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Saturday, 28 December 2013

A little ponder about Nebraska (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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28 December

A continuation from here

My ponder is confirmed to have validity by reading Patrick Ogle's (@paogle's) review :

What I am homing in on (pun intended, as one reads on) is this :

He heads out, on foot, from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his reward. Everyone knows there isn't any reward (except perhaps Woody).

This is where the film opens, with the given of Woody (Bruce Dern) determinedly walking, and being pulled over by a cop car.

What is he doing ? Has he really never seen a scam like this one before - or has his wife Kate (June Squibb) always ferreted away such disquieting items of mail in recent years ?

The film does not invite us to dwell on this - we are straight there in media res, and it does not behove us to upset the apple-cart and ask Why now ? Why this ? Why not before ?

We don't really even think to question whether he seriously purposed to set out on this journey as we see him, but what if he did - or, more to the meat of things, what if he did not ?

A superficial - maybe facile - reading of the narrative has it that he is addled by booze, deluded, and impervious to reasoned argument. But what if this is a cry for help, a latching-onto this letter because it comes from the capital of the state where Woody grew up ? For it is also a given of Nebraska that we start in Montana, but nothing, then or later, tells us why Kate and Woody are there (except that she acquired him, won the prize).

In what unfolds, there is a searching for worth and value, which, with David's (Will Forte's) insight, the $1,000,000 symbolizes - until he gets there, Woody expresses no enthusiasm for his home town, wanting to press on to Lincoln to claim his prize, a little, maybe, as Paul talks about in his second letter to Timothy (4 : 7 - 8) :

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

On the level of symbol, of Nebraska as another place, Woody is seeking something outside himself, just as Paul concentrates on a heavenly realm and considers his earthly life to be a race that he has run and which is now finished. Woody, in turn, is summing up who he is and what he means, and having a reckoning, and without the journey (pretext or not), that would not have happened.

Returning to Billings is the least of that, so the film does not have that in its ambit once the business in town has been addressed. Nor does it really matter what the gestures that David makes at the end signify in actuality, beyond the fact that they uphold his father and his status - Woody has had his homecoming and has found himself, and that is what matters.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Don't talk to me about social skills !

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26 December

Some kind souls, on related tracks, gave us road rage, the rather offensive gender bender, yummy mummy, and the pink pound, for example. We may have been happy without these terms (particularly the second one), but somehow we gravitate towards them, as if they were indispensable, led on by the spell of rhyme or of the alliteration :

It takes an effort to rebel, almost as if the concept of road rage were an inevitability that we resist - if we can at all - at our peril, because we fear falling into aporia, or even aphasia : that is the label, and we must use it.

Except that people who become furious on the road are furious in no different way, just because the source of their intense reaction comes from driving, and the trite phrase not only does not acknowledge the truth that a shop assistant could just as easily be beaten as a fellow motorist or other road-user, but also makes a separate species of alleged rage almost obligatory.

It certainly becomes categorizable, and so capable of tallies being kept of incidents of this new monster of road rage, whereas the public service workers, such as shop assistants or nurses or parking operatives*, have no name for the outrageous behaviour unleashed on them, and so no publicity or real recognition.

Back at these so-called social skills, this is just a snobbish label for saying both that someone is impolite or gruff, and that the fault lies with their inadequate parents and family circumstance : George has no social skills, even if it is not a ridiculous exaggeration, really damns his entire upbringing and status as a human being, for (as the motto of, amongst others, Winchester tells us) manners maketh man.

Needless to say, but George has probably deviated from doing for the speaker what the speaker expected, or has done something that the speaker (from the speaker's elevated and unfailing understanding of these things) otherwise deems inappropriate, so he deserves to be blasted as of no worth, even to his scurvy face.


Why dost thou use me thus? I know thee not.


Fellow, I know thee.


What dost thou know me for?


A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave, a lily-livered, action-taking knave, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue, one-trunk-inheriting slave, one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deny'st the least syllable of thy addition.

But to end with a little Twittery :


* If that is what traffic wardens are now called.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

You gave this five Academy Awards and seven BAFTAs in 2012 ? !

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Christmas Day

It never felt like a silent film, except (as Hitchcock might) drawing attention - in a patent dream-sequence or a waking nightmare of mouths - to sound or its absence. Otherwise, largely uninterestingly shot, and with an effect of black and white that drifted in and out of sepia all the time, it was paper thin in trying to locate a plot in the five years from 1927 on.

This is essentially a palpably hollow rags-to-riches story and vice versa intermingled, and coupled with some inadequately explained fascination of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) for George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and, on some level, of his for her. Pride, grand gestures better made in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and a descent into the abyss portrayed there far more effectively conclude the armoury of Hazanavicius' screenplay and direction.

If, as some want to say (as they want to say about what I find the wasteland of Holy Motors (2012), rather than a witty, comprehensive library of reference), this film is a tribute to what some call 'the silent era', this very paucity of living material actually insults the memory of those who worked at that time : compare, say, the richness of meaning in Anthony Asquith's Underground (1928) with the ridiculous scene where Valentin has to pull off every dust-sheet to realize that he has been living on charity, with tempestuously Herrmannesque scoring, which maybe makes using the 'Love Scene' music from his score for Vertigo (1958) seem almost inevitable, but never right :

Maybe there is more to say, but not now...

