Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

Innocent charmers

Innocent charmers

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Blood Ties (France-US 2013)

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as ? and ?

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as Chris and Frank

There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!

The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.

The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.

The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.

So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.

The US trailer:

The First of the Few (UK 1942)

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

An ailing R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) visited by test pilot Crisp (David Niven)

Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.

The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).

The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.

The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.

Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

Eroica

Unsurprising he needed a drink

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

Wakolda (Argentina/France/Spain/Norway 2013)

'The doctor' (Alex Brendemuhl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

‘The doctor’ (Àlex Brendemühl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

It’s not often that I disagree with Jonathan Romney who wrote a fairly negative review of this film in the Observer, but I enjoyed watching Wakolda and I thought that it worked well on many levels. Lucía Puenzo adapted the film from her own novel. I remember the release of her earlier film XXY (Argentina 2007) but I didn’t get to see it. I’ll certainly look out for it now.

‘Wakolda’ is the name that 12 year-old Lilith has given to an unusual doll given to her by her father who repairs and makes dolls for a living – the doll has a chest cavity and the doll-maker is experimenting with a design for a clockwork heart mechanism. It is 1960 and Lilith’s family is moving south to Patagonia where her mother has inherited a hotel in Baliroche, the capital of the beautiful region of mountains and lakes in Argentina’s first National Park. Baliroche has a significant German community and Lilith’s mother attended the German school there. At a stop on the journey, Lilith is spotted by a German doctor who says he has been hired as a veterinary expert in Baliroche. He is intrigued by Lilith’s small stature for a 12 year-old. He invites himself to join the family’s party and on arrival becomes the hotel’s first new guest. When he realises that Lilith’s mother is pregnant again he becomes even more interested in the family and persuades the mother (her husband is too suspicious) to let him help Lilith with ‘growth hormones’. We soon see that the mysterious doctor is known to the Nazis at the German school and we guess that he is really Josef Mengele.

Wakolda is based on historical records. Mengele lived in Argentina from 1949 up to 1960, continuing the genetics research he started at Auschwitz-Berkenau in 1943-5 using selected inmates as his unwilling experimental subjects (and sending the others to be gassed). He may well have been in Bariloche but his precise whereabouts were unknown during the six months or so around the time when Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960. The Spanish actor who plays Mengele, Àlex Brendemühl, bears a remarkable resemblance to photographs of Mengele from the 1940s.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot but I do want to explore some of Romney’s comments. He refers to the “soft gothic tweeness” of one aspect of the plot – the mechanical doll’s hearts. I see what he means and it’s true that as I watched these scenes something made me think of Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos with its mechanical blood-sucking scarab. I guess from there I connected to Pan’s Labyrinth with the young girl caught up with the Fascists and then The Devil’s Backbone etc. But I see this as not just as a form of Gothic but also something about Latin American stories. In any case the tone and the look of the piece also suggests Hitchcock (the Nazis of Notorious) and Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). But, as Romney suggests, the film doesn’t really measure up as a thriller, even though it has its exciting moments. Perhaps that’s because much of the action tends to be seen from Lilith’s perspective (see Lucía Puenzo’s comments in the Press Pack) and she is experiencing her own problems about being bullied at school because of stature. The narrative is largely about how the different family members (apart from Lilith’s older brother) are each in some way seduced by ‘The German Doctor’ (the American title of the film). The dolls provide the doctor’s way of getting the suspicious father on side as well as developing another thread about Mengele’s methods and ideas. Audience expectations about a different kind of thriller might also be based on memories of The Boys From Brazil (US 1978) in which Gregory Peck played Mengele.

I don’t think it requires too much of an effort to get past these generic references and to read the film as an Argentinian story about a 12 year-old girl’s experiences. The film is beautifully shot and presented in CinemaScope. The National Park looks incredible and I was reminded of the other Argentinian film in which it features, Mount Bayo (Argentina 2010). The performances are good (especially given the demands of the roles), the film looks good, the music is good and there is an unusual and interesting narrative. What’s not to like?

Intriguingly the trailers for the film are quite different from country to country. Here is the UK trailer from Peccadillo Pictures – quite good, I think:

Brassed Off (UK/USA 1996)

Brass band

30 years on from the pivotal miners’ strike of 1984 the anniversary recalls a key time in late C20th brutal capitalism. One contribution was the screening of the drama-comedy Brassed Off at the Hyde Park Picture House on Yorkshire Day. As the audience suffers the travails of another capitalist crisis the film was a poetic reminder of what has been taking place.

