Posts Tagged ‘film review’

Fantastic Planet (1973)

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Until recently, we’ve tended to associate animated films with children, and treated animated films that deal with adult subjects as anomalies, or at best new discoveries. But animation has been around as long as cinema, and for much of its history it has been directed toward adult audiences as much as children. The French/Czech co-production Fantastic Planet, directed by Rene Laloux, is one of many animated films from the 1970s that deals with adult and oft-disturbing subject matter in a unique, complex way.

Fantastic Planet takes place on the planet Ygam, inhabited by a race of blue humanoids called Draags. Draags keep human beings, called Oms (in French, literally homme or man), as pets, putting them in collars, dressing them in little costumes, and playing with them. But Draags also view wild Oms as dangerous, vicious creatures that must be eradicated. The film centers around one Om named Terr, a pet of Tiwa, the daughter of a senior Draag leader. Through an error in his collar, Terr begins to learn Draag language, culture, and planet knowledge from a pair of headphones that project Tiwa’s school lessons directly into his brain. Finally sick of being treated like an animal, Terr escapes, fleeing into the wilderness with Tiwa’s headphones. He meets up with a band of wild Oms to whom he offers Draag knowledge, but incurs danger both from the frightened Oms and the increasingly malevolent Draags.

Fantastic Planet’s sci-fi plot is somewhat simplistic, enhanced by the surreal imagery that creates a strange, unique culture and experience. The film ostensibly was meant to reflect the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, but it has greater resonance than that, dealing with issues of dehumanization, genocide, and the complex philosophy that puts one people (or species) above another. The Oms are ignorant because their overlords have kept them ignorant, but the Draags also have no apparent awareness that their pets are anything more than dumb animals. Terr provides a bridge, imparting knowledge that proves to be a danger to himself, to the Oms, and to the Draags.

Fantastic Planet is more about image than about plot, the creation of a fascinating, bizarre world that is about cinematic experience creating meaning. While firmly set in its Cold War mentality, it nevertheless succeeds in being universal, in saying something about the way humanity treats that which it does not understand, about belief in superiority and the dangers that creates for all creatures, Draags and Oms alike.

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L’Assassin Habite Au 21 (The Murderer Lives At Number 21) (1942)

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French director Henri-Georges Clouzot rose to fame on the strength of films like The Wages of Fear and Diabolique: creepy, intense thrillers that immediately bring to mind Alfred Hitchcock rather than French art house. Clouzot’s filmography goes back a bit further, though, to his first feature film in 1942, the weird, funny, and slightly subversive L’Assassin habite au 21.

The film follows police detective Wenceslas “Wens” Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) and his would-be music star girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair) as they investigate a series of murders by the serial killer known only as Monsieur Durand, who leaves his business card at the scene of every death. There’s not much to go on, but Wens gets a break when a petty criminal stumbles upon a bunch of Monsieur Durand cards in the attic of the Mimosas, a boarding house run by Madame Point (Odette Talazac) at Number 21 Avenue Junot. Leaving Mila behind, Wens takes a room at the boarding house and proceeds to investigate each of his strange fellow tenants, many of them music hall performers on hard times.

L’Assassin habite au 21 has much in common with the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, relying as much on humor and comic characterizations as it does on thriller tropes. Wens is a dashing, acerbic hero, approaching his investigation almost as though it’s an amusing adventure instead of the search for a vicious killer. His suspects include a magician who keeps accidentally making things disappear, a former soldier with a violent temper and avowed respect for the killer, a failed novelist, a toymaker who makes Monsieur Durand dolls, a valet who does bird impressions, and a vampy nurse who cares for a blind former boxer. The characterizations are all loads of fun, as each suspect evinces some grotesqueries of their own that may or may not point the way to a disturbed psyche. Wens doesn’t let anything phase him, however, not even Mila, who regularly gets herself arrested in an effort to solve the case for herself. It’s a speedy, amusing little thriller, not high on scares but with rather tongue-in-cheek humor.

One of the most interesting elements of L’Assassin habite au 21 is its production circumstances. Made in 1942 in occupied France, it was the fourth script that Clouzot wrote for the Nazi-run production company Continental films. This is remarkable, given that the film includes numerous sly jabs at Nazi mentality, from characterizing one suspect as a fascist sympathizer with deep contempt for the “lesser” forms of humanity, to actually parodying a Nazi salute near the end. Clouzot would face some criticism for his apparent collaboration with the Nazis, but his films tend to mock Nazism from the inside out.

There’s really very little to complain about in L’assassin habite au 21, except that it could have been longer by ten or fifteen minutes and thus developed our characters more. It’s just an enjoyable whodunnit and it does exactly what it intends to do.