These reviews, via, make for interesting reading :

Jeffrey Overstreet, Filmwell

Ron Gonsalves,

Thirty months on, a postlude :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 22 December 2013

All's fair - if it lets you sue

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23 December

Continuing from Nothing's fair in love and court cases

My guess is that too many people are going to be interested in the court case (and there are so many ways nowadays for news of it to be disseminated) for it to disappear : I have already outlined the tactical reasons that might lead to the decision not being appealed, and, with short time-limits usual within which appeals have to be put in, it will not be long before we know what has happened.

On the face of it, a judge finding a causal link between whatever schizophrenia is and abuse earlier in life more probable than not (the standard of proof being the so-called balance of probabilities). For those who found R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson's Sanity, Madness and the Family : Families of Schizophrenics compelling teenage reading, this ruling has been a long time coming, of course.

However, even if it depends on its own facts, it now legally challenges the orthodoxy that this loose bundle of symptoms called schizophrenia (where A might never hear voices, but B does, even if, say, they share (what is supposed to be) delusional thinking, paranoia, and numbness of affect) is heavily genetic in origin - and, whatever happens to this case, there will still be those who argue that there is a genetic predisposition* to respond to abuse in the way that the judge has found.

In the law of England and Wales, it is established principle in the law of tort (or some say of torts (which are just civil wrongs, some of them the non-criminal counterparts of criminal offences)) that one takes one's victim as one finds him. For example, the person negligently injured who has an egg-shell skull, and for whom the blow on the head was far more serious - on account of the fact that the person from whose negligence the blow has been found to result** is liable, he or she is liable for the complications that resulted (say coma, life-support, paralysis).

Bringing a claim for compensation for 'injury' (in its widest sense) resulting from abuse typically hangs back for any criminal case arising from the same facts to be brought, for the simple reason that the standard of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, so, although there are differences in approach, terminology and procedure between the civil law and the criminal law, a conviction is almost always going to establish the basic requirements of being able to prove a civil case., because another court, with a more stringent test, has already looked at it.

Some abused, perhaps, by Catholic priests, who went on to develop schizophrenia in their mid-twenties and who have been compensated may have agreed to settle all claims in return for receiving payment. Others may not have yet brought or settled their claims (and so would not need to test with the form of agreement had bound them and precluded future cases) might still have smoked skunk, known, in the unlucky few, to correlate not with the chilled experience that they sought, but with frightening psychotic experiences that they may no longer be free from.

A case to cite this Australian judgement, then, would best be brought by someone who was abused, whose abuse has been established but not yet led to a settlement or award, and who has not used recreational drugs, so that the picture is clear and not muddied. What stands n the way are likely to be several-fold :

* Availability of funding (even with insurance, one has to satisfy the insurers and their brokers that the chances are 51% or more of winning)

* The associated willingness of the legal profession (the advice of a solicitor or a barrister's opinion will almost certainly guide that assessment of the chances of winning)

* The calibre of the solicitor and barrister who take it on

How many years will it take for all this to be satisfied, and for a case to proceed to trial without the claimant (through pressure exerted by the defendant and its insurers and brokers and / or, as a result of tactical games, the claimant's own insurers and brokers) being induced to settle or knocked out in procedural wranglings prior to trial ?

Not to seem pessimistic, but I wouldn't be surprised at 15 years. If I'm wrong, take a case - surprise me, and prove me wrong !


* We all know, of course, that even the behaviour of non-biological systems, let alone human nature, is in the DNA (as the phrase, for the nonce, has it).

** Charmingly known as the tortfeasor. It could have been indirect, in a road traffic accident (or RTA) - whatever occurred, if insurance is involved, the length of the case may rival that of Dickens' fictional Chancery one of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Supporting the garlic-eaters - or declining a Faustian pact

This is a Christmas review of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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21 December (updated 22 December ; Tweets added, Christmas Day 2015)

This is a Christmas review of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

When George Bailey (James Stewart) kisses his wife Mary (Donna Reed) on their wedding night, he murmurs (more to himself than to her) ‘Wonderful, wonderful’. He has something then that he loses – or, rather, loses sight of.

Their location at that moment is bizarre in its real sense, and almost, also in its real sense, surreal¹, for they had planned a honeymoon without much thought for the future. But it symbolizes some things, such as courage in adversity and less love in a garret maybe than riches in heaven.

As has been said, George loses sight of the self who found all this, which initially seemed so ramshackle, made whole and complete by Mary’s love and care for him. He faces what seems an impossible position, and his enemy Potter (who started as if to remedy George’s uncle’s mistake, before seeing the capital for him in it (the palpable miserly wickedness embodied by Lionel Barrymore)) threatens him with penalties from a position of power : George ends up abusing the forgetful / easily distracted Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), and, not believing that anyone can help, gets frustrated with Mary and the children, showing only tenderness for Zuzu [one is reminded of Louis Malle’s Zazie], in bed with a temperature

He has lost hope. What happens, when he seeks to drown his sorrows makes matters worse, and causes him despairingly to recall Potter’s words of derisory rejection, thinking that his value is in being dead, not alive. In one version of the Gospel story, distraught at what he has done, Judas throws the thirty pieces of silver down when they will not be accepted back from him and they are used to buy The Potter’s Field (which is the name of where George builds his homes, but which is where the graveyard is in what Clarence shows him, a Bedford Falls without George, where the place is then called Pottersville ?); in another, Judas hangs himself, so suicide, choosing death over continued life (which some try to harmonize as his doing one and then the other).

