Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Film Review: Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)

THE AGING CRAWLEYS

In 1928, the Crawleys meet with two unexpected events knocking at their door. One is an opportunity to boost their finance when a film production company requests to use their estate for a silent film. Two, Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, astounds the family when she reveals that she inherits a villa in France that was given to her by the recently deceased Marquis de Montmirail. To unveil the mystery, Robert and Cora travel to France and hand over the headship to Lady Mary to look after the estate and host the film crew.

Twelve years of legacy of this British cult Downton Abbey that all started as a television drama on ITV back in 2010 and followed by the first feature film in 2019 has kept its loyal fans like me occupied on our chairs and enjoying the beautiful artistry of their aristocracy. One aspect that was maintained throughout their presentation is that the show remained persistent in facing not only emotional but economic and political challenges. Just like the television drama and the first film, Downton Abbey: The New Era emphasized the changing times testing the old and traditional family.


LADY VIOLET’S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

There is a chance that the Downton Abbey-loving audience may get less motivated towards the plot of this film because both the events challenged in this film to the Crawleys may be assumed quite dramatic because these things neither occurred nor hinted at the future. The fan-favorite character of Lady Violet was assumed to die due to old age but the news she broke to the family after watching this drama for twelve years looked like a pretty forced attempt of writing in order to conclude this character. So revealing the news of her French inheritance is eyebrow-raising for me.

Why? If I assess this matter, perhaps will stretch at length but in short, the Crawleys, in the middle of the story met a severe financial crisis to the extent that they decided to cut the working staff. If the dowager knew about her inheritance for a long time, why didn’t she help out Robert when needed. If she came to know in this film in 1928, that’s the other thing.

But the death of Lady Violet’s character is a wise idea because I am not sure if Downton Abbey will continue to the third film although the story has the potential to continue to represent the Crawleys until the second World War if not the whole century. But it is the richness of Julian Fellowes‘ writing that I am concerned about, who is 72 already. How long can he continue storytelling us? What if he breathes his last during the continuity of Downton Abbey? I cannot imagine someone replacing his writing in the middle. After all, this Downton Abbey is his creation and needs to conclude one day. The same applies to Maggie Smith who is 87 at the time of writing this review. Therefore, killing the old character of the dowager was the right decision.


WAS FILM SHOOTING IN THE PLOT THE RIGHT IDEA?

This Downton Abbey film was particular to highlight this silent film industry business that reached the estate of the Crawleys. Shan’t film shooting be avoided and continued with a different plot? Here, there are two methods of judging this film. One is that the film didn’t need to show filmmaking and proceed with the familiar character developments. The audience may think that Julian Fellowes could have escaped the idea of shooting a film inside the estate for the sake of decent humor. Or the film definitely needed to show the change which was either acceptable or not to the old-age aristocratic family who has been facing economic, political, and social challenges. I support the latter.

Why? Because just like the Crawleys faced different events between 1912 and 1926, the art of filmmaking in the very same period was also meeting a change in the direction of the British winds. Many viewers may have not observed the sequence of shooting a silent film turning into sound after Lady Mary pinches the idea to the director that much of this is largely inspired by the making of Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1929 film ‘Blackmail‘ which is the first sound film in British filmmaking history. Blackmail was supposed to be a silent film but the producer let Hitchcock make some portions of the film in sound. But Hitchcock decided to make the entire film talkie. Just like depicted in Downton Abbey, Blackmail had a leading actress with a weak English accent and was dubbed by someone else. Moreover, Downton Abbey’s executive producer Gareth Neame is the grandson of Ronald Neame and was the assistant cameraman for ‘Blackmail’ before he established a prominent name in the film industry.


CLOSING REMARKS

Should Downton Abbey continue from here? I would love to see Julian Fellowes writing more about the Crawleys until the end of the Second World War if he guarantees that the aesthetics and quality will not compromise at all. Overall, Julian Fellowes offers another masterpiece presentation of the Crawleys with the visible ‘New Era’ elements. The loyalists of this drama will understand the film and praise it highly.

RATINGS: 8.2/10

Film Review: Spider Baby (1967)

The Merrye family suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Merrye Syndrome that causes mental, physical, and emotional regression. After the death of the family patriarch, the family chauffeur Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) looks after his children and tolerates the brutality and madness of the three Merrye siblings; spider-obsessed Virginia (Jill Banner), Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and Ralph (Sid Haig). But protecting them from the heinous crimes becomes almost impossible when the relatives of the building owner arrive with their lawyer and secretary to claim the ownership.

There was a time for the spooky and horror films that achieved cult status in Hollywood and Europe in the 1960s followed by Giallo films of Italy in the same decade until the late 1970s. This was a special wave created by some innovative filmmakers who believed in setting trends of the genre.

Two prime examples to make my point is Robert Aldrich‘s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho. But those films were directional classics of the genre and their production budgets were around $1 million. This Spider Baby was a low-budget film with a production investment of hardly $60-70 thousand. Maybe the reason is that director Jack Hill was making exploitation films in those times and this kind of film had a relatively low budget because, from the business point of view, they were never able to compete with the biggies of those times.

