Friday, 5 February 2016

Savage Messiah (1972)

The above movie from maverick director Ken Russell is unlikely to be confused with the Canadian one of the same title from 2002 about a weird cult, even if the earlier one has faded into some obscurity. Russell himself considered it one of his best and the one for which he wished to be remembered. However his other 70s biopics of Tchaikowky, Lizst, and Mahler remain more available than this stylish and probably fanciful record of the short life of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Played with fire and passion by Scott Anthony (the 'who-he' question is dealt with below), it deals with his obsession for and romance with the Polish would-be writer Sophie Brzeska. She was 20 years his senior and his inspirational spark, even if their relationship was apparently unconsummated. They lived as man and wife, but never did marry, only agreeing early on to exchange surnames as a symbol of their love. Played with impish charm by Dorothy Tutin, who had a long career from her debut role as the ingénue in 1950's classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" through her death in 2001, the impetuous Sophie is the sounding block for Henri's outlandish theories on life and art and the muse behind his rough-hewn sculptures.

Foremost in the supporting cast is a young Helen Mirren, not in a debut role as often claimed, playing a suffragette and/or supporter of any fashionable cause, and unashamedly flaunting her ripe, full-frontal nudity, as Henri's occasional model and lover. Also notable in the cast is Lindsay Kemp, the choreographer, as Gaudier's agent and John Justin again (see Schalcken below) as an effete gallery owner. With set design by Derek Jarman and a very literate script from Christopher Logue, the movie is less bizarre than some of Russell's other cinematic flights of fancy, but is blessed with a rich evocation of Paris and London immediately before World War I and an insight into the tortured mind of a struggling but gifted artist. 

Vowing to continue with his dreams of success, Gaudier resisted joining up until Paris was occupied and then cheerfully went off to war. One of the final scenes depicts Kemp reading a letter from the front to a group of effete officers who are sitting out the war in comfort. When some of Henri's unconventional opinions are aired, one of them says 'People like that should be shot'. Kemp rejoins 'He was....last Thursday'! Gaudier died in 1915 at the age of 23. The film ends with a silent but impressive display of some of his best works at the exhibition he never lived to see.

I am not alone in wondering whatever became of Anthony who gives such a memorable performance here. It is the first of only three screen credits; this film was followed by a 1973  BBC television series "Cheri" and the lead in Tony Richardson's 1974 flick "Dead Cert" based on a Dick Francis racing novel. None of these outings were particularly successful at the time nor caught the public's fancy, and Anthony left the limelight for charitable projects connected with the arts. He is still a member of Equity and can be found on Facebook. His most recent projects are photo-travelogues and short 'poem films', but even Russell shortly before his death claimed to have no idea what had become of his charismatic leading man.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

When is a movie not a movie? The answer is not simply when it is made for television or cable and unlikely to get a cinema release. This question also covers rarities like the above 68 minute film which was made for a television arts series, but which is something more than an appraisal of a long dead artist. Ken Russell's fanciful takes on a number of composers come to mind, but this amazing film embroiders the little-known facts of Godfried Schalcken's life (yes, he really was a painter and his works can still be found in various European museums), with an overlay of imaginative horror and political comment.

Based on a 100-year old short story by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also gifted future film-makers with the first lesbian vampire Camilla and who incorporated his own weird dreams into his fiction, this was a pet project of British television producer Leslie Megahey. He tried to interest the BBC in taking his script as part of their ghost-story for Christmas strand, but they wanted to use a different director and he felt that only he could truly realise his vision. When he was subsequently put in charge of their Omnibus series, he commissioned himself to direct the movie and it aired late evening on 23 December, 1979. Despite a couple of subsequent showings over the next decade, it was considered 'lost' for years, until a relatively recent dual-format release by the BFI, packaged this gem with a host of other goodies. It was never considered suitable for VHS release because of some occasional nudity including an ever-so-brief full frontal shot, sure to affront our moral guardians.

Charles Grey sets the scene as Le Fanu the narrator, explaining how he learned of the strange events in the life of the painter and believing that so-called ghost stories have their roots in the depths of the human mind. With his fruity voice and purring tones, Grey leads us into the world of l7th century Leiden where the strange tale unfolds. (Vincent Price and Peter Cushing were the director's first choices, but Grey is just about perfect). When the story opens, the artist (Jeremy Clyde) is a penniless student under the tutelage of Gerrit Dou (also a real painter, played by British character stalwart Maurice Denham) and in love with Dou's comely niece and ward Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). Despite his mentor's conviction that his talented pupil has a bright future, they are both aware that his short-term prospects are negligible. Therefore when the grotesque suitor 'Vanderhausen from Rotterdam' comes to claim Rose's hand in marriage, Dou is willing to sell her future happiness for the ghastly visitor's casket of gold and jewels. Covered in the layers of make-up that have transformed him into one of the walking dead, it is hard to remember that the actor, John Justin, was once a romantic lead back in 1940's gorgeous "Thief of Bagdad". Despite imploring Clyde to run away with her, he replies that he can only work hard in the hope of some day being able to buy back the marriage contract -- and off she goes into a unknown future.

Dou and his student prosper but lose all contact with the couple for many years, apart from one fleeting visit where the crazed young woman seeks sanctuary with them and apparently flings herself to a watery death. Investigating further Schalcken visits the church where the pair were last seen together and witnesses something so horrifying in the crypt that it colours his remaining years. The viewer is left to draw one's own conclusion as to whether Vanderhausen is a vampire, a ghoul, or just a greedy old man who covets Rose's youth, and to ponder what she in turn has become.

The film faithfully recreates the period and the interiors look as if they might have been designed by Jan Vermeer himself. But the underlying theme is that every man has his price, and that greed, earthly concerns, and commerce have replaced faith in the church both in the art of the period and in the hearts of men. Many of Schalcken's strange paintings, small candlelit subjects -- boding something sinister in the shadows -- are featured in the film, but the one that is the focus of Le Fanu's eerie tale was created for Megahey's chilling biopic of the long-forgotten artist.

The disc is packaged with an interesting interview with Megahey and two short films "The Pit"(1962) and "The Pledge" (1981), which reinforce the idea that many horrors lurk in the shadowy corners of our imagination.    

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Last Sunset (1961)

I'm not sure why I decided to watch this film again, apart from noting some 'puff' piece in a listing of the week's best upcoming movies, but I'm glad I did.

It is the only movie in which Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson co-starred, and being a product of Douglas' own production company, he made sure that the spotlight focussed mainly on him. It's the one thing I've always disliked about that actor -- and fair dos, he's been in a number of very good films. He always seems eager to project a macho and would-be charming image which manages to grate, and never comes across as quite natural. Too much 'look at me'!

Here he plays an outlaw in Mexico with sheriff Hudson in pursuit to bring him back to justice for murdering his brother-in-law. He holes up at Dorothy Malone's ranch while her husband (Joseph Cotton doing a poor impression of a Southern-gentleman loser who likes his drink) is away overnight. Seems that he and she had a 'thing' some many years ago and he is eager to reconnect with the gal that was. However he is increasingly attracted to her daughter (fifteen, rising sixteen) Carole Lynley -- such a potential romance would be a real 'no-no' today. However it is a part of Douglas' annoying persona that he is irresistible to women and a template for masculinity.

