Green for Danger (1947)

green-for-danger-2Green for Danger gives murder mysteries a good name because it is drawn up excellently but also with a degree of charm and that should not be taken too lightly or maybe it should. But either way, there’s no doubt that director Sidney Gilliat’s tale based off of a novel by Christianna Brand is quality entertainment.

Early on the fitting backdrop of wartime Britain circa 1944 is developed from a historical moment that is uniquely dynamic in its own right. The German V1 “doodlebug” rockets are raining down overhead leaving the Isles in rubble. In such an environment nurses and doctors must work continually to care for numerous patients in need of medical assistance. The most pivotal patient for the sake of this story is the seemingly unextraordinary postman Mr. Huggins. Complications on the operating table do not bode well for him and he doesn’t make it. Though it hardly seems the pretense for murder.

Still, some are not so sure. Namely, the suspicious Sister Bates and yet another murder, this time more blatant, gathers the attention of Scotland Yard and so they send one of their men over — our trusty narrator — the one and only Inspector Cockerill (Alastair Sim).

He dictates the entire story with a rather amused detachment, conducting his job with a certain degree of care but he doesn’t mind a laugh or two. It’s truly a delightful performance from Sim, playing the jocular inspector like we’ve never seen before. His is a dryly wicked wit and he’s even prone to little bits of physical antics. One moment he watches with the giddy satisfaction of a schoolboy as the doctors duke it out, making no effort to stop the violence. But he also makes full use of a pair of voluminous eyes that can shift between sly glances and glaring accusations whenever the change is called for.

green-for-danger-1He comes in and steals the film but he does have some enjoyable castmates to work off of. Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) the anesthesiologist and the suave surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) are both in love with the same girl and understandably so. The attractive Nurse Freddi (Sally Gray) is a real prize but only one among a taut nursing staff including the fragile Nurse Sanson and the always lively Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins). Before the Inspector arrives on the scene they are the true backbone of the storyline and it’s confirmed early on that the murderer comes from within their ranks. The age-old puzzle is left, to decipher who the culprit is and for what nefarious purpose.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the revelation of the murderer and the reason for the murders is hardly the highlight of the film. Because although we are dragged along by our curiosity as we have been trained to do with such mysteries, engaging films such as Green for Danger have more depth than the simple patterns of intrigue with a big reveal at the end. Because once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, or at least you won’t be surprised the next time around. But this rendition has enough life in its characters, specifically Sim, to work beyond a basic murder mystery plot.

It strikes me that British backdrops often serve as the best environments for Whodunits and the quintessential nature of this reality has to do with certain sensibilities that the British people generally embody. They are civilized, proper, and not prone to the same fits of drama as other people. There’s also a reason that film-noir is an American genre and not really English. That darkness seeps out more readily and uninhibited.

But the Whodunit can still function because, despite their outward exteriors, that does not mean the characters within this film cannot still stoop to jealous action and even murder. Green for Danger is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in such themes.

4/5 Stars

Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

A Hard Day's Night 2.pngAre you a mod or a rocker? ~ reporter

Um, no, I’m a mocker ~ Ringo

As a 4 or 5-year-old, I didn’t know who the Marx Brothers were and no one had told me yet about Cinema Verite and what that meant. But I loved the Beatles. Also, I didn’t find out until years later that Richard Lester was an American director who caught the eyes of the Fab Four and predicted the MTV age with its frenetic editing style. But if you actually watch A Hard Days Night with the eyes of an unabashed fan — like I was as a boy — none of that matters. So let’s leave that on the drawing room floor and look at what makes this film pop with vitality all these years later.

Any conversation must begin with the music. The film bursts onto the screen with the iconic riff of A Hard Day’s Night as the Beatles scramble down a street corner fleeing frantically from a screaming mob of fans. It perfectly encapsulates this rash of Beatlemania that was exploding onto the world stage and making its way across the pond.

