Retro Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, and starring the great combination of Joel McCrea and the beautiful Veronica Lake, this comedy gets little mention today, and is worth revisiting.

McCrea plays film director John Sullivan, famous for his popular comedies. But he feels that his work has no significance, and yearns to make socially-important documentaries. With this in mind, Sullivan dresses as a tramp, and sets off on a road trip, intent on discovering how hard life can be for the lowest in society. His studio boss arranges for a bus to follow him, containing his usual luxuries, as well as a butler and valet. But Sullivan is unhappy with this arrangement, choosing to go off alone, and to travel by hitch-hiking.

On the way, he meets a girl, (Lake) a failed actress trying to return home. Believing him to be down and out she pays for his breakfast, and he is so touched by this, he takes a car from his own luxury home, in order to give her a lift. But his staff are unaware of this, and report the car stolen, resulting in Sullivan and the girl being arrested for stealing the vehicle. The girl then discovers his true identity, and decides to accompany him, dressing as a boy to blend in.

Eventually, the pair discover just how hard life can be, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating free food from soup kitchens. When Sullivan is seen to be handing out $5 notes to help other tramps, he is beaten and robbed for the money. More confusion reigns when Sullivan forgets who he is after the beating, and attacks a railway guard, getting him a term in a prison camp. When his memory returns, he is unable to convince anyone who is really is, and why he got there, but during his time in prison, he finally learns that comedy films and laughter actually mean a great deal more to those unfortunates than any serious documentary ever could.

When his photo hits the front page of the newspapers, the girl remembers him, and his plight is publicised, leading to his release from prison.
Everything ends well, for all concerned.

This sounds lightweight, I know. But it is a real tale of morals, greed, privilege, and discovery. At times very funny, and at others poignant indeed. If you have never seen it, I recommend it for being something very different, with a great cast of actors delivering completely convincing performances.

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The Girl On The Train (2016)

***No spoilers***

I haven’t read the best-selling novel that this film is based on, so cannot comment on whether or not it is a good adaptation. Despite being nominated for a BAFTA film award, the film received mixed reviews on release, most of which I avoided reading, so I would not see any spoilers. I waited until it was shown on TV to watch it, as is it not one of those films you need to see on a big screen.

The story is set in America, in an affluent area close to New York City. Regular train commuter Rachel, (Emily Blunt) watches the world go by from her train window, focusing on the lives of a few families in one particular street she can see from the tracks. We learn that one of those houses is where she used to live, and is now occupied by her ex-husband Tom, and his new wife and baby. His wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) employs a nanny, Megan, who is also the wife of a near-neighbour. There is some physical similarity between these two women, something which becomes integral to the plot.

Back-stories and flashbacks abound, telling us that Rachel is a bitter alcoholic who is stalking her ex, and experiencing blackouts. Megan’s husband is violent and controlling, and Anna is a lazy mother. The film makes frequent use of captions, such as ‘A week ago’, or ‘Four months earlier’, to do this, so you have to be sure to keep your eyes on the screen at all times, or risk confusion.

Rachel’s constant bothering of Tom’s new family attracts the attentions of the police, and she is warned off by female detective Riley. (Alison Janney) With her drinking getting completely out of control, Rachel begins to alienate everyone around her, including the friend she shares a house with. And the viewer is supposedly left wondering if any of her fears are real, or just drunken fantasies.

Meanwhile, Megan is undergoing therapy, and becoming attracted to her psychiatrist, Dr Abdic. She is hoping to escape her controlling husband by beginning an affair with the doctor, and also resigns as the nanny for Anna’s baby.

Are you with me so far?

So we have a sort-of psychological thriller involving three women who are all connected by the same location, and the relationships they once had, or have now.

Then Megan goes missing, and is feared dead. Rachel becomes a suspect, and Megan’s husband becomes a suspect too.

Then it all gets rather silly, to be honest. Clumsy twists, unbelievable coincidences, clueless cops accepting the obvious, and a drunk woman who seems to be the only one who knows what is actually happening. Secrets are revealed in flashback, and the eventual denouement becomes an ‘Oh really?’ moment.

This film is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is. Usually reliable actors choose hysteria over nuance, and the criss-cross timeline is neither arty, nor well-handled. We have seen many similar films before, and all of them are better than this one.

I can only hope that the book was better.

Retro Review: Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

Unlike many crime thrillers and police procedurals seen in Britain at the time, this big-budget film came at the genre with a stellar cast, and high quality black and white location filming in London. It also boasted an A-list director in Otto Preminger, and the screenplay skills of writer John Mortimer. The story also dealt with certain ‘issues’, a theme popular during the 1960s. These included a single parent, a hint at incest, and psychiatric illness.

Following another 60s trend, the main protagonists are American citizens, out of place in an unfamiliar London. This would have also guaranteed an audience across The Atlantic, which the film would hardly have enjoyed otherwise. They are portrayed as edgy, complex, and often aggressive in nature. The British people they interact with remain solid, traditional, and not at all prone to excitement. The stereotypes are therefore cast in stone, as the action plays out.

