Last week, I recommended Flirting, in which sadistic masters torment the students in a boys’ school. This week, the tables are turned, as new teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) and his wife Silvia (Carolyn Seymour) are terrorized by the fifth form from hell. The last three students on the class roll are Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but Zigo is always absent, even going back to the time when the teacher that Ebony is replacing, Mr. Pelham, fell to his death (by accident?).
I hope at least some of you followed up on my suggestion a few weeks back to see the Long Good Friday, the best film of the late Director John McKenzie, who also made this creepy, nasty thriller in 1971. He was aided immeasurably by the Dean of British cinematographers, Geoffrey Unsworth, who contributed some dazzling and disturbing point of view shots in the opening sequence as well as during the most horrifying scene in the film (which I will not spoil by describing other than to say, don’t bring the kids to this one).
The nefarious school boys (who include some actors who went on to distinguished careers including Michael Kitchen and Michael Cashman) are hard for the viewer to keep straight but that actually works, along with skillful editing, to make them seem less a group of individuals than a multi-headed hydra snapping relentlessly at Mr. Ebony. Hemmings, who also produced, is good as the pitiable Ebony, including in those scenes where he starts destroying himself with alcohol (perfect casting there, sadly enough. Hemmings left us too soon).
While struggling with the boys ostensibly below him in the hierarchy, Ebony must also cope with the headmaster, played by Douglas Wilmer with just the right amount of Old Brit unctuousness overtop of underlying snobbery and cold-heartedness. Although the scenes with the boys are chilling, the pre-dinner drinks scene with the Ebonys, another master and his wife and the headmaster, make one’s skin crawl in an entirely different way.
The final third of the movie is not entirely satisfying in terms of logical plotting, but the film still delivers a consistent air of menace that gets under your skin. Certain ambiguities in the story invite debates about the interpretation of this film; to avoid spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I have placed my own nagging questions about this movie after the jump (i.e., Don’t read the rest of this unless you have seen the film, it will ruin it for you). Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Unman, Wittering and Zigo”
Adolescence includes aches (loneliness, alienation from adults, sexual longing) and joys (first love, treasured friendship and music). Few films have portrayed both classes of teenage experience as warmly and intelligently as the 1991 Australian film Flirting.
Due to an execrable U.S. advertising campaign, which misrepresented the film as a sniggering teen sex comedy from “those crazy blokes down under” (I cannot bring myself to post the trailer) the film barely opened in the U.S. and when it did mostly the wrong people saw it. But a precious handful of people outside of Australia have found this excellent film and continue quite properly to point others to it. Having been so blessed by a friend some years ago, I wish to pay it forward here with the strongest possible recommendation that you give this fine movie a look.
Writer-Director John Duigan sets his story in two boarding schools that stare at each other (like their residents) across a lovely lake. In the boys’ school, anxious, stammering Danny Embling (sweetly played by Noah Taylor) is being ground down by sadistic masters and bullying classmates. Meanwhile, a student from Uganda, Thandiwe Adjewa (a strong, luminous Thandie Newton), is getting a cold welcome at the girls’ school. Yet as is so often the case, the underdogs attract a stout friend or two, and are also drawn irresistibly to each other. Taylor and Newton have great chemistry on screen, and you will be rooting for their budding romance from the very first.
The other central character is the alpha girl of Thandiwe’s school, played to perfection by a pre-fame Nicole Kidman. Initially imperious and frosty, she eventually reveals more accessible layers beneath, particularly in the great scene after she catches Thandiwe sneaking back into the school after a rendezvous with Danny.
Many of the plot elements and themes here are familiar (Rebel Without a Cause is one a zillion films to tread similar ground). But it wasn’t fresh plots that made Shakespeare the Immortal Bard, it was what he did with them. With its wisdom, sensitivity and wit, Flirting turns the usual coming-of-age story into an fresh and inspiring experience that is not to be missed.
Following the success of his low-budget films That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl, Scottish film maker Bill Forsyth had the adjective “quirky” hung on him by critics, and it stuck. But there’s a nicer way to describe this talented writer-director’s output: Sweet, original and offbeat. For me, no film in Forsyth’s career better illustrates those qualities than 1983’s Local Hero.
On its face, the plot is simple. Knox Petroleum needs to buy an entire Scottish seaside town in order to further its oil empire, so its all powerful and extremely eccentric President Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) dispatches a guy named MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) to close the sale, because, well, he’s Scottish so he understands these people. In a more clichéd film, the quietly noble and down-to-earth townspeople would resist the heartless tyrants of capitalism. I will not spoil the film for you but rest assured that Forsyth is far too creative to follow that tired line of plot, either for MacIntyre and Happer or for the people of the village.