And what the film does so well is create this fun aura around the four lads from Liverpool. There silly, fun, a bit cheeky too but there’s something so endearing about them still. It struck me this time around that these are four men are hardly over 20 years of age and yet they had fame and stardom thrust upon them. And they are superstars but they don’t act quite like superstars.

A Hard Day's Night.png

The filming style and handheld camera work lend themselves not only to Lester’s frantic style but there’s also an indication that this is a day in the life type of musical comedy (no pun intended). It’s the perfect combination of quotable one-liners and zingers paired with a certain British humor (I now declare this bridge open!) and some of the early classics from the Beatles canon (Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You, etc).

Paul’s Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is very clean but that’s only a veneer for a searing personality that looks to manipulate others and stir up trouble. On Paul’s own account he’s a real mixer.  Norm is their road manager and general killjoy while Shake is his gangly hapless sidekick good for a few laughs of his own.  If you want a “plot” in the conventional sense you probably won’t get it but it’s enough to watch the boys run out on their obligations by sneaking off to dance parties or abandoned fields to do their own renditions of Monty Pythons silly Olympics.

A Hard Day's Night 3.png

We watch them in their idle moments as John messes around in the tub and George exhibits his shaving prowess on Shake’s mirror image.In another moment George takes a wrong turn and finds himself in some new age advertising agency where he unwittingly tears their campaign to shreds by calling their merchandise “grotty.” Meanwhile, the boys are herded from press junkets to tapings, from makeup to answering fan mail (a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room). That’s about their life at this stage.

It’s odd to think that the name The Beatles is never spoken in the film. It just is. It’s part of the world consciousness. It brings to mind a chance encounter John has with a woman who while she doesn’t utter his name notes his striking resemblance to one of the boys. In the end, she’s mistaken and he walks away muttering that she looks more like “him” than I do. So A Hard Days Night is a film that while boasting great music and wonderful comic mayhem still is a slight commentary on the Beatles stardom.

They have become beholden to their rigid tour schedule. Prisoners in a sense. But they still find time for personal expression and a bit of playful rebellion despite those very restraints. Of course, the backbone of this comic-laden rock musical is the pinnacle of their artistic expression — their music. By now all these songs are like old friends to me that it hardly seems necessary to list them off one by one. You just have to hear them.

In the final moments before their climactic show, Grandad stirs up Ringo to go out and live a little and so the boys must track him down before time runs out. What follows is an inane ruckus involving the majority of the local bobby population. But all four make it back and put on a lively showing for their adolescent admirers screaming their heads off the entire set.

As quick as they arrived they get whisked off by a helicopter to their next destination ready to rock another day. I’m not sure if this is based on the film or my own wishful dreaming, but I like to think that they’re heading across the ocean blue as the flagship of the British Invasion. When you watch this film it all comes into clearer focus what all the hoopla was about. They had a genuine charisma, a certain presence, and their music speaks for itself after all these years. Still sincere, catchy, and enduring even in its pure simplicity. Billions of screaming girls can’t all be wrong.

5/5 Stars

Fallen Idol (1948)

fallen-idol-poster-1948Fallen Idol is a fascinating film for how it develops inner turmoil. It’s earnestly interested in the point of view of a child and as such, it functions on multiple levels –that of both kids and adults. Philippe’s (Bobby Henrey) home is the embassy as his father is a French ambassador who is always away on the job. So Phil’s a little boy who is perpetually in the care of servants. Namely the authoritarian Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) and her good-natured husband (Ralph Richardson).

It seems like he has a fairly cushy life, able to have his run of the embassy, play all the time, and eat three square meals a day. He diverts himself with numerous trifles like any good little boy would, including an affinity for his pet snake McGregor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Baines is constantly pestering and prodding him to behave. Simultaneously Mr. Baines continually affirms his boyish nature. It’s no secret which one Philippe likes better.