When Hudson turns up they both agree to help Cotton ride his herd into Texas where he hopes for a good price to improve life for his wife and daughter and where Hudson plans a showdown with Douglas where he has jurisdiction. Of course Hudson also has eyes for Malone (who is soon widowed) -- they of course being oners for "Written on the Wind", a far better showcase for the attractive actress. (Unfortunately, Hudson has too much baggage nowadays to be 100% believable as a romantic lead, but we'll ignore that.) His affection looks to be reciprocated, especially since Douglas now plans to ride away with the gooey-eyed Lynley. However, the film becomes something of a Greek tragedy as Malone's dreadful secret is revealed (no prizes for guessing what this is) and Douglas finally becomes something of real hero for guaranteeing the young girl a better future.

The film is one of the last of its genre after the great heyday of the Western in the 1950s and it's always a pleasure to watch a movie where all of the cast, down to the minor roles, are familiar actors. Of note here -- in throwaway roles -- are the villains of the piece who want to rustle the herd and white-slave the women, as played by Neville Brand and the iconic Jack Elam (a fabled one-eyed actor, along with Peter Falk and Forest Whitaker). The cinematography is magnificent and the script is a literate one by Dalton Trumbo -- the most notorious of the Hollywood Ten. The director, Robert Aldrich, had a long career helming memorable action movies, but none of them are as lyrical or thoughtful as this superior movie.

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I must add a footnote to my week's viewing since I have finally seen "Seven Days Leave" (1930). This title was added to my famous list when I read a book some years ago entitled "Forgotten Films to Remember" with an emphasis on the early 30s. Based on a J.M. Barrie play ("The Old Lady Shows her Medals") and set in London during World War I, it concerns a lowly charwoman, Beryl Mercer who originated the role on stage, fabricating a make-believe son serving as a soldier to match bragging rights with her boozy friends. Through some convoluted machinations soldier Gary Cooper -- in a Scottish kilt -- turns up on her doorstep. This was his first talkie role, but he easily surfaces as the natural actor that marked all of his subsequent film work. Embarrassment and hostility soon turn to affection between the two lonely characters-- and it is great to see the gangly Cooper walking beside the five-foot nothing Mercer as 'mother-and-son' celebrate his leave. It ends as a typical Barrie tear-jerker, but do try to find this movie on You Tube before it disappears...  

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The 'Eight' in the title refers to this being Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature, a specious bit of arithmetic, since one can only reach that total if one counts the two separately released halves of Kill Bill as a single film, if one ignores the dire "Four Rooms" where QT was one of several directors, and if one counts his half of "Grindhouse" as the single movie it turned out to be, rather than half of an intended whole. Never mind...let the man have his own conceits, and my goodness he is full of them.

None of the above is meant to deny my general admiration for him as a talented filmmaker. I have a fair amount of affection for most of his features, with the possible exception of "Jackie Brown" which I find something of a Parson's Egg, brilliant in parts but dreary in others. I was therefore prepared to adopt a positive approach to his latest film (and I would never have gone to see it so soon after its release last Friday were I not anticipating something special). Sorry to say, I found it hard to 'love' the movie, despite some redeeming virtues. Let's examine these:

Much has been made of the fact that the film was shot in 70 mm Panavision. The opening shots of snow-bound mountainous Wyoming are nothing short of spectacular, with a screen almost too wide to take everything in. However some 95% of the subsequent tale -- a bum-numbing three hours plus is shot in a single interior. While one could argue that the wide-screen gives one the feeling of the characters' whole immediate universe, the effect is rather more like watching a stage-bound production. However, I can forgive this since those characters are largely so well-drawn.

Set in the period immediately after the Civil War, we are introduced to Kurt Russell's walrus-moustached bounty hunter, handcuffed to his prisoner, the murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spends the film getting progressively more battered and bloodied until her features are barely visible. She seems to be garnering acting kudos for her role, which puzzles me, since her voice is horribly affected at the best of times and largely unintelligible here (except when she sweetly sings a folk ballad). Then of course there is Samuel L Jackson's more ruthless bounty hunter, who prefers to bring them in dead rather than alive. His character is probably the most precious to Tarantino, but his barnstorming performance is probably too much for the film's own good; he overpowers the action. Next we have Wayne Groggins' Southern rebel who claims to be the incoming sheriff of Red Rock where the previous characters are headed, before a fierce storm forces them and their stage-driver to take refuge at a mountain way-station (Minnie's Haberdashery, a name that only QT could dream up). I can't say that I am familiar with Groggins' career, being largely a TV actor but with a smallish part in "Django Unchained", however he becomes one of the more likeable and believable characters among the hateful eight.

At the cabin we meet Bruce Dern's bigoted Southern general, Tim Roth's putative hangman (speaking with an unbelievable plum-in-the-mouth upper-class accent), Tarantino regular Michael Madsen as a laid-back cowboy enroute to visit his Mom, and Demien Bichir as a Mexican dogsbody, theoretically looking after the station while Minnie is away. We have doubts that any of them are what they claim to be and Russell suspects that one or more of them are planning to spring his prisoner. We are therefore introduced to a long and somewhat tedious game of cat-and-mouse as suspicions and prejudices fly and we wait for some sort of mystery to be solved. This first half finishes with a fifteen-minute intermission, Tarantino's nod to earlier film sagas, where we were presented with a still screen ad encouraging us to go out to buy more popcorn...

The second half is probably slightly more action-filled and entertaining, when two of the characters die from drinking poisoned coffee, spewing and spraying buckets of blood -- at times the surplus of gore verges on the humorous. Jackson is determined to unmask the culprit. He mercilessly kills one of the company, but the subsequent violent shootout is interrupted by someone unexpectedly shooting up from the basement. One of the protagonists has been hiding there throughout, Leigh's outlaw brother, Tatum Channing in the briefest of lead roles. This exposes a fatal flaw in the writer-director's plot: if Channing and his cohorts (who these are I will leave as a non-spoiler) wanted to free his sister, they could have taken out Russell the minute he burst through the cabin door with Leigh in tow -- but then we wouldn't have had our three-hour talkfest.

Even without this peculiar plot point, the film feels self-indulgent and overstuffed. It could easily have become a more manageable shorter movie if Tarantino had taken out some of the singularly unnecessary stage business: having to burst open and then nail shut the cabin door every time a character entered or exited, the slow business of setting up stakes in the snow as aids to reaching the far-off outhouse, the lingering shots of stabling the horses, and more. We could also have done without the two bits of voiceover narration by the 'great man' himself, totally superfluous to the action which was divided into clear chapter title cards -- but Tarantino seems to feel obliged to put in an appearance of sorts when he can. Then there was a rather unnecessary cameo for his good mate Zoe Bell as 'Six-horse Judy' (!) and a rather over-extended massacre of black Minnie and her all-black staff prior to the current action.

Some people feel that Tarantino is trying to make a case for the plight of the black man in America and that this justifies Jackson's larger than life determination to kill white men. The N-word is used ad nauseam and I sometimes think that Tarantino does this to excess just to annoy Spike Lee. Jackson's centrepiece speech is a rather disgusting and graphic harangue to Dern, bragging of the horrid things he inflicted upon Dern's estranged son, goading the old chap to attempt to draw before Jackson can claim another notch on his belt. One suspects that this is just another of his character's unbelievable lies like the ongoing rigmarole of his being one of Abe Lincoln's pen-pals!  The point is that any political grievances that the director wants to stress are undermined by the unending and small-minded blood-letting.

