Thursday, 31 August 2017

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in a just-plain-not-right version of Pride and Prejudice

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Cast: Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet), Laurence Olivier (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Mary Boland (Mrs Bennet), Edna May Oliver (Lady Catherine de Burgh), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Bennet), Ann Rutherford (Lydia Bennet), Frieda Inescot (Caroline Bingley), Edmund Gwenn (Mr Bennett), Karen Morley (Charlotte Lucas), Melville Cooper (Mr Collins), Edward Ashley Cooper (George Wickham), Bruce Lester (Mr Bingley)
There is an expectation that old-school adaptations of literary classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood somehow set the standards of adaptation, that all others will be judged against. That may well be the case with the 1939 Wuthering Heights, among others, but it really isn’t the case with Pride and Prejudice, which is essentially a bastardisation of Austen’s original, as if the book has been humped by Gone with the Wind and we are now watching its offspring.

Do I need to tell you the plot? Well I probably should tell you this movie’s version of it. The Bennet sisters are sassy young things always on the prowl for husbands. Lizzy Bennet (Greer Garson) flirts with the proud Mr Darcy (Laurence Olivier), while her sister Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) wins the attentions of Mr Bingley (Bruce Lester). But how will pride and prejudice affect the course of true love? Find out in this Aldous Huxley (!) scripted version of Austen’s classic, adapted via a second-rate stage version.

What’s bizarre about this film is how wrong so much of it feels. Now I’m no Austen expert, but even I could see that all the costumes for this production are completely incorrect for the period. Turns out of course that the producers just had a lot of mid-19th century clothing and thought it looked better. Other things feel like low-brow farce: the Bennet sisters and their mother race Caroline Lucas and her mother in carriages in order to be the first to greet Mr Bingley. That’s right, it’s Pride and Prejudice with a horse-drawn drag-race. Who thought that was a good idea? But what can you expect of a film with the tag-line “When Pretty Girls T-E-A-S-E-D Men into Marriage!”? It even takes good lines from the novel and inexplicably rewrites them to make them worse – Darcy’s snobbish and personally hurtful dismissal of Lizzy at the Merryton assembly “I am in no humour to give consequence to young ladies slighted by other men” here becomes “I am in no humour to give consequence to the middle classes”. Why? 

I ask you - do these costumes look right?

That’s before you get into the casting. While some of it is pretty good (Edmund Gwenn is very good as an ineffective Mr Bennet, while Mary Boland has a neat line in shrieking as Mrs Bennet) others are downright bad – Bruce Lester is stiff as Mr Bingley, Edward Ashley Cooper is forgettably dull as Wickham, and Melville Cooper hideously overplays as a Collins who seems to have stepped in from a Marx brothers film.

Other parts just feel a bit wrong. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as the leads are fine actors, but neither of them produces a version of these iconic characters that feels remotely true – or even recognisable. Garson not only looks too old, but she doesn’t have the sense of playful intelligence and spark that Lizzy Bennet needs: she’s more of a slightly aloof tease. Laurence Olivier is reasonably good as Darcy, but the character is re-invented as much softer and more playful from the start, and his willingness to be teased by Lizzy early in the film makes her rejection of him make very little sense.

Their relationship has a flirtatious element throughout, fitting the film’s reimagining of the novel as a sort of romantic comedy in period costume, with elements of Hollywood screwball – but bearing no resemblance at all to the actual relationship Lizzy and Darcy ought to have. At Bingley’s garden party they engage in a playful archery competition (he assumes she’s a novice, she of course is an expert marksman). In itself the scene is good fun, but Darcy’s polite apology and willingness to look a little foolish, means it doesn’t hold together when she condemns him for arrogance. In fact, you’d be pretty hard pressed to identify much pride or prejudice going on at all. The main obstacle to their relationship is shown as Wickham’s denunciation of Darcy – but since Lizzy hasn’t actually seen Darcy do anything particularly bad, it seems particularly forced. 

Furthermore, the film makes Lizzy seem like a ditzy schoolgirl, since literally one scene later she has spun on a sixpence and is devoted to Darcy. This is also a flaw of the film’s telescoping of events – within five minutes it feels Wickham elopes with Lydia, then Wickham comes into money, then Darcy reveals his true character, then Wickham and Lydia return. The film rushes through these events, in order to fly towards its artificial happy ending (all the Bennet sisters are given appropriate suitors in a clumsy final shot) without any real sense of Austen, or any real eye for the sort of subtle social satire she had carefully worked into her novels.

