Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Streaming on Amazon Prime - ūüé•Janice Tong recommends THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK (Marc Webb, USA, 2017)

Kiersey Clemons as Mimi, Callum Turner as Thomas
Among the books and records

This is a film I absolutely loved when I chanced upon it the other night. Somehow we have been unsuspectingly subscribing to Amazon Prime since May…so, we thought we had better put it to good use before we terminated the service. With The Only Living Boy in New York, director Marc Webb returns us to the always fascinating streets of New York City where we are treated with quick fire repartee that I’ve always loved and associated with its people. 

Pierce Brosnan as the father

There’s a tonal signature that ties this film together with films of a certain ilk: it’s populated with characters from a Woody Allen film of the late 80s, with the pace of a Ferrara 0film from the 90s, the enticement of a Sex and the City episode and a could-be companion to the more recent My Salinger Year (2020) - another film that focuses on one of my favourite pastimes, writing.


Callum Turner is perfectly cast as young Thomas Webb, a recent college drop-out who has always wanted to be a writer. He’s working in a bookshop, reading and hanging out most of the time, much to the chagrin of his literary agent cum publishing father, the very urbane but not quite three-piece-suit-wearing Ethan (Pierce Brosnan reprising his ‘Ghostwriter’ demeanour). Thomas is secretly (or rather, not-so-secretly) in love with his best friend, Mimi, played by the delightful Kiersey Clemons, who works in a record store and is about to travel abroad (to Croatia) to further her studies, oh, and let’s not forget to mention that they had a one night stand not too long ago and, of course, Ethan now wants to take things a little further. 

Jeff Bridges as W.F.

After she gives him the “I’d rather be friends” speech, Thomas returns to his bedsit and meets W. F., his new neighbour who was literally able to read young Thomas like a book; this scene is terrifically played by Jeff Bridges (who looks a little like David Lynch throughout the film), the good-willed older neighbour who asks a bunch of overly familiar questions. With this rather odd introduction, some uncomfortable prying questions, it ends with W.F. shouting to Thomas’ departing figure to come over “and let your neighbour help you out”...”I’m in apartment 2B!” With the uncanny thought of “to be, or not to be” still ringing in our ears, an unlikely friendship begins. 


Further developments ensue, with Thomas encountering his father and his beautiful mistress Johanna (Kate Beckinsale) at a bar one night, and a little fascinated by this interlude, (think Freud’s primal scene) he decides to tail her. At first Mimi tagged along, but before long, Johanna became his obsession.


Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges


Whilst this is a narrative that is a little clich√©d and may have done the circuit a few times; here Webb’s story unfolds charmingly, with the narrative weaving in and out of songs from the 70s. We are treated to a back-story through the lens of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel to be precise and with some classic Lou ReedBrubeckBill EvansCharlie Mingus and Hancock thrown in for good measure. I even loved hearing the classic Whiter Shade of Pale, it made me think of that episode of Northern Exposure from many years ago (FTWK). In addition to the treasure trove of songs that take you down memory lane, the story has heart. It was also good to see Cynthia Nixon as Thomas’s mother, Judith, and know now that there’s life after her embodiment of Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City for 12 years. 

..playing sleuths...

Whilst Webb’s pedigree is from the well-known Spiderman franchise, I thought his stand-out film was in fact a non-spidey film Gifted (2017), made around the same time as this film, and similarly paced as well. Smaller, less grandiose, and more relatable. The escapism comes from being able to walk the streets with its citizens, and having a glimpse of the their lives. 


There’s little point in revealing plot advances or it’s denouement. You’ll have to go along for the ride to find out. As a perfect long weekend film to be enjoyed bringing with it a touch of 80s Woody Allen, and a lot of nostalgia for the Big Apple


The Only Living Boy in New York is currently showing on Amazon Prime.

Monday, 6 December 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare rejoices again in a thing of intense beauty PARTY GIRL (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1958)

"Vicky Gaye" (we know her as Cyd Charisse, click image to enlarge) dances for the mob accompanied by several roaring horns in Nick Ray's fabulous Party Girl (1958).