A great Morricone score doesn't compensate for this being the most un-Western purported Western in film history. This movie is as about as 'Western' as "Reservoir Dogs," the Tarantino film it most resembles.

Friday, 8 January 2016

A Special Day - Una giornata particolare (1977)

I don't know exactly how many films the great screen partnership of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni made together. I read recently that it was an incredible seventeen, but a quick look at their respective filmographies produced a figure of eleven -- so it is probably somewhere in between, from the first in 1955 to the last in "Pret-a-Porter" (1994).

I've wanted to see the above movie -- one of their later co-starrers -- for ages. The movie was Academy-nominated for best foreign picture and Mastroianni had a best actor nod as well. However the only copies available over the years were dubbed ones, to which I have a rooted objection. So the film remained on my 'would like to see list'. It's never appeared on British television, so I was amazed to find it scheduled on the new and fairly minor satellite channel 'Talking Pictures', which specialises in hoary old British B-movies. Naturally it was dubbed, interrupted with ads, and a terrible print, but at long last I was able to view it, if not ideally.

The special day in question is the 8th of May, 1938 when Rome was 'honoured' by a visit from Adolf Hitler. The film begins with some ten minutes of archive footage featuring Hitler, Mussolini, and King Victor Emmanuel III, before it cuts to the flat where Loren lives with her brutish husband (Canadian actor John Vernon) and their six children. She was 43 when the film was shot by director Ettore Scola and appears without any side as the shabby, downtrodden hausfrau that she is portraying; yet a handsome woman shines through. Her family are all excited about the day's parades and celebrations and soon troop down to the street, along with the dozens of other inhabitants of their huge Fascist-built apartment block, like a swarm of ants streaming from their hill, leaving her to get on with her endless domestic chores. Another tenant across the courtyard, who has not left his apartment, is Mastroianni whom we observe on the brink of suicide. A chance encounter pursuing an escaped pet bird throws them together and their paths continue to cross throughout the day.

It emerges that he is a disgraced radio announcer who has been dismissed for anti-Fascist views and the fact that he is homosexual. His last 'friend' has been deported to Sicily and the same fate awaits him. Before he blurts this information out to Loren, they have enjoyed the casual intimacy of growing friendship, and she comes on strong to him, slapping him hard when she hears his confession. Still she is so hungry for affection and gentleness that she continues her sexual pursuit of the attractive fellow (I doubt whether there was any thought whatsoever in her mind of being able to 'convert' him). Yet he remains unmoved, his face cold and abstracted, while the voluptuous Loren craves some response, some warmth, some solace. They end the day as friends, but two outsiders who each must get on with their hopeless lives. We last see them as she is again the dogsbody for her demanding family now bursting with patriotic pride and as he is marched off with his suitcase by two ominous-looking chaps to the strains of the "Horst Wessel" song.

In fact all of the action is counter-pointed by jingoistic and martial music in the background throughout, underlining the 'great' day's importance to the rest of the city. The print that was broadcast was horribly faded to a brownish sepia, although the film was shot in muted colour. Ironically this rather suited the documentary nature of that infamous May day, although I don't think this is what Scola intended. Anyhow the good news is that a restored version of the movie in the original Italian is now available from Criterion and a copy is wending its way across the Atlantic as we speak. Initially I was a little undecided myself about this film -- and critical opinion seems to vary widely -- but on reflection I think it showcases two magnificent performances and I can't wait to watch it again as it was meant to be viewed.

An interesting footnote: one of Loren's daughters is played by the young Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce's grand-daughter and interestingly Loren's niece, who subsequently became a well-known political figure in Berlusconi's government.  

Friday, 1 January 2016

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Well I didn't quite make it before the end of 2015 to wish you all the best for this New Year, so I'll start 2016 with my hope for a memorable and rather more peaceful year ahead for all of us. Naturally I also hope for many memorable new movies to be released and for the chance to discover the many old films I have never seen on my infamous 'must see' list.

The above movie is one that nearly got away and certainly the best of the Christmas television offerings. Some of the other premieres mentioned in my last blog were just too dreadful for words, but in the line of duty I gritted my teeth and sat through them. This very entertaining film from director Steven Soderbergh was passed on by the major studios as 'too gay' and was finally financed by cable titan HBO. Although it was shown on pay-to-view Sky Box Office, it never appeared on Sky Atlantic which is their dedicated HBO Channel nor on any of their regular movie channels. I was beginning to despair of ever catching up with it until BBC2 scheduled it a few days ago.

Set in the 70s and 80s with great care taken over sets, clothing and hairdos appropriate to those years, it traces the romance -- for want of a better word -- between the flamboyant entertainer Liberace and his much younger lover and factotum Scott Thorson. Since the script is based on Thorson's own autobiographical 'novel', one would be foolish to accept this film as a faithful biopic (not that most biographical movies are free of embroidery), but rather as Thorson's self-interested reminiscence of their relationship.

The two leads are taken by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon -- two shining examples of heterosexuality -- but they both perform wonderfully as believable gays. Douglas in particular is virtually transformed into the mannered and vain pianist, to the extent that one nearly forgets the actor under Liberace's skin. It is probably one of his most accomplished roles, and its a pity that he was ineligible for Oscar consideration -- cable movies not being 'real' movies in the Academy's estimation, despite its being in competition at Cannes. Damon also shows considerably more range than he is usually afforded and makes a fine fist of it (no gay puns intended). The supporting cast is also first-rate with Scott Bakula as a procurer, still-beautiful Rob Lowe as a preening cosmetic surgeon Dr Startz who succeeds in hooking Thorson on drugs, a nearly unrecognizable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's ruthless manager, and a completely unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as his adored and doting mother.

It's nearly unbelievable that the entertainer's enthusiastic fans never cottoned on to his sexuality (and he never emerged from the closet even when stricken with AIDS). Douglas portrays him as a rounded character, tender and fatherly when it suits him, but downright power-hungry, controlling, and self-obsessed underneath. He promised Thorson the world and even spoke about adopting him (not that this ever happened) to the extent that he ordered surgery from Dr Startz to turn him into a 'mini-me'. (Incidentally the make-up transformation as the hunky Damon is 'Liberace-d' is beautifully done.) However, he did not hesitate to dump young Thorson when a more adventurous and better looking 'fish' appeared on his horizon. It was only, supposedly, on his deathbed that the gruesomely bald entertainer reconciled with Scott, his one true love. If you believe that, you can believe anything, since Liberace's one true love was himself, with only his mother as a close second.  

Friday, 18 December 2015

Sisters (2015) and Christmas TV Premieres

Traditionally I have always written about the film goodies that UK television viewers can look forward to over the Christmas period, and frankly I don't know why I bother, as it seems to get less promising each year. The schedules may be chock-a-block with movies, but so few of them are new to television and, by and large, the premieres are a truly dismal lot. Now I know that kiddies are capable of watching the same movie over and over ad nauseam, but I'm not sure that many adults fall into the same category.

Anyhow, before I get into the Christmas nitty-gritty, let me say a few words about the new Tina Fey-Amy Poulter movie "Sisters" (2015). I was looking for a suitable new movie to watch with my daughter on a girly afternoon out and settled on this. Being released the same week as the new "Star Wars" extravaganza it's not going to put much of a dent in that blockbuster's box-office, but we thought it might make for a sparkling afternoon's diversion. I was expecting something fairly adult and amusing after the tip-top review that it received from Kevin Maher in The Times, but we both found it only sporadically entertaining at best.

