local people in the story (a couple of people who speak zee Franglais wiz zee French accentz aside). Still, if you can stifle the yawns there are things to enjoy: Firth and Stone share some chemistry and raise a couple of laughs during one witty scene heavy in phallic symbolism set in an observatory; and when Allen really loves his leading lady, as is the case here, he and his cinematographer (the reliably excellent Darius Khondji) certainly pull out all the stops in order to make her look good. The supporting characters, an underwritten mixture of foppish twits and wily old beans, are almost instantly forgettable, which is a shame considering the presence of excellent actors like Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver, but Firth is obviously adept at playing English toffs and he and Stone manage to carry Magic In The Moonlight over the finishing line. Not bad, but often more tiresome than it is funny.

Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leehrsen, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney.
Cinematography: Darius Khondji.
Editing: Alisa Lepselter.
Music: Various.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
97 minutes.
Year:
2014.

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Director Guillermo del Toro insists that his latest film is a gothic romance, as opposed to a gothic horror, which perhaps explains why the sumptuously-designed ghost story Crimson Peak is lacking in out-and-out scares: there’s a smattering of things going bump in the night, some slightly-chilling wispy CGI spectres and a couple of sudden shocks, but despicable acts of brutality contained herein are the product of our own human propensity for evil, rather than being malpractice carried out by the spirit world. In that respect it shares certain themes with earlier del Toro films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, though fans of those expecting similar quaility here may well be disappointed; in tackling the horrors of Franco’s Spain both of those earlier works have stronger connections with reality, and both are far darker than Crimson Peak.

This particular story draws heavily from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, the latter awkwardly namechecked in the script, and could also serve as a kind of updated take on the TV films that made up the Hammer House Of Horror anthology: houses are big, and cold, and draughty; evil is clearly telegraphed by shifty eyes or sideways glances; door handles rattle; floorboards creak underfoot; thunder and lightning appear right on cue throughout; and you’re constantly thinking ‘oh for goodness sake just leave‘ or ‘only an idiot would look behind there’ as Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring American horror novelist Edith Cushing (ha!) stumbles around in her frilly dress. The haunted house where much of the action of Crimson Peak takes place is a particularly foreboding but weirdly beautiful place. It’s crumbling to bits, and there’s a big hole in the roof, through which raindrops and snow constantly fall into the grand entrance hall. crimson-peak-10-1500x844There’s an old rickety lift connecting the floors, dozens of rooms including an attic where Gepetto wouldn’t feel out of place, a roaring fire that seems to have a mind of its own and hundreds of butterflies hanging around the walls. Characters are told not to go here, or not to go there, and certain rooms and other objects are locked, indicating the presence of dark secrets behind the doors. Rather disconcertingly the house is also built on land that is rich in crimson-coloured clay, some of which seeps up through the creaky floorboards and stains the snowy exterior, hinting at gruesome acts that have taken place in the past.

Moving to this particularly unwelcoming spot in the Cumberland countryside now part of present day Cumbria is Edith’s punishment for her own naivety. The only child of Carter (Jim Beaver), a self-made industrialist and financier, the film opens in the US where she is romanced by English nobleman and owner of said dilapidating country pile Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who arrives in town seeking funding for his pet clay-mining project; joining Sir Thomas is his older sister Lady Lucille, played with a disappointing ever-present frostiness by Jessica Chastain, who can be found tinkling the ivories with a lovely spot of Chopin when she isn’t perfecting her evil stare. It quickly becomes apparent that they have hidden motives involving Edith and the money she will inherit one day from her father.