Clarence Ardbody (that seems to be his name, and he is charmingly brought to us by Henry Travers) is George’s guardian angel, and he leaves George, after what he has shown him – but only when George chooses to embrace life again, after seeing a world where he is the nobody that he has allowed himself to believe that he is. There he is someone whom no one, not even Mary, knows and is even frightened of, and who is the witness of how differently things could have been.

The conception of this film, starting with prayers for George, Clarence’s appointment, and seeing how George became who and where he is, avoids the easy solution that Clarence should simply tell George how Potter kept back the crucial money that he decided not to return. The film has George choose life, after Clarence’s ruse (used again by Luc Besson in Angel-A (2005)) diverts him from his own plight to – where his heart is as a man – someone else’s, but only after he comes to value himself and the life that he has.

Meanwhile, aside from those prayers, Mary has been addressing the problem that gave rise to his disaffection and, although she did not know it, led him to the brink. He was going to choose water : water had been where, saving his brother from drowning, he lost hearing in his left ear, and into which, in a sort of sacramental baptism, envious hands contrive for Mary and George to fall. Water was falling from the sky and into the new home that Mary had contrived for George and her, and, of course, in the snow of Christmas Eve, it is there in frozen form. That is just an observation, but, those who believe that the other three classical elements will be there when water is found can, of course, excavate…

A criticism that could be levelled at the pacing of the film, which is why do we spend so much time with George in the world where he does not exist before he understands. Actually, because it builds up to him being rejected by the woman whom he still thinks of as his wife (and whose status Clarence has been a little unwilling to give), it takes that for the message that his mother only runs Ma Bailey’s Boarding-House because he is not around to sink in – George has both drunk a lot, before meeting Clarence, and had a double after, and the film symbolically represents how difficult, with a person in deep depression, it is for the truth of his or her worth to permeate and unfreeze that numbness of being dislocated from the world.

As the lyrics of Talking Heads’ song² Once in a Lifetime go, seeming to see a dislocation, from the opposite pole of psychosis :

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife

In the world that he sought to leave, George had lost contact with the things and people who mattered to him, burdened by not knowing what to do; in the world that Clarence shows him, he is able to seek out what should be familiar, and keeps trying, ending with Mary. It is only when, under danger of gunfire, that he has gone back to where he started that he can value what he had before and ask for it to be restored – before, it might as well have been in a vault as behind a veil, for he could break through neither to it.

As a portrayal of depression, it demonstrates the truth that one cannot ‘snap out of it, ‘count one’s blessings’ or ‘pull oneself together’, and also, with Clarence’s inscription in Tom Sawyer (some significance in that choice of book, one would warrant), of the value of true friends. But the film works without entering into those considerations, just better if one sees what is slow to change in George.

And perhaps one has to consider the force, in Potter, that George has been fighting, whose Pottersville is debauched and gaudy when (in Clarence’s other world) there had been no one to stop him making it that way : on his desk, seen most clearly when the offer is being made that is too good to be true, is a skull, a bell in a triangular arch, but also an apparatus for heating something over a flame in a spoon that would not be out of place in the drug-laden realm of shooting-up in Trainspotting (1996)³.

In different ways, Potter, desiring domination in a no more rational way than Iago wishes Othello’s destruction, is stood up to by George’s courage and self-sacrifice : by riding the effects of the run on the bank, opposing Potter (and getting the vote) when he moves that the Building & Loan be wound up, and by rejecting a cushy offer for himself. Probably far-fetched that they are parallels to the temptations in the wilderness, but George does give up, respectively, (along with Mary) their honeymoon, his cherished plans of travel⁴, and a life of benefit for himself by going over to Potter…

James Stewart has humour (some of it at the inquisitiveness of Annie, the servant), warmth, and frustration at what he has to give up for what he believes in, even if he does put his foot in it by calling it ‘a crummy little office’ (or some such) to his father : that characteristic quality to Stewart’s voice fits hand in glove with the sort of astonished pleading with people to know who he is. Barrymore, even when he is slow to see his final winning hand against George, brings a smouldering, disgusted malevolence to the role of Potter.

And, when soaked from the swimming-pool trick played on them, George has walked Mary back home in borrowed clothes, Donna Reed and Stewart have a delightful awkwardness to them, so that he does not quite dare kiss her properly when she dares to offer her hand, and then both are spooked by him being urged to kiss her (one almost feels that, by not doing what is suggested, he is trying to avoid his own destiny, and cheat history...). And he has to be snatched away, without that kiss (or, acting against form, trying to exploit her being robeless in the hydrangea bush) on this very night, because of his father’s health. Pain prolonged, and hope deferred, but bringing a life together that they want to lead – though threatened by the opportunistic Potter and George’s despair.

Happy Christmas !


One can also find, given that the film was made in 1946, a Hitler figure in Potter : George's father appeased him by putting him on the Board of the Building & Loan ; George fought his offer to Building & Loan customers with Mary's and his honeymoon fund ; Potter offered an alliance to George ; and rejected Potter takes the opportunity to turn the weapons of law and order on him.


¹ The ruins where Edward Scissorhands is found spring to mind.

² By David Byrne, Christopher Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, and Brian Eno.

³ Seen more obviously, though fleetingly, is a bronze bust of Napoleon Bonaparte near the window in Potter's office.

⁴ He is a sort of Marius (in Daniel Auteuil's film this year of the same name), with a sense of Wanderlust.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 20 December 2013

Echoes of Carnival of the Animals ?

