Britannia Hospital

February 26, 2020

britanniahospitalI come home from the opening-day matinee of Britannia Hospital, open the paper, and am astounded by this picture of a guy in Boston who had his right hand amputated off his nerve-dead right arm and sewn on to the end of his left arm (his left hand having been lost in an accident). I immediately start flashing on some of the most absurd elements of Britannia Hospital, like the mad scientist (Graham Crowden) who sews up a human being out of a collection of body parts as a special presentation for Her Majesty’s visit to the hospital. At least it seemed absurd while I was watching the movie; now I can’t be quite so sure. And that would probably suit Lindsay Anderson and his scenarist, David Sherwin, just fine.

Anderson and Sherwin have Something to Say, and this kind of satire is nothing if not ambitious; the surprising thing is that so much of it is so madly enjoyable. Yes, the hospital exists as a great big metaphor for England today, but Anderson works the metaphor with such glee that the hospital starts to simmer with its own life, above and beyond the thematic concerns and political commentary of the filmmakers.

The events of the movie take place over one hectic day – the day the Queen is visiting the hospital to officially open the new research facility (it’s the place where the Frankensteinian experiments are underway). Just about every union servicing the hospital is striking over something or other; soon the picketers outside are joined by protesters calling for the release of the cannibalistic leader of an African nation, who is enjoying cushy private care in the private ward. The frenzy escalates when a terrorist bomb swells the ranks of t he incoming wounded. There’s also a mysterious video journalist (Malcolm McDowell) who is trying to get the scoop on the Frankenstein surgery, and winds up getting closer to the action than he expected. To top it all off, it looks like the entrance hallway isn’t going to get repainted in time for HRH ‘s visit.

A t the center of all this is the Britannia’s chief administrator, played by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter is a brilliant actor – he was the jealous suitor Captain Quin in Barry Lyndon – but his character is one of the  things in Britannia Hospital that don’t quite come together; to some extent, Anderson asks us to take for granted this man’s all-consuming love for the hospital. (Maybe the character suffers by comparison to George C. Scott’s magnificent doctor in the Paddy Chayefsky Hospital, also a pretentious but enjoyable medical madness movie.) Still, Rossiter has some great scenes, especially the one in which he silkily strokes the head of the cooks’ union into unloading the Royal non-union food off the Royal non­-union trucks. The rest of the cast is uniformly good: Crowden is the ultimate god-like surgeon, blithely sticking a half a human brain into a Cuisinart and offering the resulting goo as a pre-operation aperitif; McDowell looks young and roguish again, as he becomes part of a scientific experiment of the kind that he barely avoided in a memorably horrific sequence in Anderson’s extraordinary O Lucky Man; Mark Hamill, oddly enough, is one of McDowell’s assistants; Alan Bates and Arthur Lowe are dying patients; Joan Plowright is a union representative with an awkward curtsey for the Queen; Gordon John Sinclair of Gregory’s Girl is a cook named Gregory.

Anderson lets his hand get a bit heavy toward the end; for instance, shots of the cops knocking the protesters about are accompanied by “God Save the Queen” ­although even this has a practical reason: the band is there for the new building opening, and they’re playing loud so HRH isn’t bothered by the sound of the riot going on. The somewhat Kubrickian ending, with Britannia bidding fair to rule the brain waves, may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea; I found it easy to make the final leap, because Anderson had me going with the film from its first few scenes. One warning: If you’re downstairs at the Harvard Exit watching The Meaning of Life and getting grossed out, don’t go upstairs to Britannia Hospital expecting things to be less stomach-turning; the latter film has some pretty gross stuff, too. But – it’s lyrically gross, you know?

First published in The Informer, April 1983

A big swing from Anderson, and “a bit” heavy-handed, for sure. Still, the world needs more movies like this. 


The Man from Snowy River

February 21, 2020

manfromsnowyPicture if you will a Thomas Hardy scenario set in the rugged country of South Australia; cast Kirk Douglas in a dual role as feuding twin brothers (give one a pegleg), throw in a mysterious black stallion to lead a group of wild horses across the countryside, and plug in a feminist undercurrent in the person of Kirk’s daughter. This is The Man from Snowy River, the latest big Australian release, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this busy film.

It is directed by a fellow named George Miller – but wait, it isn’t that George Miller, not the Mad Max-Road Warrior George Miller. Oh, there’s some snazzy editing, and some high­powered Dolby sound effects, but this is not the work of the Max man. It is the work of a director who has a real flair for the dramatic – better make that melodramatic. I’m not going to give away the plot, because much of the fun of watching The Man from Snowy River is discovering all the various twists and turns; some of them are pretty wild, and director Miller milks them for all the worth – and frequently for more than they’re worth.

