Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Brief Encounter (Great Britain, 1945)

A triumph of pristine photography, sensitive direction and, above all, Received Pronunciation, Brief Encounter is the British Casablanca and Noel Coward’s greatest contribution to cinema. Peter Ustinov said Kind Hearts and Coronets is the kind of film that makes you want to read the script. Brief Encounter is the kind of film that makes you want to learn it by heart and perform it as a party piece, like the sixth formers in The History Boys.

The brief encounter in question occurs in a railway station café one Thursday afternoon; Celia Johnson’s perky housewife has grit in her eye, and Trevor Howard’s handsome doctor removes it with his handkerchief. A week later lunch follows, and an afternoon at the cinema, and soon the pair have plunged headlong into a love neither can ignore or allow.

It’s rare for two actors to have such chemistry as Johnson and Howard, and rarer still for them to convince us that their characters, too, have the same connection, but their performances – Johnson with upper lip stiff, lower lip quivering, and huge, liquid eyes expressing every unspoken surge of desire and guilt; Howard at once honourable and adulterous – dovetail exquisitely. We want desperately for them to be together, but know from the first scene they cannot. That throughout the film we allow ourselves, illogically, to believe that love might still find a way is the greatest compliment that can be paid to its storytelling.

There are great films in which one quality – a magnificent central performance, say, or a white-hot script – cover up less successful aspects of the production. In Encounter everything is polished. The use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto – lush and emotive without ever over-sweetening the syrup – is a masterstroke. As is the choice to have Johnson’s character narrate the story in one long, warts and all confession to her husband that is heard only inside her own head. The inclusion of secondary characters of no real interest to the lovers is equally ingenious, and never allows us to forget that this is a cameo set in an infinite if mundane world in which, at any moment, a thousand other little dramas are playing out similarly unnoticed.

Perhaps no great film is quite as ripe for parody as Encounter – it takes place in an un-recapturable age of clipped accents, hysterical women and pre-war morals, all which are a little too close to laughable today – but these quirks, which would be full-blown faults in almost any other movie, are advantages here. They combine to deepen our affection for the whole production and reinforce the feeling, unavoidable with every viewing, that romance in the movies really was better when the picture was black and white and the sex unseen. You have to engage with a weepy, just as you do with a horror film. Engage with Brief Encounter, and you may just weep your eyeballs out.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

In 2003 Quentin Tarantino chaired the Cannes jury that awarded its Grand Prix to Oldboy by Chanwook Park. Park and Tarantino have much in common: both make recklessly creative, ultra-violent thrillers that take place in a reality that resembles ours but never quite behaves like it; both seem, at times, to have more talent than they know what to do with; and both make critics, fans and filmmakers alike talk about the future of movies being in safe hands.

One night podgy, unpleasant businessman Oh Dae-Su is abducted as he staggers drunk from a police station – and imprisoned, without explanation, for 15 years. Whenever his room needs cleaning or his hair needs cutting music is played, gas is released and he is soon unconscious. And so, for a decade and a half, his only human contact is the odd glimpse of the guards who bring him his daily fried dumplings.

He has a television set, which becomes his ‘school, home, church, friend and lover’, and from which he learns his that wife has been murdered and he is the only suspect. Aside from watching TV, he spends his days writing a diary that lists everyone he feels he has ever offended, and torturing himself with one of those inhumanly punishing fitness regimes that only mortally wronged movie heroes hell-bent on transforming themselves into one-man firestorms of vengeance ever seem to undertake.

And then, just as inexplicably as he was kidnapped, he is released. A tramp saunters up to him, hands over a mobile phone and a wallet stuffed with cash, and soon Oh Dae-Su learns he has just five days to work out why, and by whom, he was imprisoned. Here begins a mystery a complex as anything Philip Marlowe had to cope with in The Big Sleep, and as disturbing as anything Jake Gittes faced in Chinatown.

Criticism of Oldboy has often stressed that it doesn’t give a realistic impression of the length of Oh Dae-Su’s confinement. It’s true that other films have better detailed the minutiae of long-term imprisonment, but they were prison movies, and the stultifying routine of life behind bars was often their main theme. Oldboy’s theme isn’t incarceration but revenge; what is important is not that we experience the ceaseless boredom of 15 years’ solitary confinement, but that we see the effect it has on Oh Dae-Su. And – whether we are watching him recoil as imaginary ants burst from beneath his skin, or wincing as punches the walls of his cell until he collapses to his knees in agony – we see that as vividly as we could ever wish to.

Few movies this extreme (and, be warned, Oldboy is extreme) manage to be half as good. Here, for once, the violence, sex and swearing really do teach us something about the characters, and really are integral to the plot. So assured and intelligent is Park’s handling of his material that even the movie’s most infamous scene, in which the newly freed Oh Dae-Su devours a live octopus, its tentacles thrashing and twining around his wrist as he chews off its head, never seems the distasteful gimmick it would have been in a thousand lesser films. Certainly it is arresting, repulsive even, but it is also apt, neatly expressing Oh Dae-Su’s need to both engage with and rage against life.

An even greater tribute to its director’s talent is that this scene is far from Oldboy’s most memorable. That honour surely goes to the staggering scene, shown entirely in one long, unbroken shot, in which Oh Dae-Su, having returned to the site of his incarceration armed only with a hammer, fights his way along a corridor crowded with a dozen hostile heavies. The action scrolls steadily from left to right, and so recalls a computer game. The violence, however, is frighteningly realistic. It is also close to senseless – these men are not truly enemies but merely obstacles – and the relentlessness of his aggression, even as a knife protrudes from his back, teaches us more about the intensity of Oh Dae-Su’s frustration than could be conveyed in twenty pages of dialogue.