Under Forsyth’s direction, the cast sparkles throughout. Burt Lancaster, like Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood, was wise enough in late life to transition from swashbuckling roles to more age-appropriate fare. His turn as an isolated, slightly daft, stargazing corporate titan is hilarious, particularly his scenes with one of the most abusive psychotherapists in film history.
Peter Riegert is very good at playing people who are present in some respects but completely absent in others. Outwardly, his MacIntyre is a financially successful oil acquisitions man. On the inside, he is a lonely person with a bitter break-up behind him and, the film hints, more romantic disappointments to come. His last name is Scottish but even that isn’t real; he no more belongs in Scotland than he does anywhere else. What pulls on his emotions the most about the Scottish town is the wildly satisfying (in every respect) marriage of his hosts at the local B&B. It’s the life he longs for but simply doesn’t know how to create.
The charming Jenny Seagrove, whose success in UK film and television unfortunately never translated across the pond, hits the right notes as a scientist with whom Peter Capaldi’s character falls in love (Capaldi, later so good as a thoroughgoing bastard on The Thick of It and In the Loop, is completely different here in the film that first brought him notice). Kudos also to the set designers for Felix Happer’s bizarre and palatial office suite, and to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame for an understated and memorable score.
Like most of Forsyth’s films, there are a few big laughs and many more small ones. Wistful in some ways, joyful in others, this quiet gem of a movie will bring a smile to your face.
British film director John “Frenzy” Mackenzie passed away a few months ago, so honor the man and enjoy yourself at the same time by watching his best film: 1980’s thrilling, brutal “The Long Good Friday”.
Many American viewers struggle with the opening scenes of this film about organized crime in London because the slang comes fast and some of the Cockney accents are thick. Also, the film’s only significant flaw is that its opening scenes are confusing as characters and plot elements are thrown at the viewer one after the other in overly rapid succession. (Indeed, even at the end, as with The Big Sleep, it is hard to tie up every loose end in your mind).
But you will forget all that the moment that Bob Hoskins arrives — or rather, explodes — onto the scene accompanied by Francis Monkman’s pulsating score. As mobster Harold Shand, Hoskins dominates his scenes, projecting power, ambition and the ever-present threat of violence. And he’s far more interesting than the typical mobster in that he fantasizes about being a captain of legitimate industry. Seeing his speech about the planned development of the Canary Wharf area as his boat moves down the Thames, his head framed perfectly by the Tower Bridge in the background, is like watching James Cagney play Margaret Thatcher.
The other thing that makes Harold interesting is that his gun moll is no dim-witted tart, even though her part was written that way in the original script. Helen Mirren is at her very best as the smarter, classier half of the criminal couple at the center of the movie. Thankfully the filmmakers realized that casting Mirren just for her looks would have been a gross under utilization of her intelligence and acting skills. She has a meaty, fascinating part and she makes the most of it.
As the film opens, Harold is trying to launch a legitimate business empire but is thwarted when his criminal empire suddenly comes under attack. But by whom? He has already killed everyone who could take him on, right? Or has he somehow created a powerful new enemy?
This is the best British gangster film since Get Carter and it’s even better the second time through once you understand the labyrinthine plot. Note for trivia fans: this was Pierce Brosnan’s first film – he had no lines and didn’t even meet the stars (He’s looking at the camera in the back seat, not Hoskins, in those knockout final scenes).
Filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert started with the idea of making a 30 minute TV show about kids playing basketball at an urban playground. Instead they got pulled into the lives of two remarkable families and you will be too by the astounding 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.
The film follows two African-American basketball players for five years as they grow from boys to men in Chicago. Both have been scooped up as potential basketball stars by an ambitious coach at a white suburban high school (Is this an opportunity or just exploitation? The film doesn’t flinch from this question.). When one of them, Arthur Agee, doesn’t do well academically (or is it just that his white coach thought he wasn’t a good enough player?) he is sent back to his local high school where his sports career prospers in new ways. The other young man, William Gates, fares better in the burbs at first but then his life takes some turns that I will not ruin for you by telegraphing.
Among the things that amaze about this film is the access everyone gave to the filmmakers. The boys themselves, the coaches and their friends are all remarkably candid in the interviews. And the Agee and Gates families open up their personal lives to an almost unbelievable extent. The amount of intimacy they let the viewer have at some of the most critical moments of their lives is a true gift.
The other impressive thing about Hoop Dreams is that despite an almost three hour running time (edited down from a reported more than 250 hours of footage!) it holds your interest at every moment. Personally, I tend to be pretty hard on movies that run more than two hours without an exceptional reason. Here, I was riveted throughout and indeed would have loved more.
Finally, just as a comment on inner city life, which this film so well captures, it is quite sad that a number of people in this film have been murdered since the film’s release, including William’s older brother and Arthur’s father-in-law.
