Monday, 29 December 2008

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window is one of those films that everyone likes. It’s really hard not to. It’s nearly perfect. It's funny and it's sexy - oh so sexy - I mean, just look at those kisses that James Stewart and Grace Kelly share, or the endless number of gags around with the neighbours (my personal favourite being the newly-weds). It’s Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, preparing himself to start what is arguably the best period of his career, directing in succession the likes of To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. With the exception of "The Wrong Man" I love all of them.

The story is simple. Bored and stuck at home because of a broken leg, James Stewart's character passes his time looking from his rear window to his neighbours lives. And what starts as a possibly harmless pastime becomes far more complex when he becomes convinced that one of his neighbours murdered his wife. The film was the first collaboration of Hitch and screenwriter John Michael Hayes and the second of three with Grace Kelly. And from her he managed the impossible in my eyes, to make her act – all her performances prior to this are a pain to watch, and yet here she’s always fantastic.

I saw the film again recently with a friend on the big screen. Neither of us had ever seen it like that and we loved it. We already knew it by heart and loved it, so frankly we were half there even before we started. The only fault we could find was the colour of the print, which had turned quite dark, especially when compared with the DVD. We were also quite happy that for a screening on a Friday afternoon of a 1954 film, the Cinematheque in Lisbon was quite full, and for once there were loads of young people, some watching it for the very first time – I can honestly say I was a bit jealous of that. Sadly, these screenings still exclude a lot of people. Not everyone in Lisbon can follow a film without subtitles and the print had French ones only. It’s a copy of the Portuguese Cinematheque and they don’t seem to be able to create a file with Portuguese subtitles. In my opinion, it's a pity...

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas - Feliz Natal

Ok, so you have to be over 25 and Portuguese to appreciate the nostalgia, but no Christmas should be complete without this... Merry Christmas! Feliz Natal!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Sunset over the Tagus

After God knows how many years, one of the best places to enjoy the Tagus is back... for a fortnight! After been dismantled by Lisbon Underground 10 year ago or thereabouts, is finally in its place again. Sadly, on the 5th new construction starts. Meanwhile I was there and enjoyed something I haven't been allowed to for a decade. And as you can see, I was far from the only one.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Little things I hate II

To look for one of my books in London, not finding it, become convinced that it's in Lisbon, arriving in Lisbon and then also failing to find it. And I do not like missing books...

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Flying over Lisbon

Living in the UK for most of the past decade, I have lost count how many times I've taken the Heathrow-Lisbon flight. And yet each time it still makes me feel happy and nostalgic. To me, every return to this city I was born in and love so deeply is something very special, despite the fact that I now live in London and have next to no plan to return in the foreseeable future.

Lisbon's airport is located within the city - and if we ignore the danger of that, it can provide you with some beautiful sights. For that you need but one thing - that the plane lands from the south side of the river. I had that luck yesterday, at twilight, and contrary to my usual, I was sitting at the window. I still get so excited every time I recognise the streets from high above. It's a child's delight looking at a candy store. And today, out and about, enjoying the beautiful blue sky, the sunshine, and no gloves, scarf or woolly hat, I felt so alive and almost forgetting other worries.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Love Me Tonight (1932)

An alternative title to this post could be "How can the leads spoil a film". Seriously, how could Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald ever have been big stars? Neither could act, he is barely understandable and none has any sex-appeal. And her singing is completely out-of-place in movies.

The film is a silly operetta-style story, with a tailor under the guise of a baron falling for a princess. It's also an integrated musical, with songs being sang in character, a good 12 years prior to "Meet me in St. Louis". One or two of the Rodgers and Hart also have survived the test of time, in particular "Isn't it Romantic?" which Chevalier starts in Paris, then proceeds to be carried away through the country and finished by dear Jeanette, in one of the best sequences of the film.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there aren't good points, but they are all with the supporting cast, in particular an undervalued Myrna Loy who steals every scene she's in, and certainly the best lines, as the man-crazed Countess Valentine. Seriously, the film could have been so much better if the leads were the character actors...

Sunday, 30 November 2008

8 things that shouldn't happen in a cinema, but they do...

Inspired by number 3 below, a small collection of particularly curious experiences at the cinema:

1. The film burns - it did in one screening of an animated silent short at the Portuguese Cinematheque last Christmas. Big burning holes were projected on the screen, just like in a cartoon (spot the irony) growing and growing. I think I saw the last screening of that particular copy;

2. The film is shorted unintentionally - one of the songs in My Fair Lady (at the BFI in 2004) was cut in half, bound to happen again, because I think the problem is with the print. Why I didn't complained is beyond me;

3. The reels are not projected in the right sequence - it jumps one reel, although this was corrected in a few minutes (Period of Adjustment today at the BFI);

4. No one checked the quality of the print and it's inaudible for about 5min (The Devil and Daniel Webster at the BFI). This one I think they apologised just before the start, but I did complain because the room was freezing;

5. The film is long and has a break, but somehow no one stopped the projection - this one happened to my brother, in Lisbon during a screening of one of The Lord of the Rings trilogy;

6. The film has electronic subtitles projected onto it, and the machine breaks. Oh, and the film is in German, with French subtitles but only for part of the film (don't ask me why) - Max Ophuls' Libelei in Lisbon a few years ago;

7. There's a problem with a copy so a VHS is projected instead - Lola Montés at the Cinema Lumière in London, with extra bonus that you paid full price (although they did say what happened before the screening started and I decided to stay - which was a good thing cause the film is brilliant);

8. The wrong film is projected - instead of one particular version of "The Phantom of the Opera" another one was shown (again, the at the Portuguese Cinematheque). On this one I walked out and got a refund.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Friday, 21 November 2008

Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke"

Two years ago I saw a magnificent stage production of “Summer and Smoke” with Rosamund Pike that closed too early (after just six weeks, ten weeks earlier) and yesterday I went to see the film at the BFI Southbank, with Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey. Like the play, the film broke my heart in many little pieces, but the stage version was so much better. Rosamund Pike is as good actress as Geraldine Page ever was (and she was truly genial in Sweet Bird of Youth), but the fact she is younger and prettier helped to create a sense of pointlessness of the character which in my view is essential – Page created part on stage ten years before the film, by which time she was approaching 40. Also Geraldine Page did something weird and affected with her face while she spoke, which irritated me slightly and didn't have the naturalness and grace of Rosamund Pike. However, I have to admit that I am comparing two different mediums and Geraldine Page might have surprised me in the stage production.

The story is deceptively simple, because its life comes from its characters. In 1912, in New Orleans (I think), Alma Winemiller is in love with her next door neighbour, who has recently return home a doctor and with a lust for life that no one seems to fulfil (and yes, he does sleep around). Alma on the other hand, is much more, in Hitchcock’s words, a “snow covered volcano” and a minister’s daughter – and a confrontation/seduction game starts between the two, where each tries to persuade the other to come to their way of thinking, and this is Tennessee Williams, there aren’t really any winners, just different types of losers.

