Cinematic Sex: Iain Finlayson on Sex and Film

Sex and Film jacketSEX AND FILM: The Erotic in British, American and World Cinema by Barry Forshaw (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99): Iain Finlayson in The Times: Barry Forshaw concurs with Orson Welles who declared that “two things can never be filmed in an interesting way: prayer and sexual intercourse.” Nothing daunted, film makers have certainly given sex their best efforts, with varying results and reactions. In a very thorough review of cinematic sex from the witty Hollywood sex comedies of the 1930s and the 1960s to the European post-war reputation for frank sexuality and mesmerising, post-millennial shockers such as ‘Nymphomaniac’ by Lars von Trier, the explicit, the erotic and the exploitative are analysed with witty erudition. The section on the UK film industry is, pitifully, titled ‘British Smut’: typical were the cheap, camp, comic ‘Carry On’ films, or the fearful 1976 anti-sex comedy “I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight”, heavy on innuendo but light on lust. Forshaw, one of our best film critics, has probably watched more sex films than any furrow-browed censor ever did: for his own good, maybe now he should find a good prayer movie.

 

 

New Titles & Restorations from Arrow, Eureka, BFI, etc.

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THE LEGACY/Arrow  It’s a particular pleasure to welcome this superbly acted Danish drama to the DVD and Blu-ray medium, where picture values are intimately sharper than in its recent television incarnation. What’s more, the subtleties of playing and direction are even more apparent on the second viewing. Subterfuge and lies are the order the day when terminally ill artist Veronika Grønnegaard decides to make up for her past behaviour. Her grown-up children carry a heavy psychological burden exacerbated by her death – and her divisive legacy.

MAN OF THE WEST, Anthony Mann, director/Eureka Blu-ray  For many years, the reputation of John Ford as the greatest director of the Western film was assured, but current thinking is that the palm should be extended to the brilliant Anthony Mann, whose films have a psychological complexity and intensity that are particularly modern. They are also, of course, extremely beautiful, and one of the director’s very best is Man of the West, superbly utilising an ageing Gary Cooper (a far more interesting actor in middle-age than as a younger man); the film looks utterly pristine in this Eureka transfer,

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, Michael Powell, director/Studio Canal Blu-Ray/DVD  A sumptuous visual treat, Powell and Pressburger’s take on Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann has been painstakingly restored in 4k by The Film Foundation, supervised by Powell enthusiast Martin Scorsese, his widow (and top editor) Thelma Schoonmaker and Ned Price. Newly discovered sequences from Act Three (the least impressive, admittedly) and the Epilogue, which were missing from previously released versions of the film, were found in the nitrate material held at the BFI and put back into the film as the directors, Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger, originally intended. Based on Jacques Offenbach’s opera of the stories of romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN gave regular collaborators Powell and Pressburger another opportunity to eschew realism and celebrate artifice and creativity. Metropolitan opera star Robert Rounseville plays Hoffmann, a university student who is spectacularly unlucky in affairs of the heart. Each of his love affairs with Olympia (Moira Shearer), an animated doll, Venetian courtesan Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina) and soprano Antonia (Ann Ayars) is doomed to failure due to circumstances far beyond the hero’s control. A lavish cinematic fantasy of Technicolor, music and dance, the entire film is shaped around Offenbach’s original score, pre-recorded by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

SHERLOCK HOLMES, Various directors/BFI  A particular enthusiasm of Sherlock Holmes devotees is a spirited argument over which actor best incarnated Conan Doyle’s immortal character. Those of a certain age swear by the saturnine, beautifully spoken Basil Rathbone, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent modern-day reinvention of the character has gleaned many followers. But while the popular choice among television viewers has long been the impeccably cast Jeremy Brett, there are those who have espoused the cause of the classic BBC TV series featuring Douglas Wilmer (still going strong at 95 in 2014). But this particular judgement has had to be taken on trust, given that Wilmer’s series (with Nigel Stock as Watson) has been unseeable for so long. The 1965 TV series, though, has now enjoyed a belated wash-and-rinse courtesy of the BFI in a four-DVD set, which not only includes all the existing episodes, but also contains reconstructions of lost episodes, audio commentaries and an interview with a sprightly Douglas Wilmer. Wilmer, like so many of his fellow actors in the role, bore a marked resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations, but brought a highly individual and personal stamp to his Holmes — more wry and amused in his manner that many other actors. His first appearance was originally part of the BBC drama strand Detective (with a dramatisation of The Speckled Band) and so well-received was this initial outing that it led to a series, and it is a series which holds up well in the 21st-century. There are, of course, caveats: budgetary restraints are frequently apparent in some production design cost-cutting, and there is the occasional seat-of-the-pants, ramshackle feel to the production in terms of editing and staging, but it is a measure of Wilmer’s status (as opposed to Nigel Stock’s rather stolid Watson) that this is so rewarding for the Holmesian. With the lost William Gillette Holmes film recently surfacing in Paris, it’s becoming more and more possible to assess the individual achievements of the many actors who have played the Great Detective over the years.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, John Frankenheimer, director/Arrow  One would have thought that absolutely no recommendation was required for this superb American thriller (adapted from a novel by Richard Condon), withdrawn for many years by its star Frank Sinatra when he thought that it might have inspired the killer of his friend Jack Kennedy. Looked at today, it is a film of diamond-hard brilliance with note-perfect performances from Angela Lansbury (mesmerisingly imperious as a political hostess) and Sinatra himself, famously unfastidious as an actor, but here giving one of the best performances of his career. The remake with Denzel Washington was a solid piece of work, but it is utterly blown away by the original version, looking better than ever in Arrow’s transfer.

