Franco Zeffirelli 12th February 1923 – 15th June 2019

The great Italian – or should I say Florentine – director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the grand age of 96.  He was a remarkable man, whose authorial stamp was distinguished by two particulars – his sympathy for young people and his flair for dramatising opera and theatre. Endless Love was for some of us kids the first time we saw real teen romance up there on the big screen.  Whole new generations were in floods of tears at the remake of The Champ. And there can be few students of Shakespeare who cannot recall whooping with delight at their viewing experiences of The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, which even got a shout-out by Cher in Clueless. That’s how good the man was at making seemingly incomprehensible lines and complex plotting accessible. He made Shakespeare relevant and fun. He did the same with several operas – he took La Traviata and made it a great night out at the movies. And he had vision of a very particular kind:  who else would have chosen Tommy Howell to play Young Toscanini? Or Robert Powell to play Jesus of Nazareth, the goodest good guy of them all?  He was a devoted son of Florence, making several movies and shorts there, recalling his own complicated upbringing in Tea With Mussolini, a tribute to the marvellous women of the ex-pat community who reared him following the death of his mother when he was 6. He was the result of an extra-marital liaison and named for the ‘little breezes’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo which set him on a path in that very idiom – starting as an assistant to Luchino Visconti in the theatre where he became an outstanding production designer (perhaps partly thanks to his da Vinci lineage) and director. He was one of eight Italians to be nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards but his outstanding gift to us was his talent for seeing into the heart of things. Grazie e addio, Franco.

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The Godfather Part III (1990)

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Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ages and has a place of respect in society having divested himself of his casinos, he finds that being the head of the Corleone crime family isn’t getting any easier. He wants out of the Mafia and buys his way into the Vatican Bank but NYC mob kingpin Altobello (Eli Wallach) isn’t eager to let one of the most powerful and wealthy families go legit. Making matters even worse is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia) the illegitimate son of Sonny. Not only does Vincent want out from under smalltime mobster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) who’s now got the Corleones’ New York business, he wants a piece of the Corleone family’s criminal empire, as well as Michael’s teenage daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola) who’s crushing on him. Ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) appeals to Michael to allow their son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) quit law school to pursue a career as an opera singer.  A trip to Sicily looms as all the threads of the Corleone family start to be pieced together after a massacre in Atlantic City and scores need to be settled Why did they fear me so much and love you so much? Francis Ford Coppola revisits the scene of arguably his greatest triumph, The Godfather Saga, with writer Mario Puzo and yet he viewed it as a separate entity to that two-headed masterpiece. Perhaps it’s a riff on the material or a tribute act. The transition is tricky with a brusque crewcut Pacino boasting a different boo-ya voice at the beginning when the Catholic Church honours him following a $100 million donation; and the symbolism writ large in the concluding sequence, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in which the weakness of our own central Christ figure is punished with the greatest violence – the death of close family.  This story then mutates from a pastiche of its previous triumphs to a a pastiche of an opera. Michael is doing penance for the death of Fredo, his dumb older brother who betrayed the family. He is physically weak from diabetes and the accompanying stroke;  his efforts to go totally legitimate have angered his Mafia rivals from whose ties he cannot fully break and they want in on the deal with the Vatican;  his brother Sonny’s bastard son Vincent is nipping at his heels while sleeping with his own daughter; he is still in love with a remarried Kay, whom he finally introduces to Sicily;  he is in bed with God’s own gangsters. It’s a sweeping canvas which gradually reveals itself even if the setup is awkward:  we open on the windows at the Lake Tahoe house and see they are decorated with inlaid spider webs:  we soon see that sister Connie (Talia Shire) is the wicked crone behind the throne in her widow’s weeds, her flightiness long behind her. Like Wallach, her performance is cut from the finest prosciutto as she encourages Vincent in his ruthless ride to the top of the crime world. Mantegna isn’t a lot better as Joey Zasa. Wrapped into real life events at the Vatican in the late 70s/early 80s which gives Donal Donnelly, Raf Vallone and Helmut Berger some fine supporting roles, with an almost wordless John Savage as Tom Hagen’s priest son, this has the ring of truth but not the class of classicism even with that marvellous cast reunited, something of a miracle in itself:  it feels like the gang’s almost all here. I cheered when I saw Richard Bright back as Al Neri! So sue me! And good grief Enzo the Baker is back too! Duvall is replaced by George Hamilton as consigliere, not Coppola’s doing, but because he wasn’t going to be paid a decent salary. What were they thinking?! Even Martin Scorsese’s mother shows up! That’s Little Italy for ya! There are some witty exchanges amid the setpieces when everything beds in and the tragedy is set to violently unwind. The death of Sofia Coppola was the price she had to pay for being her father’s daughter, non e veroFinance is the gun, politics is the trigger.