Seven Days in May (1964)

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Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had a friendship that spanned decades, during which they made seven films together, playing heroes, villains, friends, and enemies. They were among that generation of actors that started their careers in the midst of the Studio System and managed to find their way out of it again, producing some truly remarkable films under their own production banners. Among these is 1964’s Seven Days in May, a political thriller about the near-overthrow of the United States by a military coup.

Lancaster is General James Mattoon Scott, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is in direct disagreement with President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) over a missile treaty recently signed with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads, effectively bringing the Cold War standoff to an end and avoiding any future nuclear war. The decision is unpopular with America at large, but none more so than General Scott, who believes that the President is setting the U.S. up for an attack when the Russians fail to honor the agreement. What few realize, and what Scott’s aide ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) soon discovers, is that Scott and several other high-ranking commanders of the Army, Navy, and Marines have been setting up a military coup aimed at killing the President and taking over the U.S. government. When Casey stumbles across information about the coup, he’s placed in a position of defying his commanding officer, whom he greatly admires, in order to stop it.

The film is directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) and scripted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) for Kirk Douglas’s own production company. The script is taut and topical, dealing with the Cold War and arms race to immediate and chilling effect.  The first half of the film is primarily concerned with the discovery of the coup and Jiggs’s crisis of conscience. He has to do the right thing and report his suspicions, but he doesn’t particularly want to. The mis-en-scene in this section is all lights and darks, as the chiaroscuro mirrors Jiggs’s increasing suspicions and divided loyalties. As we head into the second half of the film, occupied with proving and preventing the coup, the pacing picks up significantly, moving away from the conflict between Jiggs and Scott and into the attempts of various members of the President’s staff to find something concrete on Scott.

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Seven Days in May is chock full of excellent performances: everyone from Lancaster and Douglas to Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, who plays Scott’s former lover with more on the General than she realizes. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott is a self-obsessed sociopath who believes that what he’s doing is not for personal aggrandizement but the good of the United States. Few actors can portray the intensity of the fanatic and still remain firmly grounded, but Lancaster pulls it off. His General Scott is a true-believer, logical and totally terrifying.

If Seven Days in May has a flaw it is in the few speeches handed to its characters, particularly Frederic March’s President Lyman. While March’s performance is a strong one, he has at least two speeches intended to provide the film’s already obvious message about the dangers of Cold War rhetoric and nuclear armament. The speeches are largely unnecessary and do somewhat date an otherwise topical film.

Far more chilling are the moments that hammer home how prescient this film is. Scott gives a speech about patriotism and freedom that eerily reminds one of some pundits we typically hear on Fox News…and in Congress. The coup relies on a belief that Scott and his compatriots know the will of the people, and will force that will on the country irrespective of democracy. The continuous refrain of jingoistic patriotism is as recognizable today as it was in 1964. Seven Days in May is frightening because it is so believable.

While firmly embedded in Cold War mentality, Seven Days in May should be an iconic film because it is still so universal. Strong performances and script keep things moving along, though really the whole film is held on two sets of very broad shoulders. Lancaster and Douglas would make other films together, but none perhaps quite so prescient.

The Invisible Woman

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We often acknowledge Charles Dickens as one of the finest writers of the 19th Century. Certainly he was one of the most influential, developing the three volume novel as a work both of art and entertainment, and the novelist as a celebrity and public figure with moral and ethical responsibility to his public. Like many great public figures, though, Dickens’s private life was less than stellar, wrapped up in Victorian social and sexual mores. He was, in short, no better than most people, and at times perhaps a great deal worse.

The Invisible Woman claims to tell the story of Dickens’s semi-public relationship with Ellen Ternan, a young actress whose relationship with Dickens would last the rest of his life. Because of both the extreme secrecy of the relationship – Dickens was still married – and the fact that Dickens burned his entire correspondence with Ternan, the actual circumstances of much of their relationship remains largely hearsay and speculation. Dickens had already engaged in a fairly public infatuation with his wife Catherine’s sister Mary earlier in his life, and it is true that he separated from his wife around the same time he’s believed to be involved with Ternan. As with most biographical or semi-biographical films, The Invisible Woman should probably not be taken as “the truth,” but rather a speculative version of it.

The film opens with the first appearance of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), long after her affair with Dickens has ended. A married woman, she still harbors fond and not-so-fond memories of the man she loved. The film rolls us back to their first meeting during a production of The Frozen Deep, a joint play by Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) and Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander). Nelly is the youngest in a family of actresses headed by Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas); she’s also the least talented, with difficulty projecting beyond the footlights. She and Dickens share an immediate attraction and rapport, however, and their relationship progresses from a great man and his acolyte to a great man and his somewhat recalcitrant mistress.

