Phar Lap

June 29, 2020

pharlapFirst things first: For those who don’t know what a Phar Lap is (I didn’t), an explanation is in order. Phar Lap was the great Australian racehorse who trounced his competition in the years 1928-31. When he was brought to America in 1932, Phar Lap won his first race, then died – foul play was hinted. Phar Lap is the story of those years, from the purchase of the horse – a skinny colt with good blood­ lines, he cost about $800 – to his final trip to America.

The true story has all the elements for a good movie: the early, dispiriting years, followed by success because of faith and plenty of elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations (Phar Lap became so unbeatable that he was once the subject of an assassination attempt from a speeding car). Still, one may be forgiven for suspecting that the film takes its inspiration from racetrack movies as much as from historical record.

The characters include the clean-faced stableboy (Tom Burlinson) who really loves the horse the most; his sweet girlfriend (Georgia Carr); the miserly American owner (Ron Leibman); his classy, sympathetic wife (Judy Morris); and the tough trainer (Martin Vaughan) given to saying things like, “Don’t tell me I’m training that horse too hard – I think I know a thing or two about horses,” etc.

The pleasantly surprising thing about Phar Lap is that only the stableboy and his girl come off as horse-yarn stereotypes. The owner and the trainer turn out to be more complicated. The owner may be something of an uncouth lout, but he has his moments of grace.

And the trainer is torn between his pride – in developing Phar Lap at a time when nobody else had faith in the horse – and his need for money. To pay off his dreams of a horse-training empire, he must work Phar Lap – who becomes a reliable winner – until the gelding is in danger of burning out.

That the characters are something other than black-and-white is probably the work of playwright David Williamson, the screenwriter of Gallipoli, The Club, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Williamson’s intelligent script provides some villains, though, in the form of an Australian Racing Club which insists that Phar Lap carry extra weight to make the races closer.

Director Simon Wincer doesn’t instill much snap into the proceedings. It’s more of a handsome film than an exciting one. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who shot Tender Mercies, has managed some impressive period photography.

Unfortunately, the film (the most expensive ever made in Australia) comes at a point of over-saturation in the genre of come-from-behind movies. I’ve just about had it with slow-motion replays of races won at the finish line, with reaction shots of spectators brushing away tears, all scored to a ripoff of the music from Chariots of Fire. Phar Lap doesn’t do any of this too badly, but we’ve seen this kind of thing one too many times.

First published in The Herald, April 1984

Wincer has had a long career (his last work was 2011’s The Cup, a horse-racing movie), with the notable miniseries Lonesome Dove included. Burlinson had been in The Man from Snowy River the year before this film came out; Judy Morris’s long acting career also includes writing the screenplays for Babe – Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Also in the cast is Gia Carides, who went on to a long career. This is the first day in a week of Australian films on this website, and there will be more horses.


The Dresser

January 31, 2020

dresserAssessing a poor performance by an arch-rival actor, Sir (Albert Finney) declares, with relish, “I was pleasantly disappointed.”

That’s rather the way I feel about The Dresser, the film in which Sir (he has no other name) delivers that tart bit of dialogue. It’s not a great movie or anything. But it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

Sir is the aging lead actor and the manager of a troupe of classical actors touring Britain during the Second World War. He’s starting to fall apart, as the business of running the company and playing grueling Shakespeare every night is taking its toll.

But his dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), is holding him together – for somewhat mysterious reasons. When Sir arrives at the theater for a performance of King Lear, and lapses into a catatonic state, Norman must summon all of his powers as cheerleader, taskmaster, and confessor, just to get the old boy on stage.

It’s the old servant/master flip-flop, a subject dear to the hearts of British playwrights (Ronald Harwood has adapted his own very popular play for the film). Director Peter Yates, whose diverse work has included such films as Bullitt and Breaking Away, treats the subject in a very entertaining manner. One of the ways he does this is by letting the actors go at full throttle for much of the running time.