Ray had a lot of trouble on the production not least not being allowed to direct the musical numbers. These were directed by Robert Sidney, but they still look fabulous if only for the fact the movie was produced by Joe Pasternak, one of MGM's non -Freed musical specialists, so the production values get the works.
The new Warner Archive Blu-ray is a thing of intense beauty and would thrill the souls of the great French Cahier/Positif formalists if only they were all still around to see this incredibly beautiful transfer from an original Eastman neg.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Sydney Film Festival - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison puts in the hard yards to roundup his highlights of the 2021 event - Zhang Yimou, Asghar Farhadi, Paolo Sorrentino, Christian Petzold, Paul Schrader and Ildikó Enyedi

Well the Sydney Film Festival made a Covid delayed return without celebrity visitors 
(Paul Schrader sent a video that they played too loudly) or anyone too much worried about social distancing. Otherwise, it was pretty much the formula as before, the buzz of being force-fed a year of serious film and the old irritations - cashless box office, an image too small for most of the seats in the State.

I'd have liked to see  Jacues Audiard's Les olympiades  and Takayo Hirao's Pompo the Cinephile  but the schedule beat me. I did quite well by cherry-picking my way through it, though that's not the best way to go. The highlights have constantly proved to be unexpected. Think Larisa Shepiko’s 1963 Znoy, Richard Gordon & Carma Hinton‘s 1995 The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Ziad Doueiri’s 2017 L'insulte / The Insult. 

Zhang Yimou

Yi miao zhong/One Second  proved something of a return to form for Zhang Yimou.

Coming over the bleak dunes, Zhang Yi the ragged lead, gets into the dusty strip mall town in time to see a scruffy figure steal a reel of film from a courier’s motor bike left outside the bar. It takes a while to find out why this is so important while they fill in the back stories.

The thief is Liu Haocun, one of those “My goodness - you’re a girl” characters familiar from the Kung Fu movies and earlier and wider. She’s a companion to  Minzhi Wei in Zhang Yimou’s best film, the 1999  Yi ge dou bu neng shao/Not One Less, both children called on to carry adult responsibilities with their Cultural Revolution backgrounds a key element of the plot.

Along the way, the purloined reel gets to change hands with leads flanneling a truck driver with conflicting stories and the can with Newsreel Number 22 falls off a truck and gets dragged along a dirt road. 

The damaged reel has high significance for each of  the principals - income for the impoverished girl (lampshades made of movie films are trendy) his Mr. Movie  status and that of his tiny Unit 2 Town movie house for operator Fan Dianying and the powerful significance of one second (actually several) for Zhang Yi who proves to be on the run from a prison camp.

The film’s most memorable passages involve his district cinema where Fan involves his entire tiny community in the work of restoring the damaged film reel, preparing bowls of distilled water and drying racks to clean it while stressing to the stranger the importance of his work.

They take immense trouble with the technical stuff, finding a fifties hand joiner, applying film cement with a steel blade and wooden applicator stick and contriving a looping set up, which Fan Dianying proudly tells Zhang Yi his fellow operators are unable to do. It’s a bit concerning that after all this care the damaged reel shows negative damage rather than print wear.

The pair have to wait till the house empties after the showing of  Zhaodi Wu’s  Ying xiong er n√ľ/Heroic Sons and Daughters  (1964) which the clips make look livelier than the few movies we get to see from this era. Dianying explains that the audience will stay watching anything he puts on the screen with a hint of pride.

The security division are on the trail of  Zhang Yi and it is the film’s most poignant moment that neither they or Haocun Liu are able to understand when Dianying slips the fugitive frames of the image.

There is another tacked-on happy ending when the now scrubbed up and freshly clothed protagonist is given his liberty and returns to the village. It has been suggested that this tampering is the cause of the delay in the film’s release. Either by oversight or intention, we may be seeing more than overseas viewers who claim the fugitive's crime is unexplained, while we saw the projection box dialogue about punching out a red guard.

Not the least appealing aspect of the piece is its place in the line of films lingering on the importance of the movie shows of the maker’s youth - obviously Cinema
Paradiso (1988) along with The Last Picture Show (1971), Ettore Scola’s  Splendor
(1989)  Australia’s 1997 The Picture Show Man or the 2007 Hong Kong Lo kong ching
chuen/Mr. Cinema.

Persian Language drama Ghahreman / A Hero is recognisably the work of Asghar Farhadi again fronting the Iranian legal scheme.

Here decorator Amir Jadidi’s business is ruined by the arrival of printed sign technology. His failure to return borrowings from a family friend, made to get him free of a loan shark, has landed him in jail. On a two day release, he mounts an unraveling scam.

Audience sympathy with Jadidi is progressively eroded, shifting to his creditor who drew on his daughter’s dowry to help. When our Hero returns gold coins his lady friend found, he is is at first lionised by the prison authorities, the press and a charity which collects to meet his debts and awards him a framed certificate which he carries in a visual irony through a later part of the film. Everything Jadidi does digs him in deeper.

