The Holly and The Ivy (1952): More Than a Christmas Tune

holly and the ivy.jpgGrowing up in a household indebted to British everything, you get accustomed to certain things. Numerous everyday knickknacks and antiques imported from The U.K. Muesli Cereal in the pantry with copious amounts of English Breakfast Tea. Beatrix Potter, P.G. Wodehouse, and Postman Pat become household favorites.

Particularly at Christmastime, this meant, no, not figgy pudding, but British Christmas Carols on record. Some of my personal favorites are probably “Sussex Carol,” “Ding Dong Merrily,” “Past Three O’Clock,” and of course, “The Holly and The Ivy.”

This is where the film gets its namesake as it follows the Gregory family during the holidays. It’s that time of year with everyone convening for Christmas at a vicarage in the cozy town of Wyndham, nestled in Norfolk.

It sounds like a delightful experience, and it gains even more prominent meaning for a lonely old matron — airy and grandiose of tone — as she’s grateful for the letter from her brother-in-law confirming she will not have to spend the holidays alone. Cue the swelling music.

At this point, if you assured me The Holly and The Ivy wasn’t a sentimental movie I probably would have disregarded you. This is before the rug is literally pulled out from under us. For now, we still have a ways to go.

Quite by chance, during the pilgrimage aboard a train, she bumps into the other aunt, the acerbic and proud Aunt Lydia a world-class misanthrope. Despite they’re differences, they do well to cancel each other out. You can only imagine what might happen if you put them with others.

Sure enough, there’s a philandering young soldier who is caught by his superior with a girl and winds up in a whole lot of hot water. However, by some curious circumstance, he’s able to worm his way out and get leave to see his family for Christmas. This rapscallion is, of course, Michael Gregory (Denholm Elliot). It is his father who runs the local vicarage in Wyndham.

Jenny Gregory (Celia Johnson) is the devoted daughter who runs her father’s home and takes care of all his affairs. She feels it is her duty to take care of while he is still working and his other sister lives away in London all but detached from the rest of her family. The main complication is the man she loves is about to realize his lifelong dream of working in South America. It will be five long years and though Jenny is dying to go with him, her hands are tied.

When we finally meet Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), it becomes apparent he’s a bit absent-minded and quite the chatterbox. He goes on and on about his fascination with the Incas and their ingenuity in using Guano (bird droppings). He, of course, knows nothing about his daughter’s situation because no one has told him anything and so he remains oblivious going off to view the nativity play at his church (a fine precursor to Charlie Brown’s Christmas).

This is one of the great tragedies running through the story. The vicar himself bemoans the fact parsons are set apart and isolated because of their vocation. There is an inherent awkwardness going out into the world as a man of the cloth. People don’t want you around. It makes them feel uncomfortable and yet in the same breath, they hold you to a different standard because you are meant to represent religious piety for all.

But there is also an undercurrent in his home. His children never tell him how they are really doing. They equivocate and keep things hidden in order to not upset him or receive his scorn. Because that is how they see him. He is a killjoy, someone put in their life to chide them and scold them for every one of their individual sins. The fear is if he actually knew what his children were like, he would be unbearable. It certainly is a problem in conservative environments where exteriors don’t mesh with interior issues.

It comes to a head when the sister Margaret straggles in late to the festivities. They made up a lie about why she wouldn’t be able to come and yet the real truth is she did not want to see her father. But the wounds and the hesitance run deeper still. She is an alcoholic and something else happened to her. Those who love her, note she crackles like ice — a frozen ice queen out of a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Reverend Gregory has reason to be dismayed Christmas in merry ol’ England is now ruled by the boars and the retail traders who have gotten hold of the season. He laments, “It’s all eating and drinking and giving each other nicknacks…No one remembers Jesus Christ.” It teeters along the precipice of righteous indignation.

Because he looks at the same people and sees how little use they seem to have for him even when he sees, what he deems to be, great need. He’s there to marry and bury them only. His church is only an architectural center, not a spiritual one. This right is reserved for the local movie house with all its enticing bells and whistles.

While he might have a point, he is just as implicated in the problem; he has exasperated society. The case study is his very family. We see it in so many cases. The religious figure is measured by a separate set of principles and yet because of what we place on them, they feel distant and unreachable. They make us feel dirty and ashamed of our improprieties.

David blasts his father telling him, “You can’t be told the truth. That’s the trouble!” It’s films such as these that make me realize how difficult it would be to be a religious leader. Likewise, it’s just as difficult to have to live life alongside them — at least in a case like this.