This triangular relationship is vital to the film but it’s only the beginning. Because Mr. Baines, rather understandably, is unhappy in his marriage. It’s not working out for him and he has met another woman (Michele Morgan) who he dearly loves and who loves him. Of course, the one moment he goes off to meet her in confidence, the mischievous, prying eyes of Phillip find them, but he does not fully comprehend what he is seeing — what they are talking about in hushed voices — as he nibbles away at tea cakes and pastries.

The nuances of the events at hand are earnest between two deeply concerned adults who fear never being able to be together. But again, as a young boy, Philippe doesn’t quite understand the subtext of all that is going on. How could he? And Carol Reed does a wonderful job of conveying this through some simple camerawork throughout the story. It always seems like Philippe’s point of view is either from the distant staircase looking down at the figures below or he is looking up at the adults who stand above him. There’s always a pronounced distance, a gap that must be forged. And all of this suggests just how far removed he is from the events swirling around him.

At this juncture, Mr. Baines asks him to keep their secret and they go on an escapade to the zoo together. Philippe is happy with the reptile house and other animals, while Mr. Baines is soaking up his final moments with Julie before she goes away. She can’t bear to not be with him. Still, Phil is uninterested in the whole business.

But later, when some words slip out, Mrs. Baines puts two and two together. Now she is asking Phillip to keep their own little secret. He’s been asked to hold onto two conflicting secrets now and he doesn’t quite know how to respond. His mind’s convictions about lying and truth-telling are tied up in knots and they remain that way for the entire film.

The final act is even tenser as Baines must cope with the tragic aftermath of his wife’s death. She was confronting him about his love but that’s hardly the most interesting part. At this point, Phil thinks he knows what he saw and he doesn’t want to tell on Baines. In his eyes, Baines killed someone, but he likes Baines. There’s this troubling moral dichotomy that’s created in his little head. When the police inspector comes in digging around for the truth, the boy’s no help and Baines’ story is highly suspect at best.

Everything young Philippe does in an attempt to help only serves a hindrance for the man he idolizes. His allegiances were manipulated and by the end, his cries to be listened to are all but disregarded. When all is done he scampers down to his returning mother joyously. Completely ignorant of the bullet that Baines has dodged. It’s the perfect ending, summing up a film about a child embroiled in something far above what he can even fathom.

He doesn’t quite understand that Julie is not Mr. Baines niece. He doesn’t know what Mr. Baines meant when he was bickering with his wife about his freedom. Or even that the lady that he clings so closely to in the police station is a woman of the street. That’s what makes the performance that Reed teases out of his actor that much more impressive because it gets that obliviousness and confusion across perfectly.

In truth, Reed’s film brings to mind two other classics of the 1940s from British masters.   The first is Rebecca with Mrs. Baines asserting her domestic dominance rather like the unnerving Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson. Furthermore, the heartbreaking nature of infidelity in this film also calls to mind David Lean’s heart-wrenching work with Brief Encounter. However, again, what sets Fallen Idol apart is the perspective of a child. It’s an innocent way of trying to make sense of the world. A world that is so often confused, ambiguous, and complex.  The beauty of being young is that same naivete. So much has gone on and Phil has seen and done so much. Yet when his mother is home, he cannot help but be happy to see her. All else fades away. That innocence remains to the end.

4.5/5 Stars

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

 

a-clockwork-orange-1“He will be your true Christian: ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify” ~ Minister of the Interior

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange began as a troubling book and it becomes perhaps an even more troubling film full of volatility placed in the hands of Stanely Kubrick.

At its core are many deep-rooted issues of violence, morality, and free will all coming to the fore because of one teenage hoodlum and his rehabilitation from a life of savage juvenile delinquency. Whereas Burgess created this parable in all sincerity to consider these very issues of morality, it’s easy to get the sense that Kubrick simply found this moral conundrum a fascinating exercise in itself. You only have to look at Dr. Strangelove to see his proclivity towards wicked wit or only to venture with 2001 to observe his penchant for deep philosophical paradigms wrapped up in the science fiction.  A Clockwork Orange has all of that and it’s a perturbing practice in both satire and science fiction. It hums with classical music and synths, shot with distorting wide-angle lenses, while also modeling Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies.