Of all Tennessee Williams' plays and stories that I have read or seen as either a film or a play, this is by far my favourite. Maybe it helped that I hadn’t any contact with it prior to watching the stage version. And on stage, the only one who came near was "The Glass Menagerie" with Jessica Lange and Ed Stoppard, mostly because of the very good casting. I am truly sorry Rosamund Pike’s performance won’t be available except for those who saw her in those six weeks. It was one of my best nights out at the theatre.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

On the ending of a short story

A few months ago I read a Portuguese XIX century short story collection entitled “Contos ao Luar”, by Júlio César Machado, which translates as “[Short] Stories in the Moonlight” or "Stories by the Moonlight" (either translation works). I bought the book because I liked the title and the look of it (lovely blue hardcover from 1889 I think – photo to the right), but the author was a complete unknown to me. The stories weren’t very good, nor were they particularly bad and they abused ellipsis (the three dots or "reticências", if you're Portuguese speaking), probably to create a little pause before the punchline, which invariably wasn't terribly good. However, the ending of the first one, "Os Noivos" (roughly "The Newlyweds") struck a chord with me for some reason.

The plot is banal – young and married pretty thing married is courted by womaniser, who happens to be really in love with her. Everything is blameless and rather platonic, but obviously it doesn’t really appear as such (oh dear…). She also has a mother and a sister which is very virtuous. Anyway, this gentleman gets obsessive, and the husband starts to suspect something. Meanwhile the mother dies, and one when the married couple and the sister go to the cemetery, the other man is there. In order to prevent a scandal, the virtuous sister quickly persuades the man that he must marry her to save everyone’s face.

I warned you of the banality of it. But the ending has struck a chord (it is presented as if selflessly motivated) and for some reason I think the interesting story is to know what would have happened next.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

A little something for my brother

(c) 2008 Bill Amend

In homage to my brother, with thanks for allowing me to understand the finer subtleties of this (see, all those explanations did have a purpose...), and to my endless love of Eileen Jacobson, which has to be one of my favourite characters ever in a comic strip - even when she's offstage. Click to make it larger (and readable).

More FoxTrot can be found here or here.

Friday, 14 November 2008

One box of aspirins

Today I went to Boots to buy aspirins and I was told that I can only buy one box at a time. A first, as I usually buy two boxes at a time. I was also given instructions how to used them - since it clearly looked like this was the first time I bought this most rare and unusual product.

I can only assume that the reason for this measure is to prevent an overdose of aspirins. All it did was to make me believe that I was being treated like a complete moron. Even with my lack of belief in mankind, surely no one accidentally overdoses on aspirin? And what's more, if you actually want to do it, all you have to do is to go to another branch!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Painted Veil (1934)

Among Garbo’s 14 sound films (15 if we count both versions of Anna Christie) there are several that are very famous and easy to find – among these Ninotchka, Anna Karenina, Camille, Grand Hotel and Queen Christina. All of the above are readily available on DVD, and whenever there used to be a season of her films on TV, and I remember two different seasons on Portuguese TV (oh, the good old days) most of these would be included. Some of the others however are really hard to find, so I was quite pleased when I got a chance to watch the 1934 adaptation of “The Painted Veil”.

I read Somerset Maugham’s novel many years ago, and then saw the 2006 adaptation with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. The common story of the three versions is this: Kitty (or Katrin in Garbo’s version) marries a bacteriologist to run away from home. He takes her to Hong Kong and dotes on her until he finds out she’s been having an affair. He gives her three choices – if her lover would be willing to divorce his wife, he would let her go; otherwise, she must face a messy divorce or join him in a remote part of China where there is a cholera outbreak. From this point onwards, the two film adaptations differ slightly from each other and the novel.

The 2006 version is fairly faithful, if I recall correctly, but misses a couple of important points including not explaining why Kitty didn’t want to come back to London (an overbearing mother). The 1934 version is surprisingly faithful to the first part of the novel, sorting that problem, and also leaving no doubts that Garbo has indeed committed adultery. Yet, it transforms the English Kitty into the Austrian Katrin (thus giving a reason for Garbo’s accent, always an important issue) and gives the story an altogether different ending, in the opposite direction of that designed by Maugham, and rather unexpectedly, different from what I thought the Hays Code would impose.

This earlier version has of course some faults. Two of the most bland leading men ever appear as the vertices in the love triangle – Herbert Marshall as the husband and George Brent as the lover. Surprisingly, George Brent actually acts – he’s charmingly devious which works very well. I completely understood why a bored housewife would fall for him. More seriously miscasted is Herbert Marshall. He is a pain to watch – I always found him the weakest link in one of favourite films, William Wyler’s “The Letter”. He’s too nice and too pleasant (and let’s face it, too dull) to actually be believable as someone who takes his wife to the middle of an epidemic purely for revenge. Edward Norton pulled it much, much better. But this version has a big plus: Garbo, and from the opening credits she no longer needs a first name. And she’s relaxed and funny in the Austrian set scenes, and I was surprised on how MGM’s publicity machine made it sound that only in Ninotchka did she find her sense of humour. It is all here.

The more films of her earlier films I see, the more I am interested in her. I imagine that none will ever be as good as Ninotchka or Camille, but I am now keen to watch a VHS of Marie Walewska/Conquest recorded off TV a good 12 years ago that I have lying somewhere in Lisbon and never have watched. All I have to do is take a deep breath and swallow Charles Boyer the best I can. (Her leading men are often so not interesting...) Of course, I would love to get my hands on the remainder of her American film, silents and all, in nice pristine DVDs.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Boom (1968)

While I often give up on a film if I'm watching it on DVD, I've only did it once at the cinema. Not that I haven't been tempted a few times. The last one was with "Boom", an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward.

It's the story of a dying actress living in an island off the Italian coast who gets visit by a poet, who has the reputation to be the Angel of Death. It is actually even worst than it sounds. And here is the main problem. The play twice flopped on Broadway in the early sixties and was the beginning of the end for the playwright. As a film, it goes nowhere, is full of idiotic cuts and irritating camera angles, and at best has a reputation as a camp classic - I hadn't heard this, but I inferred from the reaction of some of the audience and from some internet reading afterwards. I like camp, but not even as such it managed to interest me.

It is also miscast. Elizabeth Taylor's definition of acting is to shout as much as she can and is too healthy and too young for the part. Also there are a few shots who must be a private joke at the expense of Cleopatra. Richard Burton was way too old and can not really convince as a man that can be considered for a toy boy - still at least he acted. Noël Coward was the reason why I paid for the ticket - and it was interesting to see him play a bitchy old queen (not sure if he was really acting). It was nice to see him in colour and see how blue his eyes were - but these are two hours of my life I shall never recover.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Sidney Turtlebaum (2008)

For personal reasons, I want to wish this film best of luck (and I am very, very proud). Official website here.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Les Schtroumpfs II (pure Nostalgia)

Ok so here’s the proper post on the Smurfs/Schtroumpfs/Estrumpfes (depending on your preferred language)… It's probably Nostalgia Central.

I have no idea exactly when or how my love for those little blue creatures started. I am not sure if it was the TV series or the plastic toys, or both at the same time. It was sometime in the early Eighties. I suspect that the books came later – and I had six of them, still have them actually, somewhere in a box. Whatever was the starting point, it soon grew to a collection of over 30 plastic toys – very much played with; two mushroom houses, but had to give the small one to little brother when I got the bigger one; a sticker collection and the books. I remember with affection my first three plastic Schtroumpfs (the black schtroumpf, the walking schtroumpf and one schtroumpfette) and how I lost the Schtroumpfette and aged about 4 made such a fuss that my mother went to every single shop in Lisbon till she found a new one. I also remember how I got two tennis players in a birthday cake.

