Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ryan's Daughter on DVD

David Lean had a long and distinguished career and made a wide variety of good films, from Dickens adaptations to tragic romances like Brief Encounter and Summertime. But for me the spectacles he made beginning in 1957 with The Bridge on the River Kwai are the most extraordinary. He went distinctly out of fashion in the mid-1960s, and the harsh critical reception of Ryan’s Daughter, released in November 1970, seemed to bring his career to a long halt. By the time he returned in the eighties with A Passage to India, opinion seemed to have shifted again, and he was received as an Old Master making his last great movie.

Lean’s Sixties spectacles, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter (shot in 1969), of course by all rights ought to be seen on a gigantic screen in 70mm prints. The late-80s reissue of the restored Lawrence, which drew lines around the block at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York and elsewhere, was one of the highlights of my moviegoing life. This is unfortunately very rare these days.

But now at least we have a superb DVD version of Ryan’s Daughter, Lean’s much-maligned masterpiece. Made from restored 70mm materials, it looks more beautiful than any other disc I have seen. It is the full roadshow-length print, 196 minutes, not including the four-count-'em-four musical interludes: overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music. The post-roadshow general-release cut was 165 minutes (this is what I must have seen in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1971, the only previous time I’ve seen the film).

The vicious reviews in 1970 focused on the slight, simple plot and the antiquated quality of the melodrama. These criticisms are not completely undeserved, but they downplay the visual majesty of this movie, which goes far beyond merely pretty photography. No one else put images and sound together in quite the way David Lean did; he was maligned by auteurists long before this film, but I think in his case they were just blind. The shortcomings in the script of Ryan’s Daughter are more like background noise, like a stupid libretto in a great opera.

That last comparison may seem a little ironic when I say that the weakest part of the movie is Maurice Jarre’s loud, sappy score. It’s effective in its pushy way, but it is not up to the quality of the visuals. And the second weakest part actually won an Oscar: John Mills as a Quasimodo-like ‘village idiot,’ really just a plot device, rather crudely conceived and certainly overused. Trevor Howard and Leo McKern give the best performances, and Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum are fine too.

Christopher Jones, as Miles’s illicit love interest, looks and sounds perfect – so it’s amusing to hear in the ‘making of’ documentary and to read in The Films of David Lean that Jones, originally from Tennessee (just like me), had to be dubbed by an English actor, was ridiculed by Sarah Miles as a ‘midget,’ and was so uncooperative in the key sex scene that various forms of trickery and fakery had to be used to bring the scene off. (But watching the film you may have no clue about any of this. The sex scene is over the top, with dandelions spewing seeds and horses nuzzling as nature performs in parallel with the beautiful young lovers, but it is unique and amazing to behold.)

In the Films of book, Lean's memory seems a little off – for example, he's annoyed that the critics 'never realized' that the story was Madame Bovary in a different setting....yet Pauline Kael (in an unnecessarily harsh review, as apparently most were), spent a whole long paragraph examining the Bovary connection, and Lady Chatterley's Lover as well, pointing out that such comparisons make the film look worse, not better, since its creaky melodrama lacks the irony of Bovary and the modernism of Chatterley. Lean also talks about casting Mitchum because he remembered him in the 1947 Build My Gallows High (aka Out of the Past), which he describes as a dreadful piece of junk. It is generally considered a noir masterpiece – and Mitchum did make a few other films in 20 years that Lean might have remembered also!

The making-of documentary is feature-length and fascinating. I didn’t listen to the commentary track, but other reviewers indicate that it is expertly done, with many contributors. This is a fine disc with which to show off your new HDTV – or just to acquaint yourself with a terrific, under-appreciated movie. They absolutely do not make ‘em like this any more.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


As other reviews have suggested, not up to the best of the previous Pixar animated movies, but plenty of charm, humor, and most important, visual imagination and beauty. I have not been as bowled over by Pixar as many critics, though every one of their movies has been entertaining and technically accomplished. The Incredibles was a bit more ambitious and interesting than the first four, but I still thought it may have been a bit overpraised. This one, conversely, may be taking a few hits stronger than it deserves. I much preferred the long, relatively calm middle section of the film, when our cocky sports car hero is stranded in a hick town on Route 66. The opening and closing sequences, with their loud, frantic races, bored me.

The War Tapes

A powerful subject, handled in a straightforward, very vivid way: 3 National Guardsmen were given video cameras to record their 16 month tour of duty in Iraq. (Apparently many cams were given out, and these three were chosen from the results.) The Iraq footage is intense and sometimes hard to watch. These men witnessed some horrific action. There is also footage taken on the home front, both during and after the soldiers’ time in Iraq. This is moving but also a bit overextended.

Nonetheless, the Guardsmen themselves make memorable impressions. They may have been chosen because they represent three political points of view: a hard-line militarist Bush supporter; a former supporter of the war, now turned bitter and cynical opponent, as he describes it as ‘all for money,’ to protect the profits of companies like Halliburton/KBR; and a Lebanese-born soldier, very outspoken and articulate in his political opposition to Bush and the war policy, yet a hard-working, dedicated noncommissioned officer just the same.

The film may not be welcomed by the right, but it is far from a leftist polemic. The events and people are allowed to speak for themselves. As the real story of real soldiers, it should be seen by anyone with strong opinions on the war. There is follow-up material on a web site: http://www.thewartapes.com/

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall

It was a sort of metaconcert…a concert about a concert. Tonight Rufus Wainwright channeled Judy Garland’s famous April 1961 show and did it in the same venue, Carnegie Hall. When I first heard about this unusual undertaking, I thought it sounded like a stunt, and that I would rather hear him do his own stuff (his recordings are quite devoon)…but I knew I had to be there. And I’m immensely glad that I was. It was a delightful show, occasionally downright astonishing.