In a curious and revealing exposition, the people who actually have financial skin in the game drop out - the real owner of the coins or the creditor who storms out of the meeting honoring Jadidi, though his daughter remains indignant. Jadidi articulates the film’s message that it is no longer a matter of the money but of suspect honor. The jail governor fears another scandal after a suicide incident, the charity worries that its credibility and the financial support that brings will be imperiled. Jadidi turns on  friends who rehearse his speech impeded son for a pleading video. After his deceptions, this rings false. If we are meant to see this as a comment on values of the Iranian state it is too oblique. 

There’s an irrelevant opening, showing restoring the Tomb of Xerxes in Persepolis and referencing Bamaghan, interesting enough in a touristy way but padding an already long film. Performance and staging are straightforward providing the usual attraction of Iranian film - that it shows a society like but also very different from our own. PFarhadi only finally shifts from unemphatic handling to the striking dyptych of Jadidi in the dim image, signing back into the jail he couldn't face, while a prisoner unconnected to the story is brightly lit screen right, released through a background door into the sunny exterior.

After the conspicuous run of hits including The Young Pope and the drear Il grande bellezza Paolo Sorrentino is a star of subtitles Cinema, so his new √ą stata la mano di Dio/The Hand of God was always going to be a movie event. It’s a clearly autobiographical account of growing up in Naples in the 1980s with the writer-director assessing the input of his extended family, movies and the world-altering transfer of Diego Maradona to the city’s soccer team.

The piece opens with the limo offering aunt, voluptuous Luisa Ranieri, a lift where she gets goosed in the presence of “The Little Monk” who will make another appearance at the film’s end. She says it was to lift the curse of impotence but her wife beater husband says she was off whoring again when the family breaks up the rough stuff. This sets the tone where the film juggles fantasy and documentary with blurred division between them. 

Young Filippo Scotti’s parents dominate, mother Teresa Saponangelo, with a nice line in juggling oranges for the family’s delight, and dad Toni Servillo without whom the film loses traction. They front a grotesque gallery of relatives where the family picnic is dominated by exhibitionist Ranieri emptying the batteries out of an aunt’s decrepit suitor’s electrolarynx voice box into the bay. 

Around them pivot neighbor Baronessa Betty Pedrazzi, a head butting cigarette smuggler and Renato Tenerezza Carpentieri, in there somewhere too. Everything else is eclipsed by the Maradona deal. One of the most striking moments is the shot of the apartment balconies full of people cheering in unison the broadcast results of his game.

The streets contribute bizarre glimpses - the uncle playing hopscotch on the pavement,
the rich sheik with his abusive whore, the family trio riding the motor bike.

Gradually movies move into the center of this tumult. The influence of Fellini is cited along with Zeferelli,  not to mention the Once Upon a Time in America cassette that sits on the player, but they intrude physically in the person of Neapolitan director Antonio Capuano, played by Ciro Capano, who Scotti finds  in a Galleria shooting the scene which the young man will watch in a theatre before he sees Capuano leap up in the stalls and humiliate the starlet Salom√© on stage, before a night where Scotti walks the city in the company of the older man whose views jar with his vision of film as art. Director Capuano ends by offering Scotti work in his local Neapolitan productions but for no clear reason the last scene finds the kid pulling into Rome Trastavere.
Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold is one of the sharpest knives in the draw right now so his new Undine  is the subject of some anticipation, coming in the wake of his Nina Hoss films and Transit which was headed up with some skill by Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski  the leads of the new film.

Undine rapidly lays out the rules. Fraulein Beer who clearly has not spent hours in wardrobe and make up is facing Jacob Matschenz across their regular table in the yard coffee shop saying “If you leave me I would have to kill you.” That’s the water sprite who mates with a mortal with fatal consequences - right? 

The way we begin is the way we must go and the film keeps on throwing the spectator off balance by alternating the legend  and realistic narrative when we are getting used to the other. 

The elements are intriguing - Beer’s career lecturing on the history of Berlin using large scale table models, her abruptly appearing new lover  Franz Rogowski as a marine engineer working from an air hose in his diving gear and confronting a giant, menacing catfish near where he discovers her name painted on an under water tunnel mouth. This is plenty eerie.

It is juxtaposed by striking realistic scenes -  the fish tank that shatters round the pair,
Rogowski running the open air platform with the train bringing her to him. The police
told to hold her when it’s believed that he is brain dead from a diving accent, a logic and time-confronting recovery, the startling meeting in Matschenz’s night time, blue lit pool.

