Wednesday, 30 November 2011

KEN RUSSELL 1927 - 2011

To be honest Ken Russell was not one of my favourite directors. I felt, along with many (including, it seems, Martin Scorsese) that his best work was done during his years at the BBC and films like THE DEBUSSEY FILM, DANTE'S INFERNO and DELIUS linger in the mind's eye. This is not to say that his later film work was not without interest and moments approaching greatness - even if they never actually achieved it. There is no denying his talent but for me it lacked discipline. RIP.

Sunday, 27 November 2011


Directed by George Stevens (with a little help from David Lean and Jean Negulesco), this film is often maligned as being elephantine in production and derided for some of its casting. The first charge is totally unfair although the MTV generation will undoubtably find it strains their attention span at 199 minutes. The casting, it is true, does raise the odd eyebrow and the occasional smile : Pat Boone as an angel and the infamous scenes involving John Wayne as the centurion at the crucifixion telling us that "Truly this is the son of Gad!". Of course, the film has also been criticised as being too pious. But this wasn't made for unbelievers. As far as the production goes the film shuns any attempt at historical realism in favour of a very attractive pictorial stylisation. Religious paintings of the past often eschewed realism and one of the strengths of Steven's film is that scene after scene has the quality of a beautiful religious tableaux or icon. Despite the smiles resulting from the aforementioned casting the film has some wonderful performances - Donald Pleasence as the Devil, Claude Rains as a rather reptilian Herod the Great, Victor Buono as a cynical member of the Sanhedrin and Sydney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene among them. The disciples are a rather bland lot despite the presence of John Considine and David Macallum. Max Von Sydow as Jesus is more problematical. The mighty Swede is among the finest actors in films and there can be little doubt that in a more naturalistic production he would have been among the greatest film Christs of all time but while there is absolutely nothing wrong with his performance within the context of the film, he is - with his designer stubble beard - the Jesus of a great painting (the film is framed by shots of Sydow in a painting) rather than a great film. Despite the feeling I was walking through an art gallery rather than sitting watching a film I found much of the film very beautiful and very moving and I think Stevens only just misses greatness. Rating ****

Friday, 4 November 2011


There are films you like, there are films you love, and on rare occasions you see a film that is a revelation. That is how I felt when I first saw Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'ATALANTE. That film genuinely expanded the possiblities of what the cinema could achieve as art. It has inspired many film makers, among them Julien Temple. VIGO : PASSION FOR LIFE is Temple's tribute to Vigo. There is good news and bad. Did I like it? Yes. Does it really succeed? Sadly, not.

Why did I like it then? Well, I enjoyed it on the level of any biopic about somebody I admire; even more so because it sticks pretty much to the facts - and it's certainly more entertaining than the Johnny Cash biopic, I WALK THE LINE. So where does it go wrong? The film is constructed with cliched scene after cliched scene - it is film making by the numbers and while it does inform you about Jean Vigo's short life (he died of tuberculosis aged just 29) it coveys little of what made him such an important figure in cinema. Temple took on a daunting task and more power to him for making the film but if you want to understand Vigo's passion for film as well as his passion for life perhaps it should be compulsory to watch his films before watching Temple's - not a daunting task as it is possible to watch his entire output in about three hours.

I watched VIGO : PASSION FOR LIFE with a friend who is a professional film maker and has actually worked with Julien Temple and who was, incidentally, the person who first screened L'ATALANTE for me. He absolutely hated the film and at one point was going to text Temple and ask him what went wrong! While I took on board my friend's criticisms as being in many ways justified, I remain entertained and in many instances genuinely moved by it. Rating ***