This summer after I booked a trip to Chocolateland I found out that the Centre Nationale de la Bande Dessinee was having an exhibition on the Schtroumpfs to celebrate their 50th anniversary. I went with a friend and we both loved them all over again, and as a result I now own 11 out of the first 12 books, this time around in French.

So how do they stand the test of time? Mostly well, in particular “Le Schtroumpfissime” and “Schtroumpf Vert et Vert Schtroumpf”. I had never read the second, a brilliant satire of Belgium and the rivalry between Walloons and Flemish which ends in civil war, but it was the first that shocked me the most. Here it was a story that included the rise to power of a dictator complete with random arrests, police brutality, censorship and organised resistance. Not kiddie stuff, is it? True, there are happy endings for both stories, and they are far more adult orientated that all the others, but still quite powerful. I loved them.

It was nice to see the universe Peyo (the author) created developing from book to book – first there are 99 schtroumpfs, then 100 (there is a story for that) and then 101 (the schtroumpfette). But best of all was to (re)discover the Schtroumpf Grognon, who keeps saying “Moi, je n’aime pas” whatever all the others do. My favourite line of his? “Moi, je n’aime pas les yuppi”.

Yes, I think I’m in love all over again.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A Man to Remember (1938)

Until I received this year's programme for the London Film Festival I had never heard of this film, which was hardly surprising... Classified as a B-movie, produced by RKO, until recently it had never been shown since its original release in the late 1930s. Why? Well, mostly because it has a complicated story behind it. It was part of a set of 6 films given to producer Merian C. Cooper (of "King Kong" fame) as part of a dispute settlement. Later these 6 films got involved in further rights complications only sorted as a result of a request by a TCM viewer in the US (The full story can be found here). While the family of Merian C. Cooper had copies for 5 of the films, one was missing - "A Man to Remember". The only known copy belongs to the Dutch Film Museum - and despite the dutch subtitles and cards, it is the copy that has now been shown.

And Hurrah! for film preservation - this is indeed a wonderful film. It was scripted by Donald Trumbo and directed by Garson Kanin (more famous as a writer himself, especially for a number of Tracy/Hepburn films for director George Cukor). It doesn't have any famous actor, the leading man played the famous thin man in "The Thin Man", but there he's only onscreen for a couple of minutes. It also has an Olivia de Havilland lookalike as his adoptive daughter. The film tells the story of a small town doctor, starting with his funeral, and the immense respect that almost the whole town devotes to him. In a series of flashbacks we are told why. And he truly deserved it - and I must admit I shed a few tears.

Today's screening was at 11am, and if not for the change of the hour I might have missed it (and I can't do the next screening on Thursday). There was a very good introduction by a researcher from the Dutch archives and there about 15 people in the cinema. I hope the next screening is a bit fuller. As for me, I am truly glad that I went.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Les Schtroumpfs

Les Schtroumpfs, the Smurfs or os Estrumpfes (depending on the language) celebrate today their 50th Anniversary.

A proper post will appear here soon, but in the meantime Joyeux Anniversaire!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Perfect Quote

All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt!
Lucy van Pelt (Peanuts by Charles Schultz)

I found this today online, along with some variations. I couldn't resist posting it, especially as I am reading a collection of Peanuts comics. If I loved Lucy before, I do even more now.

I would love to find the actual strip this appears, but I doubt that it will happen soon: the strip ran for nearly 50 years (end of 1950 till February 2000) and "The Complete Peanuts" collections published so far only cover the first 20 years.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Tea and Sympathy (1956)

Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy is one of the lesser known of the director’s melodramas, and often lost among his films of the late 1950s, which include the far more famous The Cobweb, Lust for Life, Designing Woman, Gigi and Some Came Running. Personally, I prefer it to all of these. The reason, I imagine is that it touches a few raw nerves.

For a long, long time, it topped the list of films I wanted to see. I first knew of it when Deborah Kerr got an honorary Oscar in 1993 – one film critic raved so much about it that I got curious. Then I got to see snippets of it in a couple of documentaries, which seemed very good. Finally I had my dream came true in September 2003 when the Portuguese Cinematheque showed it twice. I fell in love with it at first sight, and couldn’t help going a second time and drag some people along. I knew that another chance would be too far into the future – to be exact just over 5 years, as I caught it on Wednesday at the BFI. And I imagine the next one may be even further away as I see no prospect of a DVD release (although once upon a time there was a VHS release in the US).

Adapted from a stage play by Robert Anderson, it tells the story of a young man (played by John Kerr) being accused by his colleagues of being gay (with the blessing of one of his teachers) and bullied because of it, and the wife of said teacher (Deborah Kerr, no relation) who decides to protect him. The play, it seems, made it clear the young man is in fact gay. I never saw it (would like to, though) so I can’t comment. The film, because of John Kerr’s performance and the Hays code is slightly more ambiguous. For better or worst, I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a gay character, although that’s likely (and I am not even considering the preposterous epilogue added to the film). He can just be someone who differs from standard behaviour just enough to be considered an outsider. The reasons for being tortured by the others are so thin, so vague, that as Deborah Kerr’s character suggests, it is indeed very easy to smear a reputation. In a sense it becomes a bit more a film about bullying and McCarthyism, and less about closet homosexuality. But just a tiny bit – if I doubt the leading man’s preferences, those of his best friend (who defends him constantly and almost seems to be in love with him) and that of the teacher are clearly obvious, despite both being deep down in the closet.
This is one of a handful of films responsible for making Deborah Kerr one of my favourite actresses. And here more than in any other film her hair is so beautifully red – actually, the whole film has a pink glow which I love, although it is possible that this is a fault with both copies I saw.

And to end, this film has one of my favourite lines (which is the final line of play), a gentle request of how one would like to be remembered by our past lovers: years from when you speak about this, and you will, be kind.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Circle

A year ago I wished for an opportunity to see Somerset Maugham’s The Circle on the stage and my wish came true last week. I had to go to Richmond during the evening rush hour (there are definitely better Tube lines at rush hour than the District Line) to see it, but I did.

I really like Somerset Maugham. He is unsentimental and cynic, but he can be incredibly funny and touching. “The Circle”, arguably the best of his comedies along with "The Constant Wife", is a play of history repeating itself. After deserting her husband and child 30 years prior for her husband’s best friend, Lady Kitty, played by Susan Hampshire in the version I saw, returns to her old home (with said lover) to finally meet her son. However, her daughter-in-law is also planning to run away with one of the house guests.

The whole play only makes sense in a time where divorce was something hard to get, but still says a lot about loveless love affairs. While Lady Kitty’s husband divorced her quickly, her lover’s wife didn’t so they couldn’t get married and had to spend 30 years in exile, swallowing infidelities and committing some, growing indifferent and in her case, fearing that he would leave her and she would have no means to support herself. Above all seeing each other never truly forgiving the other for the sacrifices they made in the name of a love that has long disappeared – as Lady Kitty says to her ex-husband, if she had her time again, she would have been unfaithful but would have never ran away.

The production I saw was a good one. The performances, mostly by actors I have seen at some stage or another on the small screen, were excellent and it made me sad that such a good production with some good reviews is highly unlikely to make it to the West End.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Intolerance (1916)

A few weeks ago I received this "gentle reminder" (their words, not mine) from my DVD rental service:

One of the best things about XXXXX is the 'no late fees' promise, which gives you the freedom to watch what you want, when you want - you're in charge of your viewing.