Malcolm McDowell’s voice-overs as the main hoodlum Alex DeLarge are a major component of the film’s structure, recalling the phraseology and world developed in Burgesses original source material. For instance, Beethoven becomes Ludwig Van. Droogs are friends. Horrorshow is good or well. Then, Ultraviolence and the old in-out don’t need much explanation.

In fact, during the course of this film, Alex takes part in equal measures of both, causing havoc with his friends and bedding a pair of girls. There is seemingly no end to his depravity and the fascinating part is that he seems to enjoy it all.

That is, until, the government steps in to reform him. Alex is sent from prison to the Ludovico Medical Facility where he is to be issued a new variation of aversion therapy. And this is where, rather ironically, the famed sequence of Malcolm McDowell eyes wide screaming at the images passed in front of him entered the public consciousness. His corneas actually getting scratched in the process and the images forever ingrained in our society from that point forward.

But all of this early depravity, followed by his rehabilitation are only the beginning.  And it’s in these interludes that Kubrick tries to impress upon us the idea of Alex being our hero. It’s a difficult thought to deal with. But that’s of little consequence compared to the moral issues that hang in the balance here.

You cannot watch this film and not only feel somewhat dirtied but also saddened at what man is capable of doing. And it’s not only in the case of one man to another, or a small group to another. But, in this case, an entire bureaucracy of people systematically ridding their streets of crime. It’s a strange question maybe, but the question must still be asked, at what cost is all of this? It deserves our attention.

And to try and tease out some answers it seems crucial to look back to Burgess because although these are questions that undoubtedly intrigued Kubrick as well, but it was Burgess who first brought them to the fore. In this case, the author’s own religious background seems to have telling implications for this moral tale that he wove. He intended A Clockwork Orange to be a parable of what defines free will and forgiveness from a Christian perspective in particular.

What is goodness or forgiveness if we lose our free will — if we are only machines — functioning without beating hearts and all that is human within us. What kind of good would the greatest act of love in the universe be if it was done out of compulsion — not genuine love and charity?

In the case of Alex DeLarge, he no longers craves ultraviolence or his former lustful desires for women, but it has nothing to do with a change of heart. He’s simply learned to be repulsed by them. Kubrick’s picture is darkly perverse and the film ends not with the promise of the novel but a thoroughly downbeat ending that rings hollow.  It becomes obvious that Alex’s core desires have hardly changed. He’s simply been conditioned to know what is “good” and “bad.” That’s perhaps an even more terrifying reality than one of violence and evil.

The story goes that when Gene Kelly crossed paths with Malcolm McDowell he coldly walked away because it was in this film that his iconic tune “Singin’ in the Rain” was notoriously tarnished. But really this entire film is a dark blot and it’s truly horribly dismal to watch at times.  I cannot even manage to watch it in its entirety. Not simply for its graphic nature, but the tone that it endows. While Alex DeLarge is far from a sympathetic protagonist, it’s hard not to pity him — poor fool that he is.

3.5/5 Stars

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

thespywhocame1Adapted from the John le Carré novel, this is a black & white spy thriller that personifies cold war paranoia in ways that Bond never could. Richard Burton is an operative working in Berlin before being demoted to a librarian job. It looks like our narrative is heading in a direction hardly fit for a spy film. Its intentions are not so obvious at first, and it keeps its audience working for the rest of the film.

Alec becomes fond of his colleague Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is a young member of the British communist party, but he’s also prone to drink and outbursts of anger. He’s become the perfect target for defecting, and the enemy reaches out to him just as would be expected. They send him to the Netherlands promising payment for the disclosure of British secrets. In these moments there is a great deal of dialogue that feels somewhat trying. It ends up being a slow burn for Burton and the viewer as new layers and wrinkles are added to this whole espionage affair. Only does it get interesting when the girl winds up back in the equation. All of the sudden, the stakes are a lot different, a lot more hangs in the balance, and a lot of new twists present themselves.

