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Despite Roman Polanski's well publicized flaws as a human being he does have the ability to direct one hell of a movie and this film which fits into a genre I enjoy, the period literary adaptation, is one of his best. Adapted from Thomas Hardy's undisputed classic novel ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles' this film does not fall into feeling like a direct translation from page to screen and instead the filmmakers have incorporated their own ideas and modern perspectives into their interpretation of the characters and their place in the world. For some the pacing of the film may be an issue as it does run on it's own time but the pacing is consistent and you quickly relax into the enveloping mood and tone of the piece. This is one of the best 1980s films I have seen and it was fascinating to see the conflicted social commentary in the novel made clearer and more streamlined in a beautifully constructed motion picture.
In Victorian England, young Tess Durbyfield, Nastassja Kinski, is sent by her alcoholic father John, John Collin, to ask for work from her ‘cousins' the wealthy Stokes, who bought the aristocratic title, after John is told by local priests that they are descended from aristocracy. Durbyfield is seduced and then raped by her ‘cousin' Alec, Leigh Lawson, whom she then runs away from but is left pregnant by him. Years later her child dies and she is unable to get him a proper Christian burial while she returns to a working class job. She falls in love with her employer, the childish and immature Angel Clare, Peter Firth, while working as a milkmaid. She struggles to reveal her rape and dead child to him but on their wedding night she confesses and he leaves her because he is not emotionally intelligent enough to process the idea that she is not ‘pure'. She suffers after he abandons her and eventually returns to Alec so that she can support her family but with the return of Clare comes tragedy.
What is most astonishing about the film is that it serves as a critique of male behaviors in terms of how they view women both as romantic and sexual partners. Alec desires Durbyfield sexually and is naked in his desire to sleep with her while the deceptively ‘nice' Clare wants a pliant, submissive wife with no romantic history or control over their sexual relationship. The evil of Alec is laid bare as we know immediately that his intentions with Durbyfield are impure and his raping of her is not shocking. There is sadness in seeing the intelligent but inexperienced Durbyfield manipulated by a man who sees her only as an object to be used for his own means but the greater concern is that society will not blame the predatory Alec but Durbyfield who, as a woman, is expected to resist his advances. The judgment of a backwards society comes in the form of Clare who despite having had a romantic relationship of a questionable nature himself is quick to turn on his new wife when he discovers that she is not the perfect, sexually pure virgin that he had imagined her to be. The horror of seeing a man blame a woman for having been raped is still sickening and our fears for this passive but thoughtful woman are increased as she is punished for the crimes of the men around her.
Another astonishing element of the film is the exploration of the class system as the film critiques the upper class while presenting life as a lower class person as difficult but rewarding. Durbyfield is seen to enjoy her life most when she is working as a milkmaid or a domestic servant with supportive female friends and experiences that enrich her life. She is constantly tempted by the prospect of wealth and security with a man but these prospects never pan out and she finds only pain and suffering as the ‘fancy woman' of privileged men. Polanski lingers on shots of hay bails and the teats of a cow for extended moments as our protagonist's connection to nature and the earth grounds her in a way that the frocks she wears and carriages she rides when she has wealth does not. One of the major themes of Hardy's novel is successfully translated to the screen as Polanski finds ways to incorporate his ideas about social class into the visual medium.
Finally, the film benefits from a strong lead performance as Kinski, saddled with a difficult role and spread across a nearly three hour run time, is able to make a quiet, passive woman repressed by the expectations of society compelling. She is particularly touching in scenes when forced to display her character's emotional turmoil as she cannot articulate her thoughts and feelings to her lovers. Of course it would be easy to become distracted by her incredible beauty and admittedly patchy Dorset accent, the German shines through, she crafts a tortured, complex character in place of a role that could have faded into the background.
This film deserves it's Best Picture nomination as it is a superbly constructed film that contains excellent performances, writing and commentary on the treatment of women in the Victorian era.