That said, we've noticed that recently you've been holding on to 'Intolerance' for a while. We thought we'd give you a gentle reminder to send 'Intolerance' back, just in case you'd forgotten to watch it, put it under a pile of magazines or something like that! You may even have gone off the idea of watching it right now - why not send it back and add it to your rental list later?

Of course it's completely up to you, but we also don't want you to miss out on our other top titles.
Happy viewing,
The XXXXX Team
Lovely isn't it? Basically, it's no late fees, but we'll annoy till you return the film. Of course, in all fairness I had the film since February - I must say I am usually quite quick at turning over the DVDs. This was an exception. Why? Because I didn't feel brave enough for 3h of epic silent movie, especially not after Birth of a Nation. Perhaps this was the encouragement that I needed because through the last week and a bit I saw the film (in four installments, since my patience is limited).

“Intolerance” tells four stories in parallel, united by the common theme of, you guessed it, intolerance. The two main stories are set in contemporary America and the final days before the fall of Babylon. The smaller ones are the story of Christ (with a few gaps, making me wonder if it wasn’t partially cut) and one set in the time of St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in Paris. The “intolerance” here is not only a religious intolerance, but a social one as well, of those who need to be protected from themselves.

According to some internet reading, Griffith decided to move forward with this project as a response to the attacks he suffered from his controversial “Birth of a Nation” (thus, the conclusion should be one needs to tolerate other’s racists views?). But all in all is a much better film. Of course, it’s still anti-semitic (most of the villains seemed archetypal Jewish to me…), homophobic (the villainous brother to the King of France is described as “effeminate”) and to a degree misogynist (I can’t recall the comment on screen correctly but it goes something like women who can’t attract men turn to social reformation), but not much more than other works from the period.

The film itself is rather interesting, actually very good at times, especially in the beginning and the ending. The final sequences with the conclusions of the stories approaching their climax are very good indeed and just at the right pace. The film is certainly one of the landmarks in storytelling in motion pictures. I read somewhere that was the birth of film editing. If this isn’t true it’s a good imitation. Its influence can be seen today still in films like “Rendition” with its multiple stories that come together in the end. Moreover, it is also compelling storytelling, managing very well to tell four distinct stories at the same time, with a far more appealing subject matter than its predecessor (and I am sorry to keep going on with the comparisons here, but it is kind of inevitable).

Of course there are problems other than the ones I already mentioned – I am undecided to which of the two leading ladies was more annoying: Mae Marsh as “The Dear One” (the name alone makes me sick) in the modern story or Constance Talmadge in the Babylonian one. Neither can act, and I have grown to hate Mae Marsh after having to sit to her behaving like an idiot in “Birth of a Nation”.

Finally there was something rather curious in the film. Most films set prior to 1918 are period pieces. But here that’s not the case, and these people on the screen were wearing the same (almost victorian) clothes, as the people sitting in the stalls. And here, more than elsewhere was it visible that the 20th Century started with WWI.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

From one of my favourites, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Although I could have easily chosen Cat in a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which is even better.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Old Hollywood and the Cigarette Industry

The BBC has this on their website where they discuss that the stars of yesteryear received large payments to promote cigarettes. I don't smoke but I don't particularly care if people smoke on screen or on stage (on the other hand, very grateful for smoking ban in restaurants here in the UK). Personally don't think it's nice, sexy or agreable, but some of my best friends still smoke, so I try to live with it. However two thoughts came to me while reading this:

1. The amounts given are a rather interesting reminder that those who have some posterity are not always the most popular. I mean Fred MacMurray received more money than Henry Fonda, and Myrna Loy (who I absolutely adore) and Carole Lombard (who I often love) have been certainly forgotten by most of the population, despite the first been crowned Queen of Hollywood to Clark Gable's King of Hollywood and the second having been Mrs Gable and a huge star in her own right.

2. The article doesn't mention the amount given to Bette Davis. Whatever much it was, it wasn't enough... and probably wouldn't cover more than a couple years of her cigarette bill... She was, is, and will probably always be the first name I think when someone mentions smoking and film in the same sentece. As she herself said, "If I didn't lit a cigarette, they wouldn't know who I was".

Pearls Before Swine (Comic Strip)

For the past week I have been reading one of the collections of the American comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis. I knew of its existence for a while – it has been published in Portugal (but not in the UK) which helped. But browsing one of the earlier books a few years ago didn’t draw me into it. Also, it isn’t syndicated by the comics’ page I subscribe. Then about two years ago I came across the parody Stephen Pastis made of Bill Amend’s semi-retirement from my favourite “Foxtrot” and found it quite funny. Yet, it took me quite a while before I bought a book.

The strip is quite unusual – it often breaks the fourth wall (its creator is occasional a character), the drawing is extremely poor (working better for some characters than others) and it has a VERY peculiar sense of humour. The drawing style in particular was the big turn-off for me, as the characters seem to have hardly any expression. Yet, I would say its style of humour is what makes or break it, since according to the comments in the collection I have, it seems to gather frequent complaints from newspaper readers in the US (when first published) which is probably a good thing.

All of the strip’s main characters are animals – there is Rat, Pig (which is a bit naïve and often scorned by Rat, hence the title of the strip), Goat, Zebra, and some hilarious crocodiles. Whilst the first two are in fact the leading characters, when they are together they also produce what I found to be the least funny strips. My favourites by a mile (or two, or three…) are the crocs and their plans to kill and eat Zebra. And I don’t think I am alone here. Stupid, frustrated, idiotic, unable to catch Zebra (who outsmarts them without effort) and with a tendency to turn against each other quickly, they are the strip to me. They simply steal the show.

I am not sure if the best thing to do with this strip is to recommend it to someone. It needs to be found, because what makes it work for me is surely not the same that will make it work for someone else. I ordered a second collection (mine covered the years 2005/6, this one should 2003/4) so I’ve been caught.

You can read one month's worth of strips here.

For the record, the image is from another book - I just liked it better. This is the one I read.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

It's interesting how much likes and dislikes of things that require an emotional response are more often than not, a product of the moment you are exposed to them. Books, films, music, art - a simple experience, a small connection of something you have recently been through. I saw The Bridges of Madison County in 1995, aged 17, when it first came out. I liked it very much, but with the years all that subside in my memory was the ending, that fantastic scene where all of Meryl Streep's energy is channelised to her hand. When I saw it again on friday, it was almost like seen it again for the first time. And I was mesmerised. It was exquisite. Brief Encounter of the 1990s but better, oh so much better. I connected to it in a way that I haven't of lately - it is possible that I was in need of an adult love story that had something other than a fairytale happy ending, but even so, I loved it.

And yet, the story couldn't be simpler. A bored housewife (Meryl Streep) embarcs on a four day affair with a photographer (played by Clint Eastwood) while her husband is away with their kids.

So what makes it exceptional? Well, it is a grasping story. It's a meeting of soul mates in adverse conditions. But it's above all, two of the best performances ever. Meryl Streep in particular gives what is arguably her best best performance of the last 20 years. Everything she does seems so natural, so instinctive. The way she touches her arms and chest, the way she trembles when he touches her, the odd mistakes she makes when speaking. I absolutely loved it. And hopefully next time, even if it takes me some other 13 years, I'll love it even more.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Little things I hate

1) That after a week of playing around with Christmas flights, when I finally decide on dates and times, the stupid website is down...

