Sunday, 22 June 2014

Bicycle Thieves; Never Let Me Go; Little Big Soldier; The Grapes Of Wrath; Oz The Great And Powerful; Black Pond

Bicycle Thieves

Essentially the blueprint for the social realism films that would become more and more popular after the Second World War, the film focuses on the desperate attempts of Antonio to find a job in 1948’s post-war Rome. His only means of getting one is his ownership of a bicycle, which secures his employment putting up posters around the city, but on his first day his bike is snatched and he fails to catch the thief. The next day he sets out with some friends and his son Bruno on a journey that takes him all over Rome.

The location shooting is very evocative in a way that seems like it would be impossible to replicate these days, with touches like the wise woman and the mob surrounding Antonio when he locates the thief all feeling like local people rather than actors.

The ending is something of a gut punch, the general good will towards Antonio and the mainly gentle nature of the film (securing it a ‘U’ rating) lulling you into expecting a happy ending, but the end serves as another signifier that this is a forerunner for the harsh social realist movement to come.

Never Let Me Go

I’d heard that the big twist of the tale hits right toward the end, only for the film to explain early on that the school of children are being raised specifically as organ donors.
So, central character Kathy narrates the story of the love triangle including herself, Ruth and Tommy, as they grow up in their odd little 50s style private boarding school in the 70s, then in a little cottage provided for them in the 80s and then onto the end of their adulthood in the 90s.

The sets are evocative, the acting from all three leads - Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield - is great, and the film builds a convincing portrait of an alternate England where breeding/cloning (the details aren’t specified) people to be used as organ donors for the sick is agreed on in the 50s, a sort of skewed version of the NHS, and becomes a part of life, uncomfortable and unnerving for some but in most respects normal. Few protests or outcrying, just a part of society like vivisection or the meat industry.

Rather than focus on the administrational or medical aspects as many dramas would, the whole film centers on the character’s relationships and how they unfold, choices and mistakes made and regrets lived with, albeit shortly.
Even the quietly horrific revelation that the kids were the last of a humane experiment before the decision was made to basically factory farm donors is delivered in the context of the impact on our character’s relationship, and in this way the film feels a lot more realistic and grounded than it may otherwise have done, were the story to focus on the process rather than people.

On the other hand, the story of people making the wrong choices in love with little time to make amends is a universal one and no more affecting because of the organ doning aspect.

A decent film but not revelatory.

Little Big Soldier

Little Big Soldier is a breath of fresh air after Jackie Chan’s later 90s/early 2000s career. The tail-end of his shallow action comedies contained some awful duds, and this combined with his advancing age no doubt led to the decision to pursue some meatier acting roles rather than the usual action fests he’s known for, starting with New Police Story in 2004 and leading to films like the immigrant crime drama of 2009’s Shinjuku Incident and 2011’s historical Chinese Revolutionary epic, 1911.

Little Big Soldier however manages to go back to his action/comedy mid-career period with success.
Chan plays an old soldier in ancient China, the sole survivor of a large battle besides an enemy general whom he captures, with plans to return home for a reward of a peaceful farming life.
Obstacles on the path make for an eventful journey as this slapstick filled buddy-ish comedy plays out, with Jackie a likeable lead, more knowing than his usual bumbling apologists and less arrogant than the cheeky fighting masters of his youth.

The ending scene makes for an odd tonal shift which could easily be read as overwrought Cantonese sentiment, but really is part of a whole that has slightly more to it than the usual crowd pleaser.

The Grapes of Wrath

Poor Tom Joad.
After release from prison on parole, after the killing of a man at a dancehall in self-defence, Tom returns home to find his family has moved on. In the Oklahoma of the Depression sharecropper families are being turfed out by landlords to be replaced by tractors, and everyone is travelling West in search of work and a new start.

Adapted from Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, Wrath had a quick turnaround, released into cinemas in 1940.
There is a whiff of innocence to the film that point to the wider audience this is perhaps intended for, though the anger at the dire economic straits of the working man and his lot make for a stark contrast against the hopeful musicals and upper-middle class worlds of the screwball comedies of the time, without the cynicism of the noir crime features.

The laden, shambling trucks ferrying Midwesterners to California, the hostility faced by the migrants and the idyllic nature of the government camp are evocative of a situation hard to imagine now, indeed after the relative success of the Second World War it’s easy to see how patriotism was used by the authorities to quell socialist rumblings that rose up during the Depression.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Sam Raimi by way of Tim Burton, this leans more towards the CGI heavy Alice in Wonderland adaptation rather than the family-friendly nightmare of Return to Oz, let alone the classic original film.

Franco plays a lying sleazebag small-time travelling circus conjurer, who while trying to escape a cuckolded strongman in a hot air balloon is caught by a tornado and whisked off to Oz.

The wicked witch is making Oz suffer, but the prophecy of a great wizard saving the day gives Oscar Diggs (Oz the Great and Powerful) something to aspire to.
So off he goes on a journey to kill the wicked witch, but learns about the value of friends along the way.

The effects are bland in all their spectacle and the story feels like generic family fantasy, with lots of nods and winks to the original film that help remind you how slight this feels in comparison.

Black Pond

Black Pond, black comedy, though more a comedy of manners than one for belly laughs.
Tom meets Blake whilst walking the dog. Though odd, Tom finds him friendly enough and invites him home. His wife Sophie is unnerved at first by the introduction of a stranger, though she warms to him and soon he stays for dinner, and then for the night as he is afraid of the dark.

The next day Blake’s off at dawn, and before long Tom finds him in the woods, with the dog dead from drowning in the Black Pond that is central to Blake’s story of a man losing his wife to drowning.
Tom and Sophie’s two daughters Katie and Jess live in London along with a friend, Tim, who is in unrequited love with the both of them, and after the dog dies they come back home for an impromptu funeral.

Mixed in with documentary type talking head interviews retelling the fallout from the events of the film, as well as the odd therapy sessions attended by Tim as he deals with the aftermath.

The film maintains an odd tone throughout, with tension present but not unbearable, the comedy elements are gentle rather than hysterical and the darker parts are sympathetic rather than ghoulish.
A dream sequence in particular stands out as a fresh take on an age-old cinematic trope, managing to try things in bold new ways whilst still being immediately identifiable.

Not entirely successful but a fresh look at that most English of comedies, that of the awkwardness and inhibition choking interpersonal relationships.


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