Films that deal with race relations, particularly from the white perspective, have always been popular with the Academy but this film attracted more controversy than most for playing fast and loose with historical events and focusing on the torture of African-Americans through the eyes of white men. Unsurprisingly despite all of this controversy the film managed to rack up many nominations including one for Best Picture and while it lost to Rain Man (1988) it remains one of the best remembered films of the 1980s. I found a lot to appreciate in the film as it merges a crime thriller with a study of the attitudes of people living in small towns. No, I don't think the film is one of the five best of 1988 but it earns it's nomination more than Working Girl (1988) or Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
Two Jewish activists and one African-American are murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Jessup County, Mississippi in 1964. Two FBI detectives, the idealistic and inexperienced Alan Ward, Willem Dafoe, and the hardnosed Rupert Anderson, Gene Hackman, who plays by his own rules, are brought in to investigate the murders. They encounter hostility from the locals who support the Klan and begin to suspect that Sherriff Clinton Pell, Brad Dourif, is affiliated with them and is helping to cover up their actions. In order to invalidate the alibi of Pell, Anderson decides to seduce his wife, Frances McDormand, to discover what he was really doing during the murders. The men also form a friendship and move beyond their differences as Ward allows Anderson to employ questionable methods in order to apprehend the men connected to the murders after Pell brutally beats his wife.
The strength of the film comes from the performances as Hackman is typically brilliant with his natural acting style fitting the tone of the film perfectly and his big showcase scenes really hitting all the right notes. One monologue that he delivers towards the beginning of the film in which he describes how his father murdered an African-American and told him about his reasons for hating black people allows us to see behind this man's façade and understand what he is driven by. Dafoe is similarly able to imbue his character with a sense of decency as while we know he lacks experience and knowledge we believe that he has good intentions. He has the less showy role but he smartly stands back and lets Hackman chew the scenery while still displaying the tensions simmering just beneath the surface. The supporting players, Dourif and McDormand are convincing as Dourif's eyes are terrifyingly volatile and McDormand's quiet desperation is moving even if her accent work was a little off.
Parker's steady direction also helps the film along as he cuts between scenes of violence and the fevered investigation carried out by our two leads skillfully and has an eye for the small details that characterize this town expertly. Much like in Midnight Express (1978) he seems to have a steadier hand than the screenplay he is working with as the theatrics of Oliver Stone allowed for some odd moments in that film and here some of the more cringe inducing moments come from lines in Chris Gerolmo's screenplay. Perhaps the most unnecessary element of the film is the romance between Hackman and McDormand. I would have been happy to see them as friends united by their beliefs but the awkward turn into him bringing flowers to her and them making love were not moments I needed. This is not to say that Hackman and McDormand do not make their best effort to convince us of their romantic attraction but the film as a whole would have been better if this contrived relationship were adjusted.
Other elements of the film that don't quite work include the score which sounds far too modern and the use of rock music in a film set in Mississippi in the 1960s seemed incongruous. Country music or a more orchestral score would have been more fitting and the scenes of violence would have been more effective as a score out of place with the rest of the film was distracting.
Fortunately minor flaws were not enough to bring down the whole film and I still took a lot away from the film while still enjoying myself.
Director Richard Brooks and his actress wife Jean Simmons teamed up to produce a smart, entertaining critique of big business religion with Elmer Gantry (1960) but their reteaming 9 years is a considerably less satisfying film. This is a film to which the word ‘pretentious' applies as it follows the well worn formula of a depressed housewife with some form of addiction, in this case alcohol, attempting to find freedom through an impromptu getaway, to the Bahamas of all places, before realizing that she can only be happy by divorcing her husband. Sadly this film is not content with fully committing to the soap opera style it approaches it's subject with and instead wants to be Faces (1968) or Shame (1968). The psychological musings in the screenplay sound laughable when read out loud and it is painful seeing an actress as capable as Simmons forced to work around this script in order to give an impressive performance. Fortunately she is able to deliver and is the one saving grace in an otherwise misguided effort.
Idealistic young college student Mary Spencer, Jean Simmons, leaves college to marry Fred Wilson, John Forsythe, but places unrealistic expectations upon their relationship as she models her life on classic Hollywood films. Fifteen years after their marriage Spencer has become an alcoholic who is distant from her teenage daughter and husband. In an attempt to escape from her suffocating everyday life she impulsively purchases a ticket to Nassau in the Bahamas and spends time with her friend Flo, Shirley Jones, who dates married men and does not commit while briefly being pursued by conman Franco, Bobby Darin. She returns to her life after this time away intending to be a better wife and mother but her past traumas come back to haunt her and she is forced to reconsider what she wants.