Where “every conversation goes back to the creation of the world” and our only way to keep up appearances is lies and concealment — a life of false pretenses just in time for the holidays. The holidays only serve to magnify the tensions brooding for so long.

Because sons find the faith and fairy stories antiquated. Fathers are vexed that everything must be seen and touched in this generation before it can be believed (Can you touch the wind?)

The beauty of the exploration is in how both sides are given some credence. How can parsons expect to be told the truth when one can’t even talk to them like ordinary human beings? How can common, everyday people who make mistakes be free from guilt and shame when the most common judgments are full of condemnation?

While not of the same technical prowess, it nevertheless reminded me of Ordet another film based on a stage play with deep recesses of spirituality. There are a myriad of relationships undone by doubts and perceived areas of incompatibility. In fact, it falls somewhere between Ordet and Calvary because it has a dose of empathy for both the parson and his family.

The miracles revealed are ultimately conversational and sweet, reviving family relationships and salvaging the season through reconciliation. Wounds and secrets so long harbored and festering are finally allowed into the light. The extraordinary thing is, far from sowing more discord, the honesty gives way to the first true peace they’ve had for years.

My only qualm is I rather am curious to hear Ralph Richardson’s sermon. Like David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife, there’s a sense it might have been something magical and deeply impactful to behold. More powerful still, his words live on in the imagination.

The ending comes rapidly but it is reassuring to get one final image of the church with the newly minted couple destined to be together — most everything restored. Because filling in the ending, especially under such jocund circumstances, is often one of the greatest gifts that can be extended to the audience.

4/5 Stars

Yellow Submarine (1968): The Beatles Vs. The Blue Meanies

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Like all the great fantasy stories, this one begins with “Once upon a time…” The world is Pepperland, 80,000 leagues under the sea, where people live in harmony frolicking across the hills with music wafting through the air.

But there must be villains and there are no cartoonish baddies more nefarious and reviled than the Blue Meanies. They come from the outskirts of Pepperland with an arsenal of dastardly weapons at their disposal, among them Projectile Gloves, Three-Headed Hounds, and Anti-Music Fishbowls.

Soon the melodious world is overrun by their chaotic cacophony of blueness. One can only guess what they would have thought of the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. But as this is a Beatles adventure, the intrepid Young Fred (with graying hair) escapes on the Yellow Submarine as the refrains of Ringo’s iconic tune overtake the screen. It’s our first sense that this is a picture about the Fab Four. Beatlemania, as a zeitgeist of screeching girls, might have cooled but their music and personas still made them rock royalty of the late 60s.

To return now, functions as an all-expense paid nostalgia trip because Yellow Submarine as an animated movie is something I knew from a VHS that my dad brought home one day from work. I had no idea what LSD or an acid trip was, much less acid. Consequently, my 6th-grade school report on the Beatles was entirely lacking this information too. More so, I distinctly remember presenting about their music and how these lads from Liverpool were able to captivate the world. Because their music had always resonated with me from an early age.

Up to this point, the movie was the most whimsically inventive exploration in animation I had ever seen. Without fully comprehending the psychedelic overtones, I was taken with the utter fanciful nature of it all. The dividing line is thin between a drug trip and a childlike imagination simply accepting all things as fact. There need not be any deliberate explanation.

Collages of song and image become second nature. Eleanor Rigby playing over snippets of footage with little rhyme or reason — the submarine motors along — it’s penny-plain as the Brits might say (Not to be confused with Penny Lane). Meanwhile, the cartoonish anatomy of the figures is outrageous in not only their mechanics but general proportions. The world they reside in is even screwier.

Eventually, the yellow submarine follows Ringo home and Fred leaps from its hull ranting incessantly, barely cognizant, about explosions and BLUE MEANIES. So we go from Pepperland to an equally trippy mansion the Beatles reside in followed by a labyrinthian sea filled with the most curious creatures imaginable. It never stops with the wonkiest bits of invention. As a child it is brilliant. As an adult, it’s a bit bewildering.

But George, always the calming force, reassures with his ever available mantra, “It’s All in The Mind.” As they get a move on, the boys strengthen their camaraderie underwater with “All Together Now” one of the best new additions to the soundtrack. There’s a liberal amount of grace provided, as the plotline seems to evolve out of the songs. For instance, the ensuing “Sea of Time” makes an obligatory rendition of “When I’m 64” all but imperative.