2) That Ugly Betty has restarted last week (after an hiatus of nine months) on C4 and no one told me! Update: it seems C4 lets me catch up for free. Yay!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Yesterday, I revisited Norma Desmond. The BFI showed a print from the 2002 restoration (that's the one available on the fantastic DVD that Paramount released a few years ago) which despite the few scratches that it has earned still looks magnificent.

I can tell more or less when I saw it for the first time. It was around 1993, and in those days the newspaper my father bought had a TV guide where you could find decent reviews about one or two of the films that they'd show during the week. It was at that time that my curiosity about old films was becoming systematic, so I watched and recorded it off TV. I lost count how many times that tape was seen since, and afterwards the DVD. To say it is one of my favourite films is both a cliché and an understatement.

The film is the story of Joe Gillis, a out of job screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into a palazzo in Sunset Blvd. (Oh, and being very pedantic, the title of the film is "Sunset Blvd." not "Sunset Boulevard"). In it he finds Norma Desmond, a movie star from the silent era (which was then only 20 years away) who is planning her return to the screen through her own version of Salomé to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He is hired to revised the script, and if I say anything else I might spoil it for those out there who haven't seen it - and yesterday went with a friend who hadn't seen it and loved it (or so he said...)
This was the last script that Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett worked together (and they got an Oscar for the story) and I can only say, what a way to go! - and this from the people wrote among others "Ninotchka", the Oscar-winning "The Lost Weekend" and two of my Wilder favourites' "The Major and the Minor" and "A Foreign Affair", so they had to really top themselves. The story is so tight and so good, the ending so inevitable and yet surprising, that leaves me wishing for more screenwritting of this calibre.

But it's not only the story which is good. Everything that no-one ever notices is magnificent; the sets (Oscar winning, and I could spend hours in that house/set admiring every single detail, from the ever present face of Norma Desmond to the ceiling that came from Portugal), the costumes, the lighting, the camera work and shots, and Franz Waxman's haunting score (the film's third Oscar) come to mind as well.

And then there are the performances... That all four main actors got Oscar nominations is just a fact. You actually need to see how good they are. Erich von Stroheim as Max is never anything but chilling, and yet as the film develops you realise how touching his character really is. William Holden made a whole career out of this part, playing cynics forever, and yet, this is the best of them all. As his character progresses he simply gives one of the best performances I have ever seen, layered, complex, a man divided and slowly walking to the swimming pool where we meet him in the opening sequence, despaired and self-loathing, kind, trying to survive and finally recovering himself from the gutter where Wilder had placed him. And then there's Norma, or rather Gloria Swanson, herself a forgotten movie star from the silent era, as big or bigger Norma ever was. She is never anything less than mesmerising, capturing the silent era melodrama her character still emulates. And for this, if nothing else, she got the imortality that perhaps eluded Norma. It is one of the great injustices of the Oscars that two of the best performances by an actress competed against each other for an award (Norma and Bette Davis' Margo Channing). It's even a greater injustice that neither won, and that the winner was Judy Holiday for "Born Yesterday"...

Maybe it's the fact that Wilder's very dark humour and cinicism hit the right keys with me, but having seen most of his films bar four ("The Spirit of St Louis" and the last three) they make a considerable share of my all time favourites. This most certainly one of them...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Citizen Kane (1941)

What can I write here that has already been said somewhere else about Citizen Kane? Probably nothing, so I am not even trying. I watched it last night for the first time in a while and for the first time in the big screen. I had forgotten how good it was, and it felt much warmer and human than I remembered. I also could see some little clues that are only obvious after the first viewing (and after you find out what "Rosebud" stands for) and that were hidden by the smallness of the TV screen - one being the snow globe that is in the mantlepiece of Susan's house when Kane first visits.

More and more, I want to see films on the big screen. DVDs are wonderful and I love them, and they are convinient and allow me to access to a lot of films that I can't see otherwise. But these movies were made for huge screens, in a time before television really took over, and the amount of detail lost is so amazing. There's a quote about either Garbo or Bette Davis that they knew that less was more (mmm... probably Garbo) and that a simple raise of an eyebrow would be massive when projected. Nevertheless I should finally watch sometime soon the DVD which I own for a good 5 years now (maybe even a bit more) and is gathering dust with so many other titles in my ever growing collection.

One of the things it did surprise me, and that I had partly forgotten or never fully realised, is how much Lubitsch had influenced (in economy and style) the breakfast sequence that illustrates the rise and fall of Kane's first marriage. It is in turns touching, hillarious, sad and brilliant. I think this is one of the great virtues of the film; how it picked influences or techniques from others (German Expressionism and John Ford's Stagecoach, which I never seen, are often mentioned) but were put to use in such an original way.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Wuthering Heights (1847)

There are books which are so famous that their reputation and the preconceptions around them precede them. I think “Wuthering Heights” is one such a book – for years I avoided it based on the urban legend of what it really was: a heavily romantic story about Heathcliff’s obsessive love for Catherine.

Its authoress’ biography didn’t help. The Brontë mythology is a bit too much for me, designed as it was by Charlotte to highlight the sisters’ mystique, where the three of them have nearly become a whole rather than three separate entities. So after having it sitting on my shelf for over 18 months I finally decided (half heartily) to give it a go (and no, 18 months is not a terribly long time in my overcrowded shelves and my decreasing available reading time). “Jane Eyre” also suffered from similar prejudices, and despite the fact that I loved its first two thirds, it didn’t help Emily’s book. I still knew I wasn’t going to like it…

… And obviously I was blown away – it was nothing of what I expected. In all fairness, I didn’t really like the book. But I am still fascinated by it and I was endlessly drawn to it. Along with “Nineteen Eighty-four” it now belongs to a category of books I didn’t like but can’t help classify as masterpieces and wish someone would make them compulsory reading.

This is the story of two houses, or rather within two houses. Never does the action really leave them or the path between the two. To this self-contained environment only a few foreigners are allowed in – first Lockwood, to whom the story is narrated and who is clearly despised by his creator (the pomposity of his narration in the opening chapters of the book is so brilliantly ironic); then Heathcliff in the main story, and finally Hindley’s wife. And while the first and last are there to fulfil a function and then leave, Heathcliff’s arrival from nowhere is the catalyst of the novel and he is the main force behind the events of the novel.

This is also the story of two generations, where the actions of those in the first generation have a huge impact on the lives of their descendants. And in this world, with the possible exception of Ellen who narrates the story within the story and therefore is perhaps placing herself under a better light, all characters are unredeemable, from Heathcliff and Catherine, to Hindley and the Linton children in the first generation, to their three offspring in the second. Each character brings out the worst in the others and there is no escape except death.

To summarise the plot is to due a disservice to the novel, which is so much more than just that. It’s the darker side of humanity – revenge, obsession, necrophilia, incest (or large hints of it anyway). Is this what kept attracting me to the book? I don't know, but I would say it is likely. Whatever it was, it made me wish that Emily could have had finished and published her second novel, or if legend is true, that Charlotte hadn’t burnt it down. It might just about been even better…

I think I should probably thank R who almost forced me to buy it in the first place...

Monday, 25 August 2008

20 years ago

20 years ago, Lisbon burned. I was 10 years old and I still remember the huge column of smoke and where I had lunch that day...