The illogicality is the film’s dominant element. It both gets attention and frustrates. There were too many phantom lovers and two year later titles in this festival but the excellence of performance and filming makes us forgive Undine’s irritations. The underwater hand is genuinely scarey

His sharp, saturated imagery and talented players (Maryam Zaree is another Petzold regular) assure us that he knows what he’s doing and if we can’t accept it, that’s too bad.

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader is a funny animal. He seems to live in the world of Film Festivals (he wrote a thesis on Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu) but he uses the frame of reference and personnel of popular Hollywood given a push towards the deep end - the sex workers of American Gigolo  and Hard Core, the low lifes of Taxi Driver or for that matter Mishima. I can’t think of a Paul Schrader movie character I’d like to introduce to mother and his work is becoming increasingly difficult to find.  The new Card Counter has proved indigestible for its Streaming producer and is headed to theatres in an inversion of the old scenario. I homed in on it with some enthusiasm.

It’s encouragingly, recognisably Schrader - first-person narration from the social reject lead’s journal which provides narration, like the ones from the country priest, Travis Bickel and Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper along with his American  underbelly setting and distinctive throbbing music like Blue Collar

Opening image of the cards on the green playing surface with loner Oscar Isaac’s voice-over laying out the values of cards in a blackjack deal, a skill acquired during his time in military prison, (“Red and black roulette is the only smart bet for a beginner”) and his modest goals which make his ability to beat the game inconspicuous. (“poker’s all about waiting”)

We see him move into his new hotel room and cover the furniture with his sheets. 

This is all compulsive viewing. Concentration isn’t  broken till young Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One) gives Isaac his room number after Veteran Military Expert William Dafoe’s Casino Security lecture, introducing the ABU Ghraib back story. The two elements never satisfactorily blend.

Sheridan is on a personal vendetta and knows that Isaac is one of the Abu Ghraib guards (“Nothing - nothing can justify what we did.”) who did time for the atrocities that none of their superiors were indicted for. We get a couple of distorting wide angle travelings through the violence and humiliation of the occupation prison cf. the cellar corridor depravities of Last Night in Soho.  Turns out that both Isaac and Sheridan want Dafoe (who we will only see one more time) to atone. “... the weight created by his last actions. “It is a weight that can never be removed.” The pair set out on a road trip through the country’s gambling resorts.

Previously comic performer, appealing Tiffany Haddish comes on for Isaac who recognises her as a recruiter for her stable of players financed by an off-screen banker on a percentage of the winnings but Isaac sees future indebtedness and declines. The trio become the focus for our sympathies contrasted to Alexander Babara’s loudmouth player, “Mr. America” who gets about in a stars and Stripes outfit supported by “U.S.A.” chanting supporters, with Isaac contemptuous of him never having served a day in the military. Things funnel down to the World Poker Tournament in Las Vegas where the players face off after Isaac has made a serious attempt to resolve Sheridan's situation.

Throw in Google Earth, TV News and a characteristic violent ending, with its coda of hands either side of the glass partition providing mood rather than resolution.

Strong performances, subdued colour, effective setting and atmospheric music all contribute but this one stands or falls on its script and the presentation of its subject.

Whatever its faults, The Card Counter is far more involving than most of both the
trival and earnest films competing in its market. Schrader’s fans among whom I count
myself will be rewarded.

 Ildik√≥ Enyedi

It’s hard to imagine Ildik√≥ Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife/A feles√©gem t√∂rt√©nete existing outside a film festival. We get a near three-hour piece relying on dialogue written by someone for whom English is a foreign language - “What peace do you find in living with me?” “You must accommodate life. Otherwise it will smash you.” “Fire! We’re burning.” 

The opening, with the narration over the underwater shots of a gliding whale, sets the eerie tone which the film would like to sustain and we are into the story of stoic Sea Captain, Dutch TV actor Gijs Naber in charge of a freighter where the multi-married cook tells him that the answer to his stomach problems is one or more women. The Captain takes this seriously and tells shady associate Sergio Rubini that he’s going to marry the next woman who comes through the door of the nicely decorated cafe. After a near miss, this turns out to be the always delectable L√©a Seydoux. She inexplicably agrees.

For a while, it looks as if we are in for diluted Joseph Conrad with the plot of Captain Naber joining classy passenger ship Marietta and refusing to send out distress signals,  incuring salvage costs, when a fire breaks out, despite the concern of his first officer - relying on steaming into a rain storm to put out the embers.