Then, the “Sea of Science” births the organ-propelled new-age rhapsody of “Only a Northern Song.” Even an early Rubber Soul track like “Nowhere Man fits in a pinch to obliquely describe the rhyming, rolly polly alien furball Jeremy, going by any number of names (Jeremy, Hillary, Who?). The Sea of Holes (a nod to “A Day in the Life”) gets us closer to Pepperland and finds Ringo picking up a souvenir from their adventure (I’ve got a hole in me pocket). Really you could choose any of these tie-dyed realities as emblematic of the entire experience but for my money, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the film at its height of kaleidoscope psychedelia.

When we finally do return to the monotone Pepperland from The Sea of Green, the juxtaposition is stark. We see to what extent the Blue Meanies repression of song has drained the landscape. Without any musical expression, all color has gone out of life quite literally, and it’s the lad’s job to put it back where it belongs.

They don disguises, casting them as the spitting image of the members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, currently encased in a giant fishbowl. Not for long. It is this final assault that somehow captures the magic of all the great adventure stories childhood’s have thrived on. The boys go into the heart of the enemy territory only to come prepared for a showdown and take back what is theirs. The only difference is their weaponry is a killer soundtrack to bring the Meanies to their knees.

It really is a tour de force in the final stretch stacking tracks like “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from Friends,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Hey Bulldog” one after another. It’s an agreeable onslaught of tunes exploding over the screen and revitalizing the world, flushing Pepperland with a cornucopia of colors as one might expect.

We reached the apex of the concept album, paying heavy dividends in this animated film with a world loaded up on background whimsy and filled out by content from the Beatles’ hit records. Much to the Meanies chagrin, the hills are alive (with the sound of music) and in battle, two pairs of Beatles are better than one. Three pairs really.

Because we hardly realize till the very end but the Beatles — John, Paul, George, and Ringo in human flesh — barely appear. It comes with a minute-long cameo tacked on for good measure. In other words, they didn’t actually voice their cartoon selves. As a kid, I didn’t care and now it doesn’t make much difference to me either. Because we still have the music exerting its presence over the story. As is, their moment of screen time is a final capstone on a doozy of a film.

Lifelong Beatles enthusiasts, lapsing hippies, and kids with fledgling imaginations can all wholeheartedly join in on the communal Yellow Submarine experience. Yes, the title song is the most overplayed of all the Beatles canon but who cares? This movie is ceaselessly entertaining with bad puns to boot. If quotability is any indication, this might be one of the most seminal movies of my childhood.

4/5 Stars

Brighton Rock (1947) Graham Greene’s Seedy Side of England

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Brighton Rock, based on a Graham Green novel from 1938, opens with a disclaimer about the proceeding content. Great pains are made to differentiate the place depicted within the frames of the film — set before WWII — and Brighton circa 1947. The only reason such a note would be necessary is the fact this picture was preparing to show an unflattering side of the sea town (and also the picture used hidden cameras to film on-location). Before we have even begun, we already have a weird mixture of faux-reality with an authentic period piece. It’s certainly not a false assessment to make.

A handsome, fresh-faced lad with piercing eyes, Richard Attenborough, plays Pinkie Brown, a hoodlum to the nth degree. In fact, the actor’s performance is augmented by his obvious youth. It gives the sense of a young upstart who grew up to be tough due to his environment. He knows no other life, no other person except himself. One can only marvel at Attenborough originating the role three years prior on the stage.

The most obvious point of action begins with some blokes chasing a man named Fred (Alan Wheatley) around, running him ragged in relentless pursuit. Lady of Shanghai (1947) has the hall of mirrors. Woman on The Run (1950) has a roller coaster. Strangers on a Train (1951) has its Tunnel of Love and a haywire carousel. Brighton Rock can ably join the pantheon of morbid cinematic funhouse attractions with its own addition. The Palace Pier might be a fine place for jocularity, but it also serves as a fitting locale for murder.

The solitary person who gives a tuppence at Fred’s disappearance is the gregarious local entertainer (Hermione Baddeley), who takes a shining to him for any number of reasons. Namely, he lends her money and gives her tips on the ponies. But bless her soul, she does try her darndest to get to the bottom of his case, even as the police have already wrapped it up neatly.

The film itself conjures up a gritty world worth exploring, with the blend of British backstreet authenticity and gangster drama. We get accustomed to beer halls, grungy flats, and seaside boardwalks. Part of the joy is seeing the world of 1940s England partially untouched, as it was at the time.

Maybe it’s subliminal, because of the relationship between Graham Greene and Carol Reed by way of The Third Man, but I cannot help seeing shades of Brighton Rock in Odd Man Out and vice versa. Certainly, their characters and situations are starkly different to go with the respective terrain of Brighton and Ireland. Still, you get the same brooding sense of fatalism and the destructive nature of such lifestyles upheld by these lowbrow criminal types.