(photo: Diário de Notícias)

Sunday, 24 August 2008

47 hours in Chocolateland

Just came back from 47 hours in Chocolateland, known to the rest of the world as Brussels. In 47 hours I managed to spend quality with dear friends, buy chocolate, go to an exhibition on the Smurfs' 50th anniversary, get overly nostalgic about them (my favourites when I was young), decide to buy some of the books, proceed to buy four of the books (and in doing so go through most bookshops in Central Chocolateland as this seemed to be nearly sold out, although did get it in the end) plus this (which I hope my French allows me to understand), buy more chocolates (these being a very special treat), read one of the books, decide I wanted more and proceed to buy three more.

Not much sight seeing this time, except for the odd art nouveau building, but hey!, seven smurfs' books, plus Fabrice Tarrin's newest, plus the latest from Dupuis collected Fraquin's Spirou et Fantasio is not too bad for such a short of time. As an added extra, the imense pleasure of leaving some of my worries behind...

With many many thanks to V and G for their hospitality, company, patience, sharing of memories and V's fantastic friendly sholder.

Views from Chocolateland

Thursday, 21 August 2008

After 12 years...

In 1996 I stayed up till around 4am to see Portugal win their 3rd ever gold in Olympic Games. Today, 12 years later, after what seemed an eternity, we got our 4th...

So to celebrate at the office, as well as the UK's silver (and other 17 golds) there were cookies on me.

Congratulations to Nélson Évora who got the gold in the triple jump, Vanessa Fernandes who got silver in the thriatlon, Gustavo Lima who got a very good but unlucky 4th in sailing and all others who did (will do) their best, despite the usual or even creative excuses... With a bit more support and training conditions we might even do better in London 2012.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Imitation of Life (1959)

From the beautiful opening credits to the tear-inducing ending, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life is one of the great American melodramas of the 1950's. It's the story of two single mothers, one black (Juanita Moore) and one white (Lana Turner), who form a bond to better survive. This being Hollywood in the 1950s means that the white character wants desperately to be an actress and the black just wants a job, so being Lana Turner's maid will do. And then there are their daughters, the perfect teenager (Sandra Dee) and the not so perfect one (Susan Kohner). It is also the remake of a 1934 film of the same name directed by John M Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert.

In both films, there are two main story lines. One concerns the white characters, with the daughter falling in love with the man that is in love with her mother (who really is in love with herself in the 1959 version). The other, far more interesting to me is the complex social and racial issues raised by the relationship between a black mother and her daughter who wants and can pass off herself as white (I'd say there is a hint that daddy was white, but because of the Hayes code he just had very white skin). In the 1959 version, is really hard for me to take sides. The mother does not want her daughter to be like her. She wants her to be better off, only she has limited goals. The daughter on the other hand just wants to be like everyone else and fit in. It reminded me of a line in Guess who's coming for dinner, when Sidney Poitier turns to his father and says "You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. " - only that was still 8 years into the future (and a lot of real events separate the two films). All this is much better than it sounds, especially the Juanita Moore-Susan Kohner relationship. The two actresses excel and both got Oscar nominations (they lost to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank).

The film also proves that there are exceptions to the rule: I think the remake is much better than the original. Annie is a much better and rounded character than her 1934 counterpart Delilah and Sirk has a much better grasp of how to touch an audience than Stahl did - the best example is how both directors treat the ending of the film: Sirk finishes at the climatic moment, Stahl continues for a few more minutes to assure the audience that Claudette Colbert does end with Warren William. Which we already knew...

However, it is not without is faults. Sandra Dee is irritating every time she appears on screen (ok, one exception, when she says to her mother to stop playing the martyr), Lana Turner looks way older than her 38 years (I'd say she looks more like 48, so desperately is she to look young), and her character is rather annoying at times. Still, like in her most famous, deadliest and sexiest role the first thing you see of her are her legs.

The film is widely available on DVD, and often is paired with the 1934 version. I have the French DVD from this Douglas Sirk Boxset. And there's a second volume coming in November.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Still on "Forbidden Planet"

It has to be one of the worst posters ever - it has really nothing to do with the film... And yes, I do get why they chose it. Sex sells...

From Sci-fi to Lubitsch...

I watched “Forbidden Planet” last night, and in one scene where a very "helpful" lieutenant tries to explain to Dr Morbius’s daughter what kissing is, I couldn’t help earing in my head “again…” said in a heavy voice. It took me ages to realise what it was - it was Garbo demanding more kisses from Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka”…

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Estelle Getty (1923-2008)

The world is slightly less funny place tonight...

Friday, 18 July 2008

Les Égarés (2003)

André Téchiné has a very special place in my heart. One of his movies had a deep influence at a particular moment of my life, and just perhaps, things might have been different (worst even) if the timing hadn’t been so perfect. Ever since that first experience I have stumbled across some of his films, which aren’t exactly easy to find in the home video market outside France(*) (or in some cases have had atrocious DVD reviews). All this to say that last night I watched his 2003 film Les Égarés.

The film tells the story of a young widow and her two children who are fleeing Paris to escape German occupation. During an air raid they lose their car and meet a strange young man who helps them. They find safe harbour in the country house of a Jewish composer who has closed it and possibly left to somewhere else. They develop into a strange family until the arrival of two soldiers (I would venture deserters but I couldn’t exactly figure it, as they seem to have been told to go home) precipitates a sequence of events.

The film is beautifully shot and the performances of all main four characters are incredibly good. And this is where the film could have failed as most of the time there are only these characters around. Emmanuelle Béart’s woman just about managing to keep herself together is touching, and was the one I most engaged with. The pace, although slow, seems to mount the tension and suit the film.

However, what impelled me to write about the film were two main reactions to the film that I found on IMDb. The first is the fact that the ending does not provide a complete closure of the characters. Well, it did to me. Téchiné has never provided full closure in the films of his I have seen. In Les Roseaux Sauvages the ending is rather frustrating, but here, like in J’embrasse pas I felt the story was done with, and anything else would be a different chapter.

The second comment, or rather series of comments (there two topics at least on the subject), concerned the dialogue in the film’s sex scene. I really wanted to shout to people to grow up and grow a brain, because honestly, it is perfectly clear what Gaspard Ulliel says to Emmanuelle Béart, and the why is explained shortly after.

(*) - Shortly after I posted this, found out of a new R1 boxset which contains among others "Les Roseaux Sauvages" and "J'embrasse pas". As the French DVDs have no subtitles in ANY language, if there is no R2 release with subtitles in a language I can follow, it's nice to know there is an option.

Monday, 14 July 2008

One year and four days

Yesterday I realised that I have missed the blog's first anniversary.

I am impressed with the fact I have been more or less commited to this... Usually these projects don't last this long.

Without a watch...

My watch's strap died a death a few days ago, and after a week of trying to cope without the evil object (and miserably failing) and relying on my mobile I finally got a chance to take it to a shop and ask for a replacement strap... which will take at least another two weeks... aaarrrrggghhhh!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mr Right (2008)

While checking the Prince Charles Cinema's website two weeks ago I stumbled across the notice for a premiere of a independent romantic comedy. The difference? It was a gay romantic comedy or as David Morris and Jacqui Morris, the writers/directors called it, a hom-com. As I had nothing better to do, I went there on thursday. It was great. Funny, clever, set in London, the kind of thing Richard Curtis would have done if he was gay (which I intend as a compliment, by the way). I laughed so much and was so involved that I completely forgot the film was shot on digital, which is one of the biggest turn offs in modern cinema for me...