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20 December

Three members of Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), with a guest pianist in Huw Watkins (also a well-known composer), gave the first in the Sinfonia’s series of At Lunch concerts this season at Cambridge’s West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH) : leader (Jacqueline Shave), principal viola (Clare Finnimore), and principal cello (Caroline Dearnley).

Mozart (1756 – 1791)

However, it was only in the closing work, that we heard all four voices together, as the concert opened with the slow movement from one of Mozart’s violin sonatas (in E Flat Major, K. 481). Watkins and Shave impressed straightaway that the piano could be heard with, not under (or through) the violin, and he played with poise and clear articulation.

There was a pleasing contrast with the tenderness of the string part, which was not played with a mute, but in which Shave brought out an inward quality, whereas the piano line felt as if it soared and was almost semi-operatic in character, not least in its use of ornament. Overall, the eight-minute Adagio felt as if it exuded gracious ease, and was not in the full ornate style of Mozart’s later classical works.

Lutoslawksi (1913 – 1994)

Bukoliki, for viola and cello, dates from 1962, and contains several Polish folk melodies. This short work, in five sections and lasting just five minutes, by twentieth-century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski started off as one for piano solo, but was rearranged ten years later its composition. (Its title is the same as our word ‘bucolic’, meaning just pastoral.)

Lutoslawski made a nice expanded choice of instrument, because they are a good fit, both for each other, and for the series of miniatures, or moods. In the first, he uses the cello as a drone, and then gives its some very vigorous writing in the second – the use of dissonances between what cello and viola is notable, as is being in folk idiom (which we may know better from Bartók).

The third has effects that made one feel that one was going off the scale of Western music entirely, whereas the fourth, akin to the second’s feel, was more sombre and introspective, leaving the piece to end on a lively dance (and the overall construction of Bukoliki is not unlike Bartók’s Dance Suite. The main feature of this finale was relentless motivic and rhythmic energy and rotation around an interval.

Sally Beamish (1956 –)

The King’s Alchemist, in four movements, is a commission that had been given its world premiere the preceding Wednesday, and it shows that, in the early sixteenth century, people (James IV, specifically) did not know their Canterbury Tales, or they would not so easily have been allured by alchemist John Damian (what’s in a surname !).

The work begins with Cantus (which is a word with a variety of meanings in the musical world, perhaps reflecting the shape-shifting ambiguity of Damian), which makes use of open strings, also contains some difficult stopping, and has a keening air to it, as it is led by the violin at the top of its register. In comparison, in Aquae Vitae*, the instruments feel more equal, and they are very fluid**, with cross rhythms, and a lively ending.

The third movement, Pavana, not the kind of stately dance with a ground bass that I expected, but it built up to the use of discord at the end. Given the story told of Damian in Beamish’s programme notes, including the fact that he tried to fly to France from the battlements of Stirling Castle, one was led to expect the character of Avis Hominis, in the nature of a drunken dance (though not à la Max and The Orkneys), with, using harmonics, chirps and whoops from Shave – it was never going to end well (for Damian), and the final strokes denoted his demise. Beamish, a well-respected and innovative composer, was in the audience (with the Sinfonia’s David Butcher), and took a well-deserved bow.

Fauré (1845 – 1924)

Finally, longer by ten minutes than the rest of the programme put together in the estimated timings, Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, and all the performers together. The quartet opened with an Allegro molto moderato, the first of three marked (with some qualification) Allegro, and was straight in, with themes stated by Watkins on piano that mutated into a sense of rumbling, almost as of the tossing of the sea, before returning to its tempestuous opening.

The shorter Allegro molto that followed had a syncopated theme given by the piano, which had an oriental feel to it. After some difficult runs, the movement ended with a bang. The third, an Adagio non troppo, opened with the piano and some musings from Finnimore on viola. The previous oriental atmosphere continued with arabesques, and Shave making languid cadences on violin, which developed into heady, exotic textures, which swayed hypnotically, as if under the thematic influence of Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921). When the opening material returned, Fauré had it build, then subside by chordal progression, as if imitating passion sublimated.

The energetic start of the finale, another Allegro molto, reminded of an elephant’s gait (Saint-Saëns again ?) – the chords from the piano were taken up by the trio of strings, with the violin to the fore, before settling down to ensemble playing. The thematic material gave way to more quirky patterns on the piano, and then worked up into a furious mood, before the returning of the opening theme. An excited coda led to a triumphant conclusion, and the work felt as though, in its third outing in this programme, the players had achieved a mature balance between them and real, intelligent interplay.

A good set of pieces to set one thinking about how compositions in different ages go about the business of writing for small combinations of instruments.


* The old name for what was effectively whisky, which is a name that derives from the Gaelic word for aquae vitae, usquebaugh.

** No pun intended.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

An ambiguous angel or Talking Heads sing Heaven is a skating-rink

This is a review of The Bishop's Wife (1947)

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17 December

This is a review of The Bishop's Wife (1947)

One could endlessly compare The Bishop's Wife (1947) not just, of course, with It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but with, amongst others, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), City of Angels (1998) and Angel-A (2005), and it is only in the relationship in the latter two between Ryan and Cage, Rasmussen and Debbouze, that there is any way that they parallel this film.

Moving straight on, Cary Grant (as Dudley) does things with a glance or a smile that are pure charm, and the match with David Niven (playing Bishop Henry Brougham) seems dissatisfyingly unequal for much of the film, so much that one starts pondering whether maybe Jack Lemmon would be better, except that Niven is deliberately being this character whom some might describe as passive aggressive, seeming confused, unfocused, and probably quite afraid (and alone) : in the last twenty minutes or so, all comes clear, and it is not Niven delivering a duff performance at all.

