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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a movie you particularly want to see (for example, Logan), sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film you think you ought to see (for example, Moonlight, which I’m expecting to see this week), and sometimes you go to the cinema just because you fancy going to the cinema, not least because the pub next door does a good Sunday lunch (and a good job it was next door, given the horrendous torrential rain and hailstorms we had to put up with today). So it was that I ended up seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, yet more evidence that British film-makers (and, presumably, audiences) are endlessly fascinated by India, both historical and modern. This is a film with a rather anodyne title, belying the fact it deals with some reasonably heavy material.

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The main thrust of the story is focused on Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), nephew of the last Tsar, cousin of the Queen, war hero, and all around good egg. As things get underway Mountbatten is flying to India to take up the post of viceroy and oversee the transition to local rule. With him is his wife (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter (Pamela Travers). Mountbatten is a little upset because he had been hoping to go to Florida and become the (wait for it) Miami viceroy (ha! ha! oh, my sides).

The path to Indian independence is set to be a rocky one, given the cultural and religious divisions that the British have stoked up (one character observes that British Imperial policy seems to be divide-and-conquer, then divide-and-leave), and the country’s Muslim minority, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are agitating for their own state, Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh majority, led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), are set against this, and violence between adherents of the different faiths looms. Luckily, the Mountbattens have no time for this kind of intolerance, and indeed they happily include members of all religions amongst the legions of servants who wait on them hand-and-foot within the viceroy’s house (come on, guys, it’s more like a palace).

Now, you can’t these days make a film about the partition of India which is told solely from the point of view of upper-class Brits, and so the local side of the story is represented by the tale of young lovers Aalia and Jeet, played by Huma Qureshi and Manish Dayal (I guess Dev Patel must have been busy making Lion). She is a Muslim, he is a Hindu, and quite apart from the fact that she’s engaged to someone else, the difference in their religions is bound to cause them trouble.

All right, so there’s some interesting historical material here, but Viceroy’s House cops out of addressing it with any genuine rigour. ‘History is written by the victors’ is the first line of the film, which it goes on to disprove by depriving the Indians who won independence for their country of any meaningful role in the story. Even the terms of reference are suspect: ‘the British have been in India for three hundred years’ a caption informs us, making it sound rather like they’ve been enjoying an extended backpacking holiday rather than engaging in a military occupation. ‘You’re giving a nation back to its people!’ Mountbatten is told, the question of who actually took it away from them in the first place being rather skipped over. The British decision to leave is presented as an act of magnanimity, or possibly a consequence of the sacrifices made during the Second World War, rather than anything to do with the Indian independence movement.

Instead, we just get Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who are both thoroughly decent, working their absolute hardest to see the Indian people get the best possible treatment in a thoroughly inclusive way – Lady Mountbatten sacks her secretary for being a bit racist, then announces there will be more local food on the menu at official engagements from now on. (‘I spend all my life learning to make European food, and now she asks me for curry!’ cries the sous chef, periphrastically.) We are practically instructed to like these people, and feel for them when it all threatens to get a bit too much and their upper lips go a bit wobbly. (The last film I saw which went on about stiff upper lips as much as this one was Carry On Up the Khyber, not the kind of association I suspect the makers of Viceroy’s House were aiming for.)

The political aspect is not gone into in any depth, and even while watching the film you’re aware that complex historical matters are being whizzed through in a pretty facile way. The film’s overall position seems to be that partition was something of a historical tragedy (good luck on getting your film released in Islamabad!), brought about by devious British geo-political machinations, but even here it is painstaking in expunging the Mountbattens of any blame (like that really matters). There’s some strong stuff here (the man given about a month to decide on the border between India and Pakistan, played here by Simon Callow, had never set foot in India before, for instance) but it is not explored in any real detail.

Rather than this, the film opts to follow the Jeet-Aalia romance, which – in true Bollywood style – largely consists of long, longing looks, and the odd dance routine. To say this plotline is chocolate-boxey doesn’t begin to do justice to just how hackneyed and sentimental it seems, redeemed only partly by a fine performance from the late Om Puri as Aalia’s father. By the end of the film it has simply become cheesy, and almost absurdly so.