However when Naber goes onshore, non-sequiturs accumulate. What awful truth did the police want to conceal from him? We have to take for granted a mining scam which is supposed to make Haber rich, though it will impoverish the current owners. I’ll admit it is encouraging to see Rubini speaking expert English there. 

Narrative developments endlessly contradict one another What do we make of the Luna Wedler romance when our hero is enamored with Mlle Sedoux? When he distrusts Louis Garrel so profoundly why does Naber go into the rescue business on his suggestion? To sustain interest, we have to rely on the work of the celebrity cast and Miss Enyedi’s Hungarian associates, cameraman Marcell R√©v’s subdued lighting and designer Imola L√°ng’s simulation of early Twentieth Century Hamburg complete
with nicely decorated real streets. 

After punching out Garrel, Naber looks like he’s got things sorted but we get an inexplicable betrayal and ghost romance ending. The film shifts from Joseph Conrad to George DuMaurier - leaving me sorry I’d persisted through its 169 Minutes to get there. 

Enyedi must be remarkably persuasive. She previously got a sixty grand award out of the festival, managed to marshall resources on this scale and have the result sent out for our benefit.

Saturday, 4 December 2021

Vale Helen Tully - A stalwart of film preservation and conservation passes

The sad news has just arrived that Helen Tully, one of the stalwart and longest serving staff members of the National Film & Sound Archive, has died after a long battle with cancer. Helen was one of eight people who took a voluntary redundancy from the NFSA back in mid-2019. At the time I wanted to publish a tribute to her on this blog and had assembled a small set of tributes to her and her work from Colleagues and friends. I’m publishing these tributes and some more thoughts and am happy to add to them if people so wish.

Quentin Turnour


Helen was one of the dynamos of the NFSA and also important in supporting Ken Berryman when he was running the OH program. She was essential to my initial involvement in the agency.


Ken Berryman


I worked with Helen Tully at the NFSA for circa 30 years and Quentin's description is spot on. She was quite fearless, a champion of the organisation, especially its state office roles and programs, and a huge support to me personally and professionally over all that time. I am really saddened to see her go...



Malcolm Smith


This is a real loss.


I worked with Helen (and Ken Berryman) for several years whilst I was at Foxtel up to 2013. She was my liaison person at the NFSA and we had a fair number of projects which we were collaborating on.


In my experience, she always had the right attitude to her job. She was professional, proactive, enthusiastic and really cared about the NFSA and the media community. She gave good, honest advice and worked towards solving the inevitable roadblocks, getting stuff done and to positive outcomes. She always did her cheerful best to deliver. It was a pleasure to deal with her, and with you Ken, and I know we achieved a lot together.


Martha Ansara


For me, Helen’s been one of those people who embodies the NFSA and with her departure it feels that there is no more NFSA rather than no more Helen. There are some people at an institution who really do carry the spirit of the place that much! It’s not all bricks and mortar and reels and rolls…. there’s that ineffable something that creates the culture without which the institution no longer feels alive. Rather, it merely functions: efficiently, dysfunctionally or however— but it’s not alive.

Dominic Case

One of the really good people at the NFSA and I have nothing but good memories of our dealings.

Ray Edmondson

I am very sad to know that we have lost Helen. She was one of the longest serving NFSA staff members, having joined it when it was still part of the National Library. A  cheerful, warm, efficient, no-nonsense person,  she was passionate about her work, about the institution and about those it existed to serve. Ken and Martha have said it well. It is people like Helen who make the institution, not the bricks and mortar and reels. Rest in peace.

Graham Shirley

As a footage research client of NFSA prior to 2005, I always appreciated Helen’s enthusiastic approach to best serving any new Australian documentary (and occasionally mini-series or feature) which used NFSA-held archival material. In that context, and when I worked with her at NFSA from 2006 to 2009, I was also aware of how enormously hard she worked at any given project, often working into the evening when others had gone home for the day. I remember, when I was working on my doco about Z Special Unit, how well she handled acquiring for the NFSA ‘new’ (actually 60 years old) footage from a Melbourne woman whose father had, during WW2, filmed ZSU training activities on Fraser Island. She also headed NFSA’s Melbourne-headquartered TV Unit, forging and maintaining, with members of her team excellent working relationships with TV networks when it came to NFSA’s ongoing acquisition of television archival material.

