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.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Richard Lester, a BFI Tribute

Richard Lester is awarded a BFI (British Film Institute) Fellowship at a ceremony next month with an interview and special screening of maybe his best film ROBIN AND MARIAN - (see still at Nicol Williamson post below), not only has it Connery and Audrey Hepburn but also the likes of Robert Shaw, Nicol Williamson, Richard Harris etc. One of my essential 1976 films (along with TAXI DRIVER, OBSESSION, NETWORK, L'INNOCENTE etc).

Lester is that Canadian who moved to England, became an essential director of English movies, up there with Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, Joe Losey, Ken Russell, Clive Donner and Michael Winner then. His HARD DAY'S NIGHT with the Beatles was very influential, as was HELP! - it was marvellous walking into the cinema half-way through (continuous performances in those days, you could stay as long as you liked, I saw it twice through) the sequence on Salisbury Plain as George Harrison did his solo number "I Need You" - it was a big thing then, at 19, to see The Beatles on screen in colour, rather than on a tiny black and white television. His Beatles films were hugely influential as the first pop promo videos really with those musical numbers cut and edited to the music.

Lester also hit it with THE KNACK [which won the Cannes Grand Prix] and offbeat films like THE BED-SITTING ROOM, HOW I WON THE WAR, he certainly worked with the best and his movies were full of delicious quirky funny moments. PETULIA with Julie Christie in San Francisco is one I really must re-view and his 70s all star spectaculars were, well, spectacular and funny: THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS, ROYAL FLASH (review at Malcolm McDowell label), and I am shortly going to catch up with JUGGERNAUT a better than average bomb-on-ship thriller, with Hemmings & co.. ROBIN AND MARIAN was perfect too.

He also presented a marvellous 6-part BBC television series back in the '90s HOLLYWOOD UK, (thankfully I kept some episodes on vhs cassettes) revisiting the locations and interviewing surviving members of iconic British 60s films like BILLY LIAR, BLOW-UP, THE L-SHAPED ROOM, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, THE SERVANT etc with waspish comments from Bogarde, Terence Stamp (insisting that BLOWUP was all about him and Antonioni had been following him around and offerred him the role first), with Monica Vitti speaking in Italian and it was fascinating going back to BILLY LIAR's house as it is now, and the BLOW-UP park and studio.

Good to see more praise for this boldly original director with a great sense of humour!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ken's Rainbow

That was a nice wave of affection for Ken Russell who died recently, at the good age of 84. BBC here in England ran WOMEN IN LOVE the other weekend, terrific to see it again after some decades - it remains his "prestige" film, they also showed the lesser known THE RAINBOW from 1989, also by D.H. Lawrence, with the same lead character Ursula Brangwen when younger.

WOMEN IN LOVE is so exhuberent - there is just so much in it, so much plot, so much happening, so many vivid characters, Ken here in his prime has great material to work with and a great cast and comes across like an English Fellini, creating great moods and images, it is so very 1969. I had forgot how marvellous Alan Bates was in his prime, and it must also be Oliver Reed's finest moment, Eleanor Bron is also terrific. Russell was a visionary who marched to the beat of his own drum and WIL remains a film that is both visually striking and rich in narrative. Perhaps the more apt comparison is to Orson Welles, a fellow auteur who started his career in the good graces of the critics and then began making more challenging films that were interested in stretching the medium.

Ken too while "hot" did some challenging films: THE MUSIC LOVERS (I have a new dvd of that to watch, so a report later) and I understand a new complete print of THE DEVILS will be unveiled (but not sure if I want to see that again....) and he kept working to diminishing returns after the success of TOMMY. I loathed VALENTINO and he seems to have lost his mass audience around then, but kept making movies even ending up making them in his garage. THE SAVAGE MESSIAH should be a re-discovery, and perhaps the amusingly awful LISZTOMANIA , and his forays into American movies ... (I recently also got BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967) to complete my Francoise Dorleac movies.)