It’s an indication of the quality and pace of Oldboy that everything I’ve described so far happens in its first 45 minutes. There’s more to praise, too, than just the confidence of the direction and the fascinating story: the central performance deserves to make Min-Sik Choi an international superstar; the colour scheme, all muted greens and dirty greys, perfectly reinforces the dark and unforgiving tone; and the plot, though labyrinthine and openly improbable, is never nonsensical.

Since the late 1990s, South Korea has been producing the most exciting cinema on the planet, and it was Oldboy that won the world’s attention. As with any young film, and this one is only a few years old, there’s a chance it won’t seem as vibrant and dazzling in 15 or 30 years’ time – but there is no chance it will ever slip quietly from the memory of anyone who sees it. Oldboy is an electrifying thriller, and one of the movies of the decade.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Great Expectations (Great Britain, 1946)

Once, during an English and Drama lesson at school, a classmate of mine said no great text had ever been turned into a great film. I disagreed and, though I could have cited Henry V, Barry Lyndon, A Streetcar Named Desire or several others, I choose as my example Great Expectations: a masterpiece on the page, I said, made into a masterpiece on screen. ‘Do you really think so?’ asked the teacher. ‘I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was crap.’

It was that incident, as much as the sheer magnificence of this movie, which made me want to include it here. If English teachers in England haven’t heard of this film, I wonder who else is missing out. David Lean’s adaptation of the great British novel is one of the great British films – and, more worryingly for my old Drama teacher, one of Eng Lit’s finest study aids: show it to a class of students about to read Dickens for the first time and, within 113 minutes, they would each have an uncanny impression of his work without ever having a read a word of it.

Some actors – Robert De Niro, for example, or Humphrey Bogart – have a knack for appearing in all-time great films. Alec Guinness (who would go on to feature in Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr Zhivago, Star Wars, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets…) displayed that fortunate ability from the very start of his career, appearing here in his first (speaking) role as Herbert Pockett, one of a stream of supporting characters made as memorable by Lean’s cast as they were by Dickens’s descriptions. (Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Frances L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers and – outstanding even in this company – Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson as Estella are all unforgettable.)

But the performances on show, marvellous as they are, are only one facet of a film in which every detail is superb. The spell-casting costumes, Oscar-winning set design and cinematography, and a script that miraculously converts a three-volume novel into a two-hour film while retaining its full spirit and impact are all equally responsible for an atmosphere that is unmistakably, and joyously, Dickensian. The plot is, of course, unimpeachable and the editing – most conspicuous in the famous moment when Magwitch startles the young Pip – exposes as uninspired the arrangement of so many of the movies we sit through.

1946 was a vintage year for English language film. In America it brought It’s A Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep and My Darling Clementine, while in Britain it saw the release of the magical A Matter of Life and Death. Great Expectations is equal to any of them, a film to delight bookworms and film lovers, adults and children, and anyone who appreciates a brilliant story brilliantly told.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Come and See (USSR, 1985)

A friend once asked me what I thought was the greatest horror film ever made. I said Come and See, and I was totally serious. There must have been wars less harrowing to fight in than this, perhaps the greatest of all war movies, is to watch. The blurb on its DVD cover describes Come and See as a forefather of Saving Private Ryan, now routinely touted as the best modern war film. The comparison is to Come and See’s discredit. If Ryan were a 20-minute short and ended with its magnificent shot of bloodied waves washing back onto Normandy Beach, it would be a masterpiece: up to that moment it is incomparable, after it, it is merely an intelligent action movie. Come and See, in contrast, achieves onscreen what Guernica achieves on canvas.

We follow Florya (15-year-old Alexei Kravchenko), a naïve Belarussian teenager, as he joins a company of partisans fighting the Nazi invasion and comes to witness, endure or escape a stream of obscene, but increasingly mundane, violence that ages him physically and distorts him psychologically. The brilliance of the film is that, as an audience, we are not permitted to just be passive witnesses to this violence. A dozen ingenious devices – exemplified by the moment Florya is deafened by a German air raid and the film’s sound cuts out so that we hear what he hears – pull us into the mayhem and ensure that, just as living it traumatises the characters, watching it traumatises us.

Although Come and See's isn’t a true story, and no part of it is an attempt to recreate actual events, the film is anchored in the real-life experiences of those who made it. Elim Klimov, who directed and co-wrote the film, was forced to flee the battle of Stalingrad as a child, while Ales Adamovich, with whom he wrote the script, fought, like Florya, as a teenage partisan.

While this tell-it-like-it-was honesty accounts for much of the film’s terrific resonance it also prevents it from becoming a one-dimensional procession of war-is-hell overkill. Joy and desire are to be found among the horror – heightened to an insane, end-of-the-world intensity by the likelihood of imminent annihilation – and one of the film’s unforgettable images is of Glasha, the beautiful girl who becomes Florya’s companion, dancing wildly in the rain. This simple, unexpected scene is one of cinema’s purest expressions of the basic joy of being alive. Its inclusion is inspired, and does much to make Glasha’s eventual (off-screen) fate as excruciating in its way as the celebrated barn scene.

Come and See isn’t a film it’s easy to watch over and over, but then it isn’t a film you need to watch over and over; if I never saw it again I couldn’t forget a frame of it.

Some of you asked why I chose the title ‘A Petrified Fountain’. It’s taken from a Jean Cocteau quote: ‘A film is a petrified fountain of thought’. It's a bit pretentious but – considering the other options I came up with were ‘These Films Are Wonderful’ and ‘Watch These Movies Or I'll Sit On Your Head’ – I think I made the right choice.