For their second co-starrer after 2008's "Baby Mama" (not one of this century's great comedies either), the gals chose to play chalk-and-cheese sisters upset to discover that mom and dad (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are selling their childhood home. They are horrified, especially as Fey, currently homeless, jobless, and estranged from her college-age daughter, thought she just might bunk with them for a while. Tasked with cleaning out the junk pile that was their shared bedroom, the pair seem to revert to their most infantile teenaged behaviour and decide that it would be a wonderful wheeze to throw one last party for all their old friends at the soon-to-be-gone family homestead.  Naturally this descends into predictable chaos and destruction, just about ruining the now unsaleable house. Not really the stuff of high comedy!

Blessed with a fast-talking, generally raunchy script, the film provides the occasional chuckle, but the mildly amusing sequences are interspersed with long, draggy, and generally annoying bits of shtick from a cast that is trying way too hard both to shock and to delight.

Anyhow back to the Christmas business at hand, there are remarkably few premieres overall in the hundreds of films on offer on terrestrial TV, and while for once I have not viewed about half of them, the only two which seem at all promising from my point of view are the cable-movie "Beyond the Candelabra" (BBC2 on the 28th) and "Sapphires" (also BBC2 on the 3lst). The rest are primarily two-star duds like "Diana" (26th on Channel 5), yet another yawny remake of "Romeo & Juliet" (BBC 2 Christmas Day), and "Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger" (BBC2 on the 21st). I will probably watch -- but reserve judgment on several little-known offerings such as "WolfCop" (FilmFour tomorrow) and "Safe Haven" (BBC 2 on the 20th); however wild horses couldn't drag me to watch "Mrs Brown's Boys - D'Movie" premiering on BBC1 on the 31st.

Of the other new films which I have seen, if one ignores Christmas-themed television flicks and very basic childrens' animations featuring Tinkerbelle or Thomas the Tank, there is little to recommend. The best of the bunch are "Frankenweenie" on Christmas Day and the little Scottish gem "Sunshine on Leith" on the 30th. Of the new-to-television animations, "Brave" (BBC1 Christmas Day) and "Wreck-it-Ralph" (again BBC1 on the 1st) are both fine, but I was less enamoured of "The Croods" (BBC1 on the 26th) and "Turbo" (also BBC1 on New Year's Day). The remaining premieres "Purge" on the 23rd, "One Chance" on the 26th"Oz the Great and Powerful" (an over-rated mess) on the 27th, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" (something of an oddity itself) on the 3lst, and "A Good Day to Die Hard" (one sequel too many) on the 1st are unlikely to rock many boats. I may have missed one or two new ones, but believe me they're quite missable! 

Never mind, there are always the good old reliables like "It's a Wonderful Life" to compensate for the lack of feel-good movies and plenty of black-tinged classics like "The Big Lebowski" and "The Trouble with Harry" to cut through the sugar. Sometimes it does indeed feel good to watch an old favourite that you've not seen for a while.

There will be no blog on Christmas Day next Friday, but I will try to return before the end of the year in time to wish you all a Happy New Year filled with good viewing.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Julianne Moore (sort of)

As a footnote to last week's polemic about dismal foreign language movies, let me add "Gente de Bien" (2014) to the collection. This Colombian film follows the fortunes of a young boy who is dumped on his impoverished carpenter father together with his faithful mutt. (It's not clear where the mother has gone walkies). They are invited to spend Christmas at the country home of a well-meaning rich client, but Dad feels like a sore thumb and goes back to the city with the dog (who has been crapping everywhere). The boy stays on and his hostess does everything within her power to make him feel at home, but the sharp-tongued youngsters in the family do their best to make him miserable. So he asks to return to the city too and arrives just in time to see his beloved doggy put down for inoperable cancer. Merry Christmas one and all!

Back to the subject at hand, I decided to touch briefly on Ms. Moore's sparkling and long-lasting career, since she featured in two movies that I watched this week. Now 55 but still looking good and still managing to be cast in a variety of flicks, she has been making films since the early 90s, starting with TVMs and small roles. She first came on my radar for her contribution to the Robert Altman ensemble in "Short Cuts" (1993) where she flitted about her home 'bottomless' and proved to the world that she is a natural redhead.

Since then she has appeared in countless major and indie movies and always makes a strong impression. Her filmography includes such gems as "Boogie Nights", "The Big Lebowski", "Far from Heaven", "The Kids are Alright", and "Map to the Stars". She finally won a long- overdue Oscar for 2014's "Still Alice". I caught her this week in two films where, if the truth be known, she wasn't given a lot to do and took second place to at least one of her co-stars. The first of these was "Non-Stop" (2014) where her role was secondary to geriatric action man Liam Neeson, playing an air marshal trying to uncover a psycho killer on a long-distance flight. As long as one didn't dwell on the plot holes, this was watchable pap, but Moore was purely 'arm-candy'. (This was one of two films aired this week starring Neeson, and I can barely recall the contrived plot of "Taken 3", which somebody probably thought was a good idea after the success of the first two in the series)

Moore had far more to do in "What Maisie Knew" (2012), a modern take on the 100 plus-year old Henry James novel. In this film she plays a would-be pop star, but not one that has had much success in her singing career. She and her husband (Steve Coogan -- an annoying actor to say the least) spend most of their time together arguing and have little time over for their adorable daughter Maisie -- a sympathetic and totally un-childstar-like turn from young Onata Aprile. Divorce is on the cards and he bunks off with their former nanny (Joanna Vanderham). It's not that they don't 'love' little Maisie, but they are both too self-obsessed with their own careers. Because Moore is often on the road with her group, the judge awards joint custody, and Maisie is bounced between the two households. Moore has now married a young and handsome bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) and relies on him more and more to look after the child. On one occasion when she is contracted to go touring at short notice, she drops the child at the bar on a night when Skarsgard isn't even on duty -- that's how good a mother she is!

Coogan, meanwhile has married the nanny, who also is largely responsible for looking after his daughter just as she did when in the couple's employ. It becomes increasingly obvious that their marriage is also on the rocks. The problem is that Maisie loves her mother and father, but she also loves Skarsgard and Vanderham who give her the time and affection she craves. They too find that they are attracted to each other, and the film ends with their looking after Maisie together at a remote beach-house, while Moore is off pursuing her lukewarm career and Coogan has returned to London. However, it is clear that this happy but unlikely family unit is destined to be short-lived when Maisie's real parents pursue their 'rights'. 

As usual Moore gives an impassioned and impressive performance as Maisie's neglectful mother, but the movie belongs to young Aprile, whose performance is heart-rending.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Some pretty so-so foreign films

Last week I mentioned 'worthy' foreign films and perhaps I should explain what I mean by this. Generally speaking I will watch any non-English language movie that is broadcast -- whether on terrestrial or satellite television -- since I assume opportunities for seeing such films are naturally more limited than those for the latest blockbuster. I have never been put off by the prospect of reading subtitles, even if these don't always quite convey the meaning of the words being spoken.  And yes, over the years I have viewed a wonderful assortment of foreign delights. I have also watched a number of foreign movies which fall short of actually being entertaining, but which make me feel a slightly better person for having watched them. These are the flicks that I label 'worthy'. However, if truth be told, I have also seen a number of -- to put no better description upon them -- boring movies.