The BBC also showed a new documentary on him, great to see clips from his "Monitor" days, those black and white films on composers like Delius and Elgar. THE RAINBOW though is a curious trifle - almost D.H. Lawrence lite, or a parody of those themes. IMDB says: Ken Russell's loose adaptation of the last part of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow" sees impulsive young Ursula coming of age in pastoral England around the time of the Boer War. At school, she is introduced to lovemaking by a bisexual physical education instructress. While experiencing disillusionment in her first career attempt (teaching), she has an affair with a young Army officer, who wants to marry her. Unable to accept a future of domesticity, she breaks with him, and eventually leaves home in search of her destiny.

Ken obviously inspired a lot of affection so appearing here must have been a labour of love for Ken's regulars like Glenda Jackson and Christopher Gable as Ursula's loving parents with their bohemian (for the time) marriage. David Hemmings is simply marvellous as Uncle Harry - before he got too florid - and he brings a lot of humour and grace to the role. The unusual looking Sammi Davis is Ursula, and Amanda Donohue (later the star of Ken's bonkers LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM) is the school teacher who teaches Sammi the joys of sapphic love as the girls strip and run around naked in the rain ... Amanda soon though latches on to Hemmings and marries him and has a baby, while soldier Paul McGann shows Sammi the joys of hetero sex, as he too strips and runs around naked. Add in school teaching with lecherous teachers and the scene is set for the usual Ken histrionics. So, an enjoyable romp, another of those British films of the era exploring sex in those restrictive times, like that other 1970 D.H. saga THE VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY by Christopher Miles, who also gave us the later DH bio THE PRIEST OF LOVE with more stripping off by Ian McKellen and Co in 1981 - reviews at costume drama label.

I also recorded THE BOYFRIEND - also not seen that for decades, should be fun again, as Ken's regulars like Max Adrian, Glenda, Gable, Georgina Hale, Antonia Ellis, Vladek Sheybal, Graham Armitage and the very gauche Twiggy [now starring in Marks & Spencer clothes advertisments] amuse and entertain us back in 1971.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Nicol Williamson, R.I.P.

RIP indeed to one of the great acting talents of the British theatre and cinema. Nicol Williamson burst on the scene in the '60s - like the young David Warner he was a mesmerising Hamlet, he and Warner (whom I have been meaning to write about too, along with Alan Bates and Peter Finch) are together in the '68 drama THE BOFORS GUN, long unseen.
By all accounts a difficult man, as the respectful obituaries put it: "his prickly temperament helped derail what might have been one of the great theatrical careers" as he was "touched by genius" and "the greatest actor since Brando". Heady praise to live up to ...

He died aged 73 in December but his family have only released the information now. His 1968 HAMLET was filmed by Tony Richardson, with Marianne Faithfull as his Ophelia, and Richardson also directed him in his film of Nabokov's LAUGHTER IN THE DARK, where Williamson replaced another ailing hellraiser Richard Burton. This film is too little seen now, but I remember a tv showing if it ... His initial stage success was in John Osborne's INADMISSABLE EVIDENCE where his ranting solicitor (a rather more raging BUTLEY as played by Alan Bates) was a tour de force, he also played the role in the film. Other films included THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION as Sherlock Holmes (above with Vanessa Redgrave), and as Little John with Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Richard Lester's smashing ROBIN AND MARIAN in 1976 - which also co-starred Robert Shaw - another of those actors like Stanley Baker, Laurence Harvey and Stephen Boyd who died too young. Williamson too had alcoholic problems, like Robert Stephens who also never became quite the star people thought he would and made too many dud movies, as did the hellraiser in chief Richard Burton. Peter O'Toole seems to have survived all that ... It seems now that a lot of the hellraisers of the 60s like Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, David Hemmings, Anthony Hopkins became, if they survived, old hams in dud movies. Nicol Williamson didn't quite go that route having got bored with acting eventually and turning to music. What a fascinating man. He is fun too in my favourite snake-on-the-loose-with-people-trapped-in-a-house-under-seige movie VENOM with his ex-lover Sarah Miles (review at Sarah Miles label), and then of course there was his Merlin in John Boorman's EXCALIBUR!

The actor, who was known as a straighforward, private man, leaves his son, Luke. "He was the most honest, funny and intelligent man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing," writes Luke on Williamson's official website. "He was my father and words cannot adequately express how proud I am of him."

