The Lion in Winter (1968)

Peter O’Toole portrayed Henry II twice in the 1960s, in tales of medieval politics and strained relationships.

The other was Becket (1964) and although this later work remains inferior, The Lion in Winter remains a classy affair.

Garnering Oscar nominations, a healthy reception from audiences and critics, it would become one of O’Toole’s signature roles.

Set in 1183 AD, it depicts the dynastic crisis of an ageing King Henry II (O’Toole), as he struggles amidst a nest of intrigue and paranoia.

There is an estranged queen (Katherine Hepburn); an elder son (Anthony Hopkins) and two ambitious brothers, plus the King of France (Timothy Dalton) ready to pounce on any internal strife.

Director Anthony Harvey has an assured grip on proceedings, the lensing by Douglas Slocombe is exceptional and the art direction evokes the appropriate time and place.

There is also a raft of quality acting – not only the screen debut of Hopkins but the chemistry of O’Toole and Hepburn as they feud across emotional and political lines is one of the major highlights.

In retrospect, the tumultuous year of release (1968) seems prescient with America torn apart by the Vietnam war and widespread dissent across Europe.

As a footnote, at that year’s Oscars, Hepburn was tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl – the only time this has happened in Academy history.

Special Features:

  • New restoration of the film
  • New interview with John Castle
  • New interview with John Bloom
  • Anthony Harvey audio commentary (this is very good)
  • O’Toole on Hepburn: 5 min excerpt from TCM interview in 2012
  • Original Trailer
  • Restoration comparison

The Lion in Winter is out now from Studiocanal UK

> Buy The Lion in Winter on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Find out more about The Lion in Winter on IMDb and Wikipedia

 

A Monster Calls (2016)

With just two films to his credit – The Orphanage (2007) and The Impossible (2012) – Bayona has established himself as one of most interesting filmmakers to emerge from Spain in recent years.

So this project, based on a novel by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd) was much anticipated.

It explores a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling to deal with a dying mother (Felicity Jones) and a vision of a monster he sees at night (Liam Neeson) who tells him tales.

A lot rests on MacDougall’s shoulders here, being centre stage throughout, and he delivers a remarkable performance, convincing in conveying a number of emotions, spanning anger, grief, frustration and terror.

Indeed, the most affecting aspect of the film is the sense of human confusion at the brutal events life can throw our way and how complicated it can be to resolve them.

The interplay between him and his loving mother (Jones), absent father (Toby Kebbel) and strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is central to why most of the audience will be moved at the end.

Yet while the human plane is handled with a sensitive and subtle touch, the monster’s – rendered by a multitude of visual effects – is somehow less impactful. A curious case of more ending up as less, with a CGI character leaving too little to the imagination.

Of more note is the animated fairytale sequences, which the monster narrates. Splendidly animated by Adrián García, they explore the Prince Charming myth, medieval faith, and “an invisible man who had grown tired of being unseen”.

The flaws don’t derail A Monster Calls, which still deserves plaudits for boldly confronting dark issues inside the framework of a ‘family fantasy’.

A Monster Calls screened at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on January 6th

> Official site for the film
> London Film Festival

The Almodovar Collection (1983-1995)

Spanning eleven years of his career, these six films provide a rich snapshot of the Spanish filmmaker’s work throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Dark Habits (1983): When a nightclub singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) gets on the wrong side of a criminal gang, she flees to a convent where the nuns have secrets too. The title has a double meaning for what the holy women wear and what some do in their rooms. Treading a fine line between satire and serious critique of the Catholic church, it manages to keep both irons in the fire. Pascual is excellent in the lead role and there are some fine supporting performances from future Almodovar regulars, such as Marisa Paredes and Carmen Maura. After debuting at the Venice film festival it caused considerable controversy, put its director on the European festival map.

Extras:

  • New Around Dark Habits – Featuring interviews with: Marisa Paredes, MercedesGuilamon, Anabel Alonzo, Lluis Homar, Felez Martinez, Alaska Miguel, Angel Silvestre and Augustin Almodóvar
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984): The setting is an overcrowded Madrid apartment, with all manner of characters orbiting around a stressed-out housewife, Gloria (Carmen Maura). There is her vile husband (Ángel de Andrés López); her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave), curious children and a prostitute next door. The plot involves murder, intrigue and even a pet lizard, as part of an outrageous patchwork weaved by the director. Amongst an already impressive cast, Maura is the standout performer here, and it is fairly obvious why she became a regular part of Almodovar’s creative ensemble. More was to come, but this was a marker for his later works.

Extras:

  • New Around What Have I Done to Deserve This? – Featuring interviews with Mercedes Guilamon, Javier Camara, Carlos Areces and Anabel Alonzo
  • Trailer

Law of Desire (1987): Containing his trademark blend of profane tragic-comic thrills, this was perhaps his boldest film yet when Almodovar was cementing his position as a flamboyant soothsayer for post-Franco Spain. Stylishly flaunting social and sexual mores, it explores a love triangle between a famous director Pablo (Eusebio Poncela), his long-term lover (Miguel Molina) and a young actor, Antonio (Antonio Banderas). Parallel to this, is a sub-plot involving Pablo’s sister Tina (Carmen Maura) which interlocks with the main narrative. Although the plot may resemble something Fellini may have done, it still packs a considerable thematic and stylistic punch.

