Film Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jacques Demy’s classic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is just as enchanting fifty-five years after its original release. 

Geneviève is in love with Guy, a young car mechanic. When he is drafted to serve in the Algerian War, Geneviève and Guy each take a different path…

Originally released in 1964, Jacques Demy’s sung-through musical gets a rare re-release as part of the BFI Musicals season. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg focuses on the poignancy of first love, with its bittersweet romance. Told in three chapters, the film is about the blossoming romance between Geneviève and Guy, and the path each takes when life gets in the way. The story unfolds in an engaging manner, allowing viewers to empathise with the two protagonists as the narrative takes its turns. 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg sets up an initial friction between the passion of first love and the practicalities of living. Yet it is more nuanced than this, offering characters who make thoughtful choices. The sting that both Geneviève and Guy experience at different times is palpable. Demy successfully captures the range of emotions, translating them perfectly to his audience. 

Music in the film, by Michel Legrand, is wonderful. There are some very memorable sequences and pieces. The use of colour is also striking. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg harks back to the technicolour of the 1950s. The costumes and styling really help to set the era. The 2013 restoration is fantastic; images in the film are wonderfully vibrant. Catherine Deneuve is great in this early role. She really embodies the part of Geneviève. Nino Castelnuovo is also great, as is Anne Vernon. 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a must-see for fans of the musical genre, and will prove very rewarding for even casual viewers. Demy’s film is an essential musical. 

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg will be released at BFI Southbank and cinemas UK-wide on 6th December 2019.

Film Review: Angel Heart

Alan Parker’s neo-noir thriller Angel Heart is rightly considered a classic. Parker’s nightmarish vision is just as indelible over thirty years later.

Private investigator Harry Angel is hired by a man to track down a singer who owes him a debt from years ago. Angel starts tracking down leads, before the investigation takes a dark turn…

Angel Heart’s noir premise is straightforward enough; a private detective on a case to track down an individual. Nothing is as simple as it seems however, as the case leads him to travel far and wide to chase down any viable lead. Viewers suspicions are raised from the beginning, with his mysterious client. The picture features a film noir set up, which gets increasingly darker as narrative progresses. 

Set in 1955, Angel Heart has hallmarks of a noir mystery. The dialogue is very much in keeping with the genre. Angel’s exchange with Dr Fowler feels like it is could be straight out of a classic-era noir. There some great lines and turns of phrase used in the film. Based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel, writer-director Alan Parker’s screenplay keeps the audience hooked with its well-developed turns. Parker imbues the film with a sense of mystery that only increases as the story advances. 

The setting of the film envelopes viewers. There is an otherworldly atmosphere that permeates Angel Heart. The hidden underside of the big city feels like it is brimming to the surface more and more as the narrative progresses. Attention to detail in the film is great: the styling of Cyphre, Angel’s dishevelled look, the 1955 period aspects such as the identity cards. Production design is noteworthy, with some distinctive looks such as Margaret’s salon. 

Sound works very effectively to build tension. The pulsating heartbeat is a good effect, whilst the sudden cessation of sound is startling in the film’s climax. Grisly images add to the sense of horror, with the shock of the first body conveyed with a gory close up. Close ups and reactions shots are used efficiently throughout the film. The rapid cutting of the voodoo artefacts is a successful conveyance of descent into horror. Furthermore, the cross-cutting between Angel discovering the body and the tap-dancing outside really amps up the horror. A long shot of the beach conversation is striking. The use of light and shadow very atmospheric in key sequences. 

Casting in Angel Heart is great overall, but particularly with lead Mickey Rourke as Angel. Rourke delivers a strong central performance, inhabiting the role of the jaded investigator. Robert De Niro is as believable as ever as Cyphre. His delivery really helps to heighten the character. Meanwhile, Lisa Bonet is memorable as Epiphany. 

With its horror crescendo of a conclusion, Angel Heart truly is a fantastic noir mystery. The film is atmospheric, curious, and engrossing. 

The Alan Parker approved 4K restoration of Angel Heart is released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 14th October 2019.

Film Review: The Juniper Tree

Nietzchka Keene’s 1990 debut The Juniper Tree is an atmospheric fantasy. Keene builds the film incredibly well to its dark conclusion. 