FIFTY SHADES: UNCOVERED/Odeon Entertainment   The only word for the furore that has exploded around E.L. James’s trilogy of erotic novels – and the subsequent money-spinning film — is ‘phenomenon’. And what a phenomenon! James’s literary style has been (to say the least) controversially received, but there is no denying the truly devoted readership that James’s books have enjoyed – particularly as they started life as fan fiction based around the Twilight franchise. And a particularly intriguing aspect of the phenomenon (as noted in this documentary, which features a wide range of commentators, including the comedian Jenny Eclair) is the fact that it is women who are the principal consumers of the sexually-charged Fifty Shades, whether on the page or on the screen. Those devotees will find this DVD intriguing viewing.

LES MISERABLES, Raymond Bernard, director//Eureka  Versions of Victor Hugo’s gritty classic are almost ten a penny these days, all (in their different ways) offering interesting takes on the novel. This one, however, is something special — and it is undoubtedly the version which (at a running time of 300 minutes) manages to incorporate far more of the novel then any competing versions. Originally released as three separate features in 1934, the film was particularly distinguished by the implacable Javert of Charles Vanel, who even matches the cinema’s supreme interpreter of the role, Charles Laughton.

SHOUT AT THE DEVIL, Peter Hunt, director/Odeon Entertainment  One of the great virtues of DVD is the chance to reassess films which were coolly received on their first appearance, and perhaps be a little more generous once the dust has settled. Shout at the Devil turns out to be no lost masterpiece (to put it charitably), but is amiable enough fun with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore enjoying themselves in a rumbustious adventure yarn, not to be taken too seriously. Picture quality is excellent.

LIFE ITSELF, Steve James, director/Dogwoof This documentary about the life and work of the eccentric but brilliant film critic Roger Ebert is sometimes difficult to watch (notably when viewing the grim physical effects of the cancer that finally killed him) but his love/hate relationship with fellow critic Jean Siskel makes this truly compelling viewing.

WILD RIVER, Elia Kazan, director/Eureka  One of the director Elia Kazan’s most neglected films, this fascinating drama (featuring well-observed performances by Montgomery Clift and the underrated Jo Van Fleet) is long overdue for a reassessment, which it receives here, courtesy of a typically impressive Blu-ray transfer from Eureka.

THE MISSING, Various directors/RLJ/ Acorn  This compelling crime drama about a father’s search for his missing son was must-see viewing for much of Britain on its original TV showing, with many of water-cooler moments in which people argued – both pro and con– about the developments throughout the series. If the ending was somewhat controversial, the series looks balanced and impressive in this DVD incarnation.

 

 

 

New Film Music

MONTAGE: GREAT FILM COMPOSERS AND THE PIANO: MUSIC BYJOHN WILLIAMS, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, RANDY NEWMAN, etc. Gloria Cheng, piano/ Harmonia Mundi B00QB4MRFA  This reviewer last met the film composer John Williams at a performance by Andre Previn of Williams’ First Symphony, which he has since withdrawn. I’ve always found that a source of regret, as it struck me as a in closely argued and impressive piece in Waltonian vein. The composer’s other serious works are — largely speaking — a world away from the instant dramatic appeal of such scores as Superman, as is evidenced from the knotty rather uncommunicative piece to be found on this disc played by Grammy-award winning pianist Gloria Cheng. Nevertheless, the collection proves that all the composers involved have much more in their compositional armoury than the film work we know them best for. But it’s not a particularly ingratiating disc.  THE CLASSIC FILM SCORES OF FRANZ WAXMAN, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt /HDTT Blu-ray Audio HDBD423 This is a fascinating experiment which, while not entirely successful displays some distinct possibilities. Utilising the Blu-ray audio medium in a very creative fashion, the original tapes for these dynamic and colourful Franz Waxman scores have been mastered from Quad tapes so that this is a genuine multichannel experience, presenting these scores (with their rattling percussion and exhilarating brass writing) in a sonic experience quite different from that presented by the LP which many of us have known for years. But the caveat is that the echo in the multichannel experience is slightly out of sync, which gives the impression of hearing the pieces in a large cathedral; there is also a loss of some treble compared to the original CD. Nevertheless, it is an experiment to be encouraged, and further issues may present more opportunities. WISEMAN: WOLF HALL, Locrian Ensemble of London, Debbie Wiseman/ Silva Screen SI LCD 1472  In an era of dumbed-down television, Wolf Hall was a shining beacon of intelligence, with Hilary Mantel’s novels treated in an unhurried but intensely dramatic fashion that demanded concentration on the part of the viewer (those not prepared to give such intention could switch channels to brain-dead reality or celebrity shows). And one aspect of the show’s success was much remarked upon, the superbly understated score by Debbie Weisman performed by the Locrian Ensemble of London. And this welcome CD is the perfect opportunity to examine that score in isolation; like the best film scores, it functions perfectly well on its own – it is a particularly egregious canard that film music only functions well within the context of the film.

Silva Screen releases Midsomer Murders Soundtrack

On 30th March Silva Screen Records will release Midsomer Murders Original TV Soundtrack. Quintessentially British, the Midsomer Murders series is a worldwide television phenomenon. This release brings together the music from the latest series focusing especially on the episode The Ballad Of Midsomer County.

Final Cut Entertainment to issue The Hunting Party

Final Cut Entertainment has announced an April issue date for The Hunting Party, the tough, bleak Western starring Gene Hackman, Oliver Reed and Candice Bergen. Directed by Don Medford, the unrelenting drama has Reed as Frank Calder, an outlaw leader dissatisfied with his wandering, shooting life and deciding to better himself. He kidnaps Melissa Ruger, a substitute school teacher, and insists that she teach him how to read. But Melissa’s husband, Brandt, wealthy and sadistic, gathers up a posse and sets out in violent pursuit.