It's the story of three gay couples and a straight one (although we know the ending of that relationship from the beginning) but for a change all characters have their sexuality sorted, so they can take the story elsewhere. Plus as the director points out in the official site, they avoided the easy shots of naked men, which I am sure would have help to sell the film.

I really hope the film does well. I have recommended it to a few friends, and I hope it gets a wider release than the Prince Charles...

PS - IMDb says the film is 2006 for some reason...

Here's a link to the film's official website.

A quote and a song

Two things going back and forth in my mind since mid-June...

It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Judy Garland's version of "Stormy Weather" (cause it cheers me up).

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Advert for Tate Britain on the tube

Saw this and loved it... one of the best and funniest ads I've seen in a long while... (click to enlarge)

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Great Lie (1941)

The Great Lie is one of many Bette Davis' vehicles from the 1940s, a woman's picture through and through (today they would be called melodramas). It was her forth and final collaboration with director Edmund Golding, and one of many with George Brent. The rest of the cast includes Mary Astor in a Oscar-winning performance and Hattie McDaniel. The plot is pure soap - George Brent finds out that his marriage to pianist Astor is not legal and when she refuses to abandon her career for him he goes and marries old sweetheart Davis. Sadly, soon he is given for dead in the Amazon. Astor meanwhile is pregnant and Davis gets desperate. She asks for the baby...

That anything interesting came out of this is quite remarkable. Davis and Astor do wonders with her scenes together and George Brent gives what I think is one of his best performances in the beginning of the film (not much competition there...). There are even light hints of a lesbian relationship when the two women are hiding in the Arizona desert, with Davis taking a "father" role to Astor's "mother".

The casting is quite interesting as there isn't really a leading character. It's a three way ensemble piece, with Davis out of her usual roles. In truth, her part seems to be tailored to Olivia de Havilland's screen persona at this stage (e.g. 1942's In This Our Life with Davis). I always found interesting that some of her best performances came opposite strong charismatic actresses such as Miriam Hopkins, Mary Astor, Olivia de Havilland, Anne Baxter(*) or actors like Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda or James Cagney (I'm one of five people on Earth who actually like "The Bride came C.O.D."). There is of course an exception which is "The Letter", my all time favourite of her performances.

Watching it tonight I could really find three faults with the film - the awful dubbing in the last scene, the black characters that are way too stereotypical and the third is a very personal thing that isn't really worth mentioning, as it won't matter next time I see the film.

(*) - Not mentioning Crawford is simply because a) I don't like Baby Jane and b) Joan Crawford is far more interesting that Davis in that film. And I really wish they would have done something else together in the 1940s (but not "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" cause I think is Olivia de Havilland's best performance after Melanie Wilkes).

Saturday, 28 June 2008

A Star is Born (1954)

I can't remember when I saw A Star is Born for the first time. My guess is that it was in the early 1990s, and I must have been around 15. I recorded it and I do remember I didn't like it, but not why. It is a Hollywood fairy tale gone wrong, a twisted version of Pygmalion and Galatea, where a famous actor discovers a new talent, and as her star rises, his fades. It stars Judy Garland and James Mason, and it's one of Oscar's great idiocities that she didn't win Best Actress for this.

At the time I first saw it, I wasn't aware of the history of the cuts and different versions of the film, and I didn't like the stills which I thought were an "artistic" decision (they are not!). By then, I also had seen Cukor's other version of the same story, which I thought much better (sadly never recorded that one because I still do think it better) and I avoided the Garland version completely ever since, including a screening at the NFT during the Cukor's complete retrospective in 2004 (which I regret as I write this). Meanwhile, I bought the DVD probably cause it was cheap.

Recently I got curious to see the film again as a result of some comments I read in a web forum. And I was by turns disappointed and marvelled. Disappointed because it really isn't the great film that could have been - most musical numbers are way too long, in particular the "Born in a Trunk" sequence which I realised was one of the reasons I disliked the film in the first place. But I saw many things I enjoyed, great and small. The performances of Judy Garland, James Mason and Jack Carson are absolutely fantastic. About two hours into the film there is a scene where she confesses she has moments where she hates her husband, followed by a cheerful musical scene she has to finish shooting. Amazing. The drama is really good, but slowed down by the songs which often are in the way. The bright red of the colour scheme. "The man that got away", which is one of her best songs. The Oscar sequence, the James Mason/Jack Carson sequence at the races, the ending (despite quoting Humoresque), all great.

Will I ever see the film again? Probably not unless a complete print is recovered or I get a chance to see it on the big screen - and this is one of those films which should be seen in a cinema. But I am quite happy to have seen it again.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Deep Blue Sea (2008 Revival)

"To love with one's eyes open makes life very difficult"
Terence Rattigan, "The Deep Blue Sea" (1952)

This is a play that opens with an attempted suicide. A woman is found by her neighbours passed out next to a gas heater. The only reason why she isn't dead is because she forgot to put a shilling in the meter (I have to confess I love the touch). Soon we find that she did it because her lover can't reciprocate her love, and she knows it - the line above being something she is told.

It would be hardly a play I would recommend to young lovers. Its main theme is the disintegration of relationships, but it is a fantastic play, almost a British version of a Tennessee Williams drama. I have no words other than these to describe it, but it produced quite an impact on me, mainly because of the richness of the text and Greta Scacchi's wonderful performance as a woman who has sacrificed everything for a love affair with a man who can't give her what she needs. There's a moment (immortalised in the poster for the production) when her lover comes back, unaware she tried to kill herself, and he grabs her from behind and for a brief moment you can see why this woman left everything (including a very dull husband) for this younger former RAF pilot. And all without a word... Marvellous.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Double bill of Shaw and Wendy Hiller

Monday I spent my evening at the BFI (as you do...) - went there to see a double bill of Bernard Shaw adaptations, namely 1938's Pygmalion and 1941's Major Barbara. Both were scripted by George Bernard Shaw himself (in collaboration with others) and both have Wendy Hiller as the heroine.

While I found "Major Barbara" a bit long and at moments a bit dull, I was fascinated by "Pygmalion". It was just marvellous comedy, perfect timing, great performances. I had started with some reservations because I find most british films of the period slightly lacking in sparkle. And although I thought Leslie Howard was a tad too young for Higgins, there isn't any reason other than Rex Harrison why he can't. But the cherry on the cake was a wonderful Eliza from Wendy Hiller. This was a discovery. I knew her name, of course, and her face from a few Hirshfeld caricatures - now I have truly became a fan of her cheekbones.

As for "Major Barbara", despite the wonderful cast (Hiller, Rex Harrison, Deborah Kerr, Robert Morley), it does suffer of Shaw's excess of preachiness and didn't do much for me. Probably it wasn't helped by all the problems in production with the director (who couldn't direct) and his dependences his "assistants to director" (one of them being David Lean). As I'm going to see the current theatrical production at the National quite soon, am quite curious to see how they compare. And to complete another "double bill" of Shaw, Peter Hall's revival of "Pygmalion" is also in my to see list.