Spider Baby’s accomplishment is the presentation of the elements of black comedy and horror. The story itself was unique for the audience. Plus the actors of that syndrome did a lot of justice with their crazy portrayals. I was completely sold at the beginning scene where Virginia suddenly arrives in the room with two butcher knives and a rope which she calls her ‘web’ and brutally kills the visitor. The camera work and Jill’s body language were phenomenal. So was the main theme of the film that gives you a very exciting gothic feeling.

How good is it? Well, it definitely is not a masterpiece due to the low budget but an easy visit to the spooky genre for entertainment. Spider Baby will be remembered for its story and horror elements.

Ratings: 5/10

The Truffles Of Truffaut

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French New Wave (FNW) is a celebrated dominating cinematic era crossed in the timeline of the French film industry in which the films became equivalent to the art and literature in the state of free expressions and a break from conservative cinematic ideology. Among the peers of that golden era, François Truffaut (FT) is an ageless name who will always be remembered as one of the founding members of the historic movement and will be considered one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century.

Being a film critic, I watched all of his 21 directional works in 45 days to fathom his brain behind the camera and to dig for the answer to why is he a cultural and celebratory icon in arts and entertainment. I discover the answer compelling and I don’t know how to describe it in the shape of the blog but will endeavor my best.

Mr. Truffaut became well-known and controversial for his acid film criticism in the pages of Mr. Bazin’s film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, before turning his hand to filmmaking in the late 1950s. To understand FT’s work, the viewer must understand the concept of FNW which I have defined in the very first lines. Due to his fabulous contribution to western technical and cinematic innovations, Satyajit Ray acknowledged his debt to him. His admirers had particular praise for his screen depictions of children, obsessed men, and women driven by strong passions.

Among all his films, one thread is common. In almost every film, FT is a keen observer of life and reaches towards the smallest details no matter if it is related to the story or not. Either you watch his quintuple set of Antoine Doinel (AD) series, or the skirt-chasing film L’homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women) or child-behavior centered L’argent de poche (Small Change); FT fetches minor but rich details like the classroom environment, parents’ behavior towards their child, line pickings by a womanizer, etc.

Every film has an attention-seeking subject that compiles the viewers to watch. AD was a fictional character created by Truffaut himself and made five films in two decades. Being a realism-loyal, FT borrowed the time of Jean-Pierre Léaud to gift him the career highlight of his life, who played the character in all the films from childhood to adulthood. The character is often called FT’s own alter ego. It is about a disturbed and misunderstood boy in Paris who was sick of his parents and teachers, domestic and school life; one day he ran away and his story continued in the next four installments.

The first part Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) is considered among the greatest films of the last century and a gateway to the FNW movement. The film earned awards and nominations at many recognized awards functions like Cannes and Academy. Truffaut was so convinced with the character that his brilliance can be watched in the next films of his series. The next installment was a short film Antoine et Colette (Antoine and Colette) which described his failed love affair with Colette in his teenhood. Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) dramatized the building of Doinel’s character by struggling in the young hood and trying to settle in one job. Domicile Conjugal (Bed & Board) spoke about his marital life with Christine and his superb depiction of society. L’amour en fuite (Love on the Run) showed Doinel in his thirties who is divorcing Christine but also in an affair with a record-seller, Sabine.

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As FT is widely recognized for the films on AD but his directional artistry is stretched and dilated to his other notable works on different subjects. Truffaut was sensitive and tactful to child behavior due to his own disturbed childhood. He lived with his parents for the first time when he was eight years old after being passed to various nannies and his grandmother who instilled a love for books and films in him. His love for books can easily be seen in his films like Doinel reading Balzac in The 400 Blows, or Ferrard opening the package of books he ordered in La nuit américaine (Day For Night).

Even his only English-language film Fahrenheit 451 was based on the books. The film shows a fictional world where some totalitarian government controls general people’s life by dissuading them from the books. For this purpose, the government employs a group of firemen who detect books from every corner and burn them to ashes. Fahrenheit 451 and Small Change were among Truffaut’s best works after The 400 Blows.

Small Change is one of a kind when it comes to child behavior. It is about the kids from different backgrounds mostly lower and middle class, their social life, and behavior towards people of different ages. There is a sketch where a man catches a boy sending his letter to one of the buildings to a married woman for five francs. Then in another sketch, the boy’s manners in eating dinner are brought to our attention. My favorite aspect of the film is the depiction of children’s fascination and excitement with sexual behavior. It is a natural phenomenon but the cinematic presentation demands bold details on which the actions of child artists are subjected to sensitivity on their shoulders. It is easily one of the best coming-of-age films I have watched.

The same case is the film L’enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child) produced in 1970 based on a true and very tragic story of an unfortunate individual, Victor of Aveyron, who spent his childhood with no human contact and was caught by hunters in a nearby village. Although it looks like a documentary more than a feature film but Truffaut gives a remarkable insider into the boy’s development from the delayed general human behavior.

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Besides child-centered subjects, one of the FT’s biggest accomplishments was presenting a guide on the making of a film and the complications of shooting it. He was so caught up in the technical as well as the artistic aspects of filmmaking that he made a film about filmmaking, Day for Night.