I will of course continue to pursue my search for gems among the dross, but could really do without so many of the 'so-so' movies that come my way. In the last few weeks I have seen five foreign films which have made me wonder why the broadcasters in question decided that these would be movies really worth the time: stand up and bow BBC4 and to a lesser extent FilmFour. These are the films in question:

"A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A True Love Story" (2013):  A Japanese period piece where the second son wants to pursue his martial training; however, on the death of his older brother, his top-chef father insists that he maintain the family tradition and honour as a 'kitchen samurai'. A marriage is arranged with a headstrong divorcee (i.e. a 'ruined' woman) who has a great sense of taste. Reluctantly he learns from her and we get to watch loads of vegetables being artfully prepared -- for two hours!

"Beyond the Hills" (2012); This Romanian flick from director Cristian Mungiu, who gave us the lauded "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" back in 2007 clocks in at two and a half hours. Orphaned girlfriends from childhood go their separate ways when they are cast out of the institutional home, with one becoming a nun and the other living a wild life in Germany. The latter travels back to Romania to try to get her BFF to come away with her; the nuns, however, decide that she is violent and possessed, ultimately killing her with their misguided attempts at exorcism.

"The Deep" (2012): The director Baltasar Kormakur made some well-regarded policiers in his native Iceland before moving on to Hollywood with the current release "Everest". However this earlier film relates the true story of the sole survivor of a fishing-boat shipwreck. Our hero, against all odds, manages to swim ashore rather than freeze to death in the icy waters. Everyone wonders why he alone survived and finally decide it is because he is fat!

"Me and You" (2012): This is the first movie from respected director Bernardo Bertolucci since "Dreamers" (2003), and is a true disappointment. Our 14-year old hero (a singularly offputtingly acned youngster) is a misanthrope, avoiding all social situations. He tells his mother that he is going on a school ski trip, but uses the money to buy supplies and to hide out in the basement of his apartment building for the week in question. He also buys an ant farm to watch -- that's pretty off-putting as well. But his older half-sister finds him and decides to go cold-turkey from drugs, vomiting all over his meant-to-be private space. OK, they begin to bond and try to get each other to promise that they will turn over a new leaf. It's not going to happen...

"West" (2013): This German film set in the paranoid 70s follows the fortunes of an unmarried mother and her slightly precocious son who defect from East Germany, hoping to find a new and better life in the West. The refugee centre where they are housed is some many miles away from her dreams for their future. Just as in the repressive East, American interrogators continuously question her about her supposedly dead lover who may have been a Stasi agent, and her growing paranoia threatens to destroy everything. All very well-acted but really pretty depressing.

To be fair, each of the above films had a few moments making them a potentially worthwhile watch. That's more than can be said for "Movie 43" (2013) which I also saw recently. This series of vignettes has to be one of the biggest wastes ever of a large and generally A-list cast in pursuit of bad taste. I wish I could erase from my mind the image of Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman on a blind date where she is appalled by the swollen testicles hanging down from his neck. I kid you not...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Pick of the Flicks

It's been a relatively quiet week -- only 16 movies seen (!) and none of them are clamouring for my or your attention. There was one 'classic' (only because it is now 100 years old) silent "Regeneration" (1915) from Raoul Walsh, the director with one of Hollywood's longest careers, and a couple of minor watchable horrors "AfterShock" (2012) and "I Spit on Your Grave 2" (2013). The balance fell into one of three categories: 'worthy' foreign films, a selection of recent releases, and at this time of the year Christmas movies. Generally I now try to avoid these, as too often overly-sickly, unless there is some good reason to watch them. Choosing one movie from each of these categories, here's a taste of what I've been up to:

"Lore" (2012): This movie is something of an oddity insofar as it has an Australian director (Cate Shortland) and an Australian production company, yet it is in German with an all-German cast. It's actually a hard and occasionally disturbing watch, since it follows the fortunes of l5-year old Hannelore in post World War II Germany, a powerful performance by the then 19-year old Saskia Rosendahl. Her hard-line Nazi parents have deserted the family to escape the occupying troops, and Lore is left to marshal her younger sister, even younger twin brothers, and baby Peter to her Grandmother's house in Hamburg in the North of the country. They set off across barren terrain, but soon abandon most of what they have carried with them. Also they soon exhaust their small supply of money and valuables. They are filthy, starving, and traumatised by the dead bodies on the path.

Everyone they encounter is mourning their dear Fuhrer and when villagers are forced to look at photographs of 'dead Jews' in exchange for stale bread, the consensus is that these are staged by the victors using posed actors. Everyone, including Lore, seems to be in a state of denial and she tries to keep her siblings' spirits up by singing the patriotic ditties she learned in Hitler Youth. Their temporary saviour comes in the shape of Thomas (Kai Malina), who has identity papers in which a yellow star is folded; he passes himself off as the elder brother of the family and manages to beg or steal sufficient food to keep them alive. Yet Lore can't help but think of him as 'a filthy Jew', despite feeling some sexual attraction. When he loses his papers (in fact they have been pinched by one of the youngsters to prevent his leaving them), he does in fact leave them to continue the gruelling journey on their own. Only when Lore studies his papers does she realise that the photo is not of Thomas and that he must have stolen them from a dead Jew. Whether he was actually Jewish or only a survivor of the camps is left open.

When the family -- minus one sibling, shot en route -- reach Grandma's they are back in the repressive Nazi environment in which they were raised. Lore's coming of age is now complete. She cracks under the strain of all she has witnessed and all the lies that she is no longer able to accept. The very epitome of a 'worthy' film.

Among this week's recent releases we can quickly dismiss the risible and not particularly erotic "50 Shades of Grey" and "The Opposite Sex", an unfunny battle of the sexes starring the no-longer young and ripe Mena Suvari. The surprise winner was "The Wedding Ringer" (2015) (a pun on Adam Sandler's early success "The Wedding Singer"). While derivative of so many other films with not so subtle nods in the script, this movie was surprisingly jolly. Josh Gad, a recognizable face from over the years, plays a nice, good-guy nerd who is chuffed as monkeys to be engaged to 'hot' Kaley Coco (nor me!). However as she and her parents make grandiose plans for the big day, Gad is being pestered to name his best man and to furnish seven groomsmen. He is forced to contact a professional fixer, played by Kevin Hart, fortunately toned down from the annoying motor-mouth he played in last year's "Ride Along". Hart agrees to pretend to be Gad's long-standing best friend, despite Gad having told his fiancée that Bic Mitchum (a name invented from the contents of his medicine cabinet) is a priest in the army chaplaincy service. Hart also finds seven assorted misfits to portray the groomsmen, including Jorge Garcia (the fat fellow from "Lost" who is still as fat and homely). These unlikely friends are briefed to portray an unlikely assortment of A-list professional types and professors, who must charm the prospective bride and her family, including mother Mimi Rogers and OTT Grandma Cloris Leachman.

Gad 's character, who has never really had a circle of friends, suddenly discovers the joys of male bonding and cutting free, and surprisingly, Hart too has been too busy to have much of a life outside his business hustling. One just knows that Gad will never be happy with the materialistic Coco, that the would-be marriage is doomed from the start, and that more fulfilling days await both male leads. Apparently the script was originally intended for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson cashing in our their 2005 hit "Wedding Crashers", but Gad and Hart prove inspired choices for this generally feel-good film.

