Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951) has a great DVD release on the Arrow Academy label. Not a big fan of De Sica but this beguiling slice of Magic Realism is much more fun than his best known film Bicycle Thieves (1947).  Bleakest happy ending ever. 

The Artist – Screening Notes

The Artist won five Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Not bad for a black and white silent French movie. A sensation at the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2011 the film was quickly snapped up by film producer Harvey Weinstein. An expert at distributing movies and getting them noticed by the Academy Weinstein previously led films as diverse as The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan), The English Patient (1997, Anthony Minghella), and The King’s Speech (2011, Tom Hooper) to box office success and the Oscars.
Silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin) basks in the success of his latest movie. Accompanied everywhere onscreen and off by his beloved canine sidekick Valentin is the biggest star in town, but his refusal to adapt to the arrival of talking pictures puts his career in jeopardy. A young starlet Peppy Miller (Bejo) whom Valentin helped get started in Hollywoodreplaces him in the public’s affections and he is quickly forgotten. That is by everybody except Peppy who keeps an eye on her old mentor but knows he is too proud to accept her help.
Director Michel Hazanavicius and Dujardin previously worked together on a couple of comedies OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009). Expertly sending up the spy movie, most notably the Connery era Bonds they showcased Dujardin’s physical athleticism and his ability to make a conceited idiot likeable. Hazanavicius skilfully recreated the look and feel of the Sixties spy film so successfully both of these movies seemed to belong entirely to the period they were set in. The Artist too feels like a genuine silent era film, right down to its use of intertitles and its reliance on composer Ludovic Bource’s wonderful score to accompany the images.
Valentin bears a passing resemblance to silent screen star Douglas Fairbanks, one of the most charismatic and physically agile performers ever to grace the screen. Footage from Fairbanks great swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1921, Fred Niblo) even appears in the film briefly, edited into a sequence with Dujardin dressed as Zorro. The resemblance is purely physical though, Valentin shares Fairbanksdelight in his own athleticism and his considerable charm, but not his intelligence. Fairbankswas smart, experimenting with sound, co-founding United Artists, and the UCLA’s film department.
Though cult filmmaker Guy Maddin has directed full length silent movies, notably a stunning ballet version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (2002) his work is only really of interest to film buffs. The Artist however succeeds as a loving tribute to the silent era and as a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Cute dog too.

‘Miracle in Milan’ (1951, Vittorio De Sica) – Arrow Academy Bluray

Vittorio De Sica is best remembered for his 1947 movie Bicycle Thieves, an overly manipulative and simplistic piece which is one of those films people pretend to like to impress other folk. Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and De Sica collaborated on a number of films all dealing with similar themes of social injustice. Miracle in Milan is lighter in tone than their usual fare but just as serious.  By adding comedy and Magic Realist elements to the film they create a sly subversive fairytale which is just as resonant now in this era of recession as it was in 1951. 
Toto (Francesco Golisano) is raised in the country firstly by an elderly lady who takes him in as a baby, then after she passes away he spends the rest of his childhood in an orphanage. Arriving in the city for the first time he is struck by the isolationist nature of the people there and becomes drawn towards the downtrodden finding them to be better company. Moving into a shanty town he inspires the residents to better themselves but when this eccentric self-reliant community proves too successful the authorities move in and try to claim the land. While the first part of Miracle in Milan belongs to the neorealist tradition the latter part of the film moves into the realm of the fantastical as statues come to life, policemen start singing opera, and heavenly messengers appear.
While De Sica and Zavattini make fun of the rich the poor are also targets for satire. They willingly embrace consumerism when Toto gains the ability to make wishes come true and ask for all kinds of luxuries they don’t really need. They and Toto also delight in taking revenge against the man who refuses to conform with the group and eventually betrays them by selling them out to the rich. Toto is a cheerful idiot savant, an unwitting revolutionary who breaks societies rules because he sees no sense in them. The upbeat approach taken by De Sica and Zavattini mirror’s Toto’s optimism and is embodied in the jaunty score provided by Alessandro Cicognini which provides a carnival atmosphere. Yet Miracle in Milan is one of the bleakest films ever made, its magical finale suggesting there is only one way out of the poverty trap. 
Special Features
The latest entry in the Arrow Academyrange Miracle in Milan gets the full Arrow treatment. Bluray and Standard Definition DVD’s accompanying booklet featuring writing on the film as well as John Maddison’s 1951 article ‘The Case for De Sica.’ There are short but enlightening interviews with De Sica’s son, and with actress Brunella Bovo. Newsreel footage of the film’s premiere gives you an idea of just how famous De Sica was in his native Italy and contains a brief interview with the dapper director and Zavattini.
The film’s original trailer for Miracle in Milan is essentially a short film presented by lead actor Golisano outlining De Sica’s career up to that moment and then showcasing the film. There is also a whole other film, Il Tetto (1956), previously unavailable on DVD. Again written by Zavattini it focuses on an impoverished newly married couple trying to find a place of their own during the redevelopment of Romeand is well worth a look.  