Trevor Graham

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of archivist and colleague Helen Tully. I have such fond memories of Helen in the Melbourne office of the NFSA. When Sharon Connolly and I produced our first film, Red Matildas, in what now seems like the dinosaur era in the early 80s, Helen was on of the first archivists we encountered at the NFSA. She had an incredible knowledge of the national collection then, which only grew over her many years at the archive. Helen was always supportive, charming and helpful to filmmakers like myself. Even after moving to Sydney my first port of inquiry would be to ring Helen for advice. RIP Helen Tully

Friday, 3 December 2021

British Film Festival - Barrie Pattison casts an eye over BEST SELLERS (Lina Roessler, UK, 2021)

The current British Film Festival offers Best Sellers where personable stars and unfamiliar subject work up some interest in the opening stages but the project sinks under the weight of accumulated clich√©s and its false basic premise - elderly drunks who swear a lot are not endearing - and are rarely talented. The gifted ones have died early.

There are enough sharp exchanges to get a trailer “You have twenty thousand (Internet) followers. “Christ had followers and that didn’t end well.” “The Bible is a best seller.” However they run out well before the end. 

Aubrey Plaza

Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) has inherited a family boutique publishing house which is on the rocks b
ecause people don’t read books anymore - possibility of hip satire or weak comic clich√©s. The latter eventuate. The interview with the agent pitching the romance novel set on Mt. Everest (“Two on the Rocks”) is particularly feeble.

A competitor is sniffing round the business and the son is sniffing round Lucy. She and assistant Rachel Spence (Ellen Wong, who makes the most of her negligible role), go through the files trying to activate old contracts most of which are with dead writers. They come upon the fact that one time, one-off hit writer Harris Shaw (Michael Caine) owes them a book. He was last heard of facing assault charges for shooting at trespassers he thought were bears. They drive out to his remote home and go in despite the typeface stickers saying “Piss off” to find Caine leveling a shotgun. Wong’s reading of the line “We’re not bears” is particularly nice.

They face Caine with the contract and cash strapped he later shambles into their office with a trunk manuscript. The contract means either he does a promotion tour or Aubrey gets to edit the MSS. Chaos as she drives him round signings in clubs and bars and, faced with an audience, he pees on the book and repeatedly shouts “Bullshite” which goes instagram viral. Caine becomes famous but no one buys the book. One black guy comes up to the counter but he’s trying to sell Aubrey insurance and offering a copy of the book with every “Bullshite” T-Shirt gets no takers.

However she hits on the idea of having bar room customers read a passage to make up
the Promotion video and drunken Michael sets a stack of his work on fire in a bookstore and is arrested sending his Police ID photo viral with fans buying copies of the book to set on fire - very “Satanic Verses” this.

Michael Caine

It’s about the last chance the movie has, failing with univolving revelations about the first book and the business that provided Aubrey with the trust fund she’s dipping into.

Handling is technically competent. The two leads are sufficiently skilled to make flashes of self-knowledge register - as when Aubrey finds that her academic successes make no impression on Caine and he realises the problems he’s created for her. However by this time the false notes have accumulated along with the running time and conviction has wilted. The father and wife plots don’t register. The US setting is never established putting this in the same basket as other British miserabalist accounts of life in the US like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Worst of all, it fails to provide the break out dramatic role we’re waiting for from Plaza. 

The ginger cat is well trained but fades early.

Thursday, 2 December 2021

"....That kind of acting is easy..." Part Two of Tom Ryan's interview with Colin Firth conducted for the release of THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, USA, 2004)

Do you want to work in Hollywood, or have you deliberately been keeping your distance?

I’m not quite sure. I always assumed that they kept me at a distance. And that if they invited me I’d probably, you know, be tempted. But there’s a bit more interest from that department now. I would only go to work on interesting stuff. I have no interest in relocating myself in order to try to pursue a career from a different space. I like living in London. It’s my home, it’s where my friends are, and I stay purely for that reason. There’s so much I’d have to leave behind to go somewhere else. I don’t want to live in Hollywood only for that reason.

Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson,
The Girl with the Pearl Earring


What kind of preparation did you do for The Girl with a Pearl Earring? What kind of research?


That was easy in that it was fun. You know sometimes you play a character where the research isn’t. If I was playing a child murderer, I don’t know if I’d enjoy the research very much. With Girl with a Pearl Earring, I actually got to get my hands in paints and go to art galleries in Holland and, you know, just get inside the life of an artist who is absolutely fantastic. 

I could have been playing an artist I hated – and I would have had to find something I liked about him – but I actually already had a love of Vermeer. So I couldn’t really learn to paint to any useful purpose, but I could learn to hold the brush right and I could learn to mix the paint, and I just got familiar with the stuff and I found it all hugely enjoyable.