It seems that the season for Christmas-themed movies (generally TVMs) starts earlier each year, and I try to only watch those with something special to commend them. I chose "Snowed in at Rosemont" (2015) (aka "Rosemont") for its senior cast of Grace Zabriskie (on my radar since "Twin Peaks" back in 1990, but a screen presence from the late 70s) and Brad Dourif -- for once not playing a creepy weirdo. They have something of a love-hate relationship as Josephine, the owner, and faithful handyman Abe of a now-closed mountain resort, once renowned as the haunt of presidents and gourmets. Zabriskie has retreated into misanthropy after her daughter and grand-daughter were killed in an air crash many years ago and her husband subsequently committed suicide. Into their lives come an 8-month pregnant young woman and the young man from whom she begged a lift at the last service-station. Their car has come off the road in the severe snowstorm and they trudge their way to Rosemont, where Josephine reluctantly takes them in, egged on by Abe. However she can't bear to look at the girl who is the spitting image of her dead daughter. 

When the baby arrives early -- the lodge is still snowed in -- the cantankerous pair deliver the boy, and Josephine's cold heart begins to melt. There is even talk of re-opening the resort on the profits from the vintage wine-cellar. She becomes increasingly convinced that the girl is her long-lost grand-daughter and refuses the local doctor's offer of a blood-test; she wants no scientific evidence for what she knows in her heart to be true. Ayla Kell and Brendan Michael Coughlin, who play the young pair (who of course fall in love) were unknown to me, but they do a reasonable job. However the strength of the film relies on its older players, not just Zabriskie and Dourif, but also the ever-visible Lochlyn Munro playing the baddie who impregnated the girl and who wants to sell the child, and TV-regular Michael Gross playing the kindly doctor. Since it all comes to a climax under the ginormous Christmas tree in the now cleaned-up lounge, the Christmas credentials of this likeable movie are established.     

Friday, 20 November 2015

Spectre (2015)

I said at the end of last week's entry that I'd review the Korean 'classic' "A Swordsman in the Twilight" (1967) unless something better turned up. Well it has (sort of -- see below), but I should write a few words on 'Swordsman' regardless. Sorry to say it was a bit of a disappointment with little to recommend it. The black and white cinematography lacked the crispness of the best old movies and the cameraman had obviously never heard of deep-focus photography. The villain reminded me of a latter-day Korean Bela Lugosi with his mocking eyebrows, and our hero who had sworn revenge had two good chances to kill him earlier than in the final non-thrilling showdown. Also I wish someone could explain to me how he could have unwittingly killed his wife and daughter behind a wooden screen, when his arrows into the screen miraculously were lodged into his loved ones when the screen was removed with the arrows intact. Huh???

As for the latest James Bond, there are two ways to view such films. You can either sit back and wallow in the exotic locations, excessive violence, and mindless sex, or you can look at the film objectively and discover a bloated mess. This viewer wavered between these two extremes, admiring certain of the set pieces and the general standard of the acting, and then sitting there wondering how much more of this is there? 150 minutes is the answer to the last question.

Director Sam Mendes has given us a generally well-photographed travelogue -- Mexico City, London, Rome, snowy Austria, Tangier, and the African wastes for no logical reason except to keep the action moving with boats, planes, trains, and helicopters. The opening sequence filmed in the middle of the Day of the Dead celebrations was spectacular, but the subsequent and continuous explosions and devastation produced diminishing returns. Craig who is far from my ideal Bond goes through the motions (and at 50 plus he has threatened not to return for a fifth outing), but he comes across as a well-groomed thug, which is exactly what he is, despite our being given vague indications of a softer, more contemplative underlying soul. The lovely Monica Bellucci playing the widow of the villain Bond has killed in Mexico is being flaunted as the oldest 'Bond Girl' ever, but her brief turn was largely irrelevant to the plot and could easily have been omitted. She was only there to prove that Bond is still an irresistible 'babe magnet'.

Then there was the heroine of the piece, French actress Lea Seydoux whom Bond has promised her dead father to protect. She reluctantly accepts his help, but after a never-ending fight sequence on a train with lead heavy David Bautista (echoes of "From Russia with Love") in which she takes part, after Bautista has been thrown from the train, her first question is 'What do we do now?' The answer of course is vigorous rumpy-pumpy. Her accented English, along with that of chief baddie Christoph Waltz, made the dialogue a little difficult to take in, and I could understand Americans having trouble with some of the plummy British accents as well. Mind you they did offer good support in the shape of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and in particular Ben Whishaw's Q.

As for Waltz who normally makes a memorable villain, his screen time was limited to some twenty minutes, and I got the feeling that he was phoning in his performance as he subjected Bond to some brutal, but ultimately pointless, torture. However resurrecting Spectre's mastermind Blofeld after some forty years, and then not killing him off, was interesting in the overall Bond canon and could well figure in the inevitable sequels, with or without Mr Craig and/or Mr Waltz.

Friday, 13 November 2015

10th London Korean Film Festival

I don't really spend my days moving between film festivals -- appealing as that idea sometimes seems -- but the ones I favour do follow upon one another. Last year was the first time we sampled this ambitious celebration of Korean cinema, which travels the world. The organisers managed to schedule some 40 films in 13 days at venues across London with various strands focussing on the work of one or two actors and one or two directors, along with recent popular hits and some classics revisited. This last strand is of particular interest, since I for one know virtually nothing about Korean cinema before it smashed into world art-house consciousness in the '80s, offering us an endless string of memorable and often quirky crime, fantasy, and historical movies.

"Miss Granny" (2014) was a surprise hit at the Korean box office and is something of a heart-warming fancy. Mal-soon is a tetchy 74-year old who lives with her workaholic son's family, where she is just about tolerated by her daughter-in-law and her grandson. When she overhears their discussing whether the time has come to park her in an old folks' home, she fears the worst. Visiting a photo studio called 'Forever Young', she decides that she had best pose now for her funeral portrait while she still can. She doesn't believe the compliments of the flattering photographer who tells her that he can make her look fifty years younger, but on leaving the studio she finds to her horror that she is indeed now the spitting image of her 24-year old self.

Afraid to go home, she is at a loose end. Her family can't understand why she has vanished. Only the elderly beau who takes her in recognises something of his would-be sweetheart in the woman's manner. She may have a young person's body and face, but she has retained her somewhat uncouth granny personality and way of talking; he tries fruitlessly to match her youthfulness by changing his lifestyle and manner of dress for trendier ones.. She manages to connect with her grandson who fancies becoming a rock-star, and with her help as a singer, his group get their first breaks. Even her neglectful son begins to recognise her when he finds some pictures of himself as a baby in his mother's arms. Life is now more fun than it has ever been, but she discovers that should she bleed, the surrounding skin starts to show the signs of aging. The crunch comes when her injured grandson needs a transfusion and only she shares his rare blood group. Here come the spoilers...the decision to save her grandson is a no-brainer and in her own skin she is reunited with her now loving family, the pop group find the fame they crave with another singer, and her motorcycle-riding beau has found his own way to the 'Forever Young' photo shop. All rather sweet...