The film’s individualist take on Pride and Prejudice does at least distinguish it from other productions I suppose, but it’s terrified of the depths to the story or its characters, and seems to do everything it can to neuter its “bad” characters – Caroline Bingley barely appears, and it’s hard to believe that any reader of the book could picture Lady Catherine as she’s reimagined here: a sort of playful wingman to Darcy’s courtship of Lizzy. 

But then this never feels like Austen – it’s got more of an early Gone with the Wind vibe to it, but played as romantic comedy. Lizzy here is an aloof, determined, slightly foolish, but strong-minded Scarlett-O’Hara-lite, while Darcy is a neutered Rhett Butler charmer. The production does everything it can to look like Gone with the Wind in its setting and design. Austen’s social commentary is phased out and replaced with low comedy and bantering lover style dialogue. I suppose as a film in itself, it’s perfectly fine, but as an adaptation of one of the greatest novels of all time, it’s sadly lacking.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro takes aim in super cool car-chase classic Ronin

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus O’Rourke), Jan Triska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi)

Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) are ex-intelligence operatives from the Cold War (or “the late unpleasantness”). Now working as mercenaries, they are hired by IRA operative Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a mysterious case. The operation becomes increasingly complex as trust is betrayed, new competitors emerge, and a stream of gun battles and car chases soon bursts out.

I don’t think there are enough words to say how much I love this film. I have seen it I honestly don’t know how many times. Some films just connect with you, or something about them so completely works for you that you can’t help but enjoy them. Ronin is quite simply one of my favourite ever films – others may poke at it, but to me I think this is a perfectly structured piece of film-making, a 1970s-style thriller produced in the 1990s, the last flourish of old-school, Cold War spy film-making. In fact, I genuinely think the further we move away from the bombastic 90s, the richer this film looks. It’s becoming less and less of a guilty pleasure and more and more of a pleasure.

First and foremost you have to talk about what Ronin is most famous for: its jaw dropping car chases. What’s particularly exciting about these is that everything you are seeing was done for real. There is barely a spot of trickery in this – they simply hired the best stunt men in the world, got hold of some cool looking cars, and let them go to town all over France.

Of course, watching cars going round and round in itself isn’t massively interesting: what makes it compelling in Ronin is the skilled story-telling. Not only do we always know what’s going on, but the characters are kept in the forefront (most of the actors’ terrified faces were real, as they tore round the streets of Paris for real at 90+ miles an hour). In addition to that, the editing and shooting of these scenes is simply superb. The film gets a perfect balance of sound effects and musical cues: the soundtrack of the final car chase is split 50/50 between revving engines and music. A combination of low angles (putting us practically on the front of the car) and medium and long shots keep the visuals of each chase fresh. You’d actually have to be without a pulse to not be gripped by these sequences. These are without a doubt the best car chases ever committed to screen.

But it’s not just about car chases. This is a brilliant mood piece, filmed in a drained out colour palate that makes the whole thing feel like the characters have been transplanted intact from the 1970s. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and cool, and he has an eye for an excellent shot. He also allows plenty of subtle character and mood building to counterpoint the action, as in the excellent, almost wordless, opening sequence following De Niro’s arrival at a café. Carefully he cases the joint while the others arrive, putting in place a possible escape route (we later discover) before heading in. Later, the film builds a moment of exquisite tension and excitement about a drawing on a board and the colour of a boat house. We even get a scene where De Niro guides some of the characters through performing surgery on him to remove a rogue bullet.

The whole film is packed full of excellent vignettes like this: I love the moment when De Niro pretends to have lost his nerve and carelessly knocks a coffee cup off a table to see how Skarsgard’s slightly sinister Gregor may respond (he catches it before it hits the ground and then immediately looks sheepish as if he has given something away). The film also sprinkles dark hints throughout of a wider world (“Where do I know you from?” “Vienna” “Of course…” an example of exposition-free dialogue that establishes a back story), while the characters’ backgrounds and their recruitment by “the man in the wheelchair” remain deliberately obscure.

It’s also one of the best Macguffin films you are going to see ever. What’s in the case? Who knows? Who cares? The film’s structure totally understands that it doesn’t matter to us what’s in the thing at all. It’s only important in that it matters to the characters: and that most of them are willing to go to any lengths to secure it (preferably for free).