And run they do. The two lead actors behave as though they were starving men sitting down to their first meal in weeks – and it’s Thanksgiving.

Albert Finney has always had a weakness for putty noses and funny wigs – think of his Scrooge or his slicked-down Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express or his bald Daddy Warbucks in Annie. As Sir, Finney gets to pile on the makeup and have a ball; both as the backstage tyrant and as Lear. He plays the wheezing, balding actor as the pathetically self-deluded blowhard he is, but Finney also suggests the few scraps of dignity that Sir retains.

Tom Courtenay, who recreates his stage role as the gay Norman, has to manipulate Sir with coaxing and subtlety. Unfortunately, there’s nothing too subtle about Courtenay’s performance. He’s all flattery and mincing, as though his stage acting had been kept intact; you can sense him playing to the second balcony. This is the kind of part an actor can play primarily with his dimple, and that’s what Courtenay does here.

Which is not to say that Courtenay and Finney aren’t fun to watch – they are. But their enjoyable scenery-chewing doesn’t constitute great movie acting. I preferred Edward Fox, in a small role as one of the company’s supporting players (most of whom are terror­-stricken by Sir). Fox walks around looking as if he just swallowed a lemon whole; he has one eyebrow perpetually arched, as though he were watching the lead actors and thinking, “Good heavens! What is everyone getting so excited about?” It’s a funny turn; but he is almost lost among the sound and fury that Finney and Courtenay whip up. And since that’s what the movie is interested in, Finney and Courtenay hold center stage.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

I post this at Oscar time, and this film is a reminder of how the Oscars tend to seize on the nearest Oscar-ish movies that roll in at the end of the year. There’s not much special about The Dresser, but it got five nominations in the biggest categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, and two nods for Finney and Courtenay. I suspect the movie is as fun as I say it was, without being anything like the best of anything. You can see how the material would work a treat on stage, with actors thundering about. (I understand that the model for Sir was Donald Wolfit, the mighty stage trouper who sometimes beetle-browed his way through movies.) One thing I recall vividly: the way Finney gulped hungrily, desperately, at the glass of Guinness his dresser had waiting for him upon coming off stage.

Entre Nous

January 28, 2020

entrenousHelene – or Lena, as she is more often called – is herded into a concentration camp during the Second World War. She endures the dehumanizing experience, until one day during lunch she finds a note in her bread. The man serving beans on the chow line put it there, and his note says that he’s getting released the next day. If he has a wife, she can be released, too; would Lena like to be that wife? She looks across the compound at him. He doesn’t look so bad. Any method out should be seized. She nods.

So begins the odyssey of the central character in Diane Kurys’ new film, Entre Nous. Lena (Isabelle Huppert) goes ahead with the marriage, and walks out into a strange world with a stranger by her side. She grows accustomed to his face, and the marriage holds, as the couple escapes into Italy and then settles in Lyon after the war, where they have two children and a comfortable living.

During this early section Of Entre Nous, we have also seen episodes from the life of Madeleine (Miou-Miou ), a woman whose husband was shot and killed in the streets while in her arms.

When the film jumps to 1952, Lena is a normal housewife, and Madeleine, married again to a shiftless actor, has a young, terminally shy son. The two women bump into each other at a school recital and strike up a friendship. It’s the kind of friendship in which both people know immediately, instinctively, that some special bond has been made.

Their lives soon become dominated by this friendship, and they realize that the men to whom they’re married are becoming less and less crucial. Lena, especially, seems aware of the possibilities within her capable self, for the first time.

If this all sounds like feminist-tract fodder, it’s not intended to. Entre Nous could have been another essay on Woman Oppressed in Man’s World, but it turns out to be nothing of the kind. The people in this film are neither good nor bad. The men are not monsters, and the women are not simplistic. They’re just struggling to find out what their lives mean – or what they should mean.