Marcello & Romy ! !

Another new Italian discovery: I hadn't realised that Romy Schneider and Marcello Mastroianni had teamed up for FANTASMA D'AMORE in 1981, one of her last films, the year before her death in '82. This is another one we were denied in London, though surely there would have been an audience for it then when the art circuit was still going and international stars like these were still popular ... I have now though seen some scenes from this Dino Risi drama on YouTube and have ordered an Italian only dvd,so a full report in due course ...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) 1949

Finally, the great Italian drama from 1949 - RISO AMARO, or BITTER RICE (a decade before L'AVVENTURA - see below) which introduced Silvana Mangano to international audiences, an engrossing drama of life in the rice fields where thieves Doris Dowling and Vittorio Gassman flee to evade capture, but peasant girl Silvana (Silvana Mangano) is on to them and ingratiates herself with Doris ... then enter army captain Raf Vallone, so the stage is set for drama and tragedy. This is a great Dino de Laurentiis production and was such a hit that Mangano, Vallone and Gassman were teamed again in 1951 for ANNA (Mangano label), that torrid melodrama by Alberto Lattuada which I liked so much recently - this one too had the young Sophia Loren in the mix, in the background. A few years later in 1954 Loren had come to prominence in her own working in the rice fields drama WOMAN OF THE RIVER, which impressed me so much when I was about 12 - as mentioned before (Sophia Loren label) and it was in colour too!

Silvana though wasn't as ambitious as Sophia and was content to be cast in her husband De Laurentiis's films: ULYSSES, MAMBO (another favourite discovery of mine - Mangano label), and those two rarities I liked when young: Rene Clements' THE SEA WALL (THIS ANGRY AGE) and Lattuauda's THE TEMPEST, both 1958, and Martin Ritt's glum FIVE BRANDED WOMEN, 1960. Mangano continued thoughtout the 60s and 70s (while Loren, Vitti, Cardindale came to prominence) in comedies like IL DISCO VOLANTE and then in those Pasolini films like TEOREMA, OEDIPE RE (both '68) and for Visconti in DEATH IN VENICE, LUDWIG, CONVERSATION PIECE etc, as per my previous posts on her. It was odd seeing her popping up in the De Laurentiis production of David Lynch's DUNE in 1984, before her untimely death in 1989.

BITTER RICE though is terrific stuff and Silvana sizzles in those shorts showing her magnificent thighs and legs - she, Vallone and Gassman in their youthful prime are what movie stars are all about!

Monday, 23 January 2012

L'Avventura again, and again

Here is an early post of mine from 2 years ago, on Antononi's L'AVVENTURA:

The late English film critic and writer Alexander Walker [whom I used to see around town regularly] was very perceptive in his movie reviews and his biographies on the likes of Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Garbo and the silent era. His Thursday reviews were essential reading.

Here are his comments from a recommendation on a screening of L'AVVENTURA:

"Not all great movies, as Pauline Kael tartly observed, are received "in an atmosphere of incense burning". Michelangelo Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA was greeted at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival with a storm of cat-calling and booing. Yet within the year it had become the most fashionable film in European arthouses, and one that set the tone of other bleakly visionary film-makers. It begins with an almost glossy magazine depiction of the affluent Rome middle-class on a yachting holiday in the Lipari islands. Tensions are perceptible, but enigmatically conveyed. Then, as they prepare to leave an island, one woman (Lea Massari) is found to be missing. A search is mounted. With marvellous sleight-of-hand, Antonioni misdirects our attention: gradually we realise that instead of being looked for by her friends, she is being forgotten as two of them fall in love. The film changes key subtly, yet again to suggest how the emotions of a social class have become deadened and selfish. Monica Vitti made her name with this puzzle picture. The last sequence in a Taormina luxury hotel became notorious for her apparantly endless walk through the midnight corridors to discover her treacherous lover (Gabriele Ferzetti). It tried the patience of the black-tie crowd beyond endurance; yet The Walk soon became the trademark of other heroines, in other movies, who exemplified the sick soul of sixties Europe."

