Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Craig McCall, 2010) 7/10
Fascinating look at the genius of Jack Cardiff who brought dazzling inovations to the art of colour cinematography. Inspired by great artists - Van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, J. M. W. Turner - he created lighting effects based on the subtle or dramatic lighting he saw on their paintings. He started as a child actor in silent films and went on to be a clapper boy and a camera operator in British films of the 1930s and 1940s assisting great cinematographers like Harold Rossen, Georges Périnal, Ray Rennahan and Harry Stradling. He got his big break when invited by director Michael Powell to work on three films - A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) - creating stunning images in colour. He worked with some of the screen's greatest beauties lighting them to enhance their features - Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Leslie Caron and Faye Dunaway. Marilyn Monroe especially requested that Cardiff photograph her when she came to England to make The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) with Laurence Olivier. His work has inspired modern directors - Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola - who have lifted elements from his work. He later took on film direction as well. He won an Oscar for the cinematography of Black Narcissus (1947) and was nominated for War and Peace (1956), Fanny (1961) and for his direction of Sons and Lovers (1960). In 2001 he became the only cinematographer so far to win an Honorary Oscar for his long and distinguished career. Unfortunately the documentary avoids any mention of his personal life but we get to hear Kirk Douglas, Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills speak about their experiences working with him. Extensive interviews with Cardiff himself bring insight to the golden period of cinema he worked in from 1918 to 2004. He passed away in 2009 at age 95.
Cattle Drive (Kurt Neumann, 1951) 6/10
Rich snotty neglected boy (Dean Stockwell) jumps off his dad's train, runs into the desert and is rescued by a cowboy (Joel McCrea). Forced to go on a cattle drive the boy learns various lessons along the way. Old fashioned story has heart along with great action scenes - chasing a wild horse, a cattle stampede. Stockwell, in his last film as a child actor, is very good and makes a great partner to McCrea.
Discovering Faye Dunaway (Lyndie Saville, 2015) 6/10
Documentary exploring the enigma that was Faye Dunaway, iconic star of the late 1960s and 1970s. Her seminal film performances are discussed by three film critics. She was labeled difficult and uncooperative and was misunderstood. Her work speaks for itself, particularly the troika of films - Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Chinatown (1974) and Network (1976). She appeared with many top actors of the time - Anthony Quinn, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Kirk Douglas, Marcello Mastroianni, David Niven, Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, William Holden, Peter Finch, Jon Voight, Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton and Marlon Brando. Her career went into a dip when she played Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), a brilliant performance, that took camp to the next level. Sexy, feisty and defiant she was more in keeping with stars from the golden era of Hollywood.
Down to the Sea in Ships (Henry Hathaway, 1949) 6/10
Exciting action adventure film picks up after a slow start. A whaling boat Captain (Lionel Barrymore on crutches) and his first mate (Richard Widmark) battle it out over the education of the old man's grandson (Dean Stockwell). The old man feels the boy needs to be trained on the boat to eventually follow in the family's footsteps while the young man thinks out of the box and tries to give the boy a world view away from the boat. The film has spectacular action sequences - the chase and hunt for whales and a collision with an iceberg which almost sinks the boat. Feisty Barrymore is excellent as the gruff old geezer in his last lead role - he would play supporting parts in the few films that came after. Widmark, at the start of his career, is sensitive and dashing while Stockwell is memorable as always - one of the best child actors during Hollywood's golden period. Hathaway directs with his customary flair.