If the whole thing is overblown, it’s still nice to see some liveliness in a Western again. It’s also nice to see Kirk Douglas enjoying himself – he chews on a couple of lines as though he had been searching for them for the last twenty years. Also a must-mention: a mindblowing sequence with a horse and rider charging down the side of a hill that doesn’t seem to be too much less than a 90-degree cliff – it’s not a faked shot, either, because the trees growing out of the hill are practically parallel with it , as we can see when the horse rushes past. You gotta see this – it’s worth the price of admission.

First published in The Informer, November 1982

Big hit in Australia, but undoubtedly confusing for anybody trying to keep their George Millers straight. There was a 1988 sequel, and if I am not completely insane, it was pretty good, too.


Kipperbang

October 7, 2019

kipperbangKipperbang is the latest in a series of charmingly low-key films – produced under the umbrella called “First Love” – by David Puttnam, the busy British producer who walked off with an Oscar a couple of years ago for Chariots of Fire. Puttnam’s series concentrates on that moment in adolescence when the problems of the outside world pale beside the mountainous dilemma of the first crush.

Other films in the series include Experience Preferred – But Not Essential, and Secrets. For Kipperbang, Puttnam called on director Michael Apted, with whom he had worked on the rock movie Stardust in 1974. Apted, who did the lovely Coal Miner’s Daughter and then the muddled Continental Divide and Gorky Park for Hollywood, may have been grateful to get back to the vignette-like scale of Kipperbang.

Anyway, he’s certainly done a very nice job. It’s set in 1948, and concerns a likable 14-year-old lad named Alan Duckworth (known, of course, as Quack Quack). Alan isn’t a bad sort, but he’s not exactly on a lucky streak. To give you an idea of his impact on his peers, when the girls in his grade vote for the “dishiest” – read “most awesome” in today’s vernacular – boy in class, Alan doesn’t suffer the humiliation of pulling a low vote – he isn’t even nominated. The girls forgot about him.

He is bewitched by a classmate named Ann. When he lies in bed at night – or anytime – he bargains with God for just one single kiss from those pouty lips. One kiss, and Alan figures he will have led a happy life. One kiss. That’s not so much, is it?

Of course, it’s never going to happen. How could it? Ann’s got eyes only for Geoffrey, the dishiest boy in class. But never underestimate the mysterious ways of divine providence. A teacher (who is involved in the film’s main subplot, wherein she may be pregnant by the school’s groundsman, who is also Alan’s hero), weary of Alan’s daydreaming, sticks him in the school play.

The other two thespians are Ann and Geoffrey. And when Alan gets to the last page of the play, he discovers – oh ecstasy of ecstasies – that his character actually kisses Ann as the play ends!

Apted directs this wisp of a tale with proper affection for the characters. There’s lots of quirky behavioral business, especially with the class nerds and their polysyllabic nonsense.

And Apted does a wonderful job with the moment onstage when the kiss is called for (in rehearsal, the kiss keeps getting nixed by circumstance). Alan, all a-quiver (and his stage moustache all akimbo), approaches Ann with the life-and-death resolve he knows he needs. It’s the best suspense sequence of the year – Steven Spielberg notwithstanding.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1984

According to my memory, a really wonderful movie, one of Apted’s best. The little short blurb next to my review had the actors’ names in it, but let’s give them their due: John Albasiny played Quack Quack and hasn’t amassed a great many credits; Abigail Cruttenden played Ann, and has many jobs on her resumé, including being married to Sean Bean for a while. Maurice Dee, who played Geoffrey, also did not stick in movies and TV. One of the biggest adult roles went to the great Alison Steadman, another to the prolific Garry Cooper. The screenwriter was Jack Rosenthal, who wrote a huge amount of British television and also – how do these things happen? – the Barbra Streisand picture Yentl. The film’s British title is P’tang Yang Kipperbang, for the piece of kid doggerel some of the characters say. Puttnam’s “First Love” series made a nice little impression at the arthouse; I reviewed most of them, including Sharma and Beyond, Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, Those Glory, Glory Days, and Winter Flight.


La Balance

February 14, 2013

balanceThe French seem to love American police thrillers almost as much as Americans do, and they regularly make movies that imitate the hard-hitting American style.

The gritty, roughhouse French thriller La Balance, however, does not really have to imitate an American style—because the writer-director is himself an American. He’s an expatriate named Bob Swaim, and his movie is lively, violent, and something of a mess.

The first part of the film is seen mainly from the viewpoint of the cops—especially the police captain (Richard Berry) who wants to sting the city’s underworld kingpin (Maurice Ronet). To do that, he’s got to find some informers who will help set the crime czar up for a fall.