The actress playing the young Mal-soon (Shim Eun-kyung) also pops up in our second choice "Masquerade" (2012). The idea for this historical drama came from a missing fifteen days in the annals of the Joseon Dynasty many moons ago. The somewhat arrogant and petulant king fears an attack on his life and instructs his Chief Secretary to find a 'ringer' to sleep in his quarters each night. Both the king and his doppelganger, a lowly acrobat, are played by one of the most popular Korean actors Lee Byung-Hun. I have commented previously on this handsome devil, whom I have called the Korean Alain Delon, and I've noticed him in "Bittersweet Life" (2005), "The Good, the Bad and the Weird" (2008), and "I Saw the Devil" (2010). He also, for what it's worth, can be seen in some Hollywood junk like this year's "Terminator Genisys". However he outdoes himself in this film where he creates two very distinct and compelling personalities.

When the king is in fact poisoned and taken away to recuperate, the acrobat who knows nothing of royal etiquette is pushed into impersonating the king in his absence. At first he is impressed by his new finery and delicate food (although he is astounded by the court's fond obsession with his bowel movements!), but as he becomes more involved in the affairs of state, he soon becomes more empathetic to the needs of his 'subjects', who are being milked by greedy aristocrats and landowners. The changes in his personality are noted by the previously ignored Queen, the now largely rejected concubines, and by those court officials with the most to lose. The overriding questions are can the recovering king allow this impostor to live and will the ruse be discovered before his return. I won't answer these questions here, but would encourage you to find the answers yourself by seeking out this very successful movie.

Our final choice which we'll be viewing tomorrow is "A Swordsman in the Twilight" from 1967, one of the aforementioned classics, and purportedly a martial arts masterpiece. Whether I review this next week or am tempted by upcoming distractions remains to be seen...

Friday, 6 November 2015

In-flight Movies...again

Yes I'm back from a most amazing stay in New York the details of which form no part of movie blogging, except to say that visiting with old childhood friends after many years is a surreal experience unlike any other. The least interesting part of my absence was revisiting in-flight movies after a two year-plus hiatus -- and while I may well fly long-haul again in the future, I just might not feel inclined to report on miniaturized viewing again, especially since the selection featured very few recent releases.

The first case in point was my feeble attempt to watch "Ant-man". You might joke that a tiny hero is just the thing for the smallest of screens, but frankly it feels as if I didn't see the movie at all. I had a go since Paul Ruud is amongst the most charming of modern actors, but his shrinking by scientist Michael Douglas to create an unstoppable ant-sized hero was little short of unwatchable. I'm not saying it's a rotten film. I am saying that one needs a rather larger screen to appreciate super-hero antics, even when they're teeny-weeny powerhouses. Then again, I've just about had my fill of super-hero flicks anyhow.

I next watched "Woman in Gold", the well-received tale of holocaust refugee Maria Altmann (played by a subdued Helen Mirren) trying to claim back the Klimt portrait of her aunt -- a painting looted by the Nazis -- from the recalcitrant Austrian government. She is assisted in her quest by inexperienced lawyer Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds in a more serious role than his forays into super-heroism), grandson of composer Arnold, who has his own axe to grind. It all seems to be an uphill battle, until their unexpected triumph; the fact that Altmann promptly sold the masterpiece for a pot of gold is neither here nor there. The only trouble with watching this small drama on the small screen is that the German-speaking passages (of which there were many) were furnished with even smaller subtitles which remained unreadable! A recommendable movie regardless.

My third choice on the outward flight also boasted subtitles, but fortunately these were legible. Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat enjoyed a not terribly brilliant Hollywood sojourn after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, but he has been off our screens for a while now. That's because he's returned to making the sort of movies in Hong Kong that created his image. Now 60 years old -- and he doesn't look it! -- he is still the coolest man in the world, far cooler than Steve McQueen the so-called 'King of Cool' ever was. The movie on offer was "From Vegas to Macao 2" (otherwise known as "The Man from Macao 2") not that I even knew that the first of these films (2014) existed. They are very jolly follow-ups to the hero Chow created long ago in "God of Gamblers" (1989) and its sequels. Full of chop-socky slapstick and featuring Chow's robotic manservant, they are a good giggle and full of wonderful effects. Chow remains among the most charismatic actors ever, even if the movies he appears in are fatally silly.

I was less ambitious on the shorter return leg, probably because I was overdue for some much needed shut-eye. I managed to watch "The Age of Adaline", a fantasy in which Blake Lively's heroine has remained in her late twenties for the last eighty odd years, after a freak electric storm. Her daughter, the mature Ellen Burstyn, is now visibly older than the mother she can not acknowledge publicly, as Adaline must keep changing her identity to keep nosey authorities at bay. She continues her strange deception until she falls for the handsome young man who has been pursuing her. Reluctantly she goes to meet his parents, Kathy Baker and Harrison Ford, who immediately recognizes her as his long-lost love from years past. Not bad.

I finally fugued in and out of "Ex-Machina" which is top-class science fiction starring three of this years flavours: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. I shouldn't worry about having missed bits of the movie since it is being shown on satellite television next week. (If I had remembered that, I probably wouldn't have chosen it). The seemingly straightforward yet convoluted story has genius scientist Isaac recruiting young technie Gleeson to interact with his latest advance in artificial intelligence embodied in robotic Vikander, a wonderful piece of CGI design. Their various agendas are at odds with surprising results, but it's a gripping tale. I shall watch it again to discover what ins and outs of the story I sleepily missed.

Next on the agenda is the 10th annual Korean Film Festival which we attended for the first time last year. We've already viewed our first selection -- a fascinating oddity "Miss Granny" -- but I'll review that movie and our second choice next Friday.    

Friday, 23 October 2015

LFF: the Last Two plus The Lobster

Our eighth choice turned out to be one of the festival highlights for us. Along with "Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen", "The Brand New Testament" ties for our fest-fave. In fact I can't wait to see this Belgian movie again...

Several factors influenced its choice, although we nearly gave it a miss since it was showing at the Cine Lumiere of the Institut-Francais, a bit of a drag to get to. However the attractions of the cast -- the dour Benoit Poelvoorde, the very quirky Yolande Moreau, and the ever-lovely Catherine Deneuve -- combined with the individualistic visions of its director, Jaco Van Dormael, convinced us to attend -- and I'm thankful that we did. The basic premise assumes that God is a mean-hearted slob living in seedy Brussels flat, who spends his time dreaming up new ways of torturing humanity. For example, the buttered toast will always land on the floor jam-side-down! Having already sacrificed his son J.C., he keeps his wife (Moreau) and daughter Ea imprisoned in the apartment. Finally with J.C.'s help young Ea manages to escape (through a washing machine!) after advising all humanity of the dates of their deaths, determined to write her own gospel and to acquire six new disciples. Her motley crew includes a woman with one arm, a serial killer, a lonely-hearts case, and spoiled housewife Deneuve who has fallen in love with a gorilla.

I think you get the message; fans of droll, surreal humour will be in their own heaven. One of Van Dormael's earlier movies "Toto the Hero" (1991) set the pace for his series of visionary comedies. Perhaps they are not to everyone's taste -- as a number of negative comments on IMDb attest -- but the film was a right rib-tickler for me. The conceit of Poelvoorde pursuing Ea into the real world where no one believes that this ID-less slob is God will stick with me, as he helplessly looks into every washing machine for a way back to his sanctuary. Meanwhile wifey Moreau has her own plans for a brighter, happier world.