 

 

 

The Man Between (1953)

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Any relief from life is unattainable wealth. After the fall of Germany, Susanne Mallinson (Claire Bloom) visits her doctor brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone), a major who has relocated to Berlin and married a local woman named Bettina (Hildegarde Neff). Susanne is curious about Bettina’s assignations with a man soon introduced to her as Ivo Kern (James Mason) who feigns romance with her. It transpires that he is Bettina’s former husband, a Nazi whom she and Martin had declared dead following his disappearance in WW2 but now alive and well and operating under a pseudonym.  Ivo is a former lawyer who participated in Nazi atrocities in Holland and Prague and is now selling his expertise to East Germans to kidnap and transport certain West Germans to the eastern bloc.  He agrees to a final kidnapping that fails, forcing his employer Halendar (Aribert Wäscher) to abduct Susanne by mistake. He attempts to redeem himself by helping Susanne escape, even though he must risk everything in the process… There isn’t a great deal of difference between our ages but there’s a hundred years in the way of life we have led. Harry Kurnitz and Eric Linklater wrote the screenplay from an original pulp novel (Susanne in Berlin) by Walter Ebert (as Lothar Schuler) and it’s a curious beast for the first third, with John Addison’s fascinating score doing much of the heavy lifting and the statuesque Neff bestriding the screen like a panther, while Bloom operates furtively, trying to find out more about her sister-in-law’s life and Ivo winning her over in an ice rink.  Director Carol Reed’s visual style (shot by Desmond Dickinson) asserts itself from the midpoint opera sequence onwards, with the canted angles, disturbing close ups and rain-slicked streets that distinguished The Third Man taking centre stage as a chase across the city commences. This post-war tale of politicking, betrayal and love across the international frontier against communism has a distinct personality and a tension all its own however, as the strains tell between the three adults – with a very young Bloom barely making the grade among these war-worn creatures – in a horrible Cold War setting with Mason cutting a tragic figure as a reminder of the man who fell at the end of Reed’s great Odd Man Out. Ivo’s helper, the little boy lookout Horst (Dieter Krause) betrays him, just as the boy betrays Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol; while the kidnap plot is from the original novella (also by Graham Greene)The Third Man.  Neff’s iconic role in Trümmer film The Murderers Are Among Us is recalled in her haunted presence; while the bicycling boy bears the shade of Italian neo-realism.  There are many good scenes but you won’t soon forget the extraordinarily erotic byplay between Mason and Bloom as she hides out, clad in skimpy lingerie and complaining of cold feet. In every sense, this is a film about history repeating itself in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin. The contrast between the Expressionist storytelling and the realistic setting is quite eyecatching, attaining the kind of poetry we’re more accustomed to seeing in French films from the 1930s, with secrets revealed from the whirling snow that the wind blows up from the blanketed streets. They were working too hard. I knew they weren’t real labourers

 

The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

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How can we stop? British nurse Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle) is stationed at a private hospital in Brussels during World War I. When the son of a former patient escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp, she helps him escape to Holland. Outraged at the number of soldiers detained in the camps, Edith, along with a group of sympathisers, devises a plan to help the prisoners escape, assisting hundreds of men. As the group works to free the soldiers, Edith must keep her activities secret from the Germans but the investigation closes in… The law which is good enough for Germans is good enough for these people.  Adapted by Michael Hogan from Dawn by Reginald Berkeley, this is straightforwardly filmed but no less affecting for that. The true story of a nurse tried by secret German military tribunal, refused legal counsel and condemned to death on the word of a child is another instance of German treachery in wartime. A key film in the career of Anna Neagle, she is directed here by future husband Herbert Wilcox (who had previously directed a version of this starring Sybil Thorndike) alongside George Sanders as Captain Heinrichs, Edna May Oliver as local noblewoman Madame Rappard and Zasu Pitts as Madame Moulin.  An impressive production, nicely photographed by Freddie Young. I have seen death so often it is no longer strange or fearful to me

Before the Revolution (1964)

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What do you think you’re up to ?  Revolution?  Parma, 1962. Student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) struggles to reconcile his communist beliefs with his lifestyle. After his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) drowns, he breaks up with the nice middle class girl Clelia (Cristina Pariset) he’s been dating. When his parents invite his mother’s younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) to stay they have a passionate affair … What David Thomson describes as a film characterised by romantic disenchantment was Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious sophomore outing. Shot when he was just 22 and directly after his apprenticeship to Pasolini, it’s a striking piece of work, conjoining sex and politics directly and unapologetically. Bertolucci’s screenplay confronts the difficulties of post-war life in Italy in a loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and examines the legacy of fascism while Fabrizio considers the merits and issues within the Italian Communist Party.  Distinguished by Vittorio Storaro’s black and white cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone, this is an astonishingly assured piece of work, announcing the director’s philosophical intent with a quote from Talleyrand as the narration begins in a film which has its roots in the Nouvelle Vague style, bristling with ideas and a signature that’s already fully formed.

Carmen Jones (1954)

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Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.  During WWII parachute factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is romanced by a stalwart GI named Joe (Harry Belafonte) who is about to go to flying school. Conflict arises when a boxing champ captures Carmen’s heart after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go AWOL. Carmen remains a flamboyant flirt and Joe is pursued by the Military Police and the romantic duo have a final terrible fight … Bizet’s stunning and tragic, earthy opera gets an update and a racial twist in this striking, zesty adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II. The performers are dubbed but that doesn’t detract from the incredibly raunchy Dandridge (vocals by Marilyn Horne) who was being manipulated by director Otto Preminger at the time:  she simply steams up the screen with Belafonte hopelessly in her grip – until she is in his. Pearl Bailey is also dazzling in the role of Frankie. But this is all about Dandridge and she is astonishing. Daring and wonderful.

Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this – a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born. Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption, of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat. I’ver reviewed Fiona Handyside’s study of Coppola on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Love and Death (1975)

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I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for the perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.