Truffaut leaves no space to reveal the smallest of filming issues like a love affair between the two artists, producer/director dealing with the insurance company, forgetting dialogues, using the animal in a scene, hiring people on the spot, re-takes, and rehearsals, etc. It shows a further reality that sometimes due to some reasons, the dialogues and the scenes are changed, or the artists are convinced to do a scene so and so. These are small but very important and interesting details.  

In 1974, the film won BAFTA for Best Film and Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In addition to winning the Academy Award, it was named the best film of 1973 by the National Society of Film Critics in the United States, which also voted him the year’s top director. Easily one of the best films in filmmaking docudrama.

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Romance has always been a prestigious and distinguished subject in French cinema and Truffaut’s directional excellence shares the same artistic heritage. Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls) and Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) were the films focused on love triangle both based on Henri-Pierre Roché‘s novels of the same titles. Two English Girls is a sublime blend of fluctuations of romantic affairs, exchange of emotions, description of capriciousness, and very jeopardized harmony. Whereas Jules And Jim is a cinematic innovation to be always remembered for Truffaut’s marvelous efforts in bringing the best outcome in the film’s cinematography. Such qualities of camera work like panning shots, newsreel footage, photography stills, or freeze-frame were not common in cinematic business in those days. A freeze-frame was also done at the end of The 400 Blows.

The other romantic film which comes to my mind is the true story based on Victor Hugo‘s daughter, Adèle. A British army officer loved and proposed to her which she refused. Later she had a change of heart and traveled to Halifax during American Civil War to declare but the soldier loved her no more after the refusal. That drove her insane and made failed attempts to win him. Her obsession increased and began showing signs of mental illness.

L’histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adele H.) brought the actress Isabelle Adjani into the limelight and earned a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Truffaut’s direction was again hard to ignore. It was his remarkable presentation of dropping of emotions by Adele Hugo picturized on Adjani. The translation of mental collapse was very defining and tragic as overall FT produced a profoundly beautiful, tragic, and dark film.

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After watching all his films, one of my most important observations is that his films were more centered/inclined towards the story than the character. Through his films, he brought subjects to the attention of the viewers and didn’t focus a lot on the overall performances of the actors and their characters who mostly displayed average performance.

 Almost all the films were based on the literary works of many famous novelists but the message precise among all his films was the subject. La peau douce (The Soft Skin) and La femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) were subjected to an extramarital affair, Fahrenheit 451 was on books burning, Small Change on child abuse, Day for Night on filmmaking, The Man Who Loved Women on skirt-chaser and Vivement Dimanche! (Confidentially Yours) a murder-mystery. It is no hiding to the fact that character-centered films also made a huge name in French cinema like Léaud as AD and Isabelle as Adele.

In the smallest of details, the viewer will notice Truffaut’s love for animals, especially cats. Two of his films had identical shots of a cat nosing a lunch tray outside the door. Truffaut in Day For Night did show his fascination with cats by shooting the same cat-eat-lunch scene and went on to describe how hard is it to convince a cat to eat the food during the shot.

Among other details, we will often witness one common scene in many of his films depicting the domestic life of a couple i.e., the couples reading books together in bed before sleeping. Repeating the same scene might give us a clue about Truffaut’s personal life and some portion of his relationship with his wife and partner.

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Out of his 21 full-length directional works, my five favorite FT films are The 400 Blows, Small Change, Day For Night, Jules And Jim, and The Wild Child.

In 1963, FT was approached to direct the famous American film, Bonnie And Clyde. Truffaut showed his interest only in script development but later declined. FT admired the works of Alfred Hitchcock and two of his films, La mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black) and Confidentially Yours were a tribute to him. In 1981, Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Truffaut ”one of the most continuously surprising and accomplished directors of his day.”

His headquarters for years was the Paris office of his production company, Les Films du Carrosse, which he named after La Carrosse d’Or (The Golden Coach), a film by the French director Jean Renoir. As an actor, he played roles only in his own films. Later in his career, he went on to play the role of a French scientist in Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind which was his only outing as an actor.

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Truffaut was married to Madeleine Morgenstern from 1957 to 1965, and they had two daughters. He had affairs with many of his leading ladies. In 1968 he was engaged to actress Claude Jade who starred in the AD series. He and the leading actress of his last two films Fanny Ardant lived together for three years. During his relationship with Ardant, he had a stroke and was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. On 21 October 1984, Truffaut passed away at the age of 52.

The credit goes to Truffaut who redefined the ‘Auteur Theory‘ and criticized the quality of French cinema by further hitting with the statement that the worst of Jean Renoir’s films would always be more interesting than the best of the films of Jean Delannoy. Truffaut aimed to retire from the direction after completing 30 films and writing books later but he wasn’t destined for what he planned. But still left the world with global recognition in filmmaking. He is a huge cinematic inspiration and alive in the hearts of cinephile, sensible filmgoers, and film critics of the highest quality. I regard and consider him among the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century and personally one of my favorites. I wish we would have seen more of his work instead of knowing he passed away so early.

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