Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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The Quare Fellow 2 out of 4 stars

This 1962 film is based on Brendan Behan’s first play, originally produced in 1954. It is not a particularly faithful adaptation, eschewing much of the humor of the stage version in favor of a more straightforward indictment of capital punishment. The “quare fellow” of the title (the term is a common Irish usage for someone who has become a major topic of conversation) is a condemned prisoner hours away from his execution. We never see him, but he is the center of the entire drama. Our point-of-view character is a wide-eyed new prison guard, freshly arrived in Dublin from an island off the Galway coast and eager to serve society. He is played by American-born Irish actor Patrick McGoohan, just a couple of years before he would become world famous as the star of Secret Agent and The Prisoner. His mentor is a gruff but humane senior warder, played by Galway author and actor Walter Macken. There are a number of other colorful characters that we imagine Behan drew from his own prison experiences, but they get short shrift to make way for a soap opera plot involving the young warder’s affair with the condemned man’s wife, played by Syliva Syms. You could argue that the movie stacks the deck by making the prisoners largely humorous and benign, but it’s all academic in Ireland anyway since capital punishment was largely abolished a couple years after the movie came out and was banned altogether in 1990. The film was co-adapted by its German-born American director Arthur Dreifuss. (Seen 28 September 2014)

The Queen 2 out of 4 stars

This 2006 film by Stephen Frears was showered with six Academy Award nominations, winning Best Actress for Helen Mirren in the title role. It is interesting to see this movie now, relatively soon after Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, which gave a different impression of the monarch and underlined how much time has gone by since the days in 1997 when many people in Britain went crazy (my take) over the death of Princess Diana. Indeed, the liberal newsreel footage used in Frear’s film reminded me of nothing so much as film coming out of North Korea after the death of the Dear Leader. It would have been easy for Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan to do a hatchet job on Her Royal Highness, but like our point of view character (none other than Tony Blair, as played by the chameleon-like Michael Sheen) we come to appreciate her position and maybe see the value in the institution of the monarchy. Instead, it is the anti-monarchist Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory), who comes off looking silly and a bit out of touch. The main fascination comes from the feeling of voyeurism as we watch intimate moments among the royal family that would never be documented first-hand. We come to understand why the Queen was loath to leave Balmoral, as her life approaches something normal there. We see her walking around and talking to people quite casually, using a mobile phone and driving a Range Rover. A decade and a half after the events portrayed, the Queen still endures. And her prediction to Blair (made by the screenwriter with the benefit of hindsight) about his own eventual fall in popularity has long since come to pass. (Seen 29 December 2011)

Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Magoo?) 1 out of 4 stars

I became curious about this odd 1966 French film when I first read about it in R.J. Jamison’s biography Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow. I resolved to seek it out last month after coming across a funky/dingy pub named Polly Maggoo in the Latin Quarter during our visit to Paris. Clearly, this strange cult film is an object of fascination for more than a few people, even four decades after it was made. As a disdainful satire of the fashion world (an easy target even, or especially, back then), it is a progenitor of everything from Prêt-à-Porter to Zoolander to The Devil Wears Prada. It also takes on the media and, well, anything else that seems to have been bugging William Klein, the New York-born photographer, who directed this. Depending on your point of view, the incoherent and jumpy narrative structure either reflects a unique vision of reality or else the cast and crew were just making it up as they went along. Some sequences have a compelling quality about them, but they work in isolation rather than part of a whole. Rewards for latter-day viewers include a young Jean Rochefort—who has one of the all-time great cinematic faces and who can currently be seen in my neck of the woods as a straight man waiter in Mr. Bean’s Holiday—as the journalist making the titular Ms. Maggoo the subject of a pretentious weekly reality program. (The following week’s subject is Pope Paul VI.) The late, lamented Philippe Noiret is on hand as a reporter. Sami Frey plays a prince whose destiny may be linked with Polly’s. Or not. And Grayson Hall does a dragon lady turn as a thinly disguised version of Diana Vreeland. In the end, it’s all more interesting as a time capsule than a movie. (Seen 17 May 2007)

The Quiet Man 3 out of 4 stars

I swore I would give this a fresh viewing. And I finally have. At this point in my life, this 1952 movie looks completely different from the first time or two that I saw it. For one thing, the scenery is completely familiar since I now live in the neighborhood. But the story and the characters have more resonance for me now. Make no mistake, I am no Sean Thornton. I have no Irish blood in me and moving to Ireland was no sentimental homecoming. Still, it is amazing how well the film captures the dynamics of an American-Irish marriage. This labor of love by Irish-American director John Ford is essentially a cartoon-ish shaggy dog story, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an awful lot of truth in it. Its portrait of small town life in the west, in which the community takes an outsize interest in the arrival of an apparent stranger and the personal affairs of a newly married couple rings all too true. Ford’s view of rural Irish life is largely idyllic, with the village embracing militant republicans as well as a Protestant reverend and his wife, and this view is not inaccurate. Still, some quaint features of the story compare grimly with current times. Ireland is doing some serious soul-searching these days about binge drinking and violence among its young men, and this fact gives the movie’s good-natured portrayal of drinking and fighting a bitter aftertaste. At the end of the day, however, this is still the definitive film about the tenacious hold that Ireland has always had on its American brethren. [Related commentary] (Seen 11 February 2003)

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