After their mother is killed for witchcraft, sisters Katla and Margit go searching for a new home. Katla entrances a shepherd and marries him, but his son is not keen on his new stepmother…

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Juniper Tree is a strange and sometimes macabre fantasy. The film is set in medieval Iceland; the landscape very much becomes part of the story. 

The narrative unfolds at an appropriate pace, with the two main strands developing in tandem. The discord between sister and Jónas grows, just as Margit’s visions become more prominent. The two strands intersect frequently, with Jónas’ dislike of his stepmother a cause of friction in his friendship with Margit. 

There is an otherworldly atmosphere to The Juniper Tree, which writer-director Nietzchka Keene has wonderfully generated. The isolation of the setting feeds into this. It is further emphasised by Keene’s choice of direction, and the frequent storytelling that occurs in the film. Witchcraft is at the centre of The Juniper Tree, yet the film is more nuanced than a persecuted women trope. There is a belief in the supernatural which effects all the characters. It is only in the final segment that the film takes a truly macabre turn, harking back to the roots of the fairytale. 

This 2019 restoration exhibits the beauty of Keene’s film. Shot in black and white, there are some really striking images in the film. Keene and cinematographer Randy Sellars use light and shadow in an effective manner. Some of the images have a photographic quality. The score In her first role, Björk is impressive. She has an innocence that imbues her character. Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir and Geirlaug Sunna Þormar are also decent. 

The Juniper Tree is a distinctive fantasy. Hopefully this recent restoration will reach the wider audience the film deserves.

The Juniper Tree is being screened as part of the Treasures programme at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019. 

Film Review: The Lady Eve

Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is as amiable as ever as it gets a big screen re-release. The film is a giant of the screwball comedy genre. 

Returning from a research trip in the Amazon, wealthy heir Charles meets Jean on a ship. Unbeknownst to him, Jean is part of a trio of scam artists. However, she begins to fall for her mark…

Released in 1941, The Lady Eve still works so well after all these years because all the elements just fizz. Writer-director Sturgess combines a brilliant script, with great performances and spot-on direction. The set up is a simple one; a card sharp develops feelings for her target, before he learns of her past. Yet the film has boundless appeal.

Jean Harrington is a brilliant protagonist. Despite her dubious intentions, she is someone to root for. She is both a trickster and a romantic; it is hard not to admire her. Elsewhere, there some great characters, such as Sir Alfred. As the romantic interest, Charles is the perfect archetype for Jean to play off. Based on a play by Moncton Hoffe, The Lady Eve has some terrific dialogue. There are also some wonderful set pieces, such as an early scene where Jean lures Charles in. Pacing in the film is good. The action moves along well, never feeling like it is rushing or dragging. 

Costumes by Edith Head are wonderful. Barbara Stanwyck delivers a fantastic performance as Jean, a character which allows her to show her range, and particularly her comedic skills. Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, and Eric Blore are also great. The Lady Eve is a must-see for screwball comedy fans. First-time viewers may find themselves returning to Sturges’ film over and over again.

The Lady Eve is being screened at the BFI Southbank as part of the Barbara Stanwyck season, as well as at selected venues throughout the UK from 14th February 2019.

Film Review: Distant Voices, Still Lives

Terence Davies’ 1988 award-winning Distant Voices, Still Lives gets a 4K restoration for its 30th anniversary re-release. The film deserves its considerable acclaim.

A family growing up in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool go through the spectrum of human experience. Distant Voices concentrates on the father and his impact on the family, whilst Still Lives focuses on the children…

Terence Davies’ feature debut is just as striking thirty years after its initial release. Written and directed by Davies, Distant Voices, Still Lives is an autobiographical take on the filmmaker’s upbringing in Liverpool. The story is told in a fragmented fashion, with frequent flashbacks to fill in detail and narrative.

As the film progresses, a few themes come to the fore. Firstly, the importance of the matriarch role is emphasised. Despite a difficult relationship, it is the mother who holds the family together. Secondly, the impact of the father’s behaviour casts a long shadow, even when he is no longer present.