The Deadly Spawn (1983, Douglas McKeown) – DVD Review

While this low-budget horror movie never quite manages to fulfil its promise it has a certain charm. Made in the same cheap and cheerful fashion as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) by a bunch of amateur filmmakers in New Jersey, The Deadly Spawn features intergalactic carnivorous aliens munching on the local population. A cult favourite on VHS the film is very much of its time. It has the bleakness often found in American horror films from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) onwards and the gross out comedy horror of the 80’s in which death is treated as an elaborate joke. The Deadly Spawn has a knowing sense of humour and is clearly made by people who love horror films and science fiction. The most resourceful character in the film is a kid who is obsessed with horror and is able to adapt when his own life turns into a scary movie. The creatures when they appear are suitably disgusting, tadpole-like with layers of teeth. Not nearly as frightening as the décor though. It’s terrifying, a mixture of garish colours and unholy shades of brown which might well inspire intergalactic visitors to think human beings are of little use except for eating or tearing into pieces. The film was a minor sensation today but now looks as hokey as the B-movies of the 1950’s. Fun though. 

Credit to Arrow Video they never stint on the extras. Doesn’t matter if the film is an arthouse classic like Ashes & Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958) or a daft homemade horror film like The Deadly Spawn Arrow respectfully takes the same care when putting the DVD extras together. In this case the special features are far more interesting than the actual movie. An accompanying booklet contains written work on The Deadly Spawn by film experts Calum Waddell and Tim Sullivan. Producer Ted A. Bohus provides two commentaries, one of which is a conversation with Editor Marc Harwood and basically involves them describing whose house they are filming in at that particular moment. This really was DIY filmmaking. The archive footage provided in a trio of features emphasises this. It is like watching a hairy grown-up version of Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams). John Dods IMDb page credits him with providing Matt Dillon dummies on A Kiss Before Dying (1991, James Deardon) and being Grace Jones Corpse Creator on Boomerang (1992. Reginald Hudlin). Since then he’s been off the radar, maybe Grace Jones got him, but there is an amusing documentary filmed in his workshop. There is also an audition reel which includes actors who didn’t get the parts they were reading for which is perhaps cruel, but not as cruel as it is funny. There are also interviews with Bohus on various low-rent TV channels, a comic strip prequel which attempts to give the film a backstory but seems more like an afterthought, and the original trailer for the film’s cinema release. 

Touch of Evil – Screening Notes

“You’re future is all used up. Why don’t you go home?”

Touch of Evil takes place in a small town on the Mexico/United States border. Mexican cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is newly married and about to begin his honeymoon with his American wife (Janet Leigh). A hero in his homeland for his battles with drug dealers, Vargas just wants to go on holiday, but the murder of a local businessman brings him into confrontation with Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Quinlan’s intuitive methods of investigating crimes often lead him to act in ways that aren’t always lawful. One of these men is heading for a fall.