With respect, I would argue that even the fans of this film sometimes underestimate its worth. They are angry that it wasn’t nominated for a best documentary oscar. That was indeed an outrage, but in a year when Forrest Gump won Best Picture, the nominators in that category should have hung their heads too (Kudos to the “thumbs-up” guys for being the first ones to figure this out at the time). Also, people often call this a great film about inner-city existence or low-income Black Americans. Yes, it is those wonderful things but it’s also more than that, it’s a film about life, family and growing up with which anyone with a heart and a mind can connect emotionally. That’s why it’s not just a great documentary; it’s a great work of art.
Steve McQueen had an incredible run of hits in the 1960s, which put him in position to start his own production company. Solar Production’s original six film deal with Warner Brothers eventually fell apart and only resulted in one film, but *what* a film: Bullitt.
The first time through, what stays with most people about this film is the legendary car chase. If you watch carefully, you will notice how cleverly and economically the sequence was filmed. The slow-driving green VW bug that keeps appearing is the tip-off: The same incredible driving stunt was filmed from many different angles and then seamlessly edited to look like a series of death-defying maneuvers.
But the thing to watch in the film is Steve McQueen, in one of his very best roles (the completely original Junior Bonner, which Solar Productions made later, is my other favorite). He is a man detached. With loud, free and colorful 1968 San Francisco all around him he is quiet, controlled and dark. Bullitt has closed himself off emotionally to cope with the horrible things he sees as a police officer. As a result he is almost completely alone in the world (In this sense, the character is not unlike McQueen himself).
Robert Vaughn is also excellent and almost seems to compete with McQueen over who can underplay his part more. Jacqueline Bisset, in addition to being easy on the eyes, delivers the goods in her dramatic scenes as the one person to whom Bullitt is willing to be somewhat vulnerable. Director Peter Yates is in top form and so is the City by the Bay.
Bullitt works as a detective story, as an action film, and as a character study all at once. And it holds up very well under repeated viewings, so even if you’ve seen it before you can treat yourself again to a classic piece of American cinema.
Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame) earned his place in film noir heaven with Ride the Pink Horse. The disillusioned, rootless ex-GI, is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking private eye vies for the distinction) and Lucky Gagin is the apotheosis of the type.
My preferred airline now has a channel of “classic films” which included the Bond outing From Russia with Love on my recent trip back home. And why not? It’s a very well made film and unlike the more silly and comic book-like Bond films that came along in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s fairly realistic and hence more engaging.
It also includes my second favorite fist fight in the movies, in which psychopath Donald Grant (played with convincing viciousness by Robert Shaw) and superagent James Bond (played by the inimitable Sean Connery) have it out on a train. The verbal build up is almost as good as the fisticuffs: It’s filled with class resentment, desperation and downright nastiness (“The first bullet won’t kill you, nor the second, not even the third…not until you crawl over here and you KISS MY FOOT”).
It helps a lot that Connery and Shaw were physically powerful men, and IIRC they didn’t like each other (I seem to remember that they almost got into a punch-up off camera). They attack each other with vigor, in an amazingly long scene shot in an eerie blueish light. And it’s not one of those pretty Marquess of Queensberry fights that Hollywood often serves up; there’s grappling and kicking and scrapping and brutal life or death struggle.
p.s. In case you are wondering why I describe it as my second favorite fistfight in film, it’s because cineastes have long recognized that unquestionably, the fight scene with the most energy, style, humanity and realism takes place in the wretched Mogumbo Bar on the Barbary Coast….
Anne Helen Petersen has written an intriguing, sad article about Rock Hudson and the gay agent who packaged him and other gay men as movie stars. She argues that Hudson’s sexuality actually made him more attractive to a certain segment of heterosexual women in the 1950s and 1960s precisely because he was handsome, charming, kind and at the same time (from a straight woman’s viewpoint) asexual and therefore unthreatening. Petersen closes the piece with well-deserved praise for Hudson’s handling of his HIV infection and subsequent wasting away, which galvanized public sympathy for AIDS victims.
Hudson wasn’t a top-notch actor, but he was a great movie star. He will probably be most remembered for his massively popular films with Doris Day (who at the age of 87, has a new album out! Check out her chat yesterday with her pal and fan Paul McCartney). But what is Rock Hudson’s best film?
Some movie fans would argue for Giant, which remains highly watchable today despite it’s staggeringly long running time. But the scenes in that film which stay with you are mainly those with James Dean and/or Elizabeth Taylor rather than Hudson, whose character is much flatter than theirs.
So I am going to go instead with Seconds, which very few people even remember today. It features an atypical role for Hudson and he does well with it, maybe because he could identify with the main character, who had to pretend to be someone he was not in order to “pass”. My all-time favorite cinematographer, James Wong Howe, goes over the top with strange lenses and moving shots, starting with the Vertigo-esque opening titles, which amplifies tonally the weird story that that the film tells.
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