Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas treats ...

Starting with a box of macaroons from Paris - the box is a work of art in itself, I feel tempted to hang it on the wall, it has a lovely black cat on it - also a spice & marmalade cake, also from Pierre Herme, Paris. Then dipping in and out of all those old movies on television, catching up with some not seen since I was a kid, and a few old favourites.

NIGHT PASSAGE is a pleasant memory of a '50s Sunday afternoon matinee, this 1957 James Stewart western should have been another of his tough westerns with Anthony Mann, but Mann walked due to script problems, so it was directed by James Neilson. A look at frontier life along the railroad, with train robberies; I remember liking this scene with Stewart and young Brandon DeWilde on the train, also on board was Elaine Stewart (another of this year's departees, aged 80) married to big boss Jay C Flippen! Audie Murphy and Dan Duryea were among the baddies, and Ellen Corby another tough frontier woman.

TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE from 1959 - not seen this since then but its as effective and violent (effectively directed by John Gullermin) as I remembered - Gordon Scott the perfect Tarzan for '50s kids, Anthony Quayle a terrific villain with young Sean Connery and Niall McGuinness in his gang, along with bad girl Scilla Gabel - Sophia Loren's stand-in on BOY ON A DOLPHIN, and here starting out her own career as a sizzling eurobabe. Scilla was always good value in Steve Reeves epics and movies as diverse as SODOM AND GOMORRAH and my fave MODESTY BLAISE.

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER - one of those lavish (it says here...) 1977 remakes, helmed by the usually reliable Richard Fleischer (THE VIKINGS, BARBABBAS) this is an idiotic remake of the Erroll Flynn original. Lurid colours and guest stars aplenty: Charlton Heston, the older Rex Harrison, Raquel Welch is mainly silent - the interest for me is the re-teaming of Oliver Reed (rather portly here) and David Hemmings as his evil brother - their hell-raising was taking its toll on them here, since they were young in 1964's THE SYSTEM, a key movie for me then [review at David Hemmings label], showing the 60s just starting to swing. Mark Lester as both the prince and the pauper shows that most perfect child actors (OLIVER) grow up to be very uninteresting indeed, he is lanky here with frizzy hair and there is no difference at all between his two roles ... an amusing time-waster then, not in the same league as the producers' delightful star-stuffed MUSKETEERS films by Richard Lester. Right: THE SYSTEM gang in '64 including Olly and David Hemmings - 2 years later he was the star of Antonioni's BLOW-UP and the icon of the age!

THE SEARCHERS. A classic one never tires of of course, like THE QUIET MAN and VERTIGO, also afternoon or late night delights. More on Ford's classic western at Jeffrey Hunter label - he has that bath scene here with Vera Miles (Mrs TARZAN in real life as she was then married to Gordon Scott!; her pregnancy cost her that leading role in VERTIGO). I shall get around to appreciating Vera in due course. What is jarring about THE SEARCHERS now is the treatment of the squaw Hunter accidentally marries; but to counterbalance that we have those essentially 50s yet timeless scenes with those characters Martin Pawley, Laurie Jurgenson and Natalie Wood's Debbie.

MANSFIELD PARK, the 1999 film of a Jane Austen novel seems to have divided opinions, as a lot of Austen purists hate it. I read the book some time ago, it is not my favourite Austen - that is PERSUASION by a mile, one I can re-read and like all 3 adaptations (costume drama label). The priggish Fanny Price is indeed Austen's least loveable heroine as she relishes her moral superiority over the other young people putting on the play, which she does not approve of. It is a good cast here though, with Harold Pinter (left) as Sir Thomas Bertram whose business interests in Antigua turn out to be slavery, James Purefoy and Johnny Lee Miller as his sons; the marvellous Sheila Gish (right) as Mrs Norris who tries to keep Fanny as the poor relation, and Lindsay Duncan as both Fanny's downtrodden mother and opium-addicted wife of Sir Thomas. Frances O'Connor is a spirited Fanny, but hardly fair to Austen's original.

Finally, a re-view of 1958's A TALE OF TWO CITIES as well, not seen since I was a kid. French actor Paul Guers who did actually look like Bogarde, plays Charles Darnay whom Dirk replaces on the guillotine - Guers has been in some other items I saw recently like Demy's BAY OF ANGELS and THE GIRL WITH GOLDEN EYES (both at French label). This is solid Rank Organisation fare by Ralph Thomas with all those familiar featured players: Rosalie Crutchley, Freda Jackson, Athene Seyler, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance etc, all looking splendidly in period.

THIS HAPPY BREED. Another perennial favourite, as I have written about before (Kay Walsh label). Kay excels as Queenie the dissatisfied daughter of Robert Newton and Celia Johnson; and there is that endless bickering between Amy Vaness's mother-in-law and Alison Legatt's spinster sister, all part of the Higgins family in Clapham between the wars. The period detail is just perfect and the emotions are fully engaged, particuarly that scene when the parents in the garden are told of the deaths of their son and his wife, as the camera stays in the sitting room where afternoon tea is about to be served ...

And one discovery: THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE from 2005: "When the Pevensie family are evacuated out to the country, they are unaware of the adventure they will encounter. During a game of hide and seek, the youngest daughter, Lucy discovers a wardrobe which transports her to the land of Narnia. Covered in snow, Narnia is full of weird and wonderful creatures, but is watched over by the evil White Witch. When all four Pevensie children end up through the wardrobe, they discover that it was meant to be, as two daughters of Eve and two sons of Adam must join with the mighty lion, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) to defeat the evil White Witch". Tilda Swinton is perfect as the Ice Queen/White Witch and James McAvoy (whom I had not though much of) is an adorable faun and the children are just perfect. For a CGI movie I liked it a lot, and Andrew Adamson's direction is also perfect! I shall have to watch the others now ...

The new DOWNTON ABBEY special is indeed a treat, and ticks all the right boxes, and the new GREAT EXPECTATIONS is an odd re-telling, rather different from Lean's version, with Ray Winstone a perfect Magwitch, and Gillian Anderson as a wraith-like younger Miss Havisham. Unusual though to see a plain-jane Estella (who is meant to be a glacial beauty out of the rather ordindary Pip's league), but here Pip with his sculptured cheekbones and pouting lips, is much prettier than her! Pip is Douglas Booth who was one of Isherwood's boys in CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND (gay interest label). Now for that BEN HUR re-boot, with Winstone again (as Jack Hawkins). It cannot be a patch on Wyler's classic but may have some cheap laughs!
BEN HUR (2010) actually turned out to be quite interesting, shot in Morocco it looks more like THE LIFE OF BRIAN than a Hollywood blockbuster, and wisely does not try to be - the chariot race for instance is much smaller scale (no circus maximus here) and the ships at war are courtesy of CGI effects and there are interesting script variations from the Wyler film. Winstone is a mumbling Arrius, Hugh Bonneville good as a nasty Pilate, Alex Kingston right as Mrs Hur (the leprosy is also played down), but in all a radical re-working of the original material. Joseph Morgan is a totally underwhelming uncharismatic Ben, but Stephen Campbell Moore (from THE HISTORY BOYS) a rather good Messala.
We will though be still watching the Lean and Wyler originals when these lightweight remakes are soon forgotten - I tuned in to Lean's EXPECTATIONS again yesterday and was bowled over again by how perfect it all was, with that great double act of Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons as the perfect Havisham and Estella, and that marvellous black and white photography, so right for Dickens.

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