Terry Jones 1st February 1942 – 21st January 2020

The death has taken place of one of the greatest screen comics and writers we have been blessed to enjoy. Terry Jones started writing with Michael Palin after they graduated from Cambridge and they made their names on British TV as joke writers for people like John Bird and David Frost before collaborating with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to create the landmark series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Jones’ penchant for absurdity, satire and surrealism blended with his historical interests and a slight case of anarchy. Jones came into his own as a director of their frequently controversial films and directed other material as well as continuing a separate writing career as a mediaevalist, poet and children’s author. For most of us, though, he will be remembered as the immortal Mandy Cohen, mother of a very naughty boy. Goodnight Terry, you only went and revolutionised comedy while you were with us. It’s probably time for a rest.

Bel Canto (2018)

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How did you sing like that? Acclaimed American soprano Roxane Coss (Moore) travels to an unnamed South American country to give a private concert at the birthday party of rich Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) who’s allegedly building a factory in the vicinity. Just as an élite gathering of local dignitaries convenes at Vice-President Ruben Ochoa’s mansion, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) and his wife (Elsa Zylberstein), Hosokawa’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa), the house is taken over by guerrillas led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) who believe the President is in attendance (he’s at home watching TV) demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Their only contact with the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). A month-long standoff ensues in which hostages and captors must overcome their differences and find their shared humanity and hope in the face of impending disaster. Roxanne and Katsumi consummate their rapidly escalating love for each other while Gen falls for rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) as the military gather outside the building … He is always moved by your music. Adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel by director Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub, this might be another instance of be careful when tackling literary fiction:  three mentions of telenovelas remind us that when you strip out the elevated language sometimes what you’re left with is a soap opera. And how unlikely much of this is, these people holed up in this nice residence, all getting along in this unreal idyll, even having sex, you just wonder where the butler is hiding the silver salver with the stacks of Ferrero Rocher and why it never occurs to anyone to escape not even when they’re wandering about that lovely tree-filled garden. Nonetheless Moore and Watanabe are both splendid and the underlying message that music is that other universal language is well made in this fantasy take on Stockholm Syndrome before it concludes in the inevitable bloodbath. What are the takeaways? Don’t adapt posh novels, stay out of South America where the natives are always revolting and for goodness’ sake don’t sleep with your kidnapper – or your biggest fan. It never ends well. Moore lip syncs to Renée Fleming.  Are you sure they won’t shoot you? Not everbody likes opera

Jonathan Miller 21st July 1934 – 27th November 2019

I’ve got this, I think, unjustified reputation for being grumpy. I’m angry or disappointed at the condescension which I encounter from people who are 30 years younger than I am and know 100 per cent less than I do. That’s all. The death has taken place of the sensationally gifted Jonathan Miller – writer, actor, humorist, director, who first came to prominence in that gifted generation who reinvented British comedy with the musical revue Beyond the Fringe. As a young director he was responsible for what remain two of the best films ever made by the BBC – an astonishing adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (probably the best ever) and Whistle And I’ll Come to You, a spooky tale by M.R. James regularly televised at Christmas. The star of that film would contribute years later to Miller’s groundbreaking medical series, The Body in Question. Another adaptation, this time of Kingsley Amis’s novel,  Take a Girl Like You, provided the material for his cinema debut, a sardonic take on romance. His theatre interests (the National, the Old Vic, Broadway) materialised on the small screen with the BBC Television Shakespeare project starting with King Lear and continuing with The Taming of the Shrew and Timon of Athens. His acclaimed stage productions garnered him several opportunities to direct opera including rocker Roger Daltrey in The Beggar’s Opera and he wrote many books particularly on neuropsychology. Supremely erudite, unbelievably witty and incredibly tall, this genial gentleman scholar belonged to an age sadly fast disappearing from view when the notion of the public intellectual recedes in significance. This giant of the culture shall be missed, never mind Private Eye. RIP. I have a simple formula as a director. It’s nothing more really than reminding singers of what they know already and have forgotten

Oh … Rosalinda!! (1955)

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Once the music is started we can’t talk.  You see the place will be crowded with foreigners. In 1955 Occupied Vienna, black-market dealer Dr. Falke aka The Bat/Die Fledermaus (Anton Walbrook) moves freely through the French, British, American and Russian sectors, dealing in champagne and caviar among the highest echelons of the allied powers. After a costume party, French Colonel Gabriel Eisenstein (Michael Redgrave) plays a practical joke on a drunken Falke, depositing him, asleep and dressed as a bat, in the lap of a patriotic Russian statue, to be discovered the following morning by irate Russian soldiers. Falke is nearly arrested until his friend party-giver General Orlofsky (Anthony Quayle) of the USSR intervenes. A vengeful Falke plans an elaborate practical joke on his friend, involving Orlofsky,  British Army major (Dennis Price), Eisenstein’s beautiful wife Rosalinda (Ludmilla Tchérina), her maid (Anneliese Rothenberger) and a masked ball where no one is what they seem. Complicating matters is American Captain Alfred Westerman (Mel Ferrer), an old flame of Rosalinda’s who is determined to take advantage of her husband’s absence and become her lover once again … Just watch how I get out of my own troubles. One of Powell and Pressburger’s odder productions which elicited little more than critical ire upon release (it was exhibited on a double bill with The Big Combo), it can now be seen as a deliriously eccentric and audacious comic account of the post-war occupied city of Vienna, through the updated lens of Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Strauss’ 1874 operetta, with new lyrics in English by Dennis Arundell. Densely coloured, beautifully designed by Hein Heckroth and performed with gusto by some of the best actors of the era representing the different occupying powers in their nationality and personification while a husband and wife renew their acquaintance in this romantic catch-chase quartet. Quayle is excellent but Walbrook is supreme as the kind of characterful ringmaster he had already essayed in Ophüls’ La Ronde, keen that the occupying powers swiftly depart.  With every component of this indulgent avant garde take on a genre type more or less moribund since the Thirties concluding in a gorgeous masked ball, it’s a beautiful resolutely studio-bound theatrical spectacle. Considered part of a loose trilogy from Powell and Pressburger along with The Red Shoes/Tales of Hoffman even if Redgrave winds up dancing more than prima ballerina Tchérina, at  one point introduced to her own husband as Olga Volga, a star from behind the Iron Curtain. Redgrave, Rothenberger and Quayle sing while all other cast members’ singing voices are dubbed. Look quickly for Arthur Mullard as a Russian guard and future director John Schlesinger in a Jeep. Come a bit closer. Is there anything I can do for you – or you – or you?

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.

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.