And, in terms of the effect that Dudley works (although he, too, has gone somewhat off the rails by now), it has to happen that way around to fit in with what went before, with his interaction with and enlivenment of the wife of the title, Julia Brougham (Loretta Young). We start with crossings of the street near Henry's old parish of St Timothy's, and have the first hints in score and event who Dudley might be - we see Dudley just observing, a kindly, amused, interested observer, but ready to take action when a pram runs away, and Grant shows his real class in how he brings off these looks and smiles, as if of a traveller from another land wanting to understand.

When the Professor (Monty Woolley) is introduced, haggling over his tiny Christmas tree with shop-keeper Maggenti and then Julia joyfully joins him, Dudley is outside, watching, though - as in Luc Besson's or Franz Capra's films - he knows people's names, and much more besides, already. We get to see Julia change as she, and Henry's and her household, comes to know Dudley, and Henry, always suspicious and doubting (not to mention a past master at double-booking himself), does not know what to make of things.

It is Niven's closing moments of transformation that make one dismiss the idea that he was no good being a stooge to Grant's artistry, and that his consummate command has had to be suppressed to be the Henry that he was. A relatively easy ride for Young to exude joy, and the Professor to move from feeling bamboozled to being impressed, and, because Niven has to hide so much, one derives benefits from letting The Bishop's Wife run its course, and not think that Grant was outclassing everyone, though (when not being doubled for) he did appear to do a nifty bit of ice-skating - though I cannot imagine, any more than he could gesture with a finger to refill a sherry-glass, that he was really playing the harp.

A good film for Christmas, and many thanks to the Picturehouse chain (@picturehouses) for bringing it to my attention !

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 16 December 2013

Man with a mermaid on his arm

This is a review of Leviathan (2012)

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16 December

This is a review of Leviathan (2012)

Thanks to going into Screen 3 (which was the right screen for this evening), I missed Leviathan (2012) at Cambridge Film Festival 2013, but what a treat to catch up with it, once I realized how to watch it ! - the film is like Samsara (2011), in that it is 'about' process, not about particulars.

Afterwards, a woman was complaining to the man with her that there had been no interaction (on camera) with the crew, but he said that he liked that. I agree with him, because that was not its purpose, and it was concerning itself more abstractly with motion, rhythms (which animate the mermaid of this posting's title), action... (Another male separately described the film as 'sensory', although, as I shall go on to say, I think that the sound part is more of a construction.)

The confusion at the beginning - what are we seeing, what is the off-screen voice saying, what is the man with the yellow chain trying to do ? - tends to make one feel that it is necessary to concentrate hard to work out what is happening with these men on a vessel at sea, catching fish (and other seafood). Actually, the opposite is the best approach, to treat this as a symphony of images against a sound-scape (whose artificiality becomes more and more evident*), because the more that one tries to interpret, the less that one sees. It seems better to let the documentary, and what it is showing at any one time, to come to the viewer, which certainly works with Samsara.

With this approach, the water, the sky, the interface between them, and the patterns, and the effects of the surface seen from below, all speak for themselves - when the one man with a hook holds up a ray for the other man to put one into its wings and cut them, watching this for what it is misses the fact that it is a repetition, a rhythmic restatement over time.

If we jump ahead to what the men in a line are doing, we miss them moving back and forth as (which is what they are actually doing, but we cannot yet properly see) they open scallop-shells, we will see the man's arm, and not the mermaid moving with and through him as he works : later, the scallops will be shown us, en masse, being stirred around to get coated and (we may infer) added back to the shell for display / packaging, and, in the meantime, we can just go with the currents of the task, part of what happens at sea on a craft such as this.

Likewise the bird that wants to get beyond the wooden barrier that presumably separates it from where the fish are (it apparently does not think to flap its way over and grab a fish in passing), where, if we watch what it does, there are cycles of effort, until it gives up - or the fish-head lying on the deck near an aperture, which, with the addition of other fish-parts that come into shot, gets knocked into the water, and we wait with this view until it happens again with another fish-head.

Some may not find that profound, and may expect something to tell them what they are seeing, but it chimes in with the Biblical theme, with The Book of Ecclesiastes saying that there is nothing new under the sun (and all, of course, are under the sun, with a time for living, and a time for dying).

The film puts the crew, the fish and other sea-life, the birds on a level - sustained, sometimes very close, observations of a man at the wheel, another operating hoists (with the effect visible by reflection in the screen in front of him), of the men sorting the fish according to whether they can keep them at all, or they need to be in this category to be deheaded and gutted, all of this fits them into the world where the gulls and other birds follow the vessel for what is thrown back as scrap (and the men do what they do not because they love processing fish, but so that the owners will pay them).

With what I call a sound-scape (I did not notice a credit for a sound recordist, so, when the two guys are cutting off the rays' wings, that is presumably foley, though that is not overtly credited either), we seem to dive in and out of the sea, and we hear sounds that are less like the expected sounds of a ship under motive power : none of it is actually music as such, but it is, when not directly mimetic of what we expect to see (we hardly hear the clear sound of sea-gulls, but we see dozens, even - somehow - from above), evocative, and almost has a life of its own :

We are told (by the IMDb entry) that Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are the directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, and, with Ernst Karel, in the sound department. Karel is credited with editing and mixing sound (captured by the cinematographers ?), but also with sound composition.