It’s a bit like Hitchcock tying his hands behind his back in Rope and LifeboatRufus Wainwright is a very fine songwriter, and his albums are a kaleidoscopic mix of styles and sounds. Here he was limiting himself to other composers’ material, not even allowing himself the flexibility to pick the songs. But although this was certainly an affectionate tribute to Garland, he brought his own sensibility to each of the songs, and the results were often spectacular.

Backed by a fantastic 40-piece orchestra, Rufus did the whole songlist from the ’61 show with a few surprise twists. Although some songs proved more exciting and more suited to his talents than others, there were few if any duds, and several were very memorable indeed, including a bone-chilling “The Man That Got Away.” The energy from the audience was considerable as well, and added to the general buzz.

Sis Martha Wainwright made a guest appearance and stopped the show with an electrifying “Stormy Weather.” Mom Kate McGarrigle joined in for two numbers, although disappointingly she didn’t sing, only playing piano (and supplying a few wisecracks at her son’s expense).

I understand there will be a CD and DVD of this project. (I saw the second of two shows…there was no video equipment visible.) They should be worth catching, although I will be surprised if they capture the full energy of the evening.

And I still want to hear him do his own stuff sometime.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Lighter than Air: A Prairie Home Companion

Floating gracefully onto and off of the screen, a dreamy cotton-candy cloud, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is never less than charming and rarely more than featherweight entertainment. It’s a masterly piece of direction and cinematography (or more accurately, Hi-Def videography), applied to material that is hardly even there.

Musical numbers glide in and out, and they too are more charming than really good. I had a perfectly blissful time watching this movie, and you may too, if you keep your expectations in check.

The premise is that a Big Evil Corporation from Texas is taking over the radio station and/or the theater where the weekly radio variety hour is produced. We are watching the valedictory performance. The show actually seems a little anemic and underpopulated, but this doesn’t matter a great deal to the movie itself.

The performers seem understandably happy to be nestled in such a beautiful cinematic framework – actors love Altman and the feeling is obviously mutual. Meryl Streep and John C. Reilly are standouts, both playing singers in the radio show. Each is in a duo act, and their partners, Lily Tomlin and Woody Harrelson respectively, are also plenty charming.

Your patience toward the plot device of a visiting angel in a white trenchcoat (she’s both a guardian of the company and a herald of death) may determine how much you like the movie as a whole. I rather enjoyed this part of the wispy script, written by "Prairie Home" radio creator/star Garrison Keillor himself. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused eye-rolling among some viewers.

At any rate, try to see the film in a theater with a big screen (it’s shot in ‘scope) and good sound, and just bask in the gorgeous craftsmanship and the pleasant company the cast provides. You could do a lot worse.

Bush's foreign policy analyzed: five years ago!

I came upon this article by James Traub from the January 2001 issue of the NY Times magazine. It's quite fascinating in light of what has followed. Keep in mind, this is 8 months prior to 9/11 and a week before the inauguration.

The Bush Years: W.'s World

An Aside: Politics

I have been known to tease friends on the left by saying, "Liberals are so damn self-righteous. I ought to know. I used to be one."

Just so you know, I have never voted for a Republican in my life, and have no plans to. But although I was once a ferociously committed liberal Democrat, I have in the last 10 years become completely disenchanted with nearly all political rhetoric, from both the right and the left. The pitiful state of affairs is typified by this week's vote on the anti-gay-marriage amendment, forced by the idiot Republicans for nakedly political reasons....and by the fact [reported on in this week's New York Observer] that neither of the Democratic senators from New York, one considered a leading presidential candidate, has anything coherent to say about Iraq that distinguishes them from the Bush administration. All is finger-pointing and name-calling, nothing is substantive.

Below is an e-mail I sent to a friend a short while back, after I had gotten one two many messages from him telling me how admirable he finds British and European 'intellectuals' [main, or at least loudest, example: Harold Pinter] for despising us warlike Americans intent on world domination. Like Senator Hillary, I supported the invasion of Iraq 3 years ago, ambivalently and uncertainly. Unlike her, I am willing to talk about that now in perspective. Here is the message:


Those of us on the center and the left who ambivalently supported the war were not and are not, I think, looking for world domination. We naively hoped that a world in which Saddam did not rule a country would be a better one. The chaos that has followed may prove us wrong....or may have been preventable and caused by Pentagon incompetence. In any case, there is not just one simple opinion that covers this entire complex matter. Reducing the nuances of global politics to slogan-spewing does not improve anything.

If there are people styling themselves intellectuals who actually cheer on the Sunni insurgency [whose primary victims are other Iraqis], as described in the article, then they are morally [and intellectually] reprehensible. I hope Mr. Pinter is not among them.

Of course mass slaughter is horrifying – whether caused by American planes, Saddam's thugs, or insurgent guerrillas. But it's intellectually dishonest to pretend that one or more of the categories of slaughter is less awful or is irrelevant. They are all awful, they are all relevant.

Self-styled intellectuals possibly also can with a bit of effort make the distinctions between 300 million individuals, a country, and a government – which does not last more than 8 years in the US. The current government, in power for no longer than 31 additional months, currently lacks the support of at least 60% of the populace. These distinctions seem to me worth making – perhaps for the Euro-intelligentsia they are not. It's easier just to say all Americans are imperialist cretins – or at least those who disagree with the European left.