He finds a prostitute (Nathalie Baye) and her pimp (Philippe Leotard) and bullies them into setting up the sting. Soon, our sympathies are with Baye and Leotard; the twist here is that the genuinely love each other, and are blackmailed into helping the police.

There is still a tattered honor about these unlikely heroes, which is a far cry from the belligerent, amoral police. Even the jaded captain is impressed—and although he reneges on initial promises to the couple, he may be stating to like them.

The world of La Balance is a world of betrayal, on various levels: in love, in crime, in business. Swaim conjures a convincingly ratty Paris underworld in which to set this tale of shifting loyalties, and the ugly cinematography adds to this.

The film has a lot of ideas floating around, and most of them don’t quite come together. The air of confusion may be appropriate for the sense of moral ambiguity that Swaim clearly wants to communicate, but it makes a cop thriller considerably less streamlined.

But the story works well enough, in large part thanks to an appealing cast: Baye is fine as the prostitute, and Berry does well in the tough part of the unshaven, world-weary detective. There’s probably no actor around who looks less like his name than Philippe Leotard; his boxer’s face gives him a streetwise authenticity, but he also carries an odd nobility.

And La Balance itself has an authenticity, possibly due to the Gallic setting being filtered through an American mind, and seen afresh. Whatever the reason, it turns out to be a truly French French Connection.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1984

Swaim got a Hollywood stint out of this, doing the awkward Half Moon Street and the better Masquerade. This was a good period for Nathalie Baye, a delicate-looking actress with a distinct gravity.


Rasputin and Beyond Obsession

February 5, 2013

rasputinThe Russian historical film Rasputin has been sitting on the Commissar of Cinema’s shelf for the better part of 10 years, having been, until recently, considered unfit for consumption.

The ban probably stems from the film’s surprisingly tame view of Czar Nicholas II. According to the film, the czar is less the evil tyrant of Bolshevik tradition than a fretful wimp held captive by his wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who eased the suffering of her hemophiliac son.

During World War I and through his death in 1916, Rasputin held hypnotic sway over the royal family and indulged his own obsessions. In the film, he’s the evil one—swaggering, fornicating, threatening, and strangling live chickens—and the czar and czarina merely dupes.

It’s a great story, filmed often before, with Conrad Veidt, Lionel Barrymore, and Christopher Lee among those essaying the meaty role. This Rasputin, potently played by Alexei Petrenko, is surely the most disgusting of all, with his limbs frequently jittering into freaky motion and his beard stringy with yesterday’s lunch.

The palace life is a bit like Disneyland, complete with theme rooms (hot springs, walls painted to resemble a seascape), Rasputin’s harem (some of his women wear false beards to resemble him), and mannequins standing guard. In such an arena, Rasputin’s madness seems almost at home.

Naturally, since Rasputin died one of the weirdest deaths of the 20th century, the film has a built-in big finish. In short order, Rasputin ate poisoned cakes and wine, was shot and beaten repeatedly, and finally was dumped into a river, where he took the hint and expired.

Oddly enough, director Elem Klimov doesn’t play the death scene to the hilt; he even leaves out the river-dumping. His direction overall is lumpy and stuttering; the film doesn’t have much grace, but it’s vivid and entertaining in individual scenes. It may be unfair to judge Klimov’s overriding scheme, since the film has been cut by 40 minutes for export.

A different kind of obsession is portrayed in Beyond Obsession, an Italian-made film from the director of the once-notorious The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani.

An American oilman (Tom Berenger) becomes obsessed with a gorgeous Italian floozy (Eleonora Giorgi) in Morocco. She’ll have nothing to do with him, however, because she is obsessed with her father (Marcello Mastroianni), who is currently in jail for killing her mother. He, in turn, is obsessed with her. Pretty soon he becomes obsessed with Berenger for hanging around her.

That’s a lot of obsession for one movie. Too much, probably. And a lot of business is none too clear at first—including the odd nature of the Giorgi-Mastroianni relationship, and her pupose in walking the streets at night.

In another film, these mysteries might tantalize the viewer. In Beyond Obsession, they’re pretty irritating, especially given the obvious discomfort of the multilingual cast in just talking to each other. In particular, Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) clearly has no idea how to play his character. It’s the kind of performance that can take you beyond embarrassment.

First published in the Herald, 1985 (?)

Klimov’s film, originally titled Agony, was withheld for a while, but apparently released around the time he did Come and See. The longer version of Rasputin is seeable, these days. Beyond Obsession is also known as Beyond the Door.