As an audience, we are thrown into the tension of the moment, and we become utterly befuddled by all that is going on around us. It’s as if when we finally prick up our ears in anticipation we no longer know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. Where do the allegiances lie?  Who is “good?” Who is “bad?” Or is everyone just a muddied shade of gray?

Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation is only alluded to and remains more prominent in the original novel. Here we have a storyline where the sadistic German ultimately survives and the Jewish agent is destroyed. It’s a cruel bit of irony that hardly needs to be explained, but the implications are decidedly troubling. With such an observation we cannot help but recall the pogrom-filled past of European history — most devastatingly the Holocaust a mere 15 or 20 years before.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a dour, misanthropic picture of the Cold War era. A narrative perfectly matched for Burton’s pair of somber eyes, cynicism, and brooding. He’s a man who speaks of Peter Pan and God in the same breath — they are both fairy tales. His role as a spy is never glorious, instead besmirched by conspiracy and lies. When you put it that way it’s not very appealing at all, and it shouldn’t be. Director Martin Ritt, unfortunately, is a greatly under-appreciated director and his films are often tinged with moral and political undertones that follow troubled characters.

Notably, this film felt like a precursor to The Three Days of the Condor, except this time it’s about the British organization Control that pulls the wool over the eyes of the enemy. The conspiracy runs so deep it’s almost difficult to even comprehend it.  Maintaining its tone, the story ends much like it began, very bleak indeed. This is a film that deserves your time and demands your full attention.

4/5 Stars

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” ~ Richard Burton as Alec Leamus

Venus (2006)

Venus_ver2“God, he was gorgeous.”

When the waitress looks at the image in the obituary, she’s talking about Maurice Russell, but for all intent and purposes, she might as well be talking about Peter O’Toole. In some ways, they’re one in the same. He certainly was a ruggedly handsome young man with piercing blue eyes. Certainly capable and epic enough to play the inscrutable title character in Lawrence of Arabia. But his life had as much turmoil as it did success. O’Toole in his present incarnation looks wrinkled, perpetually tired, and dare I say, somewhat decrepit. It’s not just the fact that he is so many years older, but his life was a hard one involving heavy drinking and many related health issues.  In many ways, it was a miracle he was still alive, but the fact is he persevered and gave us Venus.

I must admit the idea of Venus intrigued me perhaps more than the actual film. Here we have O’Toole, arguably one of the greatest actors ever to come out of the British Isles, playing a version of himself well into his 70s. The opportunities abound for reminiscing and deep soul searching as he looks back at the life he has led. Pair him with another British star like Leslie Phillips and the chance for fun little moments between two old pros seems all the more likely. And Venus is a bit like this; certainly boasting moments of immense depth of character, sadness, and emotional sequences.

However, I had some trouble parsing through the other side of aging star Maurice Russell (O’Toole). In many ways, he just looks like a dirty old man. The assumptions begin when he begins to make small talk with Ian’s (Phillips) grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), who isn’t too keen on living with her great uncle. But a sort of dysfunctional friendship forms thereafter. Maurice gets immense vigor out of spending time around Jessie, who he encourages to model, buys clothes for, and takes out for drinks. But as he deals with his illnesses and ailments, he also seems to have a deep desire to be close to her, bequeathing her the name Venus, the goddess of love, after taking her to his favorite piece in the National Gallery.

However, this symbiotic relationship that they build at times feels excruciatingly uncomfortable and it turns destructive more than once as they have one falling out after another. If you put aside a few scenes of awkwardness — Venus really does have goodness to offer — you just have to be patient. In fact, perhaps Maurice is not dirty-minded but is greatly enraptured by beauty. He notes the most beautiful thing a mortal man can ever see is a woman’s body. But when asked about the woman’s perspective, he candidly replies that their first child is the most beautiful thing they could ever imagine.

