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Friday, 30 January 2015

Classic Film Review: From This Day Forward (1946)

Utilising flashbacks, From This Day Forward tells the story of Susan (Joan Fontaine) and Bill's (Mark Stevens) marriage and the difficulties their face both before the war and in the present with Bill waiting in line at the employment office. It's a slice-of-life domestic drama which also features Rosemary DeCamp as Susan's sister Martha and Harry Morgan as her husband Hank.

Although this film gets it right in places, it's a bit of an unshapely mess designed to promote the work the US Employment Office was doing post-war. We start with Bill filling in forms and he doesn't want to do it for whatever reason so we get flashbacks to his engagement and early married life. The problem is that there's no real urgency in the narrative. We don't find out Bill's 'fear' about why he won't get a job for quite some time and, by then, it's ceased to matter. There's no real on-going thread beyond the marriage and that gets stale. Something else which irritated me was the representation of Hank. I appreciated his layabout nature in the majority of the film - it contrasted neatly with Bill's work ethic and gave a more negative portrayal of a marriage with Harry Morgan once again proving his worth as an excellent supporting actor. However, by the end of the film he seems to be a reformed character with no explanation of why.

The performances overall are good, however. Joan Fontaine might be a little miscast as a New York housewife but she's stunning in every scene and that more than makes up for it in my opinion. I feel as though the role of Bill could've been played by anyone but Mark Stevens makes a good job of it. In their early scenes, though, Rosemary DeCamp and Harry Morgan are just brilliant and it's their representation of married life which lingers more potently for me.

Overall, this film feels a little laboured but has some good moments. It would've been better had it not been a blatant piece of propaganda for a government office with a plot tacked on but Fontaine still sparkles.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Classic Film Review: The Nun's Story (1959)

The Nun's Story stars Audrey Hepburn as Gabrielle van der Mal, the daughter of a respected doctor (Dean Jagger), who decides to enter a convent with the ultimate aim of being able to battle tropical diseases in the Congo. It follows her various trials to get there and her troubles with her faith that manifest themselves most acutely when she meets Dr Fortunati (Peter Finch) and after the outbreak of war.

This is a pretty long film and, at times, it feels too long. While I found the intricacies of entering the convent and their teachings fascinating, I'm quite probably in the minority on that score. The opening section of the film, then, can be seen as lengthy and, something that certainty doesn't help a viewer trying to hook onto something, are all the various nuns who flit in and out of the film. Such luminaries as Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft have roles but keeping everyone straight, especially in the different locations, is tricky. However, in a film of this breadth that's to be expected.

Those are my criticisms but there's plenty to enjoy in this film. Audrey Hepburn is, quite simply, brilliant as Sister Luke, conveying more in the simple flicker of her eyes than most actresses could do with a placard held up. Her struggles, though rarely directly spoken of, are manifest in every scene, growing stronger as time passes. There's never a moment where the audience doesn't know what she's thinking, even if the person she's speaking to is clueless.

Beyond Hepburn's performances, the unshrinking depiction of religious life and the struggles faced by nuns is notable, along with the brief entry into the world of mental health care. Similarly, there is one scene later that is extremely shocking, more so because it comes out of nowhere. The dramatic moments in this film are few and far between but it's never boring. In addition, the score is wonderful and the direction so precise that you can feel the dedication in every moment.

Ultimately, this is a film to watch at least once. I may not watch it again because of the length but it's an exceptional Audrey Hepburn film - and that's a feat in itself.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Available Online Now: Writing Westgate

Some of you may remember that I took part in an event at the Wakefield Lit Fest in September which was the result of several sessions with a group of local writers as we explored the new Wakefield Westgate station. My retrospective on the event can be found here.

Now the work has been published online and looks quite nifty, if I do say so myself. So, please, take a look at the pieces there by Steve, Nigel, Gregg, Daniel, Jimmy and Stefan and, if you're inclined, have a read of my pieces 'Ticket Machine' and 'Platform 1'. For a bonus, the picture of me that accompanies them is from when I still had long hair and has me almost smiling. Now that took some doing, as the photographer commented at the time. Seriously, though, they're all worth a read so consider taking a look.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Classic Film Review: Hue and Cry (1947)

Hue and Cry tells the story of a group of street boys led by Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) who realise that a comic is being used to tell a gang of thieves when, where and how they should commit their latest robbery. Joe's accusations are dismissed by the police and his boss so he and his friends decide to do some digging on their own. They first suspect the writer of the comic Felix H. Wilkinson (Alastair Sim) but then they identify the code and realise the culprit must be someone in the production process. But will anyone believe a bunch of troublesome kids?