I was in the restroom after the film, attending to some pressing personal business, when I overheard a couple of other people discussing Viceroy’s House. ‘Very sanitised,’ said one of them, cheerily. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘but then as soon as I saw the director’s name I understood why, ha ha.’ I would love to think this was a reference to Chadha’s track record making fairly soft-centred crowd-pleasers such as Bend It Like Beckham, but I fear it was not the case. You still can’t beat a little casual racism, it seems, even when it doesn’t actually make sense – for while Viceroy’s House is indeed a true-story film which has had all the chewy historical bits sieved out of it, the real beneficiaries of this are the British characters, not the Indian ones.

There are a lot of good actors doing their best in Viceroy’s House, and the script does contain many amusing and interesting moments, and I can imagine this film will do rather well with audiences looking for a mixture of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown. I do think, though, that it’s trying much too hard to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, because the history at the heart of the story is grossly short-changed and over-simplified as a result. It is a hard film to dislike, but I’m not sure that means you shouldn’t try.

 

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Well, Valentine’s Day and the global corporate attempt to make people who are not single by choice feel worse about themselves than they already do are almost upon us as I write, and one could reasonably expect the onset of a spate of films all extolling the modern ideal of romance at its most epically glutinous. But wait, what’s this? A rather odd film about a slightly alarming dysfunctional relationship and someone with ball bearings up their wazoo?

Ah, it must be time for Fifty Shades Darker, directed by James Foley, the peculiar sequel to 2015’s peculiar Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, as before I felt it behoved me to check out such a significant piece of pop culture action, and thankfully my faithful companion when it comes to this sort of thing, Protective Camouflage, was also up for it. ‘Two tickets for Sex Dungeon 2, please,’ we proudly said, then (moving past a group of possibly underage cinema-goers arguing with the manager over whether they were allowed to watch the film) took our seats. With the first film, we practically had the place to ourselves (that’s what you get for watching soft-core porn at the art house, I guess), but this time around we found ourselves in the midst of a riotous, febrile atmosphere, with a brittle sense of people pretending not to take it all too seriously but secretly really, really excited about the prospect of seeing naked flesh and simulated whoa-ho-ho.

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All very much at odds with the actual film, of course, which as before is primarily concerned with the doings of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who has just started a new job in publishing, her kinky entanglement with the inexplicably attractive young, handsome, ripped billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) definitely a thing of the past. For the first ten minutes anyway, for then Mr Grey reappears, declares he can’t live without her, and so on, and so on.

The plot beyond this point is a little difficult to describe… it’s not quite as if nothing actually happens, because obviously things do, and I don’t just mean visits to the sex dungeon. It turns out that Mr Grey, despite being more than a bit stalkerish and controlling himself, has got a couple of stalkers of his own, one of whom is played by none other than Kim Basinger. (This reminded me of Basinger’s role in the 1989 Batman movie, which also concerned a handsome, athletic young billionaire with an obsessive interest in punishment. But I digress.) Anastasia Steele attracts another weirdo (Eric Johnson), who is not a non-threatening billionaire and thus not dreamy boyfriend material. Mr Grey is in a helicopter crash with a female colleague, but this does not appear to bother him overmuch, no doubt because he has gone down with a lady many times in the past. Most excitingly, we finally get to meet Mr Grey’s housekeeper, who is presumably the one who keeps everything in the sex dungeon so well-oiled and shiny, but she is sadly only a very minor character.

But all of this feels very incidental to the main storyline (the helicopter crash bit in particular feels bizarrely throwaway), which concerns the, um, unexpectedly conventional relationship between Miss Steele and Mr Grey – she’s worried that he has something of a history with other ladies, struggles to get him to open up emotionally, and is bowled over when he asks her to move in. Radical stuff this really isn’t – this is a romance very much done by the numbers, as a quiet Everygirl discovers she has almost effortlessly won the heart of the handsome prince (it’s just that on this occasion the handsome prince has an extensive selection of recreational aids, even if he seems unsure of where to stick them). There’s something so blandly aspirational about the whole thing, with its tasteful interior decor, designer clothing, and endless product placement.