Kurys is a director with a keen feeling for the details of absolutely average bourgeois life. The rhythm of the movie may appear peculiar: the arresting images of war at the opening give way to gently unfolding observations of family life. But this deliberate storytelling makes Lena’s gradual awakening believable, and it conveys the sense of this woman just drifting – without maliciousness or premeditation – away from her husband.

You can’t always tell in what direction the film is headed from scene to scene, and yet you sense there is a method to it all. The final scene of Entre Nous justifies Kurys’ method; it’s a superb summing-up, as the characters find themselves balanced in a situation fraught with both liberation and heartbreak. It’s tough to make a movie finish on an unresolved note that is nevertheless exactly accurate; and even more difficult to make it emotionally satisfying and stylistically appropriate. Kurys and her gifted cast have done just that, in not just the final scene but all of Entre Nous.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1984

This movie was a strong arthouse hit at the time. I like Kurys’ early films, and I have no idea what her recent work has been like. The cast includes Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Patrick Bauchau, and Christine Pascal. I think I know what I was going for in reassuring the reader that this wasn’t one of them women’s lib pictures, but it isn’t exactly eloquently expressed.

The Fourth Man

January 7, 2020

fourthmanThe Fourth Man is a nutty Dutch exercise in paranoia and fantasy, served up by a director who – for want of able competition as much as his own talent – has distinguished himself as by far the most interesting Dutch filmmaker working today.

His name is Paul Verhoeven, and he’s been represented on local screens in recent years with Spetters and the very popular Soldier of Orange, which was something of a breakthrough film for Verhoeven and the Dutch cinema in general.

Verhoeven’s talent seems coherent and fluid without being particularly visionary, but when I heard that his new film, The Fourth Man, was a far-out excursion into excess and bad taste, my hopes were raised that he might push himself into more imaginatively vivid filmmaking.

The Fourth Man succeeds in this, though not quite as far as one might have hoped. It’s got bad taste and outrageousness galore, but by the time it ends, you feel it’s just starting to explore the possibilities it raises.

But it’s certainly fun while it lasts. The main character – and the person through whose sensibility the film is filtered – is a Catholic homosexual writer (Jeroen Krabbe) who is subject to strange daydreams involving Catholicism and bloodshed. He’s been engaged by a literary society to give a lecture about his books, and he travels to the seminar and spends the night with the treasurer of the society (Renee Soutendijk). He has these weird dreams that Soutendijk takes a pair of scissors and, well, emasculates him during the night. Naturally, he regards her a bit oddly the next day. Then he starts to suspect her of murdering her previous husbands (she’s had three), and he fears, with increasing anxiety, that he may be the next victim – the fourth man.

Verhoeven presents this mad tale as a feverishly funny bad dream. He fills the movie with little clues and details that seem to be part of a monstrous, interlocking pattern – some lurid destiny that this man sees coming but cannot avoid (Krabbe gives a properly haunted, end-of-his-rope performance).

Verhoeven teases us to such an extent that we never do know whether this enigmatic woman is really the devouring spider Krabbe thinks she is. For all that we see, outside of his masochistic fantasies, she’s a normal woman who’s happened to have unnaturally bad luck with her husbands – one fell out of an airplane, one was devoured by a lion, one was run over by a boat.

We see the preludes to all these “accidents” via Soutendijk’s home movies. When you see husband No. 2, grinning stupidly in home-movie amateurishness, get out of his car and amble over to a lion in a safari park – all the while waving around a juicy slab of meat – you begin to understand just how gleefully perverse this film is.

First published in the Herald, June 7, 1985

Obviously, Verhoeven needed some kind of introduction in ’85. I liked his Hollywood career-to-come better than than his Dutch films, but The Fourth Man is a movie that clearly needs re-visiting.

Angelo My Love

February 12, 2013

angelomyloveHe’s not much taller than a fire hydrant. His pint-sized tuxedo looks absurdly grown-up, and he has a liking for older women—women of 12 or 13. He can’t read or write, and he has no interest in learning to do so. He’s our hero, this 10-year-old gypsy Angelo, and he’s got important things to do.