As for the old-script typeface** used for a prefatory display of three verses from The Book of Job, which talk about Leviathan, this - if it matters - must be a matter for the viewer as to what it means, but it does not seem unreasonable for the green-hulled vessel that we see cutting with its prow through the ocean is the Leviathan here.

(No, no ship of that name was credited at the end, although the film was dedicated to the crew of a list of other ships, lost off the New Bedford coast, and, whimsically, thanks were given for the assistance of Puffinus gravus (and many another Latin name) alongside the likes of Steve the Greek.)


* I chatted briefly afterwards with a fellow reviewer of films, and floated (pun intended !) the possibility that, when one of the crew is shown seemingly watching t.v. (and nothing much moves but his eyes), the voice-over of a t.v. documentary (complete with adverts) about an unhappy crew, working at sea, may not actually have been the programme that the man was fighting sleep to watch. He is going to check.

** Reminiscent of the Gothic script of the inter-titles of Nosferatu (1922) ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Fifteen fine festival films

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 December

Simply put, five favourite films from each of the last three Cambridge Film Festivals (in alphabetical order, ignoring 'The')...

That said, the list has now been enhanced by These are some of my favourite things..., which teases out some of the common themes for you

As if I am not There (2010) - from 2011

Black Butterflies (2011) - from 2011

Dimensions (2011) - from 2011

Eyes on the Sky (2008) (Catalan) - from 2013

Formentera (2012) (German) (Festival review) - from 2012

The Idiot (2011) (Estonia) - from 2012

Kosmos (2010) - from 2011

Marius (2013) (shown with Fanny (2013) - from 2013

The Night Elvis Died (2010) (Catalan) - from 2012

Postcards from the Zoo (2012) (Festival review) - from 2012

The Redemption of the Fish (2013) (Catalan) - from 2013

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011) (Opening film) Festival review - from 2012

The Taste of Money (2012) - from 2013

Tirza (2010) - from 2011

Upstream Color (2013) (Young Americans) - from 2013

That said, the list has now been enhanced by These are some of my favourite things..., which teases out some of the common themes for you

Nothing's fair in love and court cases

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 December

Prologue : For many years, employers' organizations lived with a difficult decision in the area of law (now settled against those whom they represented) of entitlement to holiday pay when off on long-term sickness absence. The employers' specious argument, which their mouth-pieces had come up with, was essentially that holiday is for people who are at work and who need a break from work, because they wanted to deny these other people what the Working Time Regulations 1998 appeared to offer them (and so save money), by claiming that they did not need holiday (or to be paid for it).

The claimants, by contrast, had an incentive to try to get paid holiday, if they had exhausted any entitlement to full pay. The one difficult decision was a blemish, but the employers' organizations were best ignoring what that one Employment Tribunal had said - it was not binding on any other Employment Tribunal, because both would be making judgements at first instance, unlike an appeal to the next body up, the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Why risk going to appeal, losing, and then having a binding precedent ? It is now what is called settled law that the employers' argument was wrong, but how much did they save by sitting on their hands in the intervening time (that difficult decision was around 2001) ? Time for some Tweets :

If one reads the very short news report, the ACC is quoted for its views at the end :

ACC said it would consider whether this decision "has any wider impact" but took the view it would have "limited" value as a precedent and it would "continue to carefully consider each person's unique situation and circumstances".

Who stands to gain - cui bono ?, in legal Latin - by talking down the significance of the ruling (the piece is vague, because it talks about appeals, but without making clear what status they had, though a district court is usually the lowest level of court) ? And how much money are we arguing about ? :

I cannot see that the ACC, if the New Zealand system operates a similar law of precedent, has any choice other than to swallow paying this handsome (and backdated) sum - it will chip away at individual claimants (at goodness knows what expense !) who get as far as this one, making each one prove it more likely than not that abuse gave rise to that loose bundle of symptoms called schizophrenia (some of which one can have, others be free from, and which is no effective predictor of effective drug therapy), case by case, saying that their 'situation and circumstances' differ (a sure tautology ?).

The only hope is for the question to get to a higher court (since this does not appear to be one), and what compromises or concessions is it in the ACC's interests to make to those individuals who fight this far ? Of course, as with the employers' organizations, they do not want what is called an appellate jurisdiction to get anywhere near the question - they do not want an aggrieved claimant, turned down at this level, to take it further and risk a precedent being made.

Is it all cynical ? Of course it is. When Thatcher's government tried to deny those claiming asylum any resource to public funds (depending on rules about when they first claimed asylum), the courts decided that, if it had intended to make an implied repeal of the National Assistance Act 1948 (for no Parliament can bind any other Parliament not to legislate the opposite - part of what is called Parliamentary sovereignty), it would have had to use clearer language. Judges do not just have to roll over and not do justice, and they can and do make our law in a significant way.

Precedent is part of that, and opponents are quick to say that one case is materially different from another (and thus that there is no binding precedent, known as distinguishing a case), or that, even if it did apply, there are, say, six reasons why the claimant should get nothing (or a nominal amount). Judges know the tricks, because they once played them, and they should try to get to a just outcome.

So the possible good news for those in the UK diagnosed with this 'schizophrenia' is that cases from the Commonwealth have persuasive force or authority, which means that, even if judgement were binding in New Zealand, it is not here, but judges will listen to argument that it is relevant to consider what it says.