Once this got going, I enjoyed it. The opening scenes introducing the kids are a little tricky because there are so many of them introduced in a short burst but once the focus settles more on Joe it's easier to follow. All the kids are good actors too, something I was surprised about. It's not laugh out loud comedy but there are some funny moments and some genuinely tense ones. Alastair Sim is playing his usual type of part but it's enjoyable enough in this context, especially when the boys don't know whether to trust him or not.

The ending of the film is quite fun and there is a sense of real danger, even though it's a comedy and everything should work out fine. All in all, this is a good film with some excellent performances from younger actors. I couldn't remember where I'd seen Harry Fowler before but it turns out I watched him in another Ealing production Went the Day Well? (1942, reviewed here) where he was equally as impressive. Something to look out for on a trivia level is that Fowler later married his co-star Joan Dowling, though she committed suicide after only a few years of marriage. My advice with Hue and Cry is, if you're struggling to get into it, give it a little longer to capture your attention.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book Review: Dead To Me by Cath Staincliffe

A prequel novel to the television series Scott & Bailey, Dead To Me follows DC Rachel Bailey as she joins MIT and gets to grips with the case of a young woman found dead in her flat. Rachel clashes with her new team, especially DC Janet Scott who sees her as immature and impulsive but DCI Gill Murray believes she'll be a useful addition to the team. As the investigation wears on, spectres from both Rachel and Janet's pasts unsettle them but they gradually learn to work together.

With a book like this, there was the chance it would turn into a second-rate spin-off novel. However, written by someone with the talent and expertise of Staincliffe and deliberately filling in a gap in the series rather than recounting a tale we already know from the screen, I found it brilliant. Anyone familiar with the series will know that an integral aspect are the relationships between Rachel, Janet and Gill. Dead To Me sets all this up perfectly, showing the rocky start of what would become Rachel and Janet's friendship whilst staying completely true to the characters. It felt like I was watching it in my head and nothing really stuck out as 'wrong'. Even so, I believe even people unfamiliar with the television series would enjoy it - all the main characters are introduced and explored properly but generally - and this is important - in relations to the investigation.

I don't want to give too much of the crime plot away. All I'll say it that I had an inkling but I wasn't sure until the detectives were sure, just as it should be. Also, Staincliffe's immersion into the more prosaic elements of crime detection mimics the series, coming across as completely authentic without being too boring.

All in all, this was an excellent book. I felt like I'd spent time with three of my favourite television characters whilst still enjoying a twisting murder plot. Thoroughly recommended.

This book was read as part of the 'New Author' reading challenge, details here.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Classic Film Review: The Great Caruso (1951)

The Great Caruso stars Mario Lanza as the famous opera singer who grew up in Naples and then gradually won appreciation by the critics despite the fact he was a peasant. It documents the death of his mother and then his difficulties with the woman he first wants to marry before his career takes off. Then he meets Dorothy (Ann Blyth) and finds someone who, though she dislikes opera, can give him the support he needs.

From what I've read, this film isn't so much a biopic as a film loosely based on Caruso's life with plenty of songs thrown in. There isn't too too biography in there and that, I think, was what damaged my interest, especially in the first half of the film. It will appeal to those who want to hear numerous Caruso songs sung by Lanza but I struggled to care. Opera isn't really my thing, although I appreciated the scenes around his struggles rather than his successes. Lanza is excellent both in voice and body and certainly dominates the film.

The rest of the cast work well, although some of the faces Caruso surrounds himself with blend into one. Ann Blyth as Dorothy manages that remarkable feat of ageing on screen, first appearing as a young girl and evolving into Caruso's wife, and her performance is very enjoyable. However, I found that I was entranced by professional opera singer Dorothy Kirsten as Louise Heggar, an actress who only appeared in a handful of films but was prolific on the stage. The final scene between Kirsten and Lanza was memorable, not because of what it leads to but because of the delicate interplay between the pair.