Single mother Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) has arrived with her small daughter. She intends to live with her brother Steven (Keir Dullea) in London, where he is working as a journalist. On her moving day to a new home, she drops her child off at school, and goes to the apartment to see in the removal men. After getting some shopping for later, she returns to the school at lunchtime to collect her daughter, Bunny. But nobody at the school recalls seeing Bunny. They have no record of her attending, and the child cannot be found anywhere in the building. Presuming a kidnap has taken place, Ann calls the police, much against the wishes of the school staff.

Cue Sir Lawrence Olivier, arriving as an unlikely police superintendent to take charge of the case. After some initial investigations, he begins to suspect that Bunny may not exist at all, and is merely a figment of Ann’s imagination. Nonetheless, he takes his job seriously, delving into the backgrounds of the school staff, as well as Ann’s landlord, the lecherous poet, Horatio Wilson. (Played by the rather grand Noel Coward.)

As Ann searches for any clues to prove that her daughter actually exists, the story becomes less credible, appearing to go for some last-minute shock value to provide a rather unsatisfactory ending. With changes to the original book, and some cast members (especially Olivier) looking very uncomfortable throughout, it is a far from satisfying film, simply remaining an oddity of the period.

Despite that, the London locations and 1960s feel were very interesting to me, and Lynley does her best with the role of the distraught Ann.
But it shows that throwing a big budget and high-profile cast at a film is no guarantee that it will work.

Some French films

An old post from 2013, looking at some lesser-known films from France. David and Eddy have both seen this before.

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The subject of French cinema is a lot to tackle. It is without doubt, the home of some of the greatest films ever made, and many of the best actors to ever perform before a camera. It will need at least two posts on its own at a later date, but here are five film recommendations, just to get you started.

Le Samourai. This 1967 film, shot in Paris, gives you two of the best; the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, and the lead actor, Alain Delon. In this production, they are both seen at the very top of their game. The moody direction and lighting from Melville, the coolest acting style of ‘less is more’ from Delon. The clothes, the hats, the cars, all scream 1960’s, and urban cool. The very good-looking Alain Delon out-cools every actor of his time, in the role of the lonely hit man. It is not…

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Beauty And The Dogs (2017)
(Arabic and French, with English subtitles)
***No spoilers***

Regular readers of my film posts will know how much I like foreign films, those ‘World Cinema’ offerings, with subtitles. I was lucky to spot this Tunisian film being shown late one night on a TV film channel, and recorded it on the PVR.

This is based on the true story of Mariam, a young woman studying at university in Tunis. One night, she organises a party for the students, and goes along with her friends to have an enjoyable evening. Whilst there, she meets a man, Youssef, and they go outside to walk on the beach.

The story that follows is told in numbered chapters, and plays out over the course of just one night, the night following the party. A night when Mariam is raped by police offers, who handcuff her boyfriend while they assault the girl. Crucially, the actual rape is not shown, not even in flashback. As viewers, we only get to hear about it through the stories of Mariam and the man she met. In many respects, the absence of any ‘shock’ footage is even more disturbing, as the lead actress uses emotions to convey her horror, fear, and disgust to powerful effect.

As she tries to get medical help, then file a police report, we see a savage indictment of the state of Tunisia as a country. Poor infrastructure, corruption, a country still ruled and dominated by men, and women treated with little respect or regard. Mariam encounters indifference, and outright hostility, even from female police officers. She is treated like a whore, and made to feel humiliated at every turn. Most of this is based on the fact that she is wearing a skimpy party dress, has make-up on, and is stunningly beautiful.

The attitudes she is faced with range from she got what she deserved, to the idea that reporting such a crime will bring shame on her family. During that harrowing night, she is steadily worn down by officialdom, and deliberate obstruction. But this treatment makes her all the more determined to seek justice.

This is an amazing film, with a central performance by Mariam Al-Ferjani as Mariam that deserved to win a crop of international awards. She is not only perfect for the role, but her acting range is there for all to see, and she must surely have a great future. Filmed mostly on location, and with a convincing cast of actors mostly playing ‘bad guy’ roles, we are rooting for Mariam from the opening scene, to the closing credits.

This may not be easy to find, but I urge you to watch it.

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Snowden (2016)

***Real events, so spoilers do not apply***

This film had slipped past my radar, so I was happy to find it showing on our free film channel, Film 4.

Many of us remember the case of Edward Snowden, perhaps the most significant whistle-blower in history. His story filled the news for a while, as he tried to escape arrest and extradition to the USA for trial on charges of treason. This film from distinguished director Oliver Stone examines Snowden’s background, his various jobs in the CIA and NSA, and his personal reasons for leaking the huge amount of secret information to the world’s media.