The advertising for this film is once again built around how blisteringly steamy and boldly transgressive it all is. Well, what floats your boat is a personal matter, I suppose, but even for an 18-rated film this is hardly very explicit (the only time Mr Grey gets his chopper out is when he’s preparing a salad) nor is it especially daring. Early on there’s a spanking sequence which is unintentionally funny rather than erotic (the fact the soundtrack at this point actually features the lyric ‘bum-diddy-bum-bum’ may be partly responsible, I suspect), and the whole ball-bearings-up-the-wazoo bit had Protective Camouflage and I sniggering up our sleeves. Your mileage may vary, naturally: we were practically the last people to leave the theatre, but as we did so there was one couple near the back apparently intent on sucking each others’ faces off, so it clearly did the trick for them.

Of course, this movie has already made an enormous pile of money, so (short of the total collapse of western civilisation, which admittedly feels like more of a genuine possibility than was the case a few months ago) I foresee little that can fend off the release of Sex Dungeon 3 next year, not least because it was filmed back to back with this one, by the same director. Not much chance of the last film redeeming the series, then, and every chance of more of the same.

Joking apart, this is simply quite a dull film, the characters are flat and not performed with any real energy, the plot is meandering and under-powered, and once again there’s a disconcerting lack of anything actually approaching an, um, climax – when it comes to the plot, anyway. It just resembles a very long advert for designer goods with some fairly tame soft-core sex scenes incongruously inserted. I expect that Protective Camouflage and I will check out number three as well, not least because we both enjoy a good laugh, but on the whole I would say that while the makers of Fifty Shades Darker have indeed come up with a film which will appeal to masochists, this is not quite in the way they probably intended.

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We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.

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I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.

 

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Oh well, let us move on and roll the dice for this year’s Woody Allen movie: because, let’s face it, you’re never completely sure what you’re going to get from Allen these days. The odds of something on a par with Sleeper or Annie Hall are, let’s be honest, vanishingly small, but with a bit of luck you might end up with a Blue Jasmine or (I am reliably informed) Midnight in Paris. You would probably receive something along the lines of Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome with Love and not feel too disgruntled about it. But there is always the grim possibility of another Irrational Man or Whatever Works lurching onto the screen.

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It probably goes without saying that Allen’s Cafe Society finds him in familiar territory, primarily being a Jazz Age romance for which he has managed to secure another of his stellar casts. The film is set in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a well-brought-up New York Jewish boy from a fairly humble background who decides to move to California and seek his fortune there with the aid of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a successful agent. Possibly this strikes you as a surprisingly felicitous family connection, given the whole humble background thing; I know it did me.

There’s something slightly odd about the plot of Cafe Society: usually it’s pretty straightforward to give a quick indication of the set-up and a suggestion of what the central axis of the plot is, of what the main driver of the action is – the central conflict, if you will. But every time I’ve tried to give an indication of what the film’s about I’ve just found myself describing the whole plot, quite possibly because there’s nothing to suggest what’s going to happen next from one scene to the next. I’m not suggesting that the film is a chaotic, plotless shambles, because there is a logical sort of development of scenes and characters (well, up to a point), it’s just not clear until the very end what the story is actually supposed to be about.

Or, to put it another way, this is another film which feels like a first draft, and sorely in need of a good edit and polish. One of the more memorable scenes is an encounter between Bobby and a first-time call girl, which does not go entirely to plan – it’s more funny as an idea than in reality, and sticks out primarily because it is so incongruous, adding nothing to the main story. So what’s it doing in the movie?

You could say the same for a lot of the film. The story eventually settles down to being about Dorfman’s complicated romantic entanglements with two women, both called Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively), as he makes the rather unconvincing transition from being a go-fer at a Hollywood talent agency to suave man-about-about-town and night club manager in New York City’s underworld.

Now, there is potential here for a rather affecting story, as Dorfman and his first love meet each other again and reflect on how their lives could have gone differently: the stuff of a mature, thoughtful, bittersweet drama. Some of this indeed gets realised, primarily because of a rather good performance from Kristen Stewart. I’d only previously seen her in the Twilight movies, which may not have left me with the best impression of her abilities, but here she is genuinely affecting and natural; you can quite understand why men keep falling in love with her the first time they meet her. In fact I might go so far as to say that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie: Carell and Lively really don’t get the material they deserve, and Eisenberg is… well, everyone goes on about how Eisenberg is the natural latterday performer to serve as Woody Allen’s avatar in these movies, but I don’t really see it myself. Eisenberg never quite has that hapless quality that makes Allen such an appealing screen presence – instead he just comes across as a bit smug, somehow.