Like all the finest, most complex gangster films, what we have is the dichotomy of a criminal’s life. In “business” they can be so ruthless, and yet there is still space for family and in the case of Pinkie, love. He is prepared to murder someone for double-crossing him in one moment, and then ready to go courting with his girl the next.

The impressionable girl in question is Rose (Carol Marsh). She is a waitress who unwittingly has information to incriminate Pinkie. So he promptly goes to work on her. Being a soft touch and seeing as he has a certain amount of charm, it’s easy enough to pull off. In her naivete, she’s easily taken with him and falls head over heels in love. Ready to do anything and everything to shield him. It’s just what he wants, another person to use.

Because to the very end, we must suspect he is only keeping her close because she knows too much. As much as we want to believe he might actually love her — and be redeemed to some extent — it’s pretty clear it never happens. He remains an incorrigible reprobate, who nevertheless believes in hell and damnation.

Reckoning, for him, comes first in the form of local kingpin Colleoni who is prepared to lean on the younger hood — he’s getting too big for his britches — the police know it too. But he’s a feisty devil, continually exerting his authority over his band of cronies, even as Ida continues poking around. A racetrack becomes a perfect locale for violent tumult. Although my favorite particular image is a picketer hoisting a big sign “The Wages of Sin is Death” whilst he chows away on a sandwich, there are more imminently menacing theatrics on hand.

The rope is running out for Pinkie and his psychotic little mind sees his one last chance as a double suicide killing so he might get away. We have a sense of what he’s about to do. The rain is pouring down. He and his girl take a brisk walk out to the pier. The events are heightened by this moral imperative where death by suicide is seen as the ultimate sin on some man-made gradient.

Her we have a callow young woman who will so willingly ruin her life and blindly follow a man she thinks truly loves her. Then, there’s a criminal beholden only to himself to the very end, but Attenborough goes out and makes sure we don’t forget him even when he’s left the picture. You can’t forget someone like that nor a performance of this sleazy magnitude.

He leaves behind the gramophone recording of his voice with a malicious note, but whether Pinkie’s own tamperings or a bit of fateful happenstance the record gets caught on the phrase I love you — with everything else conveniently left out. As the camera closes in on a crucifix — the ultimate symbol of sacrificial love —  it seems a very disconcerting thing to hear Pinkie’s words echoing against it.

The music trills to suggest this is meant to be a happy ending, and yet when I see that imagery and hear those words, they don’t mesh. They remind me that the very nature of human beings is often deceptive and cruel.

If God is supposed to be good and perfect, there can hardly be any relation between our imperfect attempts at love and his, if he is indeed perfect. So if we want to retain something, it seems imperative to latch onto the word hope — what the sister entreats Rose to latch onto even as she notes “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Graham Greene was himself an ardently religious man and even in the cynical worlds he often draws up, this hint at something else is striking. You must look upward at something greater or else take a dive into the nihilistic depths of despair. The outcomes of this picture allow for no other logical progression.

4/5 Stars

The Third Man At 70

Oh, how I love The Third Man (or The 3rd Man). Regardless of how you write it, Carol Reed‘s post-war noir is one of those special films that was a case of love at first sight.  I knew some of the reasons already, but watching the film with a friend (on his first viewing) teased them out even more so. It was a nice reminder of why this film continues to enchant me and engage me on fundamental levels time after time.

Dutch Angles in Post-War Vienna

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My buddy was right. The Third Man is inherently disorienting. Visually the film presents all of its subjects from a stilted perspective. They’re always slanted, featured in crammed together close-ups, and never quite sitting square in our line of vision from the camera’s uncomfortably low angles. Whether we realize them or not, there’s no doubt the dutch angels (from “Deutch” or German) manipulate how we experience the action.

Starting with these formalistic elements, the mood is perfectly ingrained in the fundamental building blocks of the story with the crumbling city sectioned off into its uneasy alliances between the WWII victors. We have a crosshatching of districts and a melting pot of language and objectives.

Thus, when the blundering American author Holly Martins walks into the story, he, like his audience, has very little understanding of what is going on. His level of comprehension is lost in translation even as he goes around trying to get to the bottom of the scenario. Joseph Cotten does a fabulous job in the part effectively becoming our eyes and ears in the environment.