Postlude (by Tweet) :

Taking which further here...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

This person, with chaos in her wake

This is a review of Mary Poppins (1964)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 December

This is a review of Mary Poppins (1964)

It's a truism about Mary Poppins (1964) that Dick Van Dyke is meant to be a Cockney as Bert (in the extended, animated country-scene sequence, he is shown with Pearly Kings and Queens after the horse-race ?), and that his accent is dire - even if that were true, he is a great asset to the film as a performer, purveyor of home-spun truths, and jack of all trades, and would the children (as some would say, 'the demographic') for whom it was intended have cared less ? Humanity and warmth (and giving a rendition of a patter-song) count for much more !

And that is what the main message of the film is all about, or, as the Hanks / Thompson film has it, Saving Mr. Banks (though there are other, less obvious themes, which will be explored below). It probably makes as little sense to ask, outside that new Disney film, who Mary Poppins (really) is, because, if one swallows a retired admiral considering his roof-top to be H. M. S. Boom, one should not baulk at an explanation of someone who says I never explain (she may actually have said, I never give explanations) : wherever P. L. Travers and / or the film got him from, one need not look further than Wemmick's Castle in Great Expectations (or, in Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy's uncle)...

There is no one in this film who fails to please, with David Tomlinson as the father to Jane and Michael, who has to be so restrained in holding back his feelings (as Bert shows the children) until the close of the film, a man who wants to run when he has a sherry and smokes his pipe by the clock, and will not heed the admiral's helpful enquiries and advice; Glynis Johns as his wife, Mrs. Banks, who has found a cause rather than relate to her children (and whose difficulty in being a mother Disney has Travers defend as something that happens), and who delightfully and cheerfully dashes off to sing songs to imprisoned suffragette sisters, leaving her son and daughter in the care of an unknown chimney-sweep; the children, played by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber with a suitable mixture of innocence and a desire to get into scrapes; and, of course, the delightful Julie Andrews in the title-role, her diction perfect, her voice sweet and pure, and her own sense of fun (saying to wide-mouthed Michael We are not a cod-fish ! - a little different from Van Dyke's more-broad comedic one.

And, as Van Dyke can, she can dance, of course, and always moves with such grace - just a shame that, in common with less well-lit scenes such as on the ceiling at Mary Poppins' uncle's and the bird woman with her food for tuppence (both of which also suffered from indistinctness), the roof-top activity was a little dark, although I assume some technical reason relation to filming and / or restoration. Otherwise, there is delight to be had from this film's look at nearly 50, and the animated sequence that Travers objected to was enchanting (I was with her with the penguin routine, but it may have not dragged for younger viewers), entering into life from life, which Mr. Banks seems to lack. Even in Bert, when his pavement-paintings get spoilt by rain, we see him take pleasure in literally spreading the colour around.

The main people to whom songs are given are Andrews, Van Dyke, and Tomlinson, and all bring out the quality of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman's strong words and music, making for unforced and unabashed bursting into song. As a film about what life is and is about, Mary Poppins shares territory with It's a Wonderful Life in several ways, with a run on the bank, a man alienated from whatever disturbs his sense of order (Banks) / restoring financial propriety (George Bailey), even if it is actually the lives of his family, and the intervention of a force from without with magical powers (Poppins / Clarence) and the mixing of what we take for granted with how things might be.

The principal message is that living by consumerism* blinds one to what matters in life. There is no suggestion that Mr. Banks resorts significantly to alcohol (a theme in Saving Mr. Banks (2013)), but the admiral's calls from the roof, and the idea that he cannot see what is front of his nose (with the woman selling bird-food), suggest that he has found other ways to adjust to working for the bank (shown, at the end, to have a human face), and Mary Poppins briefly staying helps him see things anew. His liberation, his rediscovering his children's love and their interests, will no doubt say much even to modern youngsters.

As to the covert themes, there is this curious business of Mary Poppins' uncle on the ceiling, and what a crisis this is treated as - a tentative interpretation might relate this to the experience of bi-polar disorder, with, when they have tea in the air, literally being high, for what 'brings them down' is thinking of something sad, and Bert says that he will stay and look over Mary Poppins' uncle when she and the girls leave, and he tries to raise spirits with his 'down in the mouth' joke about eating a feather pillow. (Against that, when Van Dyke, as Mr. Dawes Senior, is told the joke about 'a man with a wooden leg called Smith', he, too, levitates, and his death is said to have been a happy one.)

Still with the bank, being summoned to return at 9.00 has a distinctly masonic air about it - The City is dark as Mr. Banks crosses to it, is let in, and is accompanied to the door by top-hatted men, who almost frog-march him there. The debunking, although comic, suggests a sort of serious ritual, deflated by Banks, when asked if he has anything to say (before he has retorted that he always knows what to say, a self-assurance with which he maybe only fools himself and Mrs. Banks), finds himself saying Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and even, to his surprise, feeling better for it.

Finally, the care for spending (as Michael wishes to do) tuppence on feeding the birds could translate to not hoarding, but using, the wealth given to us (The Parable of The Talents ?), or even to the invocation to Peter, Feed my sheep...


* Often enough wrongly thought of as 'materialism', or 'capitalism', although making money and owning the means of production are best not confused.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 14 December 2013

It's a jolly holiday with Disney

This is a review of Mary Poppins (1964)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 December

This is a review of Mary Poppins (1964)

When a company celebrates an anniversary, you can be almost certain that it does so to sell you something – in extreme cases, the complete works of J. S. Bach on CD (151 CDs, to be precise, which, if truthful to yourself, you know that you will never all play, even just once).