I appreciate that for many people, especially Americans, his actions are unforgivable, and he is still regarded as a wanted criminal, currently living in exile in Moscow. However, Stone’s long and detailed look at his life presents us with a different view of Snowden, and his slow journey to disillusionment after a career in the clandestine agencies of the American government.

Snowden was always a conservative, and a patriot; he joined the army to train for Special Forces, completely believing in the duty of America to maintain world order, and protect the freedoms it claims to stand for. Self-taught, with no college degree, he became an expert in computers too, with a genius level on a par with the best. After a serious accident during his army training, he is told he will be discharged as medically unfit. Still desperate to serve his country, he applies for a job as an analyst with the CIA, and is successful. He is immediately noticed for his talent, and completes training as the top student.

Whilst in Washington DC, he meets Lindsey, a free-spirited liberal woman who becomes his girlfriend. That on-off relationship and the difficulties his job places on it become a large part of the film too. But we are mainly shown some fascinating behind the scenes details of just how the ‘system’ works. In collusion with the British spymasters at GCHQ, the CIA begins to monitor email, webcam, and cellphone communication around the world, in any country they choose. Using the justification of the 9/11 attacks, laws and constitutional issues are overturned in favour of the dream of complete surveillance of everyone on the planet. Nothing is beyond their reach, and I mean NOTHING.

This is where the film scored highly for me, with its detailed look at just how vast that network became, with the technical aspects clearly explained for the viewer, though breathtaking in their scale. Despite the convoluted machinations of the agencies concerned, I never felt overwhelmed by tech-speak, or failed to understand exactly what Snowden was a part of. Use of flashbacks dealt with numerous back-stories in a clear and concise way, with on-screen graphics quickly grounding the viewer in time and place. With his work for the CIA beginning to trouble him, he resigns, but eventually starts work at the NSA, as a contractor. Once there, he finds that the scale of the interference in people’s lives is increasing exponentially, and he resolves to do something about it.

Breaking all the rules, and his oath of secrecy, he copies an enormous amount of top secret information onto an SD card, and flees to Hong Kong, where he contacts a film-maker, a TV journalist, and The Guardian newspaper. The secrets are eventually revealed, as we all remember, and every country in the world carries the story in great detail. Snowden tries to escape to political asylum in Ecuador, but when his passport is revoked by John Kerry, he is stranded in Moscow, where he still resides to this day. It was hoped that the arrival of Barack Obama as president would overturn much of the shady dealings of the intelligence agencies. But when he decided to let them continue ‘In the interests of security’, all of Snowden’s efforts came to nothing.

The film has an excellent cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as Snowden, and totally believable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans impresses as one of the top CIA trainers, and Nicholas Cage plays against type as a world-weary code-breaker. Filmed mostly in Europe and Hong Kong, for obvious reasons, locations feel convincing, and despite a long running time, it had my attention from start to finish. This is an important film about a serious subject, and something we should all try to inform ourselves about.

And you won’t leave your laptop open after watching this, I assure you.

Retro Review: Notes On A Scandal (2006)

I have seen this film a couple of times, and never tire of the sheer quality of the acting talent on display.

This deals with the issue of a teacher abusing her position of trust, by having an affair with an underage boy in her class. But it is so much more, weaving jealousy and bitterness, betrayal and middle-class attitudes, into a modern day tale as complex as a Shakespeare play. Directed by Richard Eyre, this stars the irresistible combination of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as fellow teachers at an inner-London school.

One is new to the job, with little idea how to cope, despite becoming the center of attraction for not only her colleagues, but also many of the older boys.

The other is a bitter lesbian; hating her job, and despising her colleagues, as well as the children she has taught for all of her working life. When one sexual encounter is spied upon, events begin that will wreck the lives and careers of all involved, with the viewers as witnesses as it plays out.

Blanchett is Sheba. Younger than her husband, (Bill Nighy) and mother to two children. She has arrived late to teaching, and finds it impossible to cope. But the attentions of a handsome young pupil turn her head, and she cannot resist embarking on an ill-fated and illegal affair with the boy. One incident is seen by her colleague Barbara, (Dench) who decides to use it to her advantage. She dreams of becoming Sheba’s lover, and uses the knowledge of the affair to inveigle herself into the family life of her supposed friend.

As Barbara begins to exert more control over the younger woman, we see her bitter and twisted thoughts laid out on the pages of her diary, as she writes and narrates it for our benefit. Lonely, obsessive, and living a double life, Barbara believes that she can find happiness with her younger colleague, and convince her to move in with her. But when she is rejected, she leaks the information, with catastrophic results.

British drama really doesn’t get better than this. The chemistry and talent of the two women on screen is magnetic, though Judi Dench’s portrayal of Barbara steals the show. Despite solid performances by everyone else involved, tight direction, a great script, and authentic locations, the film comes down to a riveting two-hander as the women discover the truth about each other.

Unreservedly recommended.