And this strong association is part of the reason I so vehemently decried Netflix’s tampering with the original film’s ambiguity. If you’re like me and Holly Martins, you’re no polyglot, aside from a few token phrases here and there. When the old man or woman in the house rattles off something, you’re lost in the unfamiliarity. You’re waiting for someone to explain it, even trusting on the good graces of others. In some regards, you are helpless.

It’s part of the way the film toys with us. You realize the whole time maybe you’ve been played and a whole level of the film’s context has flown over your head. Subtitles alleviate our ignorance but also cause us to lose out on some of the perplexity felt as a result of such a global battleground. The Third Man capitalizes on the richness of these cultural ambiguities.

The Zither & Herb Alpert

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The music is next on my list. My friend was right again. The title song’s awfully familiar and after Anton Karas got plucked off the streets of Vienna to provide the lively but strangely hollow and foreboding soundtrack, it would go onto some acclaim on the music charts (including a guitar rendition by Guy Lombardo).

The tune is one of a select few early movie themes to hit the mainstream remaining fairly recognizable even today. This is even more surprising given its inauspicious roots. My friend connected the dots later only to realize he’d heard the particularly Latin-flavored version by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass on their album !!Going Places!!  He taught me something learned new, but you learn a lot being friends with an avid record collector.

Quick Pacing

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It might be a mere generalization, but I feel like there are often complains leveled at films of yore that they languish, there’s too much talking, and they don’t boast enough action. But I think my buddy was spot on once more. The Third Man has surprisingly timely pacing (aside from the deliberate final shot).

One of the practical reasons for this might have been director Carol Reed literally being hooked on the stimulant Benzedrine to get through his hectic shooting schedule around the clock. This might be one explanation for the zip, even in the opening monologue. However, there’s also an undeniable drive to The Third Man because it’s stuffed with questions, mystery, and underlying tension.

As information begins to reveal itself, we have screeching taxi rides, reveals, harrowing meetings on Ferris wheels, and climactic chases sequences clattering through the rubble-strewn streets and labyrinthian waterworks. But the reason it grips us has to do with falling in with intuitively compelling characters. That’s as good a place as any to bring him up…

Harry Lime: Super-Villain?

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The final observation I found to be particularly interesting was my buddy’s acknowledgment that Harry Lime felt surprisingly modern, a precursor even to the current villain. I want to tease out this idea even more because I’ve been drawn to movies that layer their menace. I can think of the likes of Black Panther or Mission Impossible: Fallout as two recent examples.

However, what I mean by this is how you don’t quite know where the trouble is going to come from, who you can trust, and who will betray you. It makes for a glorious puzzle to navigate. Is Calloway someone we can give our allegiance to? He’s an awful stickler for the law without clemency.

Mr. Crabbin is an unnerving chap before we ever learn who he is and the shifty-eyed likes of the Baron, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu have far more to tell than they willingly divulge. The woman Anna (Valli), who loves Harry, is almost delusional with her unwavering love for a scoundrel. Even Cotten, our initial hero, lumbers around like a drunken idiot, thinking he has everything figured out.

And of course, there’s Mr. Harry Lime himself. The most iconic charismatic, machiavellian anti-hero. Orson Welles makes him a dashing shadowy specter, larger-than-life and theatrical. But there’s no discounting the mercilessness pulsing through him. None of these characters are straight-laced by any stretch of the imagination. They have some flaw, evil, or vice dragging them down. Lime just remains the mastermind and the poster boy of it all.

The one character who seems like a generally agreeable chap is, of course, the one who SPOLIERS gets it. Somehow it fits the times and the world. It couldn’t be any other way.

So 70 years on The Third Man still remains one of the preeminent examples of a quality thriller, pulsing with atmosphere, style, romance, and intrigue. To say they don’t quite make movies like this anymore is immaterial.

What’s truly staggering is how brilliantly Carol Reed’s film still holds up. I look forward to many more viewings to come, preferably with a friend or two. After all, they’re the ones who help me appreciate classics like these with new eyes.

Happy 70th Year to The Third Man! You’re still looking great!

I’m also proud to be a part of the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrating 10 years of existence. Here’s to many more.

Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four_weddings_poster.jpgI’ve been of the certain age where it seems like every friend you have is getting married in the next year. It’s an exhilarating time albeit expensive and a bit taxing (if you’re even able to go to all of them). But most of us wouldn’t trade the joy of being a part of these experiences for anything.

Weddings in themselves have always been a marvelous enigma to me. Because the days before and after are full of preparation, stress, and a barrage of feelings. But the actual arrival of the ceremony is almost surreal. It’s a moment captured in the hinterlands where you’re suspended in this euphoric high that can either be magical or come crashing down thanks to some inexplicable faux pas. Emotions are heightened. Love and romance are on everyone’s minds.