In this case, it is two cinema-tickets for everyone in your family, not only to Mary Poppins (1964) (as restored), but to the making-of film, Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - even if it does sound rather like that Spielberg one.

If anyone can be as brisk and British as Julie Andrews, surely Emma Thompson can, even if the plot has – as it is said to have – a licence to make Tom Hanks, as Uncle Walt, more cuddly than he really was (and what, one wonders, did Miss Andrews know of the tussles about authorship and artistic integrity).

So far so good, apart from the question whether a spoonful of sugar (or some larger confection) is going to be necessary to make the [Disney] medicine go down

Now continued as a review

83 = S : 13 / A : 16 / C : 11 / M : 14 / P : 15 / F : 14

A rating and review of Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel

9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)

This is a film that, for many reasons, should not succeed in being touching – and one cannot quite untease whether what is touching is that it is showing (a version of) the cinematic genesis of a loved childhood film, i.e. working off one’s emotional attachment to the film within the film onto the latter.

Initially, the soundtrack is just too obvious and overpowering, reaching a low with a jazz version of Heigh-ho on Travers’ arrival at Disney HQ (which, according to the loud assertion of a fellow audience member, had been Dave Brubeck’s). Maybe one became accustomed to it, maybe it became more subtle, but it did not work against drawing out emotion from scenes in the way that it had before. (It did not really help that the disturbing, percussive bass notes of the trailer for All is Lost (2013) had created pounding in the heart.)

P. L. Travers, seemingly portrayed effortlessly by Emma Thompson, just cannot, we know continue as she first presents herself, fussing, dismissing, disapproving. (Thompson is perfect for the part, as is Hanks for Disney – he seems to have had his eyes modified to heighten the resemblance, unless he just always looks that way.) And can Disney really do everything nicely to get her to sign her rights to him (which, on her agent’s advice, she has not done) and let him make the film ?

In between, something happens, whereas it could have more closely resembled the confrontation in, say, Frost / Nixon (2008), onto which, at some level, it may be seen to map : what will the breakthrough be that changes the dynamic of declining to sign ? (In fact, the film is a better contender for that category, for, on the face of it, Frost does nothing whatever to elicit an apology from Nixon, just lets him bluster time and time over.)

In this film, a natural star is Annie Rose Buckley, as Ginty, the young Travers, who exudes faith and trust (not least hugged to his arms on horseback) very naturally as well as looking very pretty. Colin Farrell, in the role of her father, seems initially to have been allowed a longer leash, but he is not playing against type, and it does not take us long to be shown that he is as tortured, in his way, as Ray in In Bruges (2008), save that this is a PG, not an 18.

One sees his wife Margaret (suitably quietly played by Ruth Wilson) struggling to relate to his way of loving his daughter, so different from how she is, for they are really quite a way apart, which both pains and paralyses her. One beautiful use of cinematography takes us above a maze of sheets on the line, children, chickens, and parents, momentarily symbolic of how tortuous the relations have become. And then there is Thompson as a grown-up, with an army of pill-boxes at her deployment.

That shot alone tells us that things are not, in conventional terms, going to be simple. It is indicative maybe just of hypochondria, although (seeing Travers) that seems unlikely, and here we come to the nub of the film : why Mary Poppins means something to her to such an extent that she will not bear her character just being called Mary.

She will not have herself called anything other than Mrs Travers (which her driver, played with real humour and humanity by Paul Giamatti*, as a sort of look-alike cross between Bilko and Eric Morecambe, confuses, and keeps calling her just Missus). She just insists on certain things, being or not being, as if just for the sake of it. And this is where my regret lies, that we are in a type of Marnie (1964), but with no Connery to her Hedren to help her open up her mind to psychodynamic change (and explain why she chucks pears into a swimming-pool).

It is just that we have come a little beyond the way in which the earlier decades** showed these matters, and this seems some sort of implausible spontaneous process (though it may have been what happened, or how it was interpreted at the time) that someone should go into what, in effect, is a disasssociative state at the impulse of working on a piece of writing with close, personal meaning.

For me, Disney talking about his childhood and how he relates to it seems a little more likely to have conveyed a message. And, for me, I cannot separate from this film what Andrews and Mary Poppins (1964) meant to my childhood, so it was especially nice both to see contemporaneous stills of Disney, Travers, Andrews and of the storyboards, as well as hear a little of these tapes that Travers insisted being made.

By the way, one goof :

Anyone used to weather-vanes will know that they point in the direction from which the wind is coming, the reason being that the latter part of what rotates resists the wind, and so gets pushed until there is no longer any resistance, when the front, needle part points into the wind (also offering least resistance) and, if the markings around the edge are correctly oriented, at the letter 'E', if the wind is from the east.

This is how the admiral's weather-vane works in Mary Poppins (1964), turning to point to W when the wind has changed and is no longer from the east. This was lost on someone, for, when Ginty is being told that the wind has changed and is coming from the east, W is being pointed at.


* Excellent in Sideways (2004) and The Last Station (2009).

** There are some anachronisms : in the 1960s, it was de rigueur for saucer to stay with cup, there were no chains to keep trace of glasses, and no British person was casually diagnosing ADHD (least of all in an adult). (And the rendering of the steam train's progress against the landscape did not quite work.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)