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Richard Attenborough

Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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Review: Brannigan

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

There’s some terrific supporting material in that cast list, but everybody onscreen looks, and has excellent reason for feeling, pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Brannigan is the sort of picture that gives John Wayne movies a bad name. Come to think of it, Brannigan is a bad name: it’s locked right in on the monolithic image of Wayne as 110-percent American tough guy with two fists and only one operational brain lobe, and whenever it takes four scriptwriters to come up with that kind of arithmetic, somebody’s in trouble.

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Review: Conduct Unbecoming

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Hands-down winner of the Wrongest Possible Project from the Very Beginning Award for 1975 is Conduct Unbecoming, a dreadful adaptation of a perhaps worse play, and a movie so misconceived—by the infallibly inept Michael Anderson—that its very attempts to juice itself with artificial life manage to exacerbate its turgidity. The cast list is imposing but the players, while too professional a lot to come right out and guy the piece, can’t manage to salvage it either. (What the hell, pick up the bucks via a few day contracts and hop a plane to something better: Christopher Plummer’s turn as Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King is discreetly fine enough to erase the memory of half a career’s worth of vainglorious posturing in junk like this.)

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

In the final shot of A Bridge Too Far, a Dutch widow, accompanied by a doctor, her children, and a cart loaded with a few precious possessions, moves slowly across the entire width of the Scope screen, leaving behind her home in Arnhem, ravaged by the worst pocket of the ill-fated Allied sortie into Holland in fall of 1944. One of the woman’s children has fallen behind the group and is playing at soldier, a stick held at shoulder arms. It’s a shot that contrasts sharply with the final shot of Attenborough’s first directorial effort, Oh! What a Lovely War: from a family tending a single grave, the camera cranes back and up, slowly but relentlessly, revealing row upon row upon row of identical white crosses, stretching incredibly away as far as the eye can see. That shot had power without subtlety; the finish of Attenborough’s newest film is subtler but powerless. Both end-shots are representative of the token manner in which Attenborough has come to handle the problem of war.

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