Archive for October, 2007

Getting away from it in Malta

We got back from two weeks in Melleiha Bay last night, bought a takeaway curry and watched the first half of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. A movie we’ve seen many times, to be sure, but there was still something comforting about being in our own house and returning to an old family favourite. Part of that was due to the almost impossible task of purchasing DVDs in Malta, which has, let’s say, an old world attitude to a medium that we clearly take for granted in the UK.

For the first time when going away, we resolved to take our laptop with us, along with three DVD sets - The Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (The Boy’s current favourite), a new copy of Sean Ellis’s excellent little movie, Cashback, and Season One of The West Wing (bought for a tenner in one of those too-good-to-turn-down HMV offers). The plan was that we could supplement these discs with fresh purchases in Malta. Yeah, right. I’ve now seen POTC three more times, which whilst clueing me in on the labyrinthine intricacies of the plot, and means At World’s End now makes more sense, is most certainly three viewing times too many. I can quote chunks of it verbatim, and am still nowhere nearer to knowing whether Captain Jack Sparrow is a libertine nutter who makes it all up as he goes along, or possesses the most assiduous brain ever known to rum-soaked man. I really enjoyed Cashback, but it doesn’t bear too many repeat viewings. The West Wing was admittedly fantastic. I’ll be looking out for future box sets with relish.

My mistake was in believing that Malta is essentially like England i.e. I could march into any outlet that might sell DVDs and come away with a bargain. It isn’t. First, when I did find a DVD retailer, everything was so criminally over-priced compared to the UK that in good conscience I couldn’t part with my Lira. Take new release, Spider-Man 3, for example, which retailed at LM 15.99. Converted into British pounds and pence that’s £25.68 at the current rate, more than double what I would expect to pay over here (it’s available at Play.com for £11.99 at the time of writing). Not that I’d rush out and buy Sam Raimi’s overblown, over-busy epic under normal circumstances, naturally (and here’s why). As chance would have it, Spidey the Third is exactly what they were showing as the in-flight entertainment on our outward trip, and even in its edited form I wasn’t impressed with the cut of its gib. Getting back to DVD purchases in Malta, even a film that was released several months ago like Apocalypto was LM 9.96 (£15.99), which again seemed steep. At Play.com, you can own it for a fiver. I think I’ve seen the Blu-Ray edition retail for less than I would have paid for a meat and drink Region 2 copy in Valletta.

Hang on! It was busier than this in Valletta!Maybe I’m being mean-fisted. Perhaps I’m so spoiled by low prices in Britain that the prospect of paying slightly more fills me with indignation. In any case, this situation led to multiple viewings of tat like Pirates, which we sometimes did on nights when we couldn’t face hitting the local bar that had cranked that evening’s Premiership football offering up to top volume. The alternative was unbearable, which was to snap up tourist-friendly DVDs that promised to show us parts of the islands we couldn’t have seen for ourselves. Unlike general release discs, the number of volumes that offered a history of Malta, aerial views of Malta and Gozo, some stuff on the Knights of St John, the Great Siege of 1565 and various other bits of business were everywhere, in almost every shop we came across, and none inspired me to put my hand in my pocket.

Tourism is of course rampant in Malta. We last visited in 2004, and even in the three years since then the little country seems more geared than ever to finding ways of making holiday makers part with their cash. Souvenir shops were on every corner, it seemed. We could have bought hanging glassware, gaudy jewellery, nik naks that give the crisps a bad name, through to the usual lowest common denominator Malta buses keyrings and ‘kiss me quick’ trinkets that force me to run in the opposite direction. There were more jewellers than food outlets, it seemed.

And in the thick of all this were the cheaply produced souvenir DVDs, horrible valueless discs that showed nothing you couldn’t get from jumping on the appropriate bus, or finding in your hire car. Talking of the latter, my advice to anyone thinking of hiring a car on Malta is this - don’t. True, you can reach more places from the convenience of a private vehicle, and wandering around the Silent City of Mdina in the evening when most of the day trippers had left was a genuine highlight for me. On the downside is (i) the attitude of other motorists, who appear to view cutting you up, tailgating and pulling out at junctions and roundabouts as rules of the road (ii) the state of Malta’s roads, which once you left the main thoroughfares transformed into pot-holed tracks (iii) the maps you can buy, which are more like guidelines to where things are generally, rather than detailed plans that describe the destinations of its outlined routes.

Despite the above moans, we had a good time, overcame the deficiencies of our hotel, and I rediscovered the joys of reading books when denied of the twin joys of an ever-present Internet connection (don’t expect wireless networks in Malta) and extensive set of DVDs. I do however wish I’d taken more discs away with me. Or do I? Also on the shortlist of things to pack was Season One of Supernatural, which would have led to unnecessary baggage weight. It’s rubbish.