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (Swati Bhise, 2019) 2/10
Lifeless, by-the-numbers British production about the Rani of Jhansi who took on the East India Company during the mutiny of 1857. An orphan who made good in the court of the Marhatas by marrying the son of the ruling Peshwa of Jhansi. When her son dies a young nephew is adopted with permission from the British to be heir to the throne. However, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie's "Doctrine of Lapse" was applied to the State whereby adopted heirs could not rule and Jhansi was ordered to be annexed to the British Empire. This leads to the Rani (Devika Bhise) leading her army against the British proving to be a thorn in their backsides. The production, led by a mother-daughter duo (as director and star/screenwriter), is too stodgy by far, with a plot that fast forwards through the badly-lit events and a cast playing to the gallery and all but twirling their moustaches. Rupert Everett is around with a face full of whiskers as the dastardly British officer trying to capture who he considers to be a pesky trouble maker. Back home in England Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) takes advice from her loyal Indian courtier (a fictional character based on Abdul Karim who in reality was born five years after the Rani's death) much to the disgust of Prime Minister Palmerston (Derek Jacobi). Fascinating story, presented in a heavy-handed way, fails to do justice to a brave warrior who was known as the Joan of Arc of the East, a feminist icon and a fearless freedom fighter whose actions eventually shifted the balance of power and resulted in ousting the notorious and scavenging East India Company leading to the start of the British Raj. Also disconcerting is the characters switching between Hindi and English and back again, sometimes in the same conversation. The film only scores points on its outstanding costumes and production design. A much better version of the story - Bollywood's "Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi" with a dazzling performance by Kangana Ranaut - also came out the same year as this turkey.
Nella città l'inferno / Hell in the City (Renato Castellani, 1959) 7/10
The film's novelty is in its pairing of two of Italy's legendary screen actresses. Their contrasting screen personalities gives this rather stale plot, set in a women's prison, a much needed jolt. A simple woman from the provinces (Giulietta Masina) gets incarcerated in prison for a crime (robbery) she did not commit. The shock and misery of her surroundings is somewhat diminished when a tough and seasoned criminal (Anna Magnani) takes charge of her. Slice of life drama has comments to make about poverty and triumph over adversity. The film is stolen by the overpowering Magnani in another one of her magnificent performances playing a woman with a tough exterior who at a crucial moment exposes a vulnerable side to her personality. The fragile, doe-eyed Masina provides an interesting contrast as the helpless naive who gradually transforms and shows she is not above learning a trick or two in order to survive.
La princesse de Montpensier / The Princess of Montpensier (Bertrand Tavernier, 2010) 8/10
Love triangle set during the turbulent religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in 16th century France. The beautiful Marie De Mezières (Mélanie Thierry), in love with her dashing cousin Henri De Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), is forced into marriage by her father to young nobleman Philippe De Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). When her husband goes off to war he leaves her in the care of his trusted tutor Count Chabannes (Lambert Wilson) who not only teaches her to read and write but also falls in love with her. Sweeping historical drama has Marie getting intricately involved in the sexual politics of the French court as she comes into contact with the heir to the throne, Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) and his formidably evil mother, Queen Catherine of Medicis (Evelina Meghnagi). She juggles the love of four men while France flows with blood as the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day massacre takes place. Old fashioned romp, inspired by the 1622 novel by
Madame de La Fayette, has lots of pomp, gorgeous César winning costumes, handsome production design and is shot by Bruno de Keyzer who uses his camera to capture stunning vistas of the french countryside on the battle field and inside palace and chateau walls. Tavernier, inspired by Westerns, used actors seated on horses while discussing important matters while the film's lighting was inspired by film noir. Thierry, a model turned actress, plays her part in a strangely subdued manner merely reacting to events and other characters. Both
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet (as her husband) and Raphaël Personnaz (as the fiery heir to the throne) give deeply nuanced performances for which both received Cèsar nominations. Sumptuous film scores points for showing the shame of a meaningless war and the psychological effects of it on the men fighting it.