It wasn’t kind of like Ed Harris doing Jackson Pollock? It was more detached?


Well, yes. I mean, basically, what fascinated me about Vermeer wasn’t how he applied his brush. It was more how he must have seen things, because he saw so differently. You know, there are no layout lines on any of his figures: there’s no drawings underneath. If you look at Girl with a Pearl Earring, you can’t even see the outline of her nose and yet you know where it is. 

He had this extraordinary softness in his view of everything. Some of the characters are literally out of focus in some of his paintings. They’re in soft focus, which is partly why people think he used the camera because the human eye wasn’t seeing anything that way. It just didn’t. No other artist was doing that at that time. And I was just fascinated with how he saw. 

There’s a kind of intensity and gentleness to everything and so that fascinated me as an actor. I didn’t know if there was a way to express that, and in some ways it made everything frustratingly elusive. But that interested me more than the brush technique. Which is fine, because I had more to do with that as an actor than the brush technique. 

You know, you see me with a brush in my hand every so often, but a master painter and a bad painter are probably gonna look very similar holding a brush. So that wasn’t the important thing for me. It’s what he sees when he looks at her, or when he looks in the corner of a room, or when he looks at the light coming in through the window. It was that really.

Colin Firth, Essie Davis, The Girl with the Pearl Earring

Was there any one thing that gave you the key to the character? Like the wig?






No. And that was the thing. I think there were all sorts of things that helped. I mean the paintings themselves were the things I was chasing a lot of the time, but I never found a single foothold. And maybe it was not appropriate to find a single foothold. There’s something very elusive about the paintings and there’s something quite elusive about the story and about the man, I think. 

And maybe it was just as well that it stayed elusive. 

I just remember there came a point when I was deeply immersed in it all but had never found a single hook which helped solve any mysteries. And there came a point where the camera was rolling and someone said “Action” and I just had to get on and act, ready or not. And so, interestingly enough, it always felt like he was slipping away from me, but it just meant the chase was always on and it kept it very alive.


When you were planning the part, was the idea of Vermeer-as-brooding-theatre part of it? He makes a very theatrical entrance, pushing a curtain back, like an actor moving on to a stage…


No. I’ll let you into a secret. That was stolen from another scene. That was not my first appearance in the original script, or in what we shot. That was thought up when the film was rearranged in the editing. So it was actually part of a scene which we don’t have any more where she comes back from the apothecary with my paints and secretly hands them over to me at night. And that’s me returning from the pub, or something. So it was cleverly paced. And, again, that’s how films get made: you do it one way and someone has a rethink in the cutting-room. But, as you point out, it works very well exactly like that.


You’ve also been published as a writer with the short story, ‘The Department of Nothing’ (1). Is this another aspect of you that you want to develop?


I could say “yes”. But it’s always slightly out of reach because I never get down to it. I stay quite busy and the trouble is that the acting is the path of least resistance right now and it’s keeping me amused and stimulated, and it puts food on the table. So I think that the disciplines of writing are such that I’d have to forego this wonderful collaborative process of making films, that’s so fruitful in so many ways. I’d have to push all that aside and isolate myself for a while and calculate this other business and I haven’t reached the point where I’m prepared to do that. But I keep the idea alive. I’d either have to force myself to do it or wait until I fall on hard times.


Which is not likely to be in the near future.


Well, I don’t know. It could be in the very near future. Who knows? [Laughter]


Well, you could always play cricket for England, I suppose.


You haven’t seen my cricket. They wouldn’t even let me play cricket for my school.


Oh really. Still, I’m referring to the current England Test team… 


Oh, I see, “English cricket”. Maybe English cricket I could play. I see what you mean. 


I’m sorry.


Bloody Australians. No, I’m sorry, go on. [Laughter]


Of the work that you’ve done, what are you proudest of and what do you most regret?


Oh, no. I cannot possibly answer that. I probably could if you gave me some time, but I panic when someone says, ‘What’s your favourite song of all time?’ I’ve made mental lists for years over that and then when someone asks me everything goes out of my head.


Colin Firth, Tumbledown

What about something like Tumbledown?


Yes, I was proud of that. But I mean, I’m proud of it because it’s a kind of showcase. But I have to say that kind of acting is easy and I think that’s what people who are not actors find very difficult to understand. But, you know, a lot of histrionics, lot of passion, lot of anger, lot o’ tears. And the portraying of disability is very eye-catching stuff, but it’s not difficult to execute. Actors love it. 