Touch of Evil was Orson Welles last shot at Hollywood. Hired to play the bad guy, leading man Charlton Heston demanded Welles also direct. Studio execs at Universal weren’t keen. Welles had an undeserved reputation for being difficult, his films considered highbrow, even though he always tried to make them with an audience in mind. Touch of Evil is his most entertaining work, a stylish thriller which transcends its pulp origins as a dime store novel. Everybody brings their A-game. Heston’s casting seems bizarre but few actors have ever been as dignified or as solid. Screen legend Marlene Dietrich steals the show as an enigmatic fortune teller. Director of photography Russell Metty and Welles experiment with unusual camera angles and long elaborate takes including a celebrated opening shot which lasts for three and a half minutes without any cuts. Composer Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) jazz score suggests bourbon fuelled late nights, sweat, and sin.

Filming went well, but afterwards Welles was removed from the editing process. Touch of Evil played the B-movie circuit, usually as the second feature on a double-bill. Over the years the film’s reputation has grown and Touch of Evil is now recognised as being one of the last in the great cycle of Film Noir movies of the Forties and Fifties. These films were bleak, but exhilarating in the way the defied Hollywood conventions. They dealt with betrayal, and loss, and broken dreams and their cynical worldview struck a chord with post-War audiences.

It is easy to make comparisons between Quinlan and Welles – both are brilliant men but the architects of their own downfall. Welles directed his first movie Citizen Kane (1941) at the tender age of 25. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst took offence believing correctly the film was a thinly veiled biopic of him and set his media pack loose on Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was released in a truncated form after the studio RKO got fed up with waiting for Welles to return from filming a documentary in Rio and cut the film without him. Welles made other films on time and under budget, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) for instance, but the bad reputation stuck. After Touch of Evil Welles spent most of his time in Europe, occasionally appearing in big-budget Hollywood films like Casino Royale (1967) to raise funds for his own features.

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire- Underrated

The great English director Alan Clarke (1935-90) was best known for his unflinching portraits of working-class life. Films like Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982) and the Andrea Dunbar scripted Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986) were firmly in the social realist tradition. So Clarke directing a musical about a snooker match between a cowboy and a vampire was something of a departure.

Billy ‘the Kid’ (Phil Daniels) is a 20-year old rising star on the snooker circuit whose unconventional ways rile the snooker establishment. His manager T.O. aka ‘The One’ (Bruce Payne) is in debt to a gangster (Don Henderson) who demands a showdown match between Billy and the reigning world champion Maxwell Randall (Alun Armstrong), ‘the Green Baize Vampire.’ Randall represents the old guard and demands a 17 frame match with the loser never playing snooker again.

Back in the 80’s snooker was hugely popular in the United Kingdom. Players like Steve Davis, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins and Dennis Taylor were household names. The most striking player at the time was Ray Riordon, a tall, dark figure with a passing resemblance to ‘Dracula’ star Bela Lugosi. Clarke and his writer Trevor Preston based the Green Baize Vampire on Riordan and the brash youngster ‘the Kid’ on the young Jimmy White.

The showdown takes up the final half hour of the film. Clarke keeps things interesting by having Daniels and Armstrong performing their own shots so he can keep the actors in the frame and use sweeping camera angles. There is an expressionist feel to the sets. Everything takes place at night and we never see daylight. Though it seems Randall is just playing at being a vampire there are a couple of moments that suggest he may very well be a creature of the night.

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire sits uneasily alongside Clarke’s social realist work and is often avoided when critics discuss his work, but there is still a political element with Maxwell representing the establishment and Billy the underclass. Daniels is perfectly cast as the cocky youngster, while Armstrong is an amusing mixture of Northerner and the supernatural. Composer George Fenton ( The Company of Wolves ) acted as the musical arranger for the film. Bruce Payne has a terrific singing voice and gets the best number, ‘I’m The One.’

