Tagged: Romance

The Bishop’s Wife (USA 1947)

A Christmas Tale.

A Christmas Tale.

This was the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House Christmas screening. It has been re-released on DCP by Park Circus for the festive season: a good transfer.

The film opens with snow on the ground and a helpful and handsome man spreading the spirit of Christmas by helping people in the shops and streets. Then we meet Julia, wife of Bishop Henry Brougham, buying a Christmas tree. At the shop she meets old friend and atheist (or at least agnostic) Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). The helpful stranger re-appears, claiming to know the Professor.  Later we learn that he is an angel named Dudley sent down to answer the ‘prayer’ of Henry, currently obsessed with raising funds to build a new cathedral. As you might guess the answer to the Bishop’s prayer is not quite what he expects and as the title suggests much of the narrative is concerned with Julia rather than her husband Henry. The Bishop’s ‘real’ problem is his loss of contact with both Julia and older friends and parishioners from his first parish St Timothy’s.

As Time Out notes

Cary’s charm works as successfully upon audiences as it does on the film’s characters’

Bishop Henry appears the only one resistant to Dudley’s charm. Julia sports a new hat and the maid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester) and the secretary Mildred (Sara Haden) start to sport flowers in their hair. Daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) enjoys bedtime moral stories and the family dog, a Saint Bernard, forsakes his usual mealtime place by his master to sit alongside Dudley. However, in what is almost a Hollywood convention, this amiable pooch disappears about half-way through the film.

Clearly the film (directed by Henry Koster) owes a debt to earlier films, especially Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The re-release would appear to aim to provide a companion film for that regular seasonal favourite. And the film has a number of references to the earlier classic. There is the Angel, like Clarence (Henry Travers) in the earlier film he is a ‘lower class’ angel (Henry Travers seeming to me to be a more convincing embodiment). In both films the main character has arrived at a crisis in his life which relates to a problem with money, or lack of it. Part of the problem is personalised in a wealthy but anti-social character – Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and here Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). There are also parallel sequences. The Capra film has an early scene of a frozen lake: we have a frozen pond in the Koster film, and the leader of a gang of boys is the same actor who played the young George Bailey (Robert J. Anderson). There is an ethnic bar, Martini’s, in one film: an ethnic restaurant, Michel’s, in the other.

Both films open with the crisis in place. The Capra film then presents a flashback running almost half the film to fill in plot and character; in The Bishop’s Wife this is done through dialogue. This leads to a lack of intensity in the latter and there is no attempt at a world of noir, one of the impressive features in the Capra film. The lack of emotional intensity in the Koster film is re-inforced by the casting. The type of characters played by Niven and Grant means that they rarely display the sort of emotional intensity that Jimmy Stewart brings to George Bailey. On the other hand Loretta Young does provide a subtle range of emotions as the wife who is emotionally deprived.

It seems likely that none of Samuel Goldwyn, Frank Capra or Henry Koster actually believed in the existence of angel or miracles. And both films have contradictions in the plotting of the resolution. In It’s a Wonderful Life the major problem is that Potter retains his ill-gotten $5,000. The Bishop’s Wife ticks more boxes in this respect, providing a conversion of Mrs Hamilton. This is performed by Dudley going back into her past: the nearest this film comes to the flashbacks of Bedford Falls. And Henry, like George Bailey, does seem to realise what really matters in life. However, as the film ends with Henry delivering a sermon in St Timothy’s on Christmas night, the words of the sermon have been dictated by Dudley.

Besides intensity the film lacks the community dimension of It’s a Wonderful Life. That film offers a sense of Bedford Falls as a community which motivates George Bailey’s life and work. The Bishop’s Wife fails to develop a similar sense of community, offering rather a limited circle of characters. When the banks close, the Bedford Falls’ citizens besieging the Bailey Building and Loan offices are all familiar to us. A parallel scene in The Bishop’s Wife has the boy’s choir at St Timothy’s church, rehearsing for an appeal event, singing for Julia and Dudley. But the boys, as the minister, are all complete strangers to us.