I am quickly reminded of the moment where the two old-timers begin to wander the halls of the church acknowledging plaques inscribed with the names of Boris Karloff, Robert Shaw, Laurence Harvey, and Richard Beckinsdale among others. They must come to terms with the fact that someday they too will be up there, but for right now they resign themselves to dancing joyously together. There’s another moment when Maurice drops in on his ex-wife played by a genial Vanessa Redgrave, who has long forgiven him for the hell he put her through. Now as the years have gone by, they have become friends once more, and there is an earnestness in Maurice because he knows he might not be around much longer. Finally, the film comes full circle returning to the tranquil shores in Kent, where it all began, and Maurice is reconciled with Jessie as he feels the water between his toes one last time. His work here is done. R.I.P. Peter O’Toole. You were a true romantic of Shakespearian stature.

3.5/5 Stars

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

220px-Shaun-of-the-deadImagine that, it took me until after I finished the film to realize that its title was an obvious homage to Dawn of the Dead. And why not, because this comedy-zombie film celebrates the genre and George Romero’s lineage, while also carving out its own little niche. Really, this first installment from Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is brilliantly clever in its own right.

What I’ve come to recognize from their partnership is that they are all for the gags, the gore, and excitement, but they also have a handle on emotional impact. The worlds they build through script and character are certainly fun and engaging. I’m not even a big fan of zombie films, but this is probably one of my favorites and that’s because it’s more than just a superficial apocalyptic romp. Heaven forbid I actually care for these characters, but I do. Even Nick Frost, who is oftentimes a real idiot, but even he still finds ways to endear himself.

Simon Pegg goes through your typical hero’s journey, it’s just that it involves a lot of zombies. He begins as a washed-up assistant manager in a dead end job, with a romantic relationship that he’s really messing up. His girlfriend isn’t too happy with him as of late, and after 17 years he’s still at odds with his step-father (Bill Nighy). Meanwhile, his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) is making a nuisance of himself, playing video games and doing little else. It’s a real humdrum life that Shaun’s partaking of. You can see it in his demeanor, even his posture. If you didn’t know any better you’d think he’s a zombie or something. It’s true that Pegg and Wright have fun with a few gags like this, and even when the zombies take over the streets, Shaun hardly seems to notice. He’s so far gone in his own personal funk.

But in his case, a zombie apocalypse is just what he needs to kick-start his life again. He gains new meaning, asserts himself, and acknowledges how much he cares about those around him. He also gets to bash rows of zombies with a cricket bat and blow them up with a Winchester rifle for good measure, while saving his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), so that’s a major bonus.

Edgar Wright’s style is very dynamic and in your face, but within all the hubbub there are real moments of sincerity that elevate Shaun of the Dead not just above a lot of other zombie movies, but a lot of movies in general. Forget simply a zombie flick. This is a romance, a buddy film, and a redemption story all wrapped up into one. Simon Pegg proves himself as a leading man, who we would willingly follow during an apocalypse, especially given the other choices at hand.

4/5 Stars

Notting Hill (1999)

NottingHillRobertsGrantThere is a scene in the film where a group of friends is sitting around the dinner table in the Notting Hill district of London, and they are having a friendly after dinner competition to decide whose life is the most hopeless. The winner gets the last delectable piece of fudge. One person sitting at the table is seemingly out of place. Actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). Her face is plastered on double-decker buses all down the squares. She made $ 15 million on her last film, circa 1999. You would think she’s got it made. But this woman takes her turn and shares about her own brokenness. She’s had surgeries to maintain her beauty. The tabloids rake her life over the coals, and when she gets old, she will only be remembered as the shell of someone who used to be famous.

It’s a haunting, honest look at what it means to be a celebrity superstar, and it is for this reason that Notting Hill works as a charming, at times witty, and altogether unlikely romantic comedy. It’s this simple suggestion that two people, from two entirely different spheres of life, can be together, because of the simple urge of every human for companionship, closeness, and someone to know they exist.

The two individuals, in this case, are Anna who I’ve already mentioned and Will Thacker (Hugh Grant). He’s a nobody just like you and me. He owns a corner travel bookstore, very cleverly named The Travel Book Co. He’s gotten his heart broken seriously twice and his roommate is the oddest crackpot you could ever have the misfortune of living with. That is his average, everyday life, in the neighborhood of Notting Hall.

That’s what makes a visit by an inconspicuous Anna Scott to his bookstore all the more extraordinary, while still allowing for the suspension of disbelief. Everything follows sequentially as it should. He runs into her with a cup of coffee and offers his flat as a place to freshen up. The first kiss comes quite by accident. Days later he winds up in a press conference once again face to face with this great star. But she surprises him by being his date to a small dinner for his sister’s birthday. A nighttime jaunt is accented with all the romance you could ever expect.

It’s too perfect and what follows are two obligatory strikes in their fantasy relationship. Will learns about Anna’s big shot boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) who is back in town. He’s caught off guard by it. Months go by as he tries to forget her, but she shows up on his doorstep looking for that person to talk to once more. When the tabloids show up, she is peeved, directing all her anger at Will, perhaps a little unfairly. And that looks to be the end of it all.

Months roll on again like pages in a travel log and here Anna is again in his shop, like the first time they met.  There’s an earnestness in her request to rekindle a relationship that makes us ache for Roberts. Like any frightened, often wounded, ordinary man, Will turns her down. It’s the logical decision. After all, he doesn’t want to get hurt again. Strike three. Except… his friends rally with him to catch her before it’s too late, because what’s the fun of rationality?

They go racing like a daft crew from Top Gear, “Gimme Some Lovin'” thumping in rhythm with Will’s beating heart. He gets to the Savoy Hotel just in time for her final press conference. A la Roman Holiday he professes his love incognito, and they wind up with it all. Red carpets, quiet afternoons in the park, and most importantly each other.

Notting Hall had me hooked simply with its images of England, a place that is near and dear to my own heart. It’s also a wonderful backdrop for romance, and this story from Richard Curtis finds it’s perfect duo in Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. He is handsome certainly, but that is overshadowed by his decent, every man quality which attracts Anna to him. He’s the man who willingly defends her honor in a restaurant, not because it’s easy, but it’s simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, Roberts perhaps is playing a version of herself, as an actress, but she gives the character the necessary insecurities, eliciting more sympathy than I would have thought possible for someone coming out of Hollywood. Yes, Notting Hall might be a few minutes too long, but getting to walk down Portobello Road just might be worth it.

3.5/5 Stars

Never Let Me Go (2010)

neverletmego1The film is adapted from the novel of  British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned The Remains of the Day. Having not read the source material, I was obliged to take this material on its own merit and so here it goes. This is a numbing, wistful, sorrowful film and the dystopia is set in England circa 1978 in a boarding school. That’s where we first meet the students at Hailsham, who are special individuals with an important purpose in society. They will grow up to be “Carers” and “Donors” in society so that others might be given life. Although it’s an important role it ultimately means a shorter life expectancy compared to normal individuals and they are completely isolated from the outside world until their adult years.

The main people of interest are Kathy, who quickly befriends Tommy, a boy who is often made fun of, and she is secretly smitten. But as time passes one of her closest companions Ruth steals him away from her despite constantly making fun of him initially. Now as they get ready to move onto the next stage of their lives at The Cottage, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is noticeably still hurt that Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is with Ruth (Keira Knightley) and not her. That plagues her and tears her apart inside. You can see it in her eyes and body language, although she never says it explicitly. It’s there.