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire is unique. It is fair to say there will probably never be another film combining Westerns, vampires, and snooker. Sadly it came out shortly after another British musical, the ruinous Absolute Beginners (Julien Temple 1986) and despite the popularity of snooker Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire never found the audience it deserved.

Colin Clark seems to be the only person who benefited from the awful movie The Prince and the Showgirl (1957, Laurence Olivier) getting two factually dubious memoirs ‘The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me’ and ‘My Week with Marilyn’ out of the whole farrago. There might well be an interesting story behind this culture clash between two American icons and the British theatrical establishment but Colin Clark has bugger all to do with it. Norman Mailer thought it was comic, the British fancy folk with their curious rituals against two Americans who were self-made and despite their success both painfully shy and out of place. 

For the Millers are tied in class knots. English accents, Olivier’s in particular, have to certainly remind them that she is a girl from a semi-slum street and he is a boy from Brooklyn.

Norman Mailer, Marilyn 

Franz Kafka on Film

The movies were a regular pursuit for the writer Franz Kafka and his friends. Kafka died before the advent of sound, but lived long enough to see the best of the Silent Era. Willy Haas recounted (1) in the magazine he edited ‘The Literary World’ how he saw Kafka crying at footage of Berlin, his dream city; the place he longed to escape to. Kafka understood the power of the image, how it can haunt the viewer; the loss that can be involved in capturing in a place, or a person on film forever. “Dearest pictures are beautiful, pictures are something we can’t do without, but they are a torture too,’ (2) Kafka writes in his unfinished novel ‘Amerika.’

Kafka’s stories are cinematic; the images Kafka creates in the mind stay with you. Though the word Kafkaesque is often used to describe unyeilding beauracracy, and the powerlessness of the individual against the state Kafka’s stories deal mostly with maladjusted, fragile men, who seem to bring misfortune upon themselves despite their attempts to fit into the world around them. Kafka is also a great comic writer, his work can be tragic, but it is never without humour. A number of films have been adapted from his work, while others have used the author’s own life as inspiration.

The Trial (Orson Welles 1962)

As well as adapting ‘The Trial,’ Welles manages to find room for Kafka’s short story ‘At the Door of the Law.’ Welles opens the film by narrating this allegory about a man trying to gain access to the law, but being made to wait for a lifetime without ever knowing why. This addition suits The Trial perfectly. Josef K (Anthony Perkins) finds himself accused of an unnamed crime and tries to seek justice. Welles thought Josef K was guilty for being complicit in an unjust regime, but makes his Josef K more resistant to his fate than Kafka’s. Welles understands Kafka’s vein of black comedy though and brings a Noirish feel to The Trial.

The Insurance Man (Richard Eyre 1986)

One of two plays written by Alan Bennet about Kafka, the other being ‘Kafka’s Dick.’ Franz (Robert Hines), a young factory worker tries to ascertain whether he is entitled to compensation after blue patches appear on his skin. As he is sent from one part of a large building to another, he encounters various other claimants, in his search for the elusive Doctor Kafka (Daniel Day-Lewis). Darkly funny, with a brief world-weary show-stealing turn from Geoffrey Palmer, “people will be wanting compensation for being born next,” The Insurance Man is arguably the best Kafka film to date.

Kafka (Steven Soderbergh 1991)

Palme D’Or winner Steven Soderbergh crashed and burned with his second movie. Torn apart by US critics it eventually appeared on video in 1994. Jeremy Irons makes for a charming, diffident Kafka. Though Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs present a version of what author James Hawes (4) refers to as the ‘Kafka myth,’ it entertainingly combines Kafka’s life with elements of his own fiction. 