As you would expect from a del Toro film it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen. Crimson Peak looks fantastic, with stellar production design and art direction by Thomas E. Sanders and Brandt Gordon, lavish sets decorated by Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Viveau, and spectacular costumes by Kate Hawley. Though fairly few in number the large sets are like characters in themselves, and I’m glad I viewed it on an IMAX screen; I was constantly looking at the edges of the frame, and the corners, and felt richly rewarded by all of the detail. It’s also a very colourful piece, with the aforementioned reds complemented by vivid greens and blues, while exterior snowy scenes have this kind of lilac hue as per the picture at the top of this review. And there’s more: within the Sharpe mansion in crimson-peak-11-2particular there’s fine use of lighting; it looks like natural light (though of course it isn’t) and the dark nooks and crannies are never too dark. Crimson Peak also sounds good, with effects adding to the atmosphere and splendid foley work, particularly during the violent sequences. So it’s a very impressive production all round, a technical marvel you may even say, although once you get past all of that there’s not really much here at all. It’s a very straightforward chiller-thriller, a ghost story that’s faithful to the gothic style of novel and cinema that has inspired it, but it just lacks a bit of oomph and unpredictability. There’s nothing much there beyond the appearance which I will reiterate is very impressive in itself – and I’m left wondering whether watching a ‘making of’ would have been more interesting than watching the film itself. Those searching for something unusual – an allegory, perhaps, or an engaging character – will be disappointed. Despite some OK performances the Sharpes and Edith are all quite dull, as is Charlie Hunnam’s knight-in-non-shining-tweed, and you’ll have seen similar a dozen times before, whether we’re talking about horror or, as the director would prefer, within the field of romance. Del Toro certainly gets to grips with the style of the Victorian period and his latest movie looks and sounds great,  but it is let down by a disappointing plot that contains a twist most people will see coming a mile off.

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro.
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen.
Editing: Bernat Vilaplana.
Music: Fernando Velázquez.
Certificate:
18.
Running Time:
119 minutes.
Year:
2015.

15 Comments

the-one-i-love-sophie-ethan-elisabeth-moss-mark-duplassGiven that a limited release precluded many people from actually seeing this film in 2014 I’m loathe to give too many details away about the plot, particularly now that it is finding an audience via streaming services. Hopefully it’s sufficient to say that it begins as a knowing romantic dramedy, in which fractious couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) attempt to save their relationship by visiting Ted Danson’s therapist, but it becomes something else entirely; in fact throughout I kept thinking that The One I Love resembles a modern, updated episode of The Twilight Zone more than any other movie I have seen recently.

In employing just three characters (well, kind of) and using one location for the majority of the running time, Charlie McDowell’s film even feels like an episode of a TV show, despite the fact it has a feature length of 91 minutes. There’s heavy reliance on Duplass and Moss, as Danson only appears in the prologue, but his brief time on screen makes a lasting impression. When his character is required to answer pertinent questions later he cannot be found and there’s just one sign that a practice was even there in the first place; as such he seems like a modern-day huckster, a bit like a quack doctor with a travelling medicine show, and the mystery surrounding his work lingers long after the final credits. Writer Justin Lader appears to have had the culpability or reliability of marriage guidance and counselling services at least partly in mind when penning this satire.

When we first see Ethan and Sophie they’re trying to recreate an incident from an earlier time in their relationship, in which they jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool at night. They do the same again but now they’re older, perhaps less giddy than when they were in the first flushes of love, and the water’s colder than they remember. And that sums up the state of their union: there’s still a desire to make things work but the spark has gone and familiarity is breeding contempt. Danson’s answer is to get them to play notes on a piano together before packing them off for a weekend in a cottage in Californian wine country. Ethan and Sophie assume that this is so that they can reconnect without distraction, and as they share some weed and have a meal the mini-break looks to be progressing well, before things take a turn for the weird.

The story that follows is both fun and engrossing, and perhaps one that will cause divisions between watching couples: it’s possible to side with Ethan, who is treated poorly at times, but it is conveniently revealed that he cheated in the past and he shows further signs of duplicitous behaviour here. Those rooting for Sophie, meanwhile, could point to her positive action in taking the necessary steps to ensure her future happiness, but she’s also disloyal and far less committed to solving existing problems than her partner. Both actors turn in very good performances, particularly Moss who – as I’ve said elsewhere recently – is worth watching in anything at the moment. Unfortunately the film comes apart at the seams a little near the end: Lader’s attempts to explain away the premise diminish the effect of the magic realism we’ve seen up to that point and the reliance on farce eventually becomes a little wearing. But the screenplay does successfully tackle idealistic notions of a partner being perfect and serves as a smart treatise on the way opposite numbers are perceived during arguments and misunderstandings.

Directed by: Charlie McDowell.
Written by: Justin Lader.
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson.
Cinematography: Doug Emmett.
Editing: Jennifer Lilly.
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2014.

9 Comments