Impardonnables / Unforgivable (André Téchine, 2011) 8/10
This is the first time I've seen Venice on film that doesn't present the city as a touristic travelogue. Téchine brings on a fresh view to the city, the nearby islands, the beaches and the ocean itself. Into the stunning surroundings - many of the scenes have characters in small motorboats on the vast ocean or seen swimming - the director throws in a bunch of very diverse characters all in various stages of angst and flux. An aging best-selling writer of crime novels (André Dussolier), who was once a notorious womanizer, decides he wants to move to a quiet location to write his next book. A bisexual former model-turned-estate agent (Carole Bouquet) recommends a house on the island of Sant'Erasmo just off the coast of Venice. Much to her surprise he also proposes she join him by cohabiting with him at the rented house. A year later they are both ensconsed in the villa and married. Problems start when his wayward daughter (Melanie Thierry) arrives with her own daughter, dumps the child with them and disappears off with her impoverished aristocrat, heroin-dealing boyfriend. Obsessed with finding her he hires his wife's former lover (Adriana Asti), an alcoholic private detective, to search for his missing daughter. In addition, and on the quiet, he hires the detective's ex-con son to trail his own wife as he suspects her of infidelity. A fascinating pot-pourri of characters - each of whom can easily sustain their own movie plots - are thrown into the frey as the screenplay navigates them through their malaise. Téchine's elegant films always chart the complex routes taken by his flawed characters as they drift from relationship to relationship as they fail to find peace and contentment. The elegantly age-ravaged Bouquet, a former Bond girl, still looks ravishing as the only childless adult amongst the characters with the screenplay raising questions about what parents and children bring each other versus what it means not to have any kids. As usual Venice comes off looking the best with it's tradition of housing all kinds of people through the centuries - the happy, the bizarre and the disturbed.
East of Sudan (Nathan Juran, 1964) 2/10
Hopelessly bad adventure film set in colonial Sudan during the Mahdist insurrection. It's actually Sudan by way of Shepperton Studios as the film's fake sets make it all seem very unconvincing. A Private (Anthony Quayle), a prim corsetted governess (Sylvia Syms), her ward - the Emir's daughter (Jenny Agutter) and a subaltern (Derek Fowlds) escape the Mahdi's forces and try to make it up river to Khartoum. Silly hokum was just an excuse to put two British stars through the paces so the producer could take advantage of a government granted subsidy to make a film using stock footage. The actors scramble about strategically placed trees and shrubbery while chased by Arab slave traders and a black tribe until they come across a missionary (Johnny Sekka) who is the brother of an African King. Stock footage from "The Four Feathers" and other films is incorporated during wide shots showing the desert, assorted rivers, waterfalls and wild animals. Quayle and Sims' bickering quickly becomes tiresome and this is a far cry from their previous, much more memorable teaming in Ice Cold in Alex (1958). The film was a big letdown for Quayle as he was coming off "Lawrence of Arabia", his previous film. The only delightful part is seeing 12-year old Jenny Agutter in her film debut.
Ice Cold in Alex (J. Lee Thompson, 1958) 9/10
Riveting WWII adventure film shot on desert locations in Libya. A ragtag group of army personnel - a shell-shocked alcoholic Captain (John Mills), a mechanic (Harry Andrews) and two nurses (Sylvia Syms & Diane Claire) - journey from Tobruk to the British lines in Alexandria in an ambulance. Separated from their convoy they face various perilious situations enroute - manoeuvering through a minefield, dealing with a broken vehicle part, running into Germans and driving through the dangerous Qattara Depression which is covered by sand dunes, quicksand and salt marshes. Along the way they pick up a South African officer (Anthony Quayle), fluent in German, who proves to be very resourceful although they suspect him of being a spy. Classic film is less about war, concentrating instead on the battle between man and the harsh elements. The iconic scene at the end explains the film's hip title - a scene that brought in more money for the actors involved when it was used decades later in advertisements on television for chilled lager. The film, Quayle and the screenplay (full of psychological insights) were all nominated for Bafta awards. The film's enormous success at the British boxoffice allowed director Thompson to later film "The Guns of Navarone" which proved to be an even bigger success.
The Silent Enemy (William Fairchild, 1958) 5/10
The exploits of bomb disposal expert Lionel "Buster" Crabb (Laurence Harvey) in Gibralter during WWII. British undersea divers counteract Italian frogmen and manned torpedo attacks on British naval ships. Crabb leads a team of divers and discovers how the Italians are using a nearby ship to launch attacks on the British fleet. Action packed atmospheric film has stunning underwater photography and despite all the heroics and a sharp performance by Harvey this heavily fictionalized film has a smell of deja vu about it. The corny comic scenes with Sid James also bogs the drama down.