Most actors who can act at all can do all of that stuff and they usually pick up a gong at the end of the day. It’s the subtleties that are really, really difficult, and are much less rewarding in terms of being appreciated. So, yes, I’m proud of it, but not because I think it was any great achievement of mine. I think it’s a fascinating, intelligent, uncompromising film. But there’s lots of other stuff I’ve done where the challenges have been greater.


(1) in Speaking with the Angel, an anthology of short stories edited by Nick Hornby, Penguin, 2000 (Firth in good company here: other included stories have been written by Hornby, Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh, Robert Harris and others)

Editor's Note: This is a second part of an interview with the actor Colin Firth. It was recorded by Melbourne film critic Tom Ryan as the basis of a feature article for The Age when the film was first released. The first part can be found  HERE Previous posts in this series have been devoted to conversations with Lawrence Kasdan (Part One)Lawrence Kasdan (Part Two) Costa-Gavras Jonathan Demme (Part One)  Jonathan Demme (Part Two) Click on the names to read the earlier pieces

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Streaming - John Baxter finds odd Christmas cheer in COMFORT AND JOY (Bill Forsyth, UK, 1984)


Bil Forsyth with his BAFTA

Programmers scouring the shelves for Christmas films won’t immediately be drawn to the 1984 Comfort and Joy.  Had Scots director/writer Bill Forsyth chosen a carol as theme music rather than the incongruous saxophone noodling of ex-Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler, it would be In the Bleak Midwinter, that bitter anthem which neutralises any hints of Christmas cheer.  Adding to the mood of existential despair, Forsyth furnishes the film with an obligato of half-heard newscasts of wars, slaughters and catastrophes, further illustrating man’s inhumanity to man (and, in one case, giant panda.).  

            Europe’s Christmas, like America’s Thanksgiving, can be less a time for reunion and reconciliation than for taking stock and settling scoresAccordingly, Comfort and Joy has little of eitherThat goes for Scots humour in general, which is closer to that of the Czechs in its dour ruefulness.  Among the classic Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers, The Maggie, The Man in the White Suit and Whisky Galore are the least characteristic, an acknowledgment that their Scots director, Alexander Mackendrick, had no truck with Home Counties cosiness. 

Bill Patterson as Dickie Bird

            Forsyth shares Mackendrick’s pleasure in the tendency of man’s best-laid plans to, as another Scot put it, “gang aft a-gley”. Glasgow radio presenter Alan “Dickie” Bird (Bill Paterson) has just returned from a pre-Christmas shopping expedition with girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) when she announces she’s leaving. She’d meant to give some warning, she says vaguely as she takes down pictures and clears shelves, “but the moment didn’t arrive.“ 

            Maddy isn’t seen again, except for some walk-ons in Alan’s dreams, but from what Forsyth shows of her moony manner and kleptomaniac habits, one can’t help feeling he’s well out of the relationship. His best friend, surgeon Colin (an uncharacteristically amiable Patrick Malahide) agrees. A rich and promising world awaits, he counsels, although his optimism is somewhat undermined by being offered while he’s scheduling a kidney transplant.

Clare Grogan as Charlotte

            Hopes of a new life and new women lead Alan into a misplaced exercise in chivalry, during which he tries to help Charlotte, a pretty girl embroiled in a feud within the Italian families that control Glasgow’s ice cream sellers and fish-and-chip shops. That this situation is based on fact and is played out in a wintry northern milieu reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ nihilistic Get Carter doesn’t make it any more probable but Forsyth showed as early as Gregory’s Girl that he understood how  incongruity is a medium in which comedy flourishes.

            He’s never happier than when he’s frustrating expectations, bringing us down to earth with a bump. In Local Hero, a rabbit rescued by a Scottish roadside with a broken leg turns up later, unheralded, in the stew. “ ‘Enjoying the evening’, ” someone observes of the shadowy Christine Lahti in Housekeeping, “which was what she called sitting in the dark.” Occasionally he reverses the effect. Alan escapes a bashing in Comfort and Joy when the thug in a ski mask recognises him and demands that he play something for his mum on the show. 

Bill Patterson menaced by a fan

            Bill Paterson gives a nicely shaded performance as Bird, a shallow man troubled by the suspicion, largely instilled by others, that he should be less contented than he is. Maddy’s lack of affect merely mirrors his own, and his attempts at achieving Significance with a radio documentary expire in the realisation that he doesn’t anything to say. The cheeriness of his early morning show fulfils a need both in his audience and himself, and the film ends with him hosting the Christmas afternoon programme with the promise that it will include nothing of the real world. Just the mindless refuge of jokes, music, comfort and joy.