Extras:

  • New Around Law of Desire – Featuring interviews with Esther Garcia,
    Alberto Iglesias, Elena Anaya, Javier Camara, Rossy di Palma and Victoria Abril
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988): Another international breakthrough was this brilliantly realised surreal farce. A heady brew of infidelity and insecurity involving a voiceover artist (Carmen Maura), her extramarital lover (Fernando Guillen), his wife (Julieta Serrano) and an anxious friend (Maria Barranco) who has fallen for a terrorist, a synopsis for this film is difficult. But as usual with Almodovar he pulls all these strings together, with the help of what by now had become almost a stock company of actors.

Extras:

  • New Around Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Featuring interviews with Pedro Almodóvar, Loles Leon and Rossy di Palma
  • Introduction by critic José Arroyo
  • Trailer

Kika (1993): Regarded by some observers at the time as something of a creative and commercial disappointment, in retrospect this holds up very well. Another riotous and colourful affair, it sees the aforementioned Kika (Veronica Forqué), a make-up artist living in Madrid with a philandering American writer (Peter Coyote). Circling them are a manic kaleidoscope of characters including: drug addicts, serial killers, porn stars and transexuals. Perhaps at times it does spin out of control, but that is part of Almodovar’s skill. One of his hallmarks is an ability to juggle outrageous comedy with darker themes – a controversial rape scene being a case in point – makes him a rare talent in world cinema.

Extras:

  • New Around Kika – Featuring interviews with Victoria Abril, Rossy di Palma and Anabel Alonzo
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Pedro Almodóvar interview
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • The Characters
  • The Music
  • Trailer

The Flower of My Secret (1995): The last film in this box set marks a transition for the Spanish filmmaker, with a more toned down approach. A superbly layered portrait of a writer (an excellent Marisa Paredes), who wants to focus on the melancholic realities of pain and loss, rather than cliched happier endings. Though it retains the energy of his previous work, it is channelled in different ways. Fine supporting performances from Juan Echanove, Carmen Elias, Rossy De Palma and Chus Lampreave are a treat (with the latter two a fine double-act) and the end result points towards the masterworks to come in the late 90s and new millennium, such as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002).

  • New ‘The Flower of my Secret’ (featuring interviews with Rossy di Palma, Augustin Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar and Marisa Paredes)
  • Cast and crew interviews
  • Introduction By José Arroyo
  • Trailer

The Almodovar Collection is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal UK

> Buy The Almodovar Collection on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Pedro Almodóvar: 13 great Spanish films that inspire me at BFI
> Find out more about Pedro Almodovar at Wikipedia

The Fallen Idol (1948)

The first collaboration between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed is a classic in its own right, despite being overshadowed by their masterful second team-up, The Third Man (1949).

Based on a Greene story and told from the perspective of a French diplomat’s young son (Bobby Henrey), who idolises his father’s butler (Ralph Richardson), it explores what happens after he witnesses a serious incident in the London embassy where they live.

A highly impressive blend of mystery, thriller and suspense, it features many delights, including a raft of fine performances, principally Henrey and Richardson, but also a supporting cast including Sonia Dresdel, Michele Morgan, Dandy Nicholls (as well as future Bond stalwarts Bernard Lee and Geoffrey Keen).

Greene’s familiar themes are here – betrayal, moral ambiguity – but what made this first collaboration with Reed so special was the realisation that they both seemed to find their creative soul mate in each other and no director has managed to portray the Greene’s works so well.

The post-war London setting is superbly evoked with Vincent Korda’s excellent production design and Georges Perinal’s deep-focus photography emphasising the gulf between the innocence of childhood and the often murkier business of adults.

But it also underscores themes such as appearance and reality, the difficulty of telling the truth (as well as finding it), and the dangers of putting too much faith in those we admire.

Fans of The Third Man might like to note the recurrence of certain motifs: spiral staircases, the importance of light and darkness and the complexities of human behaviour in foreign lands.

It is interesting to note that all three of Reed’s works with Greene feature a displaced protagonist in another country: Phillipe in this film (a French boy in England); Holly in The Third Man (an American writer in Vienna); and Wormold in Our Man in Havana (an English spy in Cuba).

Their working relationship would mature over the course of the late 1940s and 50s, but there remains something magical about this film – due in large part to the chemistry between Henrey and Richardson – and it remains one of the classic British films of the post-war years.

Studiocanal have released it on DVD, Blu-ray and Download with the following extras:

  • Guy Hamilton remembers The Fallen Idol
  • Locations featurette with Richard Dacre
  • Interview with Charles Drazin
  • Interview with fan Richard Ayoade
  • Restoration comparison
  • Kevin Brownlow interviews Robert Henrey

> Buy the DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> The Fallen Idol at the IMDb
> Criterion essay on The Fallen Idol by Geoffrey O’Brien
> Find out more about Graham Greene and Carol Reed at Wikipedia

Life Itself

Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.

A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:

“In the particular is contained the universal”

This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.

Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.

Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.

He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)

There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.

Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.

However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.

It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.

Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.

The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.

For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.

> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK
> RogerEbert.com