Music plays a critical role in the lives of the family, and provides an atmospheric soundtrack to the narrative. Distant Voices, Still Lives could almost be considered a musical, thanks to the frequent singing and presence of song. In addition to this, pop culture is integral to painting the film’s period setting. Davies exhibits great attention to detail in regards to this; the film feels very much of the World War II/post-war era thanks to the sets, costumes and styling.

Distant Voices, Still Lives features great performances from its cast. Pete Postlewaite is most memorable in one of his first major roles. Freda Dowie delivers a strong performance as the family matriarch, whilst Angela Walsh is sympathetic as Eileen.

Davies illustrates the importance of memory, and the impact of early experiences on later life. Distant Voices, Still Lives is a striking and engaging drama, and testament to the filmmaker’s skill.

Distant Voices, Still Lives will be released at the BFI Southbank and at cinemas nationwide from 31st August 2018. For more information see here.

Film Review: Pandora’s Box

G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box is a classic of the silent era, and this new 2K DCP does the film justice. Louise Brooks is hypnotising. 

Lulu is a dancer and a social climber. She has her lover, a wealthy newspaper editor, wrapped around her finger, and a role in a musical production. He is not the only one to fall for Lulu’s charms, however…

This new 2K DCP of the Munich Film Museum’s 1997 restoration showcases the talents of director G.W. Pabst and star Louise Brooks. Pandora’s Box is considered a classic of the silent era for good reason. The film is immensely watchable.

Much of the power of Pandora’s Box stems from the fact that it feels both of its time and modern. First released in 1929, Pabst’s film is a powerful evocation of its Weimer-period setting. The preoccupation with social standing and reputation is depicted incredibly well. It seems of its era, yet has a modern resonance. This combination of contemporary and antiquated comes through strongly in the portrayal of the protagonist Lulu.

Lulu is a memorable and multifaceted protagonist. She is an alluring beauty who captures the attention of both men and women, another indicator of Pandora’s Box‘s modernity. In some ways she is a precursor to the femme fatale which followed in later decades. Nevertheless, Lulu has a innocence about her. The resultant fallout from her magnetism does not come across as calculating. It is likely viewers will still feel sympathy towards the character during darker times. Louise Brooks is wonderful in the lead role.

The narrative could be considered a ‘rise and fall’ tale. There is certainly an element of moralising in Lulu’s final state. In Pandora’s Box, the protagonist is punished for both her desires and her power over men. Yet there is more to the film than a chastisement of immorality. Pandora’s Box is also a study in self-preservation. This is true of both the protagonist and the supporting characters. The story is told in an engaging manner, with a well-crafted protagonist and sympathetic characters such as Francis Lederer’s Alwa. Peer Raben’s score is a fine accompaniment.

Pandora’s Box is being screened at the BFI Southbank, as well as selected venues throughout the UK from 1st June 2018.

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Film Review: Persona

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic Persona has an ageless quality. The film offers a mystery which will intrigue viewers throughout.

Nurse Alma is tasked with looking after Elisabet, an actress who is mute following a psychological break. Alma takes Elisabet to an isolated cottage in order try to help her recover…

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film gets a re-release as part of the BFI season on the filmmaker’s work. Persona focuses on relationship between troubled actress and the nurse tasked with looking after her. As this relationship develops, writer-director Bergman offers a revealing portrait of these two characters.

There is a mystery at the heart of Persona; Bergman keeps viewers guessing as to the cause of Elisabet’s muteness. For a significant section of the narrative, the attention shifts to Alma and her story. As the film progresses, these characters become entwined.

As viewers may expect from Bergman, the narrative is not straightforward. In the final third of the film, viewers will question how much of what they see is real and how much is imagined. Bergman intersperses the narrative with a brief montage on occasion, almost to remind viewers to question what they see.

The device of deliberate muteness by Elisabet allows Bergman to explore a number of elements. Characters are able to wax lyrical about their place in the world, and the human condition. Later in the film, once a certain story emerges, Bergman tackles a taboo subject. He does this with a clinical edge which feels refreshing.

Performances in the film are great, particularly Bibi Andersson who goes through the range of emotions as Alma. Liv Ullmann suitably expressive as Elisabet. The sound design is subtle but effective. The lighting and camerawork are also memorable. Persona lingers long after the final reel.

Persona is being screened at the BFI Southbank as part of the Ingmar Bergman season, as well as at selected venues throughout the UK.