That’s what makes the narrative conceit of Four Weddings and a Funeral such a smashing idea because we know already what weddings do to people and that makes the prospect interesting. Imagine you only really ever meet someone at these regal affairs. She has a fashionable hat. You’re dressed to the nines. Mutual friends are being wed. The bubbly is flowing. She’s an American. You’re British. Well, anyway that’s the preliminary outline of this story.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is perpetually running late to big day after big day. But each one is special and each one of them puts him face-to-face with a gorgeously remarkable woman named Carrie (Andie MacDowell).

First, they connect in the aftermath of a mutual friend’s wedding, getting to know each other rather well at their hotel. Then the next time they meet his heart goes flutter once more only for her to introduce a fiancee at least 30 years her senior. Charles is devastated. Still, only a little while later, they spend the night together again.

Wedding three belongs to Carrie and you can already feel the dissonance going on as she slept with Charles but is willfully marrying another man. However, they both take it in stride as do their many friends. Until one of the more boisterous members of their crowd, Gareth, dies from a heart attack.

So in the final stretch, we have Charles looking to tie the knot with one of the various girlfriends we’ve met at the subsequent gatherings, Henrietta. That is until the news hits about Carrie’s marital status when they cross paths quite by chance. She’s no longer married. The Pandora’s box of doubt has been busted open right on the eve of his wedding day and he’s stricken by indecision as he teeters on the edge of this monumental event.

What Alan Curtis’s script captures exquisitely is the vast network of people and relationships that link and interconnect over the years when you share a friend group and it slowly begins to grow and expand with the passing years. It provides the perfect cultivation ground for myriad characters, budding couples, best friends, priests, parents, and the crotchety elderly. All mainstays of the wedding circuit.

However, the final conclusion arrived at in this romantic comedy feels, in one sense, outmoded and by other estimations, rather selfish and unrealistic. Maybe they are one in the same.

The lovely, whimsical idea of finding “the one” remains intact to the very end but at what cost? Surely it doesn’t matter that another woman has been left at the altar and a whole wedding has been canceled because of what we might pragmatically term one man’s indiscretion or closer yet, his selfishness.

That ethereal feeling of the quintessential movie romance is unfortunately sullied. Perhaps I’m perceiving too much of reality and not enough of the lens of fairytale magic that might be afforded such a narrative, but I cannot help it.

Like I already mentioned, I’ve been in those moments where people you know and love were getting married. I’ve seen the affection in their eyes and on their faces. There was not an ounce of visible apprehension there. Everyone in the room, the chapel, or the banquet hall, knew it full well. These were people who were in it for the long haul. This was not a flippant decision, a momentary fling, or a mere consolation prize.

This was the joining of two people through thick and through thin. Maybe it is soppy but to me, it proves far more fulfilling than its alternative. In my naivete, I’d like to believe that there are still people out there who are committed to marriage and they’ll willingly dig in together for better or for worse. My assertions might fly in the face of this film but I’m okay with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has its moments of delight, however, in the end, it cannot do complete justice to the utter jubilation when you’re with your friends or family celebrating the union of two people you dearly love. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Each wedding is personal and unique all to its own.

3.5/5 Stars

Summertime (1955)

 

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It’s summertime and the living is easy. It makes me think of sultry summer days and cool summer nights and George Gershwin. But summertime also means travel. It did for my family when we were growing up as kids and it took us to many places near and far off. That’s what this film gives us license to do. Venture into another world for a picturesque vacation.

News that Summertime was supposedly David Lean’s favorite picture of his own work is not all that surprising when put into the context of his career. When I think of him I am quick to reference monumental epics or British narratives out of Charles Dickens but here is a picture that feels strikingly different. It’s intimate and small yet still gorgeously photographed and affecting. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Great Expectations (1946) but it has no aims to be. That’s what makes it a delightful change of pace.

Katharine Hepburn plays an American school secretary from Akron Ohio, one Jane Hudson, who has always had a dream to travel and get out of Middle America to see the world. We see her aboard a train bound for Venice and she’s beyond ecstatic chatting up her fellow traveler and snapping pictures on her camera that’s already logged rolls and rolls of film undoubtedly, capturing the most mundane things for the simple fact that they come from a foreign land.

But there are even more stereotypical American tourists who are hilariously ignorant and subsequently stick out like a sore thumb wherever they wind up. To say the McIlhennys are slightly insufferable is kind of the point. Still, they’re hardly to be taken seriously. It’s people like them that cause Jane to want to venture to Italy to get away and allow herself to be wrapped up in the throes of another culture. I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. I feel that way now.