The Year of Living Dangerously

November 9, 2012

There’s this passage in the dialogue of The Year of Living Dangerously that can be turned back on the film itself so ironically that few reviewers—including this one—will be able to resist quoting it. Radio correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is taken to task by his photographer/travel guide/guru, Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), about an overly melodramatic news report the green journalist has made concerning the terrible conditions in current (1965) Jarkarta, Indonesia, a place that is sinking into poverty as it teeters on the edge of civil war. Guy’s piece was overblown, says Billy; Guy hammered points home and repeated himself, instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.

That happens to be an on-target assessment of the trouble with YOLD—things that would be better left for the viewer to discover on his own are carefully explained in the dialogue, and sometimes more than once. This practice is particularly discouraging with regard to the character of Billy, the mystically-inclined mulatto dwarf (and it’s especially frustrating because it mars a fascinating performance by Linda Hunt, a screen natural).

Billy’s observations—noted in a kind of diary, on which we eavesdrop—get flakier and more pretentious as the movie goes along, spelling out plot points as well as character motivations. Maybe director Peter Weir thinks this relieves him of some of his story-telling duties; and perhaps that explains why this narrative is so uncompelling. Weir goes for atmosphere instead, and the story starts going astray—at its own languid pace.

Even the love story, between Hamilton and gorgeous British Embassy attaché Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) gets lost in the woozy ambience, although there’s a good sequence when Jill decides to give in to Guy’s suggestions of romance, and she walks down a street in the warm Jakarta rain; she’s soaked to the bone when she confronts Guy in the hallways outside his office, and it gives a special weirdness to the love scene that transpires. That kind of special weirdness has been a trademark of Peter Weir’s films in the past; The Year of Living Dangerously has a disappointing shortage of such strategies, which I guess has a lot to do with why it’s not my favorite Year.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

I did see this film again a few years ago, after reading the novel on which it’s based, and liked the movie very much. I think Weir’s ability to create his mysterious evocation of place and space was the deciding factor in my positive re-acquaintance with the film, although there’s a lot to be said for the human presence of Linda Hunt, and also Gibson-Weaver, a handsome duo. I still remember David Ansen writing in Newsweek (a writer I often felt in tune with back then) about the movie-movie gratification of the two stars finally getting into the clinches and laying some serious osculation on each other. He didn’t put it like that.


Blade Runner

August 3, 2012

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my sense of disappointment upon walking out of the first screening of Blade Runner at the Cinerama theater in 1982. Expectations were high, of course, so maybe disappointment was understandable.

But a second viewing confirmed my feeling, and even a decade’s worth of growing cult appreciation hasn’t changed my mind. Among other things, I thought the movie was a comedown from a rather brilliant science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

To be fair, the Blade Runner released in 1982 was a compromised film. Over the objections of director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford, voiceover narration was added to the movie, as well as an absurd happy ending. Those were two of the worst elements of the film. In fact, Ford spoke the narration so poorly that I always wondered whether he was deliberately tanking it.

Now the film has been recut by Scott, who has subsequently made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain and the upcoming 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott persuaded Warner Bros. to let him yank the narration and lop off the happy ending, as well as perform some minor tinkering. (I believe there’s a brief dream shot of a white unicorn that’s been reinstated.)

It’s a better movie. The cutting of the stupid narration makes the film seem denser and more disorienting, which was probably why the studio wanted it inserted. And the nicely ambiguous ending is a huge improvement over the tacked-on finish of the 1982 release.

Scott shows a certain grand disdain for ordinary storytelling in Blade Runner. In simplest terms, the movie is about a hired gun (Ford) who goes out to exterminate some replicants—that is, humanoid robots—who are running loose. The replicants are trying to get to the head (Joe Turkel) of the megacompany that built them, to discover how they can extend their intentionally short life spans.

The replicants are beautifully played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, and nonrenegade Sean Young. The movie teases around some basic ideas about what it is to be human, especially in Hauer’s climactic speech about the false “memories” he’s been programmed with, and how they are doomed to inevitably vanish—”like tears in the rain.”

Even in this fine new version, Blade Runner still doesn’t strike me as a masterpiece. There’s much to admire about the film’s eye-popping production design; its vision of Los Angeles circa 2019 has never been topped. And Scott’s druggy, slowed-down pacing is fascinating.

But the profound ideas that Scott is clearly searching for remain mostly untouched. Because the film aims high, it is glaringly obvious when it fails to reach. But what an intoxicating attempt.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1992

I didn’t review Blade Runner the first time around, so it seems legit to reprint this ’92 reappraisal, even if this isn’t much as a piece of writing. See, I really don’t dislike the movie!