The Apartment (1960)

2009 #36
Billy Wilder | 125 mins | download | PG

The ApartmentAn article I once read (but have long since misplaced, unfortunately) asserted that Billy Wilder once said (and I paraphrase heavily here, I’m sure) that, contrary to expectations, when he was feeling happy he’d make a serious picture, and when feeling down he’d make a comedy. Goodness only knows what kind of mood he was in when he chose to make The Apartment, then, because it flits between the two with gay abandon.

It begins almost as a farce, with Jack Lemmon playing up the near-misses inherent in lending your apartment to adulterous men; and though this comedic vein never goes away, the film also develops a dark side. Alongside the affairs and underhand dealings — in which our hero is closely involved — there’s an attempted overdose, discussion of other suicide methods, and respectable men getting divorced. It all seems quite shocking for a film made under the Hays Code, though that was on its last legs (Wilder’s own Some Like It Hot had been released without code approval the year before and still been a huge hit), and Mad Men and its ilk suggest such goings-on by businessmen may not have been so surprising to contemporary viewers either.

On the technical side, Wilder employs long scenes and long takes, but Lemmon never stops bustling through them, always doing something, keeping the film active and moving even when Wilder declines to follow. It’s the latter that makes the former so effective, rendering Lemmon’s character the odd one in an otherwise static world, the one still turning to humour in the face of all life’s bleakness.

Real life always serves up humour alongside tragedy, yet despite that it takes skilled filmmakers to do the same without one lessening the other. Wilder and Lemmon are, of course, among them, and one can imagine few finer examples of such a blend than The Apartment.

5 out of 5

Some Like It Hot (1959)

2009 #2a
Billy Wilder | 117 mins | DVD | U / PG-13

Some Like It HotDid you know that Some Like It Hot is a remake of a 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe? I didn’t. Anyway…

The first (and last) time I saw Some Like It Hot was so long ago that, even when watching it again, there are whole swathes of the film I didn’t recall. How few clothes Marilyn Monroe wears, for one thing. I guess I was quite young first time. The only thing I did remember was enjoying it immensely; and, enjoying it again, didn’t want to skip the chance of handing it five stars in this pathetically brief review.

To be concise, it’s a very funny film even 50 years on. It rattles from situation to situation at an occasionally surprising pace, literally without a dull moment. Not that there’s anything wrong with slower old films, but its certainly spritely for its age.

And with it, a genuine classic. Never mind some — everyone should like it a lot.

5 out of 5

Sorry for the pun.

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5