But the stuff about the romance too often gets shoved out of the way in favour of by-the-numbers routines about Jewishness and a dead-end subplot about Dorfman’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Sometimes these come together to produce one of the film’s funnier moments – ‘First a murderer! Now a Christian! What have I done to deserve such a son!’ cries the mother of a Jewish gangster on learning her boy has converted on the way to the electric chair – but on the other hand this is just getting in the way of what the film is supposed to be about. I suppose you could argue that Cafe Society is making some kind of point about how the movie business and the criminal underworld are actually quite similar, but if so it goes largely unarticulated.

To be clear, Cafe Society is not one of the very bottom-of-the-barrel Woody Allen movies, but neither is it likely to be seen as a return to form or a late-period classic. It’s fairly well-mounted (though clearly done on a low budget), but it either needed to be a much bigger, sprawling family saga taking place over a much longer running time, or to focus much more closely on the central relationships. As it is there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s trying to do both: at times it feels like a film which has been savagely cut down in the editing suite, with a voice-over filling in rather too many details of the story.

If you follow the career of Woody Allen, you know what to expect these days: the films are probably not going to be great, it’s just a question of how good the script is at the point when Allen has to take it in front of the camera. In this case the script is just about okay, and the film passes the time relatively pleasantly, but you are likely to have forgotten most of the detail by the time next year’s offering makes an appearance.

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A Silver Screen showing (with, of course, free biscuits) is still probably the best ticket in town when it comes to value for money, but second place is definitely a proper full-scale revival of a mid-period David Lean movie, complete with overture, interval, and entr’acte, all of which usually work together to push the running time to somewhere well over three and a half hours. Lean’s films seem to have been conceived as grand spectacles as much as actual stories, with a level of ambition it’s hard to find amongst serious modern film-makers (one might also suggest that modern movie studies aren’t big fans of providing that much value for money, either).

Latest recipient of the full revival treatment is Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, his famously lengthy epic of love and death in the midst of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Zhivago is currently enjoying its golden anniversary, which probably explains why it’s being given a run-out – it seems to be that this film has never quite enjoyed the same critical acclaim as Lawrence of Arabia, but it retains a certain reputation, not to mention its place on the list of the top ten most-watched movies in history.

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This being a Lean movie, it’s a fairly long time before we meet Dr Zhivago himself properly, and the film opens with a framing sequence in which Zhivago’s brother (Alec Guinness), a Red Army general, interviews a young female worker from one of the USSR’s engineering projects (this scene is presumably set in the late 1940s or early 1950s), trying to establish if she is in fact his late brother’s daughter. And of course he ends up telling her Zhivago’s life story.

(A bit of a digression here – and it’s not as if Doctor Zhivago doesn’t digress itself – but I am currently engaged in the cultural education of a young person, which has mainly involved our watching the Star Wars movies and various other old classics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and my charge completely failed to recognise Obi-Wan Kenobi even though he plays about eight different characters. So when we went to see Zhivago, I actually made it clear that Guinness would be in this film and I was expecting to have him pointed out to me. It’s not the most demanding challenge ever set: the very first shot after the credits, pretty much, is a very nice portrait of Alec Guinness more or less facing the camera. But was there a little thrill of recognition at the sight of old Obi-Wan? Regrettably not. My work continues.)

Orphaned at a young age somewhere out on the endless Russian steppe, the young Yuri Zhivago is adopted by a wealthy Muscovite family and grows up to become a happy, well-educated, and only vaguely Egyptian young man (he is of course played by Omar Sharif, in a piece of casting that we take for granted now). He is kept busy with his medical studies (duh) and with being a poet, which is why the first act of the film is much more about the beautiful young Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman attracting the unwelcome attention of well-connected but cynical man-about-town Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), while actually having a thing for dedicated young revolutionary Antipov (Tom Courtenay).