So, in one sense, she still maintains the awe of a tourist but manages to experience the life as if she were a local and that’s the key, boarding in a pensione and trying to get a taste of everyday life.

First, she is befriended by a spunky little boy who tries to sell her his goods and out of that grows a mutual affection for one another. She also wanders into an antique shop to buy what she deems to be a precious goblet and strikes up a conversation with the proprietor (Rossano Brazzi) who she had unwittingly crossed paths with before. This is the first of many meetings.

In a film such as this where the sets are left behind for a foreign locale, a place like Venice very easily becomes almost another character in the film because being there alone creates a dimension you would never get otherwise. Without Venice, those layers of history, accents, and textures, something magical would be lost. But with it, Lean makes something that rings with gentle passion.

The sumptuous visuals capture both the immense character and quaint waterways with their gondolas drifting lazily by. Tailor-made for romance especially between an American school teacher and a handsome Italian shopkeeper, bringing them so close together over the course of the film. The Piazza San Marco is showcased front and center in numerous sequences but even with its presence this still exists on a smaller scale than the parade through Rome that is Roman Holiday (1953). Because it readily occupies itself with many smaller scenes too.

Lean even preceded Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) with a very similar fireworks show. In both cases, the moment signifies the strides made in the relationship and just how splendorous they are.

Summertime also features one of the most striking endings because it’s not quite as cathartic as we are used to in a love story and yet it hardly can be considered downbeat or melancholy. A lot like life, it simply is and how can you be glum anyway? It’s summertime. Venice is immaculate. Love is afoot.

It so enraptured David Lean that he would make it his home away from home. At that point, it doesn’t matter if we like this movie because as its director Lean was taken with it. That’s praise enough.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Though he would make Jamaica Inn the following year, it’s undoubtedly The Lady Vanishes that situated Hitchcock for the move to Hollywood as his last great British film showcasing once more his immense aptitude as a storyteller no matter the resources on hand.

At the beginning of the proceedings, an avalanche makes accommodations at an inn, hidden away in Europe somewhere, rather sparse and it makes for strange bedfellows and noisy neighbors. Among them are the prized comedy duo Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford), a pair of quibbling cricket enthusiasts. Meanwhile, radiant Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is just coming off a glorious vacation with a couple girlfriends as she returns to get married to her fiancee.

Dame May Whitty makes a fine showing as a rather whimsical eccentric, playing the role of a kind-spirited governess enjoying some time in the land she deems a little slice of paradise. In one off-handed comment, she notes with bright eyes, “I don’t think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

It’s a passing line that suggests Hitchcock’s own indifference to politics. He briefly touches on the political climate at the time but never looks to go in depth and make some grandiose statement about the state of affairs in Europe. That is not his sentiment. Instead, he takes the natural climate of the times utilizing them for the sake of his narrative.

Things couldn’t be more delightful for them both in their encounter and yet the overcrowding is far from agreeable as an obnoxious neighbor in the attic (Michael Redgrave) unwittingly serenades the entire floor below him with an atrocious melody. It pales in comparison to the beautiful vibrato Ms. Froy was met with on her balcony nor is it quite as significant.

Of course, it’s Iris that Gilbert Redman really perturbs especially when she gets him ejected by the manager only to have him turn right back around and make himself at home in her suite. Thus, we have a bit of initial friction at home in a rom-com soon to be turned into a delightful mystery escapade with splashes of intrigue and absurdity.

The largest and most enjoyable leg of the adventure takes place onboard the train but it only works because of a seemingly inconsequential development. Iris is positively swimming after an ill-fated brick conks her on the temple and she is helped onto the train by Ms. Froy who tells her to rest up.

Iris obliges. Except when she awakens her lady companion is not in their compartment. She’s nowhere to be found. In fact, everyone that she interrogates corroborates that they never saw this kindly old lady. She must not exist. Just like that the game is afoot as our heroine endeavors to track down her friend and stave off the impending doubts that this woman was only a figment of her imagination.

It’s these perplexing developments that feel rather like a conspiracy. Still, it’s hardly that type of thing at all. It’s the very fact that all these people are humans — they’re selfish –with different self-serving motives for keeping up the charade. The clandestine couple with the man looking to stay conspicuous and a woman not minding a little bit of scandal.

The Cricket aficionados bent on getting to their match in time along with a whole host of others. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist (Paul Lukas) points out that Ms. Froy sounds vaguely like Freud and must simply be the inner workings of Irises subconscious. Of course, that’s only an easy way to explain away what is actually happening.