Friday, 30 May 2008

On books and buying them

I love books. I love buying them, owing them and reading them - the order is simply the order of the process. I also love carrying them all over the place and hate when I damage them because of this - once or twice a book had to be replaced (ok, more than that!).

Bookshops are places of pleasure for me, especially those where I have never been and those I know by heart (in case I really just want to get something quickly). But best of all, every year there's a book fair in Lisbon - and for at least a good 10 years now I make a point of being there on the first day. So I book holidays to match (being in London and all that). This year there were a few problems with it and almost didn't happen. But afterwards I was wondering if that would have been such a misery for me.

I can read in Portuguese and English and when I am brave, I even read some stuff in French (not counting with la Bande Dessinée). So I can't say I am limited, can I? However, in a competitive and increasingly uninteresting book market in Portugal less and less books that appeal to me are now published. Furthermore, one of my favourite publishers was absent and I bought only 4 new books for myself, none of which printed in the last 2 years and all originally published before 1970. In contrast I came back with 7 second hand ones, all from the 1900s. With the increasing prospect of an idiotic spelling agreement for the Portuguese language, I believe that in six years time I shall stop buying new books altogether.

There is a bright side - I am now discovering the "alfarrabistas", the second hand bookshops and where I bought some nice books lately. For better or worst, I believe that this is where for Portuguese books, my future of book buying lies.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Garbo and (her) silents

Silent films have a particular language of their own. It’s a language that I don’t always like. Having seen some of the acknowledged exponents of the period (“Greed”, “The Crowd”, “Metropolis”, etc.) I have only truly enjoyed one film – “A Woman of Affairs” with Greta Garbo, made in 1928 and one of her last silent films. I had the luck of catching it about six weeks ago.

In it she plays a woman prevented from marrying the love of her life, decides to have some fun, and proceeds to marry the guy her brother seems to be interested in, who then mysteriously kills himself on their wedding night. After this she is ostracised by polite society, who blame her… Despite the potential for disaster from this plotline the film is very well constructed, with strong performances from the leads, especially Garbo here during her “femme fatale” phase.

It wasn’t my first Garbo silent – I have the DVD collection with “Flesh and the Devil”, “The Temptress” and “Mysterious Woman”, but except for the first 30 minutes or so of “Flesh…” they were all quite uninteresting. However, they made quite clear to me why she was such a huge star during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Comparing her with all her co-stars, she emanates an effective quietness. With her less is definitely more. She almost seems out of place. Later, this would turn again in one of her best performances, in “Camille”. She is far more modern than most people are aware, and far from being a symbol of a bygone era, she should be recognised as someone who changed the art of screen acting.

I wish more of her silents were available, especially “A Woman of Affairs”. I probably won’t like them, but I really want to see them – and who knows, I might even fall in love with another.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Norma Shearer and The Divorcee (1930)

I think I first heard of Norma Shearer many moons ago when I watched “When the Lion Roars” the magnificent documentary on the history of MGM which is still due for a DVD release. My impression from it was that she got lucky because her husband was the head of production of the studio and I never gave her much thought. As her films have become available on the shinny discs I had my chance of cementing this opinion: “The Women”, “Marie Antoinette” and “Romeo and Juliet”, some of her most celebrated films, failed to produce any lasting impact on me and occasionally I almost couldn’t bear her.

Then I bought the “Forbidden Hollywood vol.2” DVD box. This box contains two of Norma’s most famous films: “A Free Soul” and “The Divorcee”, for which she won her best actress Oscar. While the former didn’t succeed in changing my views (I was quite bored by it) the latter was absolutely astonishing. Where had Norma hidden this talent in her other performances?

“The Divorcee” is the story of a happily married woman who founds out that her husband has cheated on her and decided to give him a bit of his own medicine. And of course when he does it, it was something of no consequence, when she does it it’s a most serious outrage against the good order of things – she should have bear it with a sad look. So they divorce and she decides that staying sad at home is not really for her…

The whole issue of the double standard is presented in a very modern way and Norma Shearer was to me a revelation in this film. Even her constipated leading man (who has an acting style out of the early 1920’s and is unbearable in “Red Head Woman”) was acceptable. The only fault I can find with the film was the subplot with the car accident and the duty marriage that arises from that. All in all, a wonderful Pre-code and I will be looking for more of her films in the future – there might be another gem in their midst.

Monday, 31 March 2008

The Vortex and some other 1177 minutes of Noel Coward

As a birthday present, I treated myself to Peter Hall's production of Noël Coward's "The Vortex". First performed in 1924 it shocked at the time with references to toy boys and drugs. I read the play many moons ago and wasn't much impressed, but I never refuse an opportunity to see Coward, especially in the hands of a good director. And much to my surprised I found layers that I did not expect. The hint from the text that Nicky is mixed with drugs because he can't face his homosexuality was painfully evident in Dan Stevens' face. He gave a performance of someone who feels he's starting to waste his life but can't do anything to prevent it. But I think that the biggest revelation was the suggestion that Phoebe Nicholls character's friendship and loyalty to Florence may be hidding something else.

Dan Stevens was a pleasant surprise (saw him in "Hayfever" last year and wasn't very convinced). The same goes for Felicity Kendall (I spent most of "Amy's View" thinking what Judi Dench's performance might have been and her "Fallen Angels" did not impress a few years ago). Peter Hall lead the play and its cast very well, avoiding that any of them fall into the usually trappings of playing Coward. No winks to the audience, no excessive mannerisms. Just a play which can still shock.

Still on the subject of Coward, a recent voucher was translated into the 1177 minutes long (over 19h!), 7 DVD collection of his plays and short stories as done by the BBC. I still have many many hours to go but could not resist "Private Lives" with Penelope Keith. Every inch what I imagined and more, it was an hour and half of near-perfection.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Richard Widmark (1914-2008)

I never really liked him as an actor, but there are always exceptions: "Pickup on South Street" is a masterpiece and he's phenomenal in it.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest

On saturday went with a friend to the theatre. She was visiting London and we had arranged to see Oscar Wilde's Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre. We are both fans of the play, and I am quite a big fan of Penelope Keith and after the BBC new version of "Sense and Sensibility" I can say the same about Daisy Haggard. Despite all this nothing had prepared us for such a great night out... in one word it was perfect!

Peter Gill's production (the fourth I saw of his) was spot on, playing the artificial of the play as if it was natural, magnificently suggesting a gay subtext but without damaging the core of the text. All actors were stupendous - even Miss Prism and the reverend, which I can't stand as characters, were charming and engaging. The actors playing Jack and Algernon were very funny, aided by the fact that they could indeed be brothers and had great chemistry together. Penelope Keith was fantastic and the more I see her doing comedy, the more I want to see her "Amanda" from the BBC production of "Private Lives" (pity she said no more Coward until "Waiting in the Wings"). But the star was Gwendoleen - and the best line was the excited "Jack" she utters when Jack as Ernest asks her what she thinks of the name. Her reaction was priceless.

I might just see this again... it really was marvellous.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Real Life... and Bette Davis in glorious Black and White

Since December, my life has been a bit uncertain, shall we say a bit blurry... however things seem to be falling into place and all going well in a week or so, all indefinition will be gone and I will probably breath deeply and look forward to peace and quiet. And I also will be looking forward to this - which will come out very very soon. Only seen "The Old Maid", "In This Our Life" and "The Great Lie" but can't wait to see the others, especially "All This, and Heaven Too"...