The most important thing he has to do in Angelo My Love is retrieve a ring that was stolen from his family. Angelo will inherit the heirloom when he turns 15, but it’s been pilfered by a man named Patalay (Steve Tsigonoff), who is a member of a different group of gypsies.

This search for the ring is the main plot of Angelo My Love, but the plot is really almost an excuse to look at the fascinating gypsy subculture. The film takes time to present such events as the bartering process over a bride-to-be, the candlelit Feast of St. Anne, and a noisy gypsy trial, presided over by the elders, that takes place in the back room of a neighborhood bar.

Through it all struts Angelo, a vain littler charmer who speaks with the brash authority of someone three times his age. His more even-tempered older brother Michael accompanies Angelo, and is accustomed to the tiny spitfire’s tricks. Together, they’re a great Mutt and Jeff detective team, looking for the family ring through the gritty streets and alleys of New York.

The people in Angelo My Love are just people—not professional actors. Writer-director Robert Duvall, one of America’s best actors, became intrigued by the gypsies when he encountered Angelo Evans on the street one day. Duvall built a movie around this natural performer, and although it’s a fictional story, he’s filmed gypsy life with a documentary-like feel for reality—the actors even keep their real-life names.

Duvall has captured the texture of the lives remarkably well. He’s rejected anything that smacks of condescension or romanticizing of these unusual people.

As in his own performances, Duvall the director looks for the truest way of presenting situations and emotions. The actors may be amateurs, but there isn’t a false note struck by any of the cast members. That’s no mean feat in any movie, but it’s particularly impressive in a film that relies on its actors to improvise many of their scenes.

And Angelo is the most impressive of all—the scene in which he puts the moves on a sawed-off country-western girl singer is classic; Angelo gives her a soulful look as she croons a song especially for him—but he’s not so lost in love that he can’t take a moment to sneak a peek at his own immaculately groomed self in a convenient mirror.

In an early scene, Angelo actually attends school-for a few minutes—and is asked to read out loud from a book. He has to make up his own story, since he has no idea what those funny black marks are on the page. The teacher gets suspicious, but Angelo claims he can’t read without his glasses. “Are you near-sighted or far-sighted?” asks the teacher. “I’m every-sighted,” replies Angelo. Whether scripted or improvised, what a lovely and accurate way of putting it.

First published in the Herald, November 22, 1983

The movie made a nice impression in the pre-Sundance era, but is almost completely off the radar now. With this and The Apostle, Duvall the director really deserves status as a kind of American original, having made some films that are not like anything else

The Osterman Weekend

January 16, 2013

ostermanweekendThe Osterman Weekend is a competent, professional double-cross movie. That sentence can stand as a lukewarm recommendation of the film, but it’s really sigh of disappointment.

The disappointment stems from the fact that The Osterman Weekend was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who, after studio battles and illness, hadn’t made a movie in five years. Peckinpah, despite the conventional wisdom of cocktail-party cognoscenti, is one of the best stylists of his generation of filmmakers, and the possibilities for this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel seemed promising.

Rutger Hauer plays a Mike Wallace-type TV interviewer who, faced with evidence that his three closest friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) may be Soviet agents, helps an American government agency spy on the group during an annual weekend get-together at Hauer’s place.

Every room in his house has been wired for videotaping by the strange government man (John Hurt) running the show, and Hauer feels the pressure of being caught between lying to his friends and lying to the camera. It isn’t long before the old college buddies start to guess that Hauer suspects something—especially with the kind of tricks that Hurt and his high-tech cohorts have cooked up for the weekend.

To tell any more would be unfair. The various twists and turns of the story are complicated, but Peckinpah and company have laid them out so that the viewer won’t get completely lost in the plot forest.