She likens Gilbert (Redgrave) to the dog that follows her around and it’s true he quite faithfully stays by her side even taking up the mantle of her investigation. Soon they’re traipsing around like a maladjusted Holmes and Watson, Redgrave going so far as to don a deerstalker as Lockwood coughs and passes him a pipe in utter parody.

They end up making quite a ruckus in the magician car full of hats, rabbits, and boxes with false bottoms and for the added fact that they get into a bit of a scuffle. But that’s only the beginning. Because, of course, what is a Hitchcock film without a little bit of international espionage? But once again he brings it into the world of tourists and well-to-do British subjects who have no right to be in such a scenario.

Factions form and the remaining passengers look to make a break for it amid a gunfight with foreign adversaries. Never before has there been such a droll reaction to a gunshot wound. A very Hitchcock moment without question.

The Lady Vanishes fits into the long lineage of Hitchcock with similarly high profile sequences from The 39 Steps (1935) to Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959) but for the amount of time spent aboard, this picture is his most formidable train film.  It uses the very motion and sound of the steam engine to add crucial momentum to the plot.

Hitchcock speeds events to their conclusion and once more we find that in many cases our objective was utterly pointless, even throwaway, but it did give rise to one of the great thrillers of the 1930s. Part of the film’s unequivocal success comes from drawing equally from the wells of comedy and suspense. The laughs are ever present but far from being to the detriment of the drama they only augment the action, adding to the contours of our characters and pointing out the sheer ridiculousness found in this plotline. It’s wonderful.

4.5/5 Stars

Young and Innocent (1937)

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We meet the faces of a man and a woman bickering furiously. Another young man finds a limp body awash on the beach. He runs to get help but two young girls see his response of fleeing across the sand and believe what any normal person would believe. He’s leaving the scene of the crime. Their screams are personified by seagulls a fitting precursor to The Birds years later.

Soon film star Christine Clay covers the tabloids and the fellow finds himself on trial for murder. This is the groundwork for Young and Innocent and we have yet to even meet our heroine.

There’s a bubble-headed lawyer who’s a very nice sort but, nevertheless, a bit of a country bumpkin. Not much for such a high profile case. Thus, no one can blame the accused for fleeing the courtroom in a brief moment of tumult. Hitchcock even finds time to pose as a cameraman outside the courthouse. But more importantly, the wheels begin turning as the fugitive Tisdale calls upon the reluctant help of the local Constable’s daughter Erica Burgoyne.

Erica has become a bit of a matriarch in her family of boys and she’s learned to be a mother, a daughter, and so much more for her father and brothers. Yet soon she’s seemingly become an accessory to an assumed criminal in helping him escape. Because at the core of this story, is a variation on the Hitchcock motif. There are two innocent people on the run trying to get away including Erica who gets whisked away in the moment.

The MacGuffin set out for them to pursue is a purloined raincoat. With it comes the promise of exoneration of the wanted man. But outcomes are never that easy nor the road getting there. It leads to a row of diverting events from a brawl at a roadside rest stop with the local population of bums and even a kiddie birthday party where Erica crawls with anxiety for harboring a wanted criminal in her auntie and uncle’s home.

The story devolves into an entertaining cross-country chase, but in this particular case making its way through the countryside and to a proverbial abandoned mine shaft. These very quaint locales and the small town feel with bumbling policemen and bickering lads around the dinner table make this one feel like one of Hitchcock’s overtly “British” films or maybe one of his most stereotypically British efforts.

Some visual flourishes include a cliffhanger moment captured in typical jarring fashion and equally enjoyable is a fairly expansive crane shot that carries us through a hotel focusing on a certain person in question. Our plucky protagonist has called upon the services of an old hobo to identify the man who contacted him — the man undoubtedly implicated in the murder. Such a scene is pure Hitchcock, directing our gaze in such a way that the image he places in front of us is unavoidable. There’s no doubting his intention and he lays everything out for a fine conclusion.

Blackface aside as a horrible cultural anachronism, this picture comes off well today with Nova Pilbean coming into her own as a charming protagonist who boasts smarts and a disarming drive even as she gets whisked along.  Previously she played a crucial role in Hitchcock’s earlier thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, but here she’s one of the undisputed stars and she and Derrick De Marney have a solid chemistry working. Of course, it’s not that customary to come to a Hitchcock picture for true romance. Still, Young and Innocent is indubitably worthwhile for aficionados of “The Master of Suspense.”

3.5/5 Stars