This film fits into a genre that I rather like as Wanda (1970) and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973) are two favorites of mine but this film lacks the emotional depth of either of those films and gets lost in meaningless side plots. The idea of a woman who uses classic films to distract from her own miserable love life is not entirely unappealing, I have often wondered why real men can't be quite as gallant and charming as Clark Gable or Van Heflin, but the motif is dropped for such a long time and picked up so suddenly that it's use is not particularly effective. The idea that our main character is an alcoholic is also not explored with enough depth as Simmons appears flawless and glamorous even when we are meant to believe she has just been in a drunk driving accident. When she heads to the Bahamas to get away from all the stresses in her life we don't feel the desperation as the set up for the horrors of married life has been so simultaneously rushed and drawn out that we don't feel like we really know this woman. We do have to care about our protagonist's problems however small they may be in order to engage with a film like this and because the movie fails on so many counts we have no sense of personal connection with this woman.
This is not the fault of Simmons who puts in a very good performance armed with a dreadful screenplay as she gets all of the mannerisms and insincerity of a woman this fragile correct. During the opening scenes she presents us with the iciness she used to such great effect in Great Expectations (1947) and when we see her as the messed up alcoholic she tries her damnedest to make us believe she can't take the vague obstacles the film throws at her. It is during her scenes with other women in the film, Jones and Teresa Wright playing her mother in particular, that she gets to shine as her brittle nature and touchiness get a chance to shine through and she becomes more than just an empty stereotype. Yes, I would have liked it if she didn't have to speak in rhyme for half of the film and I was slightly confused as to whether she was meant to British or not but these complaints fell away in the face of Simmons' ability to convey quiet fear.
This is not a film worth watching if you are looking for a good drama that effectively explores the important ideas it attempts to tackle but as a hatewatch it may provide some entertainment. If you are a fan of Simmons then this will be worth it to see her display her obvious talent.
Holocaust dramas are generally lauded and receive more Academy Award nominations than almost any other genre of film but few films received quite as much acclaim as this 2002 Roman Polanski hit. I was rather daunted by the film what with it's impressive reputation and long running time but it was a relatively easy watch compared to Son of Saul (2015) or The Search (1948). Obviously the fact that Roman Polanski directed the film attaches some controversy to it as it does seem unfair that somebody who committed horrible acts is able to direct such a large and acclaimed production. If you separate art from the artist you will be capable of appreciating this film and it's many wonderful components.
Successful Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody, witnesses growing anti-Semitism in Warsaw, Poland in 1939 as his family disagree over the approach they should take in facing this increasing threat. His celebrity keeps him safe as Jews are forced into ghettos and brutally punished for no reason. He is separated from his family when they are sent away to death camps while he is left behind in Warsaw, one of a few Jews who work as bricklayers. With his situation worsening he is forced into hiding and he relies on Dorota, Emilia Fox, a Polish woman he knew before conditions worsened to keep him safe in hiding. Through this all he retains his desire to play the piano and after the city becomes even more devastated and he hides in the wreckage of the ghetto he puts his talents to good use. After the Russians arrive to take back control of Poland he regains his freedom and is able to play the piano on the radio again.
The film is able to display the harrowing experience of being a Jew during this period through brief moments of senseless violence and sheer ruthlessness from Nazi oppressors who lose all humanity under a terrifying system. At several points we see large groups of random, innocent Jews executed for asking simple questions the Nazis or standing at the wrong point in a lineup. We are terrified by these scenes as we understand how wrong this situation is but we also see what luck Szpilman had in surviving and how the system destroyed the lives of the innocent. Viewing this tragedy through the eyes of a person who had no real political agenda and survived as a result of luck, and extraordinary resilience, not some grand scheme that made him better than the average person. The victims of the holocaust were regular, well meaning similar to civilians all around the world and making Szpilman an everyman figure of sorts leads us to identify with him more than we do with Sophie Zawistowski or Nelly Dreifuss.
