Back Row Banter

From explosions to pathos

Monday Playlist #2 June 7, 2010

Start your week with a film based playlist I’ll loving put together and share with you via Spotify.

This week’s playlist:

* Theme    (by Jon Brion from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

* Need You Around    (by Smoking Popes from Clueless)

* Don’t Be Shy    (by Cat Stevens from Harold and Maude)

* Tha Crossroads    (by Bone Thugz-N-Harmony from Pineapple Express)

* All Is Love    (by Karen O and The Kids from Where The Wild Things Are)

* You Make Me Feel So Young    (by Frank Sinatra from Elf)

* Fade Into You    (by Mazzy Star from Angus)

* Suspiria    (by Goblin from Suspiria)


Friday Favourite: Cinema Paradiso – Kissing montage June 4, 2010

Each Friday I write a bit about something small I really enjoy. I hope you enjoy these little things as much as I do.

   Since the dawn of cinema the on-screen act of kissing has played an integral role in the art form. Early films such as The Kiss from 1896 and G.A. Smith’s Kiss In The Tunnel are amongst my favourite examples of how sumptuous and beautiful cinema can be as a medium. Clearly I am not the only one that shares that view.

   No-one, however, has ever been able to describe the majesty of the on-screen kiss as well as Giuseppe Tornatore in his sentimental classic Cinema Paradiso. Through the simple act of creating a montage of cinema’s most luminous kissing sequences, Tornatore has managed to create a scene that simultaneously reminds the viewer of the most ecstatic moments in celluloid history, the small scenes that transcend art, whilst creating a sense of nostalgia and warmth. The scene reminds the viewers of the very best that film has to offer, the romance, the passion. At the same time the sequence is transportative; it gives a proustian rush to the very best times of the viewer’s life – the scene places the viewer in their own life’s most romantic scene, the time when they were closest to Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman. Tornatore, with the help of a swooning score by Ennio Morricone, has crafted a beautiful love letter to cinema as a medium as well as an accurate representation of love and the feeling of being head over heels in love.

   Below is this weeks Friday Favourite. If you don’t melt a wee bit watching this scene then I don’t believe you having a heart capable of love.


Review: Mary Poppins June 3, 2010

Filed under: Review — kjcasey @ 15:11
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   Amongst the many wisdoms Mary Poppins dispenses to the children in her care is the statement that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This is a truism that could easily be applied to this winning and timeless tale about the magical nanny who changes the world around her with her wholesome charm.

   Mary Poppins is the story of two young children, Jane and Michael, who their father, Mr. Banks, is too busy to give attention to and endeavours to find a nanny to look after them. The first candidate is not exactly what Mr. Banks is looking for – she is eccentric not prim, avuncular not authoritative. Yet upon arrival she inveigles herself into his employ by bamboozling and perplexing the cold patriarch and immediately begins to charm the children with her magical ways. Mary Poppins introduces the children to the small wonders of the world around them – the charismatic Bert, the Bird Lady, the power of imagination. As Michael and Jane become alive to their imaginations they are filled with joy; something Mr. Banks can’t understand. He is logical, practical – why waste a good tuppence on feeding scratty birds when it could be saved or invested? Maybe, he reckons, this Mary Poppins is a bad influence.

   As a feature Mary Poppins is largely, and inaccurately, remembered as a piece of throw away light entertainment widely ridiculed due to the strange cockney accent Dick Van Dyke employs during his performance as Bert. Yet the film is so much more than this; there are pertinent political allegories, deep satire and, quite stunningly, some dazzling cinematic achievements to be enjoyed here. The film is slyly anti-establishment and politically minded – the fairness and tenderness of Poppins beats the authoritative type of nanny Mr. Banks wants to employ, there’s a dig at the prime minister’s expense and an animated sequence where a fox is rescued from a pack of hunters. Also note how Mr Banks occupation quite literally defines him – he IS his job.