This is a drama/comedy that manages to combine an amount of gritty Yorkshire humour with a series of bleak personal dramas. The film is set in 1992 at the Grimley Colliery. Following on the victory of the government, the police and their paymasters: coal mine after coal mine is closed, miners rendered redundant and mining communities suffer economic, social and personal dislocation.

The strength of the film is in the performances of a team of experienced and talented character actors. Leading them is the now sadly lost Peter Postlethwaite as the bandleader, Danny. His son, Philip (Stephen Tomkinson), imprisoned during the 1984 strike, is caught in a catastrophe of debts and family breakdown. Two stalwarts of the band, Harry (Jim Carter) and Greasley (Ken Colley) provide humour but also sympathetic support. Whilst Jim (Phillip Jackson) represents the harder edge of the group.

Much of the personal drama is conventional, especially the romance between Andy (Ewan McGregor in a role that fits his distinctive talents) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), And there are conventional but distinctive moments of humour – the fish and chip shop call ‘In Cod We Trust’: the recurring pool games at the pub which Andy continually loses: and the band sequences in their rehearsal hall. And there is the local bus company with international destinations like New York on their logo but also ‘mainly Grimley’. Then there are the two wives cum fans, Ida (Mary Healey) and Vera (Sue Johnston), who travel to the Band’s concerts and sport the band’s colour – purple.

Women picket

The film does attempt to present equally positive representations of women. The success of this varies. We frequently see the picket outside the pithead of ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. But the film fails to develop the characters involved. Harry’s wife Rita (Lill Roughley), a member of the picket, remains a cipher. Equally the film fails to develop a sense of the community in the mining town. Only once do we see a large set of town characters, waving the band off to the finals. The standout among these supporting characters is Melanie Hill as Phil’s long-suffering wife Sandra.

The travails of their family life – with financial problems and debts undermining the family – are among the most moving in the film. Scenes focusing on Danny are equally powerful. He is completely convincing as the bandleader, down to his conducting. (Harry’s stand-in performance by comparison is amateur, presumably deliberately). There is a great shot, set against the pithead, when Danny’s illness finally catches up with him. And the hospital scenes following are also extremely effective.

Chuckles

Without being overly didactic the film also vents the anger of the mining community about their treatment. Phil has an almost surreal scene as he performs as Mr Chuckles (a party clown) at a middle-class children’s party. Whilst Danny has the great set piece delivery at the penultimate and climatic sequence in the Albert Hall.

Unfortunately the opposition are also undeveloped and fairly conventional characters. These include the smarmy manager leading the closure of the pit and one miner who just wants ‘to take the money – bribe’. For the film the most powerful enemy in the story is the disillusionment amongst the miners themselves.

What works best are the scenes of the community of miners: at work and in their off-duty hours. The pit brings out the best qualities of cinematographer Andy Collins. The short montages in the mine and at the face are incredibly effective. And there are some luminous shots of the great pithead at dusk and at night.

Pithead 2

The other splendid contribution is the Brass Band music, provided by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. They provide both non-diegetic music and on screen performances, including near the beginning in the band’s rehearsal hall with Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ – ‘orange juice’: at a series of open-air competitions in the Saddleworth area: and finally at the National Brass Band Finals at The Albert Hall. These are frequently played over montages of developments in both the personal and the community life. We also hear Hubert Party’s ‘Jerusalem’, Percy Grainger’s ‘Danny Boy’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ (‘Land of Soap and Glory’). The tunes are familiar and a number evoke a traditional, almost whimsical sense of English or British culture. But the strength of the film is that this suggests, not the conformist ambience of ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, but a different England, closer to that described by Richard Hoggart.

The last suggests an England that has passed on, which is the case. But the new, nastier, more competitive England still bears all the ‘birthmarks, moral political and intellectual’ of the earlier periods. Brassed Off manages to suggest this. And whilst the feel-good ending may seem a little too upbeat it is accompanied by on-screen titles reminding the viewers of what has been lost.

An added pleasure was that the film was screened in a pretty good 35mm print.

There is now a successor to this feel-good drama, Pride (2014). Set in Wales in 1984 it takes actual events involving gay and lesbian supporters of the miners to create a comedy-drama.

It opens at the National Media Museum in September and there will be a Study Day to accompany the screening on the 14th, ‘Miners – One hundred years of film’.