Well, apart from someone nearly getting shot, not very much happens in the first act of the film, plot-wise, but eventually the First World War kicks off with the Russian Revolution following close behind. This being a film set in Russia, what follows is mainly a chronicle of people making very long journeys (usually in the snow), losing touch with each other, disappearing, reappearing unexpectedly, snatching moments of happiness, falling foul of the government – you know the sort of thing. In the end… well, I suppose spoilers are still a potential problem, even for a fifty-year-old movie, plus there is the issue of…

Well, here’s the thing: Doctor Zhivago is an example of film-making on a genuinely epic, lavish scale, with some marvellous set pieces and your actual cast of thousands on display. Freddie Young’s cinematography is sumptuous, Maurice Jarre’s score is beautiful, and David Lean marshals the whole proceedings with his usual masterly touch. You are never really doubt that, in some way, you are watching one of the great films of all time. (It’s also hard to shake the suspicion that Lean would have been the first to agree with you – the opening, with an orphan being taken in by relatives, perhaps inevitably recalls that of Citizen Kane, and one could argue that Zhivago’s balalaika serves a similar narrative role as Kane’s sledge, so maybe Lean had set his sights on supplanting Welles.)

It’s not as if there aren’t some lovely performances in the movie, either. Sharif is perhaps a touch too hello-clouds-hello-sky to really be an engaging protagonist, and one does wonder quite why it was Tom Courtenay who snagged an Oscar nomination when he’s not actually in the film that much, but you also have Ralph Richardson working his magic as Zhivago’s adoptive father and a really heavy-duty turn by Rod Steiger, turning a character who could just have been a bully into someone rather more complex and charismatic. Guinness himself only has a handful of scenes, but he also gets the voice-over, and uses them to deliver a typically memorable turn, with the benefit of some of the best lines in the movie.

But, one has to ask, what’s it all actually in aid of? All these characters appear and (more importantly) disappear from the movie, seemingly at random. The story stays fixated on Zhivago and Lara and their various comings together and movings apart, and in the end it all climaxes in… what? Not much of anything. There’s no real big finish, no resolution of the film’s themes or big idea. It doesn’t climax so much as phut.

Then again, this isn’t really a film about big ideas, it’s a film about trying to stay out of their way – Zhivago says as much, that he’s only interested in making the best of the life he has now (his name is derived from the Russian zhivoy, meaning living), and this is what the film is about, not a conflict between ideologies (although this does inevitably comprise much of the backdrop to the film) but a conflict between an ideological world-view and a simpler, more personal one. Which is fine, but it does just mean that Zhivago and Lara just wander through the film while more interesting things seem to be happening to other characters off-camera. It’s an epic movie about a man trying to live a small life, which is an odd proposition from the start.

Perhaps it’s also a problem that this is a film about a famous poet, yet we never hear any of his actual poetry, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Having said that, Lean has a hell of a good go at bringing Zhivago’s poetic sensibility to the screen in a few extraordinary sequences – during the funeral at the start of the film, there’s a sequence intercutting the young boy’s face, leaves swirling in the wind, actual shots of the body inside the buried coffin, and all the time the music swelling to let you know that something significant is happening… and rather than being just a bit too overblown to take seriously, it’s very nearly breathtaking. But too often the film doesn’t achieve this level of intensity, and you’re left with everyone wandering about and a pleasant, if not really gripping, romance.

I can’t help wondering to what extent the actual details of the Russian Revolution are strictly germane to the plot, either. Inevitably the film ultimately comes out as disapproving towards Communism, but if it had the slightest intention of illuminating this period of history it doesn’t really achieve it – everyone talks about the Red Guards and the White Guards and the Bolsheviks and the Far Eastern Republic, but how it all hangs together in any kind of coherent historical context I’ve no idea. If the turmoil in Russia is just here as a backdrop to a romance, I can’t help but think that’s a missed opportunity, not to mention a bit glib. I don’t know.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia three years ago, when that got a golden anniversary re-release, and emerged with my understanding and appreciation of the film greatly strengthened – but this time round, I don’t know. This is a film stuffed with great things of all kinds, but somehow they never completely gel together into a totally satisfying whole – the film almost feels not quite finished, or as though key sequences have been accidentally excised at the editing stage. This is still a very fine film of a kind that they simply don’t make any more, and I did enjoy watching it, even if only for its technical virtuosity and the performances. But the story isn’t quite compelling enough for it to be a genuine masterpiece, or the timeless classic it obviously would like to be.

 

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