   The performances too, an accent aside, are exquisite. Van Dyke’s voice, whilst singing, is able to fleet between earnest lament and gleeful whimsy. His role is also a hugely important one in terms of social commentary. Bert, at various points a one man band, a street artist and a chimney sweep,  represents the working class of Edwardian England and it is through Van Dyke’s performance that they are awarded a humble dignity and quiet pathos in the face of avaricious oppression by the upper crust of the era. Similarly Julie Andrews performance in the title role is one of shrewd excellence. Benefitting the most from the film’s glorious Technicolour cinematography, her face radiates through the screen, Andrews delivers a delicious turn as the perfectly enunciated and caring nanny. What is quite startling, however, is that the films best performance may belong to a character who has less than a couple of minutes of screen time

   The most sublime moments in the film centre around the appearance, on personal insistence of Walt Disney, of the retired actress Jane Darwell. Having been the recipient of an Academy Award for her viscerally staggering portrayal of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, here Darwell, and her kind face, appear in the cameo role of the Bird Woman. She sits surrounded by birds, at peace with them, amongst them, her lovely features showing a tranquillity and happiness that is next to impossible to describe using mere words whilst Andrews croons the lilting melody to the song “Feed The Birds” with a weightless grace.  The Bird Woman is, by appearance, a vagabond but by simply studying the numerous wrinkles that line up either side of her mouth to match her euphoria it is transparent she is amongst the happiest people alive. In this moment it is easy to see what cinema is about – the hugely expensive effects of Avatar or a George Lucas film have nothing on the vivid details that comprise Darwell’s well worn, lived-in face. It is in this moment  that cinema is at both its most expansive and it most intimate, its most bold, its most beautiful.

   Mary Poppins, however, is a film about the growth of the seemingly marginal character Mr. Banks (played with suitable sobriety by David Tomlinson). Come the conclusion, it is neither the titular character or the Banks’ children who have under gone a character journey; the profound lessons here are to be learnt by the formerly cantankerous, curmudgeonly head of house Mr. George W. Banks.

   His journey begins when he can understand to see the world through his children’s eyes, a process that starts when he introduces Jane and Michael to his banking peers to convince the children to open an account. Oh, how unappealing those staid businessmen and starch bankers appear through the children’s eyes. Where is their sense of wonder? They are uniformly prim and proper without the slightest hint of anything approaching joy in their soul. As children, the sight of a parade of businessmen trying to negotiate away from them the money they would spend feeding the birds is an unseemly one. The children want to explore their imaginations, not investment opportunities. The humourless bankers’ logic seems unkind, twisted, foul. Michael wanted to use the coins for kindness, the bankers are imploring him to embrace greed. When the head of the bank snatches away the tuppence he not only takes the coins, he takes the child’s dreams from him. Its a reminder of how quickly childhood can fade and how terrifying this can be.

   Also of note is the aftermath to this scene. As the child asks for his tuppence back from the banker he is overheard he is being denied this request. The bank’s clients panic and set about demanding the immediate withdrawal of all their money from their accounts, funds the bank don’t have in stock, prompting an instant banking collapse. Particularly at this point in time this scene is very pertinent – Mary Poppins, in one short sequence, is able to explain how busts occur in the financial market a lot clearer and in a lot more succinct a fashion than I have ever heard from an economist or a politician.

   From here Mary Poppins imparts its simple but affecting message that there is more to be enjoyed in life than the pursuit of money and status. A lyrically poignant moment is when Bert addresses the children as they, and Mary Poppins, stand on a roof top looking out across a magnificent London sky-line. “There’s the whole world at your feet. But who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps?” Bert has found the wonder in his life – though his vocation may not be as well paid as the bankers he has happiness. Earlier he referred to the cage that Mr. Banks’ job keeps him in whereas Bert himself, a chimney sweep, would be more akin to a bird free to soar.