The other major strength of the film is its cracking dialogue, the work of an uncredited David Mamet (allegedly pissed off that the Writer’s Guild of America declared he had to share billing). The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and deftly sketches out character: for instance, we understand immediately De Niro’s cool confidence and Bean’s blustering faux machismo from exchanges like this: 

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah I am. It covers my body.

That only scratches the surface of the film’s dialogue, which crackles – this exchange between Vincent and Sam sums up its wit, and lived-in quality:

In fact the film is full of cool lines like this that seem to carry a flavour of working in intelligence, and stick in the imagination (“The map is not the territory” or “Either you're part of the problem or you're part of the solution or you're just part of the landscape”). The best moments sizzle with an effortless cool, with dialogue that you find yourself (or I do anyway) regularly dropping into everyday conversation. It also helps to slowly build relationships within the film, with Sam and Vincent’s dialogue quickly finding itself in sync, a clever little indicator of their building friendship.

The relationship between Sam and Vincent is in many ways the heart of the film – while other characters fall by the wayside, events ruthlessly exposing their weaknesses, it’s these two who form a close bond. Vincent may believe “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes” but their friendship develops a real warmth and trust – they are the real romantic link in the film (despite a flirtation with Natasha McElhone’s steely IRA gun runner Dierdre).

All this content comes together brilliantly into a tightly contained and carefully paced thriller. It’s also strikingly well-acted in a tight, stripped down manner. This is probably the last engaged, “serious” role De Niro did before his career drifted into decades of self-parody. He gives Sam a brilliant lived-in quality, with a wry sense of humour. Jean Reno is equally well cast as the laconically cool Vincent, while Natasha McElhone is engaging and intriguing as Dierdre. Stellan Skarsgård is a stand-out as the ice-cool Gregor. Of the no-less than three Bond-baddy actors, Michael Lonsdale probably has the best part as a model-building fixer, though Sean Bean does decent work as twitchy poseur. Jonathan Pryce is, I have to say, not completely convincing as an IRA heavy, but does a decent job.

Okay I’ll concede the final reveal and resolution of the film’s plot is not the best moment (a particularly heavy-handed, plumbily voiced BBC radio voiceover explains much of the ending), but that’s a bump in the road of gripping, smart and old-school thriller. It’s accomplished in its filming, and its mood sizzles from the screen. The car chases are edge-of-your-seat gripping, and there is barely a false beat in acting or dialogue. The direction is full of character and has a brilliant eye for little details. Above all else, I really love this film – probably more than is healthy – and I have seen it a crazy number of times. I can’t imagine not enjoying watching it – and I don’t think I ever haven’t, even though I must know it frame-by-frame. Brilliant stuff!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The original and the best: Disney's animated classic Beauty and the Beast

Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Cast: Paige O’Hara (Belle), Robby Benson (The Beast), Richard White (Gaston), Jerry Orbach (Lumière), David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth), Angela Lansbury (Mrs Potts), Bradley Pierce (Chip), Rex Everhart (Maurice), Jesse Conti (Le Fou)

After decades of average or forgettable films, in the early 90s Disney had a sudden renaissance. From 1989 to 1998, the studio was a veritable hit factory, with films from The Little Mermaid to Mulan, via classics like The Lion King and new ideas like Hercules all being lapped up by audiences. Perhaps the most widely loved (and maybe even the best!) of this era was Beauty and the Beast.

Like all the best Disney films, the story is traditional with a modern twist. Belle (wonderfully voiced by Paige O’Hara) is a young woman in a small provincial town who wants so much more than spending her time dodging the unwanted attentions of handsome local hero Gaston. When her eccentric father Maurice is imprisoned in a mystical castle by a terrifying Beast (Robby Benson, who combines sensitivity and ferocity), she agrees to take his place, while the Beast (and his enchanted servants) all hope she might break the spell placed on them by falling in love with him.

This was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, back in the days of only five nominees and it was hard to sneak onto the list if you weren’t a heavy-going “important” piece of film-making. If that’s not a testament to its greatness, I’m not sure what is. It’s one of the best mixes of Disney magic: charming, delightful, sweet, funny and exciting. It has a heroine who feels real, independent and relatable and a hero you empathise with, even while he behaves badly. It’s got a villain who first seems an arrogant blow-hard before his real brutishness is revealed. All this in a very romantic, engrossing storyline, with a host of supporting characters it’s impossible not to like.