For all its professionalism, the film lacks a sharpness—that bite that Peckinpah gets into his movies, that cutting edge that does not necessarily have anything to do with the director’s much-publicized onscreen violence. There are taut sequences in The Osterman Weekend, but Peckinpah, at his greatest, uses action to reveal character, and that quality is sorely missed here.

When Hauer’s wife and son are kidnapped at the airport, it’s the occasion for a nicely-mounted chase, but that’s all. It turns out that this snatch is just another game staged for Hauer’s benefit; but we won’t fully understand that until much later.

Hauer, the Dutch star of Soldier of Orange and Blade Runner, seems a bit dislocated as the main character, but the supporting cast is odd and flavorful, and Meg Foster’s performance as Hauer’s wife helps turn her character into the most admirable person in the film.

Rumor has it that The Osterman Weekend was taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and recut for distribution; if that’s true, it might help explain the movie’s peculiar thinness. In particular, it would have been fascinating to have devoted more screen time to the John Hurt character—an agency man with a mission, a killer with a tortured soul.

As it stands, The Osterman Weekend is not the comeback vehicle for Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic gifts. And somehow, one of the most disappointing things about it is that it’s not a mad, extravagant failure. It’s just standard.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

I haven’t watched this since it came out and I’m nurturing the idea that it might be much, much better than it seemed to be then. Which I guess is one reason never to watch it again. Peckinpah died without completing another feature, so that adds to the letdown around this misbegotten title.

Those Glory, Glory Days

December 17, 2012

gloryglorydaysThe glorious event referred to in the title of Those Glory, Glory Days is the victory of the 1961 Tottenham soccer team in the football Final Cup—the first time a soccer team had won the English “double” in this century. (I’m not exactly sure what the “double” is, but it seems to be something very, very big.)

This victory is the central event in the lives of four schoolgirls, who form an exclusive club to follow and worship the ups and downs of the Tottenham Spurs. The season is remembered in flashback by Julia, who in adulthood is a journalist covering her old favorite team.

In the flashback, the young Julia (Zoe Nathenson) gains entry in the secret club when she reveals her football fanaticism in class one day. When the teacher asks her name, Julia claims her name is Danny. “I’ve taken a pseudonym,” she blithely announces, in honor of her all-time favorite Tottenham player, Danny Blanchflower.

This foolish act impresses the other club members (Sara Sugarman, Liz Campion, and Cathy Murphy), and they take Julia/Danny to the football stadium, where the initiate her in a ceremony that includes strapping on a Spurs kneepad and invoking a “God playing football, in a Spurs shirt.”

They follow the team’s successes throughout the season, climaxing in some frenzied attempts to get tickets for the Cup Final game, which has Julia spending a reverential night in the deserted team headquarters.

At the same time, the film charts the marital woes of Julia’s parents, who seems as oblivious to their child’s enthusiasm for sports as she is of their problems.

This little tale is an autobiographical screenplay by Julie Welch, who really is a sportswriter for a London newspaper. Welch went through soccer mania as a child, and she actually bumped into her childhood idol, Blanchflower, many years later (an encounter that forms the framing device for the film).

Welch’s script is directed by Philip Saville, who captures a number of lovely moments, notably the stadium initiation and Julia’s frantic rounding-up of her pals when she thinks she really has got tickets for the Cup Final.

Saville doesn’t quite tease out all the possibilities in the situation. Julia’s night in the team headquarters, full of awards and photos, is not quite the marvelous epiphany it should be, for instance.

But he gets most things right, and he’s certainly done well by his leading lady, Zoe Nathenson. She gives a lively performance as Julia, with her hair all askew and her ungainly eyeglasses held fast with scotch tape. The performance has the kind of clarity that only some child actors seems to be able to give, and it gives the film its steady forward motion.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Another of the “First Love” series produced by David Puttnam. I like soccer, although I betray my ignorance of the leagues and seasons and all that, which is mystifying.