   The underlying message in Mary Poppins is a simple one – There is wonder and majesty to be found everywhere you want to look for it. At the same time its just as easy to cut yourself off from it too. You can put yourself in a cage if you like. Or you can soar like a bird. Or a kite. Or a chimney sweep. Mary Poppins reminds us of this in the same way she reminds Mr. Banks of this. Which is one of the many reasons why she, and the movie that takes her name, is “practically perfect in every way.” Watching a film of such splendour, a similar thing happens to the viewer as it does to Mr. Banks – the journey opens the eyes to whimsy, the heart to love and the mind to majesty. In doing so Mary Poppins ennobles the viewer. It transports them to another world no matter how old or how jaded.



Monday Playlist #1 May 30, 2010

Start your week with a film based playlist I’ll loving put together and share with you via Spotify.

This week’s list:

*  Love    (by Nancy Adams from Robin Hood)

*  Buongiorno Principessa    (performed by Dedicato a Piovani from La Vita E Bella)

*  Almost Like Being In Love    (by Nat King Cole from Groundhog Day)

La Vie en Rose    (by Louis Armstrong from Wall-E)

Be Yourself    (by Crosby & Nash from Up In The Air)

*  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence    (by Ryuichi Sakamoto from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence)

Wedding Bell Blues    (by Laura Nyro from My Girl)


Top 5 Pachelbel’s Canon in film part 1 May 27, 2010

   There are very few songs that are used in cinema as frequently as Pachelbel’s Canon and, at the same time, very few pieces of music work as well at invoking such a wide array of emotions. Over the next few weeks I shall be adding the rest of the top five. This week, for the first entry in this mini series, I start with an Oscar winning film.


   When Robert Redford stepped behind a film camera for the first time he did so with an unprecedented assurance. The opening scene to his debut film as a director, Ordinary People, is an example of someone who really understands the potential of cinema as a medium. Beginning with a shot of a clear sky, Redford’s film establishes an area of serene rural idyll, majestic autumnal trees and a calm ocean, as the gentle arpeggio of an orchestrated Canon whisper in the background. As human voices are added to the mix, via a choir, Redford sets about slowly establishing that the voices belong to a diegetic ensemble of young singers. As the song swells the camera pans across the room several times before finally coming to rest on its target for the very last few seconds of the shot. By now the gentle melody has reach a crescendo as the choir exclaim “Hallelujah!” Alas the face of the male singer the camera is now focused on, played by Timothy Hutton, is not wearing an expression that suggests he agrees with the celebratory tone of the song. Instead his eyes betray an ethereal pain that instantly destroys any notion of the tranquility the opening shots suggested. Externally the setting is calm and peaceful but, in a single few seconds, it is easy to tell the film’s protagonist is anything but at peace internally. Redford, in this opening two and a half minutes, has managed to introduce a mood, a vibe to the film and sets the main themes, grief and quiet dignity, with the simple use of a serene song, dissolves between establishing shots and Timothy Hutton’s morose face. Redford has created something that could never be conveyed in any other medium and has, in the first two and a half minutes of his directorial career, created a perfect example of pure cinema.


Friday Favourite: Robin Hood – Love

Each Friday I write a bit about something small I really enjoy. I hope you enjoy these little things as much as I do.

   With the recent release of the Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, I decided to look back on past filmic representations of the famous outlaw. The most suprising fact brought to my attention doing this was that by far the best version of the tale is the Disney animation. The first release since studio head Walt Disney’s death, Robin Hood represents something of an anomally in the Disney canon. The film, featuring shots repeated more than once and tracings from earlier features, is shockingly low fi and bleak. Similarly the narrative dispenses with Disney’s traditional focus on one protagonist who reaches self awareness as part of the story’s arc; here the tale is centred on a community and a roster of characters. The end result is a kind, soft feature that is both gently moving and delightful. Somewhat overlooked, Robin Hood was a huge inspiration on the latest Wes Anderson feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Texan director even went as far as placing the Ocar nominated song Love, originally recorded for the Disney film, on his Mr Fox soundtrack. The lilting melody, beautifully recited by Nancy Adams, is this week’s Friday Favourite. Embedded below is the wonderful, unashamedly romantic, montage sequence featuring Robin Hood and Maid Marian taking a loving stroll through the most picturesque of forests. Enjoy.