So why does this work so well? It’s sweepingly, lusciously drawn and it drips romance and humanity. Everything stems from those central characters, and the amount of empathy we feel for them. Like all great films, this knows without characters we invest in, nothing else works – no matter how many great numbers and funny lines there are (and there are plenty of both!).

Belle could have easily been either a flighty romantic or an aloof autodidact, but the film crafts her into a grounded romantic, dreaming of more but knuckling down and dealing with the hand life has dealt her. Facing a life of captivity she resolves to do what she can to make her life bearable. She’s determined and independent and exhibits genuine intellectual curiosity alongside her empathy. She feels real, and you invest in her reactions to things because those reactions feel normal.

An even bigger challenge is the Beast, but it’s triumphant in the handling of this tricky character. He is ferocious, but the film quickly and efficiently makes clear his anger is based in pain and vulnerability, and intense isolation. Careful shots establish his self-loathing – his slashing of a painting of his pre-transformation face couldn’t be much clearer. Even at his most furious, we gets quiet moments of vulnerability. The animation of the Beast is perfect – his face is fierce, but his eyes are wonderfully expressive. His facial features at key moments relax and fold in to show someone far more gentle. He’s like everyone on a first date, scared to express his deeper feelings. The animators marvellously capture both his power and surprising delicacy. His boyish enthusiasm is infectious – his excitement in gifting Belle the library is heartwarming. In fact he’s so endearing and engaging a character, I think everyone feels a twinge of disappointment when he is replaced by a human being in the final scenes!

Revolving around these two is a wonderful cast of engaging characters. The primary servants in the plot – Lumière, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts – are all strong, unique and three-dimensional characters with more than enough depth to eschew their basic character traits (Cogsworth’s name even rhymes with jobsworth, Lumière is a charming rogue and Mrs Potts a motherly matron) to become characters we end up caring deeply for, that feel real. 

The film also borrows from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete to create the character of Gaston, possibly one of the most interesting villains in Disney. Drawn with a certain conventional handsomeness (although he looks smug enough for you know he’s a wrong ‘un from the start), Gaston is a character who questions many of the assumptions made linking popularity and handsomeness with goodness. He’s also a character who grows measurably darker through the film due to his own choices, rather than being inherently villainous from the start.

It’s all part of the richness of the world the film creates – everything feels natural and all the characters real and understandable. Maybe that’s partly why it works so well – it’s a film that is animated, rather than a cartoon. With a tight plot, good pacing and a clear focus, it’s focus is on emotion and characterisation, and it avoids cheap laughs, with comedy growing organically. Because the characters themselves are so compelling, the events carry huge dramatic force – when Belle is threatened by wolves, we genuinely fear for her; when the heartbroken Beast can barely rouse himself to fight Gaston we are overwhelmed with pity and concern. 

Warmth and humanity in the drawing of the characters, makes their stories so affecting

Of course it is also a cartoon, and much of the triumph of it is based in the animators’ successes. The imagery is gorgeous, the detail in each frame is wonderful, the design of the castle is fantastic (we’ve already talked about the influences of Cocteau’s film, but it’s clear again here). The famous ballroom scene is wonderful – the “camera work” marvellous, the creation of the ballroom awe inspiring (genuinely we all thought it was real at the time!). Time and again the filmmakers use inspired framing and composition that conveys the emotion. The performances they draw from their characters is exceptional – the expressiveness given to all of the characters, from Belle and the Beast to the faceless tankards in the castle, is brilliant. You can freeze-frame any single scene from the movie and be able to instantly identify how every character feels.

The famous ballroom, a sweeping series of camera shots and a landmark in computer illustration

This is the true Disney magic: this world is real, because everyone in it feels so alive. It captures your heart, from its marvellous stained-glass opening telling the backstory, to the triumphant swelling score that meets the ending. I’ve barely mentioned the songs, but each one is brilliant, an instantly recognisable, pleasurable earworm – in fact, this film may have the best songs of any Disney film in the canon. Beauty and the Beast is so good that, never mind being nominated for best picture, it arguably would have won in many years (it lost to The Silence of the Lambs: it’s hard to imagine a film more tonally different!). Endlessly enchanting, charming, warm, funny, moving and exciting, this is a masterpiece and a landmark in Disney animation.