I must admit, not having read the novel, I have a feeling I did not grasp all the ins and outs of this world, but I did understand what this love triangle meant for those involved. Also, in the back of their minds, they know life as they know it will be ending soon enough. After years pass Kathy is now a “Carer” and is reconnected with both her old friends, who look a lot more gaunt than they ever did before. Ruth admits she should never have come between the other two and they do get together, but it seems far too late for another love story.

neverletmego2Never Let Me Go speaks to the transience of life, the limited time we have on this earth because in the case of these characters life is even shorter. It got to me with its melancholy and I don’t mean that it simply saddened my mood, but by the denouement, I felt deeply affected. Keira Knightley’s role seemed rather unextraordinary although necessary. The real interest for me was watching the relationship form between Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield before being quickly taken away. Then hearing the narration of Mulligan as she tries to make sense of this story and what has happened. On a lighter note, the hairstyles in the film are quite impressive with the bangs and whatever Garfield has going on there near the beginning.

3.5/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge_–_1951_UK_film_posterOftentimes during the holidays, we are quick to label someone a “Scrooge,” almost jokingly because it’s a moniker that’s somehow lost a great deal of its magnitude with overuse and the passage of time. However, if we look at this film, so wonderfully anchored by Alastair Sim, and even Charles Dickens original work from which it is derivative, we would adopt a much wider definition of the word “Scrooge.”

Surely it is the archetypal Christmas tale and one of the most widely adapted works. Off the top of my head, I can think of versions from 1938, ’51, ’70, ’84, and 2009, not to mention countless retellings by Disney, Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, and Bill Murray no less.

We all know at least a little of the legend of Ebenezer Scrooge, and we can come up with a rough composite of what he must be like. He’s money-grubbing, has no spirit, and hates Christmas. If you say any of this you would be, in fact, most heartily correct, but there’s so much more to his character and his story. It’s far more universal than perhaps I would even give it credit for.

The narrative is beautifully elongated with the device of the three specters represented by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively. Of course, it takes the apparition of his long-deceased partner Jacob Marley to scare Ebenezer out of the status quo — out of exactly the kind of person we assume him to be. But the key is he wasn’t always about the “humbugs” and lack of charity towards the poor and needy.

We learn about his story more in depth by the illumination of the first ghost. Scrooge began, a relatively humble young man, but his sister Fan had great affection for him, and he found a young woman named Anne, who loved him in spite of his lowly status. Money did not define their happiness — in fact, they were happier without it. But the way of the world back then was, and still is now, the pursuit of happiness by way of money. In a sense, although Scrooge greatly admired his generous employer Fezziwig, he became scared by the ways of the world. Once joining forces with another ambitious gentleman Jacob Marley, the two of them pressed their advantages when necessary and expanded their assets exponentially. The sweet, savory call of money quickly seduced them and as a result hardened their hearts. You see in the moments where Scrooge loses his sister and breaks off his engagement, that they are so emotionally charged even in the present. He hasn’t quite found a way to alleviate the pain because not even money can satiate that hurt.

The ghost of Christmas present shows him the inside of the humble Cratchit home, bringing to mind his previous comments about prisons and workhouses — as one of their foremost supporters. But the Cratchits, and specifically young Tiny Tim give a humanity to the common man like he has never seen before. He realizes that he has failed miserably in doing one of the most basic things — loving his fellow man and taking care of the widows and orphans. Scrooge still clings to the most poisonous belief that he is too far gone and he cannot be redeemed. That’s why what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him scares him the most. The pictures he sees ahead of him are haunting and all too real, but it makes his opportunity at a second chance all the sweeter.

In truth, when Scrooge wakes up from his dream-filled slumber he’s giddy almost to the point of insanity, but Alastair Sim is so brilliant to play his part that way. His character change is so radical because his paradigm has been completely overturned. It shows in how he interacts with his world whether it’s his housekeeper, a lad on the street, his nephew, or even the long-suffering Bob Cratchit. Ebenezer Scrooge represents the hope of Christmas when mankind begins living for their fellow man instead of all the fortunes in the world that will only grow old and dusty. Thus, before calling someone “a Scrooge,” it is best to take note of what you’re saying and then get the whole story. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for. That becomes obvious even in this streamlined Christmas classic of only 86 minutes.

4/5 Stars