While much of this film is played for dramatic effect, it's a good way to listen to Mario Lanza singing snippets of numerous songs and it's a fine way to while away an afternoon. Not one I'll be rewatching but that's down to personal preference more than anything.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama Television from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey

Before Christmas I received my copy of Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama Television from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey edited by James Leggott and Julie Anne Taddeo. True to form, I haven't yet managed to dip into the rest of the collection, though expect a review of some sort when I eventually get time to enjoy it. My essay is in the third section, entitled "Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey" which examines the characters of Alfred Harris in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton's Thomas Barrow.

Part I: Approaches to the Costume Drama

1. Pageantry and Populism, Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 1970s — Claire Monk

2. History’s Drama: Narrative Space in “Golden Age” British Television Drama — Tom Bragg

3. “It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!”: Costume Comedy and British Television — James Leggott

4. “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion”: British Costume Drama, Dickens, and Serialization — Marc Napolitano

5. Never-Ending Stories?: The Paradise and the Period Drama Series — Benjamin Poore

6. Epistolarity and Masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope Adaptations — Ellen Moody

7. “What Are We Going to Do with Uncle Arthur?”: Music in the British Serialized Period Drama — Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M Strovas

Part II: The Costume Drama, History, and Heritage

8. British Historical Drama and the Middle Ages — Andrew B. R. Elliott

9. Desacralizing the Icon: Elizabeth I on Television — Sabrina Alcorn Baron

10. “It’s not the navy-we don’t stand back to stand upwards”: The Onedin Line and the Changing Waters of British Maritime Identity — Mark Fryers

11. Good-Bye to All That: Piece of Cake, Danger UXB, and the Second World War — A. Bowdoin Van Riper

12. Upstairs, Downstairs (2010-2012) and Narratives of Domestic and Foreign Appeasement — Giselle Bastin

13. New Developments in Heritage: The Recent Dark Side of Downton “Downer” Abbey — Katherine Byrne

14. Experimentation and Postheritage in Contemporary TV Drama: Parade’s End — Stella Hockenhull

Part III: The Costume Drama, Sexual Politics, and Fandom

15. “Why don’t you take her?”: Rape in the Poldark Narrative — Julie Anne Taddeo

16. The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction — Andrea Schmidt

17. This Wonderful Commercial Machine: Gender, Class, and the Pleasures and Spectacle of Shopping in The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge — Andrea Wright

18. Taking a Pregnant Pause: Interrogating the Feminist Potential of Call the Midwife — Louise FitzGerald

19. Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey — Lucy Brown

20. Troubled by Violence: Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street — Elke Weissmann

Friday, 2 January 2015

Classic Film Review: Silk Stockings (1957)

Silk Stockings, a musical adaptation of Ninotchka, stars Cyd Charisse as Ninotchka, a Soviet Agent sent to Paris to retrieve three fellow agents and a composer who have found living in the city preferable to returning home. Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) is eager to keep the composer in France to finish his film and gently persuades Ninotchka that Western decadence isn't all that bad. The film also stars Peter Lorre as Brankov, Jules Munshin as Bibinski and Janis Paige as Peggy.

A film like this naturally relies on stereotypes, some of which are still humorous but some of which have grown stale over the years. Nevertheless, it's entertaining enough with the straight-laced Ninotchka providing a good foil to the rest of the eccentric company for much of the film. Jules Munshin is excellent as the leader of the three agents in Paris while Janis Paige shines in her role as actress Peggy. My criticism of the Peggy strand of the narrative is that she just disappears and I would've liked to see more of her at the end of the film, particularly after her show-stopping (quite literally) number 'Josephine'.

The songs in Silk Stockings aren't some of Cole Porter's best known but they are witty, enjoyable and beautifully choreographed. 'Satin and Silk', another Janis Paige number, is bouncy enough, though it has to be 'Stereophonic Sound', a duet by Astaire and Paige as they satirise the conventions of modern movies, that steals the show. Cyd Charisse's singing is dubbed as usual but her dancing is phenomenal, with her dance to the title song comparable to a religious experience in some ways. She's utterly captivating, even if this is one of those films where Fred Astaire's age-gap relationships become slightly unsettling. Astaire himself is on-form with his dancing skills and wit and the cast works well together, even if the billing of Peter Lorre is a little generous considering the amount of time he's on screen.

Ultimately, two things linger from this film for me - the brilliance of Cole Porter's song 'Stereophonic Sound' and the beauty of Cyd Charisse's metamorphosis via the medium of dance. Here are both of them for you to sample...