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Peter Capaldi 1993)

Inspired by Capaldi’s wife mistakenly referring to the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, this Oscar-winning short sees Kafka (Richard E Grant) afflicted with writer’s block on Christmas Eve. Kafka struggles to find a theme for his short story ‘Metamorphosis’ but his work is continually interrupted by Christmas well-wishers. Cleverly riffing on Capra’s movie and Kafka’s writing the production design by John Beard is beautiful and lends a Brother’s Grimm element to the film.

The Castle (Michael Haneke 1997)

Austrian doom-meister Michael Haneke made this version of Kafka’s unfinished novel for television. The late Ulrich Muhe is the landscape surveyor forever waiting for an invite to the castle. As gloomy as you would expect from Haneke it is also quite funny, and one of the director’s best films. Characteristically spare and focusing on beauracracy and the misuse of authority, key themes in both Haneke and Kafka’s work.

Metamorphosis (Valeri Fokin 2002)

Though Kafka’s work is almost synonymous with the absurd bureaucracy of the Communist regime, he is not well known in Russia. No surprises there, as the Communists banned his work. Russian director Valeri Fokin puts together a fine production of ‘Metamorphosis’ yet it has one glaring flaw. Neil Jordan once wrote (5) about the difficulty of adapting ‘Metamorphosis.’ How do you show the protagonist Gregor Samsa was once human? Fokin tries to solve this by having the actor Yevgeni Mironov pretend to be an insect, but this does not work. Gregor must become something other, a physical transformation needs to take place for the story to work properly.

1. Haas, Willy ‘The Literary World’
2. Kafka, Franz ‘Amerika’
3. Interview with Huw Weldon, BBC 1962
4. Hawes, James ‘Excavating Kafka,’ Quercus, 2008
5. Jordan, Neil ‘The Crying Game – An Original Screenplay,” Vintage Random House 1993, pvii,

They Drive

Ryan O’Neal as ‘The Driver’ in Walter Hill’s movie The Driver (1978)

Clive Owen as ‘The Driver’ in The Hire: Follow (2001, Wong Kar-Wai)

Dwayne Johnson as ‘Driver’ in the underrated Faster (2010 George Tillman Jr)

Ryan Gosling as ‘Driver’ in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011).

Mel Gibson as ‘The Driver’ in the forthcoming Get the Gringo (2012, Adrian Grunberg). 

Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen) – Programme Notes

‘Things are sweetest when they’re lost’
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s most financially successful film to date and picked up an Oscar for Best Screenplay last Sunday. Not bad for a director who was considered a busted flush in the United States and had to seek out funding in Europe. Allen has made four films in London and one in Spain since 2005, but his writing style felt incongruous outside of his regular New York surroundings. Paris has been in so many movies the city comes with its own set of clichés giving a writer of Allen’s abilities plenty of material to play around with. Allen pays homage to the City of Light in a beautiful extended opening sequence and this confidence extends to the rest of the film which is funny and charming and handled with a lightness of touch not seen in his work since The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). 
Like the earlier film Midnight in Paris has an element of the fantastical. Gil (Owen Wilson) feels alienated from his fellow American travellers. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her rich right-wing parents have little interest in the city beyond its material comforts. Worse still is Paul (Michael Sheen) an academic in town to deliver a speech at the Sorbonne, whose interest in culture has more to do with showing what impeccable taste he has than enjoying it. Gil wanders away from them one night and gets lost. 
As the clock strikes midnight he accepts a lift from a group of revellers dressed in an antiquated car and finds himself amongst another group of expatriates, the ‘Lost Generation’ of writers and artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill) are taking their first steps towards drink-fuelled oblivion, Cole Porter (Yves Heck) provides the musical accompaniment, while Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) muses on what it means to be a man; “have you ever shot a charging lion?” Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) is as you would expect a bit strange. 
It’s all terrific fun and the film’s message; live for the moment, don’t get distracted by thinking things were better once upon a time, suggest Allen has no interest in recapturing his own glory days but would rather move forward and try to create something new.