There is power also in the impressive production values as the costumes, musical score and sheer scope of the film blow you away. Polanski is clearly a masterful director and he paces the film nicely as we get a sense of the escalating tensions occurring in Poland and the increasing desperation that Szpilman feels in addition to knowing how much time has passed. Anchoring the film is the soulful performance from Brody who earned an Academy Award for his efforts and considerable clout. Suffering and desperation are a common theme in award winning performances but Brody is equally convincing as the man willing to let intolerance from others slide in order to simply play his piano. The supporting cast put in fine performances with Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman being expectedly brilliant as his beaten down parents. Whether or not he is good man it cannot be denied that Polanski knows how to get the best out of everyone he works with, Pirates (1986) excepted.
Although I have a lot of positive things to say about the film I would say it occasionally lacks in dramatic tension as long scenes of Brody starving and nobly suffering stretch on for far too long. These are minor complaints as the film as a whole is a satisfying and consistently interesting cinematic experience but sadly I struggle to call the film a masterpiece because for all it's weighty and important themes and technical brilliance it doesn't quite connect emotionally but it is still absolutely worth viewing.
The influence of Federico Fellini's 8½ (1963) is huge as every director from Woody Allen, Stardust Memories (1980), to Rob Marshall, Nine (2009), has seemingly produced their own version of this story. One of the most famous homages to that 1963 classic is All That Jazz which reflects on the difficulties of being a womanizing drug addict who is also a workaholic. My major issue with this film, there are many, is that the art produced by the film's subject is dull and unmemorable which makes his creative process unengaging and leaves the audience feeling shortchanged as all of his whining and self-aggrandizing does not add up to anything. Fans of Fosse should stick to Star 80 (1983) which is possibly the best film he ever directed.
Film and theater director Joe Gideon, Roy Scheider, balances his professional commits, directing a film similar to Lenny (1974) and choreographing a Chicago-esque musical, and his personal problems, drug addiction and relentless womanizing, as he talks to the angel of death, Jessica Lange. The various women in his life place intense pressure on him as his ex-wife Audrey Paris, Leland Palmer, complains about his infidelity when they were involved, his live in girlfriend Katie Jagger, Ann Reinking, is angered by his philandering and his daughter Michelle, Erzsebet Foldi, would like to him to be a more present father. He is hospitalized when his body finally gives out but he does not attempt to recover and continues drinking, drug taking and womanizing much to the dismay of his doctors and loved ones. After imagining an elaborately choreographed dance number celebrating his impending death he accepts the angel of death and dies.
The film is advertised as a musical but very few musical numbers actually appear in the film and while I would usually be in favor of this, I don't enjoy most musicals, the scenes of people talking in this film were dreadfully dull. I don't care about our protagonist's obsession with death and his fixation on this issue made the film seem like a second rate version of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) or The Seventh Seal (1957). I wanted to laugh at all of the self-aware jokes and the digs the film attempts to make at the entertainment industry but all of these ideas had been better explored in other films and I kept thinking of those films while witnessing mediocre versions of these classics. The final dance number did have something to show but the film that came before it meant that waiting for this surrealist show was not worth it.
The performances were also lacking as while Scheider is decent in the lead role the performers around him seem like amateurs more suited to dancing than acting. This is in part true as he cast many of the women he slept with in real life to play characters based on themselves and they overplay almost everything they have to work with. Reinking is smiley and supportive as his current ‘girlfriend' but her hurt and pain when she discovers that he has been cheating was not convincing and she maintains a blank expression when not interacting with Scheider. Lange is her usual bland presence as the angel of death as beyond her shiny blonde hair we never understand why she is alluring and her delivery of teasing questions to Scheider make her sound more like a drunk floozy than a seductive angel. The other performers seem irrelevant as the film is really Scheider's show and everybody else falls away as Fosse displays his own self obsession.
If you want a wonderful musical from the 1970s I would suggest you watch Grease (1978) which could easily be dismissed as populist junk but contains catchy and memorable songs in addition to spirited performances. This is a film that I likely will not remember having watched in a few months time and in comparison to the other Best Picture nominees in 1979 this film appears weak and shallow. Where Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) explores the negative way that divorce effects regular people through smart, sensitive writing and incandescent performances this film presents us with characters who don't seem real in the slightest and who will quickly fade from our memories.