L'AVVENTURA was though the most problematic of the Antonioni films for me, I much preferred L'ECLISSE but now I have seen L'AVVENTURA a few more times and suddenly I think its wonderful in all its stark beauty. Our arty film channel Film4 ran it again last week, and despite having the Criterion dvd, I recorded it and found myself returning to it several times. It is pure cinema and I can now lose myself in it repeatedly. The first section on the island is brilliant - the photographs here show what a difficult shoot it must have been on the island in that magic year 1959. Monica Vitti is mesmerising and its a very multi-faceted performance: her anguish on the island searching for Anna, then trying to evade Sandro and finally giving in to her feelings and being deliriously in love and then that climax at the hotel in Taormina in that cold dawn ... a gold plated classic then and as I said in other posts on it, it and PSYCHO usher in that new modern world of 1960, both in their way about a woman who disappears and the people looking for her.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Thoughts ...

David Hockney's "Arrival of Spring" from the new Royal Academy exhibition.

The award season is now underway - here in the UK the Golden Globes do not mean much to us, and were hilariously awful on that E! Entertainment channel last week, broken up every few minutes as they were with commercials for the Kardashian show, even breaking into Christopher Plummer's speech. I just had enough and zoomed through the rest of it. Elton's face was priceless when Madonna graciously (or did she?) accept her gong for best song ... for one of the movies (THE IRON LADY and THE ARTIST being the others) that Harvey Weinstein is behind this year.

Well the reviews are now in here for W.E. and make amusing reading - (I quite like Madonna's music though - that mid period "Ray of Light" and "Music" with those interesting videos and re-mixes) - but looking at clips from Clint's J. EDGAR my only question is: WHY? Why on earth bother making a dull movie about this dull man and his era, no movie could tell the real story, and they spend so much time under rubber trying to look old (hopefully not as hilariously as Bette Midler and James Caan in FOR THE BOYS!). It is of course my loss but Eastwood's films just do not interest me, I give his movies a miss, amazing he is still making them in his 80s. He bags Judi Dench here as Hoover's mother - a rather thankless role like her Dame Sybil in MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN. It all seems reminescent of Scorsese's THE AVIATOR where Leonardo had a go at capturing Howard Hughes. Will it really be Sinatra next ? - but surely Frank and his life and work is too well known to impersonate - and again how could it be the real story? But in an era of impersonations winning awards - it seems Meryl as Mrs T has a lock on the best actress this year, despite Michelle Williams as Marilyn - and then there is THE HELP. So the Oscar nominations should be interesting, and the BAFTA nominations are also in, with all the usual suspects. [I don't think it will be Meryl after all now, the film isn't good enough and her Mrs T is like a "Spitting Image" cartoon; liberals will hate it for glorifying Thatcher, while her devotees will hate it for presenting her as an old lady with dementia...]
More than the Oscar-bait movie J EDGAR though it is Ralph Fiennes' CORIOLANUS that seems the real film, a very cinematic version of one of Shakesepare's lesser known plays, interestingly set in a modern Balkans background with Fiennes, Gerard Butler and by all accounts a stunning performance by Vanessa Redgrave (Vanessa label) as his mother - but it seems to have been ignored by the nominators .. what gives? In the meantime new dvds of THE SKIN I LIVE IN, THE GUARD and THE TREE OF LIFE have arrived, with DRIVE and TINKER TAILOR... arriving this week - more on those soon then.

Watching Jeremy Irons being interviewed this morning and discussing MARGIN CALL it is now one I am very keen to see when it opens here - another terrific cast including Irons, Spacey and Zachery Quinto (also one of the producers) on the current financial meltdown;