The Invisible Woman thankfully avoids some of the cliches that could have marred its project. Fiennes’s Dickens is not a seducer, but neither is he wholly sympathetic – he’s a talented author and celebrated philanthropist who cannot bear not to be adored. His attraction to Nelly is both that of an older man falling for an attractive younger woman who obviously venerates him, and as a man who believes he’s found someone who understands him. His treatment of his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan) is reprehensible, yet we do not fully condemn his character. The whole plot becomes bound in the mores of Victorian society, which permits a man to have an affair but condemns the woman with whom he has it.

Felicity Jones plays Nelly as a woman in a relationship she both desires and wishes to end. All but sold by her mother, who believes she will never be able to support herself as an actress, Nelly falls for Dickens but does not really wish to be his mistress, condemned by the culture that surrounds her. A painful scene between Nelly and Catherine Dickens shows both women as victims of their society. They caught in love for a man who will always, as Catherine says, choose his public above any woman.

If The Invisible Woman fails anywhere, it is in the somewhat lax use of the framing narrative. This is meant to be something of a flashback and something of a mystery. There’s a lack of clarity in the connection between Nelly’s persistent unhappiness in her current life and her complicated experiences in the past. Jones plays even the younger Nelly as a somewhat unhappy and certainly a troubled young woman, giving her little space to change over the course of the narrative. While I never doubted her passion for Dickens was sincere, I did doubt its depth – she seems to worship him as a writer, conflating the man and the public figure. As such, the emotional connection between them feels shallow where it should, in my view, have been more complicated. The ending of the film is abrupt and a little unsatisfying, as though there was no way to bring the narrative to any kind of a round conclusion for either character.

Despite one or two shortcomings, however, The Invisible Woman is one of the better semi-biographical films about the time period. The Victorian era tends to either be romanticized or treated with undue harshness on film – The Invisible Woman avoids these pitfalls by approaching its characters as human beings, good people who sometimes behave badly. At the heart is the mystery of the human experience, and a sense of both profound joy and deep melancholy. When looked at in that light, one might imagine that Charles Dickens would be proud.

Mister Jerico

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Following the conclusion of The Avengers in 1969, a number of the cast and crew decided it was a good idea to take themselves off to the sea and sand and make a movie. The result was Mister Jerico, intended as a TV pilot that never got off the ground. It was released theatrically in the United Kingdom, and then as a TV movie in the U.S.

Patrick Macnee is Dudley Jerico – whose theme song leaves a little to be desired – a thief/con-man (with scruples) out to con a nasty millionaire Russo (played by the always nasty, always enjoyable Herbert Lom) out of a few million dollars. Jerico’s pal Wally (Marty Allen) helps with the endeavor – and there is of course the lovely Susan Grey (Connie Stevens), Russo’s secretary and Dudley’s love interest. Things get complicated when a mysterious French woman pops up trying to pull the same caper, involving the theft and sale of a rare diamond.

Mister Jerico is one of those charming and fluffy capers that the 1960s did well, quite similar to the higher- budgeted Gambit or How to Steal a Million. The palette is sun-soaked, the plot buoyant and just this side of ridiculous. The second half of the film in particular moves along at a nice pace, complicating matters without making anything seem too serious. If you think too deeply about the story, it will all appear very nonsensical, but this is a stylized caper film not intended for deeper scrutiny. It’s a surface film and as such it’s quite enjoyable.

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Patrick Macnee is a likable screen presence and good light comedian, playing Jerico with the same dash of wit and energy that he possessed as John Steed. He’s a somewhat limited actor, but works within those limitations to create a charming, erudite con man.  His wardrobe is also nothing short of spectacular – if that’s the word for it – with bright prints, flashy trousers, and a blue velvet fedora that Superfly would be proud of. Herbert Lom is an excellent counterpoint: a sharp, venal heavy, who fully deserves anything the cons can throw at him.

Connie Stevens meanwhile seems a touch out of place as Susan. While she and Macnee have heat, her somewhat breathy line delivery and slight air-headedness don’t quite gel with her role, which becomes more complex  as the film goes on. Still, she’s not an uninteresting leading lady, though I could name about ten actresses that might have played the light part with a bit more depth.

Mister Jerico is the height of 1960s silliness, and as long as one expects nothing more it makes for a diverting few hours. While I understand why it was never picked up as a pilot, it’s no less ridiculous than The PrisonerThe Persuaders, or any other stylized TV show from the same period. I have a soft spot for stylized films – all the more so if they happen to feature actors and actresses I enjoy. While not quite high camp, Mister Jerico is a lot of fun.