Posted on 31st October 2007
Under: DVDs | No Comments »

Nuns! Habits! Bells! Mr Dean!

How refreshing it was to come across Black Narcissus during an afternoon spent laid on the couch nursing a poxy stomach bug. It’s considered by many to be Powell and Pressburger’s finest work, and I can see why. Though I would always bang the drum for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it was before I finally caught up with the tale of nuns surrendering - or nearly doing so - to their desires in a place of remote beauty.

The remote House of WomenOn the surface, Black Narcissus has the slightest of premises. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is chosen to lead a small group of working nuns to a new hospital and school based high in the Himalayan mountains. For the most part, her team seems to be practically well met to the task in hand, but she’s also been lumbered with Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who from the beginning is a fish out of water within the order, sickly and deeply unhappy. The building they occupy used to be ‘The House of Woman,’ a harem for the local General, and they work in a garish setting with murals of erotic art plastered across the walls, hardly the austere surroundings their order would find appropriate. Helping them settle in is Mr Dean (David Farrar), their cynical local agent with a propensity for wearing not very much and riding around on a slightly comical little pony. The local villagers, whom the nuns are on a mission to serve, are simple folk, ever in thrall to their passions and described by Dean as fairly basic. And its passion that becomes the issue. Whether through the cool mountain air, the water or something even more primal, each Sister finds herself losing sense of her Godly purpose. Clodagh reminisces about a lost love, a broken relationship that led directly to her joining the order. Sister Philippa, charged with growing vegetables in the house’s mountainside gardens, instead plants lovely but useless flowers. And then there’s Sister Ruth, who starts to lose it entirely once she begins lusting after Dean…

It’s a story we’ve seen many times before. If it had been made in the 1980s, it would no doubt have been a Merchant-Ivory production, the familiar tale of repressed English colonials surrendering to their baser instincts in luscious foreign climes. And yet Black Narcissus turns out to be so much more than that. It works because of its univerally superb performances, a succession of intriguing minor characters, and Jack Cardiff’s unimpeachable cinematography. Yarmouth-born Cardiff won a deserved Oscar for his work on this movie, an exercise in perfect use of technicolour. Unbelievably, Black Narcissus was shot entirely in County Galway, West Sussex and Pinewood Studios, as far from the Himalayas as it’s possible to be, but it looks entirely authentic, from the sheer drop Clodagh looks down on atop the bell tower, to the forested village of the locals below. With its mountainous vistas, green valleys and clear blue skies, the matte paintings used are things of beauty. It’s impossible not to be sucked in, and that’s exactly what happens to the Servants of St Mary.

We’re told that an order of Brothers failed previously to set up a mission here, and what happens to the nuns tells us why. Dean is of course in little doubt that their efforts won’t last, and with credible speed the work they’re doing begins to unravel. Mostly we see events through the eyes of Clodagh, played wonderfully by Kerr who won a New York Film Critics Circle award for her work. Subtle and underplayed, the camera clearly loves her. So many fade outs linger on her eyes, burning in the dark as she recalls the events that turned her to God. At first outraged by Dean’s withering pronouncements on her mission, it gradually becomes clear that there is more than mutual dislike going on between them, and in a key moment she unburdens her emotional turmoil to him without surrendering herself.

Nutty Sister RuthIt’s unfortunate that Sister Ruth is eavesdropping on this scene. Byron gets the scenery-chewing plum role and plays it to unhinged perfection. Her lingering looks at Dean’s bare chest are early hints of what’s to come, her pale angular face becoming all the more acute as she submits to murderous jealousy. Skinny, almost wraithlike, she devastatingly abandons the order, discarding her habit for a striking dress and applying blood red lipstick before Clodagh’s unbelieving face. Later, having been turned down by Dean, she returns to the house for the movie’s climactic scene, one of the scariest in movie history. It’s one that will stay with me for a very long time, a masterclass in fevered madness.

Considering the raw sexual undertones of the narrative, it’s a wonder that there’s barely a kiss shared on screen. The most explicit scenes are between the Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a wild young girl who stays with the order and sets her stall out to ensnare him from the start. Kanchi’s overtlflirtation is a reminder to the nuns of what they’re missing. In one moment, she’s beaten for her behaviour, and plays on the pain to trap the garishly dressed General. He has no chance. There are also wonderful performances by Eddie Whaley Jr as a young interpreter, teaching the locals to say the names of weapons in English, and Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), the nuns’ housekeeper who makes no secret of her desire for the place to become once more a house of women, which is more or less what it does.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian instructed us to run, not walk, to see this movie, and it only remains for me to find out quickly which DVD version is the best to own. Black Narcissus is an instant classic, an incredible achievement for a movie made in buttoned down 1947 and a lasting legacy to the genius of its makers.

Posted on 4th October 2007
Under: Classics | 6 Comments »

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