While the new David Hockey exhibition has got glowing reviews, though as Philip Hensher says it ignores that great body of work of the last 40 years to focus on his English paintings since he moved back here 7 years ago - but it is time to celebrate these new paintings and iPad works. Another popular art show for London then. There are over 150 pictures - "the Yorkshire artist combines formidable draughtsmanship with an invigorating colour palette to capture and transmit a pleasure in sylvan landscapes rarely seen since the impressionist era", as "The Sunday Times" puts it. Like the sell-out Leonardo exhibition day tickets are released each morning. Hockney now is firmly a national treasure after his decades in California, France and other countries as he explored his various forays into painting and photography. California was where the sun was warmer and the boys sexier. "England doesn't have many vivid blue swimming pools for white-rumped Adonises to jump into ... and the colour schemes Hockney favours, England simply isn't Hockney-coloured", but now Hockney "painting Bridlington in the rain" makes those essentially British landscapes his own; as a display of energy by an artist who is almost 75 this is some statement". And also this:
"The energy, radiance and manifest love with which Hockney depicts the landscape of his native Yorkshire are magical, and his huge oil paintings and smaller watercolours beautifully capture both joy in nature and the changing seasons, and a poignant sense of life's transience. I emerged from the Royal Academy convinced I had seen the work of a modern master enjoying a spectacular blaze of autumnal creativity, and spent the rest of the day feeling both ridiculously happy and unaccountably blessed. That is the consolation of great art".

Music-wise Lana Del Ray is currently wowing us, I love that track "Video Games"; the late Amy Winehouse's "A Song For You" is a stunning version of that Leon Russell song I loved and which Donny Hathaway made his own - until now. I like Maroon 5 and their jumpy infectious music, like Franz Ferdinand or The Killers, and "Moves Like Jagger" has been the song of the season, great video too!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Etta James, R.I.P.

Etta James (1938 - 2012) one of the great blues voices, and one of the most individual talents - up there with Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone - has died after battling long illnesses. What a talent. One of the early singles I bought was her "Losers Weepers" and her great "I'd Rather Go Blind" which has been covered by so many (like Chicken Shack). Then of course there was "Tell Mama", "I Just Want to Make Love To You" (which had a new life when part of a television commercial) and of course "At Last".

Etta's story is a key strand in the story of American music in the 20th century. She was singing in a group aged 14, then marketed as an R&B and doo wop singer, after being discovered by Johnny Otis the "godfather of rhythm & blues", who coincidentally died a few days before her. After signing with Chess Records in 1960, James broke through as a traditional pop-styled singer, covering jazz and pop music standards. James's voice deepened over the years, as she battled various demons, moving her musical style into the genres of soul and jazz. She went on to win 6 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler once called her "the greatest of all modern blues singers". Her music defied category, her legend can only grow, so when next having a drink let's toast Etta James.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

L'oro di Roma, 1961

GOLD OF ROME: One more trip back to Italy in the early '60s for this impressive film by Carlo Lizzani - another one I did not know as it may never have been released in the UK, but again, it is on YouTube complete at 93 minutes.

It used a fictional story to recount the facts behind the final deportation of the Jews of Rome: Nazi Colonel Herbert Kappler summoned the highest representatives of the Jewish community ordering them to collect 50 kgs of gold within 36 hours. The punishment in case of failure or disobedience was the detention of 200 people. Gold was collected and brought but on nothing could save 1259 Jews from deportation: it was the beginning of the end for the Jewish community of the Ghetto of Rome.

The film stars French actor Gerard Blain as the militant Jew determind to fight back and who joins the partisans, and Jean Sorel (again, see below) as the Catholic who falls for Jewish Anna Maria Ferrero who witnesses the start of the round-up. The Roman locations are nicely used and we see a lot of the Jewish community as they try to reason with the Germans and understand what is happening to them as they are rounded up. One of many films then on the German occupation of Rome, like THE RED AND THE BLACK 1983 (Christopher Plummer plays Kappler here, to Gregory Peck's priest in the Vatican, with John Gielgud excellent as Pius XIIP) [review at War link] and MASSACRE IN ROME with Mastroianni and Burton.

The film was shown in New York a few years ago on Remberance Day, with director Lizzani present. Having recently enjoyed De Sica's L'ORO DI NAPOLI (Mangano, Loren, De Sica, Italian labels) and other early 60s Italian movies like GHOSTS OF ROME, THE LONG NIGHT OF '43, and the '51 ANNA - as reviews below - this is an interesting addition. Now for BITTER RICE (RISO AMARO) before moving on to some modern titles ...
Another great Italian war film of this era is the 1962 well-regarded FOUR DAYS OF NAPLES by Nanni Loy, with Jean Sorel again as a sailor who gets shot by the invading forces; one to track down then!