The film is as sugary as that by Capra but lacks the dark tropes and intensity. It is very well played by the cast, including the many familiar supporting faces. It is finely photographed by Gregg Toland, with some notable mise en scène and deep staging. Early on, as Henry returns home in an ill-temper, Julia, holding the family dog, stands like a frightened school girl in a corner – speaking volumes about her emotional state. Later, as Dudley recounts a moral tale to Debby, other characters assemble and listen – the deep staging presenting the characters spread across the depth of field.

There is a fine skating sequence, though performed by doubles. And there are some nice and effective special effects, by John Fulton and Harry Redmond Jnr. The music score won an Academy Award nomination, as did the director and the film was nominated as Best Picture.

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Script by Robert E Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici from the novel by Robert Nathan. Director Henry Koster. Cinematography Gregg Toland. Music Hugo Friedhofer. Distributed by RKO.

IMDB lists Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as uncredited script contributors – I rather think the scene at Michel’s might be their handiwork.

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.

Her (US 2013)

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become 'Samantha'.

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.

A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.

I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).

The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography by Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.

There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.

I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.

Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.

BIFF 2012 #8: Avé (Bulgaria 2011)

Kamen and Avé have missed the last ferry across the Danube

Avé is a teenage girl who arrives at a roadside outside Sofia and starts to thumb a ride. Already there is art student Kamen and he isn’t too keen to have competition. Inevitably though, the two get a ride together and the adventure begins. This is a road movie/romance/coming-of-age drama with a leavening of humour, mostly supplied via the performances of Andjela Nedyalkova as Avé and Ovanes Torosian as the long-suffering Kamen.

As the journey continues, Kamen discovers that Avé likes to reinvent herself for every new situation and he tries to separate from her when her fantasies threaten to involve him. But we know he can’t – this is a road movie and they’ll get back together. A prologue has already hinted at Kamen’s need to travel to the town of Ruse on the Danube across from Romania for the funeral of a friend, but it’s some time before we learn the reason for Avé’s journey – and should we believe her anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Bulgarian film before but I recognised the region. The ‘Scope digital print looked very good and I enjoyed the film very much. It’s a first feature by co-writer and director Konstantin Bojanov who has previously been involved in documentary production. It was a pleasure to take in long shots of landscapes. Although Bulgaria isn’t at its best viewed from major roads, there is still a sense of adventure and who can resist a story that holds out the promise of a trip to Varna (from whence came Nosferatu/Dracula)? Avé tells us at one point that she has lived in Delhi and that you can find Indian girls in Bulgaria. Again this could be a fantasy but it is a road movie staple, that sense of wanting to be somewhere else. In reality, the distances the couple travel are not very long (300 kms from Sofia to Ruse) but they seem greater in narrative terms.

This interesting interview with the director reveals that the film was completed for around 600,000 Euros and that it s story was partly based on his own experiences. Bojanov has lived in New York for the last 15 years but he tells us that his self-education in films (he was at art school in Sofia) was of 1960s and 1970s European and American New Wave films. He cites Y tu mamá también as the kind of modern road movie he likes – and that makes sense. I’m not sure if Konstantin Bojanov is a diasporic director as such – are there Bulgarian communities in the US? – but his film certainly has both a ‘local’ and a ‘global’ feel. Nice music too.

Avé is a specialised film, not a commercial mainstream film so don’t expect a Hollywood ending. I’m glad about that because it meant I could leave the screening thinking about travelling by train through Bulgaria and wondering what happened to Kamen and Avé. I expect to see more of Andjela Nedyalkova who has genuine star quality. This is one of the six films in competition in Bradford and it stands a good chance of winning. It has already been picked up for distribution by Network Releasing so watch their website for details of screenings.

Here’s a pretty good trailer: