Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The Great Easter Film Round-Up Part 2

OK so it's a little bit late in the day, but better late than never I guess.

I've recently become very enthusiastic about the films of Billy Wilder. I've always admired Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch for their combination of arch intellect and playful comedy. Over the Easter break, I finally managed to see one of Wilder's many masterpieces Sunset Boulevard. This is simply one of those films that has such stature it is almost beyond criticism. Gloria Swanson revels in overacting as Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie star, living alone save for her Butler in a strange, isolated Hollywood mansion. William Holden plays a struggling screenwriter whose ragged attempts to escape sacrificing his car to bailiffs lead him to her weird world. Tentatively, he agrees to write a script for her, but he soon becomes deeply spellbound by her graceless, tragic decline. She claims 'I'm still a big star - it's just that the films have got smaller!'. In fact, her fan letters are invented by her butler (brilliantly played by Erich Von Stroheim), and her attempts to reignite her partnership with director Cecil B. De Mille (gamely playing himself) are distinctly uncomfortable. Nancy Olsen is vibrant and energetic as the young pretender who comes between them. The performances are pitched perfectly, coping admirably with the demands of an intelligent and powerful script and the tone is tightly controlled. The final conclusion has a grim inevitability which lends it more power. An essential and timeless classic of the cinema.

I'm not sure that I would describe Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves as a classic, but it certainly compelled me. It's one of those fairytales for adults, where every scene is imbued with psycho-sexual tension, and the world is seen from the primitive gaze of a young girl on the cusp of adolesence. Dreams merge with stories and stories merge with reality, and the structure of the film reflects these themes by being elusive and occasionally confusing. It looks fantastic, there is snow and mist - eerie darkness, and some stunningly nasty visual effects when humans mutate into wolves. This is a nightmarish world where everything is threatening, and where an innocent must confront her innermost fears. The symbolism is occasionally overbearing, and some may balk at the implicit sexualisation of youth. Nevertheless, the film benefits greatly from a confident performance from its young lead and also the commanding presence of Angela Lansbury, who is in her element as the girl's storytelling grandmother. It's not the most subtle piece of cinema, but it is extraordinarily well designed, and for that reason alone both distinctive and impressive.

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