To take things out of sequence, I mentioned last time that I had hoped to include "The Lobster" in our festival choices. Since it is now on general release, we did go to see it -- and boy was I disappointed. The first English-language movie from the Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos who gave us the strange and strangely-likeable film "Dogtooth", I was expecting something rather special after all the hype this movie is attracting. The basis is clever enough -- all singletons must find a suitable partner within forty-five days or they will be turned into an animal of their choice. This potentially unusual and surreal premise was undermined by the lack of a sufficiently light-handed touch. Colin Farrell does a surprisingly restrained turn as the newly dumped hero who must find a new mate or turn into the lobster of the title, but I found Rachel Weisz (again) as his potential love interest shrill and unappealing. In addition the scenario was dark, confusing, and ultimately very nasty. Once again I seem to be at odds with IMDb critics who found the film hilarious. I have no idea what they found funny in this dreary mess. 

And now back to our final Festival choice "Old Czech Legends" a newly digital restoration of animator Jiri Trnka's 1952 stop-motion puppet film. I have always been interested in oddities of this sort, and the Czechs have given us such treats as the films of Jiri Barta and Jan Svankmajer. While I am less familiar with Trnka's output (an omission that I intend to remedy), I must confess that I got a little bored watching this movie -- its 84 minutes felt much longer -- as his puppets recreated the legends of Czech history and the founding of the nation. It was much a case of so-and-so begat so-and-so and so on. The effects were lovely and the music memorable, but once again I missed what I would call a playful perspective to make this history lesson a more entertaining one. 

                    *                      *                    *

There will be no blog next week as I am off to New York -- the first time in a while. On my return, however, you can look forward to my latest instalment on the wonders or otherwise of in-flight movies. Incidentally I read somewhere this week that airlines are considering abandoning the back-of-seat screens to stream flicks onto the passengers' own hand-held devices. As if there was not enough dependence on these already!!!     

Friday, 16 October 2015

London Film Festival - 77% Recurring

Seven films down and two remaining -- it's been a hectic week and something of a mixed bag. As I've written in previous years, we normally try to schedule mainly foreign-language films which are less likely to surface on general release -- so let's get cracking with some capsule reviews:

First up was "Blood of my Blood" from the Italian writer-director Mario Bellocchio. The programme notes were a tad misleading and this somewhat schizophrenic film felt like two separate movies. The more involving first half is set in the l7th century where a comely maiden endures a barbaric witch-hunt when accused of seducing a priest who has killed himself. The latter's aristocratic brother arrives to observe the proceedings and in turn seduces a pair of homely sisters where he is boarding and the accused witch as well. Then suddenly the story moves to the modern day; the monastery has become a derelict prison inhabited by an actor with a bit part in the first half whom we are led to believe is some sort of bloodless vampire. In fact most of the cast are given new roles in the second part, generally unrelated to their previous personas. For example, the aristocrat is now some sort of conman negotiating to buy the building for a rich Russian developer. There are overtones suggesting that modern Italy is really one big madhouse, with people acting as irrationally as medieval monks, but the message is more than a little muddled.

"Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen" was a joyous treat from the multi-talented Takeshi Kitano, and a return to sparkling form after his patchy output since the unfortunately self-indulgent "Takeshis" (2005) (gosh was it that long ago?). This very droll story concerns a bunch of elderly retired Yakuzas (now supposedly banned) who decide to re-form their gang to deal with a bunch of business-suited modern gangsters who are terrorising the neighbourhood. Their leader, the one with the most brownie points from his past glories, is Ryuzo, played with a twinkle in his eye some 40 years on by Tatsuya Fuji the romantic lead in the erotic classic "Ai no Corrida". He and his pals still think of themselves as unbeatable tough guys, despite their failing bodies and minds, and find more and more outrageous ploys to confront the young baddies. Kitano only cameos as a tough local cop and I guess he's getting on as well, but not before proving to his many fans that there's still talent to spare in the old fella.

Our next choice was also Japanese, "Ghost Theater" directed by Hideo Nakata, the man who introduced the world to "Ringu" and father of the J-Horror phenomenon. This very stylish and actually quite spooky movie follows a theatrical troupe rehearsing a new drama, one that features a life-sized doll (or mannequin) as one of the central 'characters'. Suddenly there are an inexplicable spate of deaths in the theatre and our young heroine inherits the lead when the original leading lady ends up in hospital. However she too loses the role when she insists that the doll is 'alive' and a threat to the production.  It all hinges on the backstory of this apparently indestructible doll and only a bloody rampage can provide a suitable ending -- although the last scenes imply that the horror may be far from over. 

We chose the fourth movie "21 Nights with Pattie" since we have been charmed by the French actress Isabelle Carre who has been off our radar recently. She travels to a small mountain village for the funeral of her estranged and loose-living mother, only to find that the corpse has suddenly disappeared. All of the carefree villagers including the morbid local copper have different theories as to who would want the body and for what fiendish purpose. Carre is befriended by a local woman and tame nymphomaniac (the Pattie of the title) who regales her with all the sordid details of her many affairs. Then Andre Dusollier arrives for the now postponed funeral and Carre decides that he may well be a famous writer who in turn may well be the father she has never known. The local cop of course thinks that he is a renowned necrophiliac! With additional support from the ever-weird Denis Lavant and Sergi Lopez as Carre's dutiful but unloved husband, the reckless bonhomie of the villagers and the vision of her mother's ghost spark something inside her, and the film becomes a Midsummer night's dream of regained joie de vivre. A strange but charming film.

Tuesday was something of a disaster with two movies on the agenda (I really wanted to see a third, Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" but that is being released here this week).  First we went to see the Chinese film "The Assassin" by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and one would have hoped that I had learned my lesson before now -- because I really hated his earlier films (most of which are idolised by the art-house crowd) as being slow and pointless exercises in tedium. However this co-production with Taiwan and Hong Kong promised a martial arts extravaganza and he did actually win best director at Cannes. I'll be dipped if I can fathom why! Now if the award had been for best cinematography, there might have been a point, since the photography was fabulous. Opening in sharp black and white and gradually morphing into glorious colour with wonderfully crisp details, the film is a feast for the eyes. But that's it...the story was episodic and unintelligible with the director insisting on extending each scene on hold until one begins to fall asleep. There was even a lengthy, loving panorama of a bunch of baby goats!  Never again.

The second disappointment was provided by "Evolution", the first movie from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic since her debut smash "Innocence" way back in 2004. That film was an eerie tale set in a girls' school, haunting and memorable. However her latest effort starts off promisingly but soon develops into what-the-f-is-going-on. Our 10-year old hero Nicholas lives in a strange seacoast community -- looking like something out of De Chirico -- populated solely by drab young mothers and their darling young sons. The sea exacts magnetic charms and while the boys frolic in its mysterious depths, the mothers nightly gather on the shore for some mystical ritual. But the boys are all 'sickly' and soon deposited in the local clinic -- also staffed only by women -- where (if I understood the story correctly) they are operated upon and impregnated to provide new young boys. Nicholas knows that something weird is going on and so do we, but the movie soon becomes confusing and uninvolving.

And at long last an English-language film, "Youth" from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. I am particularly fond of his 2004 movie "The Consequences of Love" and like most of his subsequent oeuvre, although I didn't really care for his Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty" or his previous English-language movie with Sean Penn "This Must be the Place". His latest film however is a winner on a number of scores. Firstly it gives a great late role to the 82-year old Michael Caine, who plays a renowned retired composer and conductor. He vacations every year at a Swiss health spa, and is joined this year by his daughter Rachel Weisz and his old friend Harvey Keitel (Weisz' father-in-law), a renowned director who is trying to finance his last film, his 'testament'. Other hotel guests (and there are many) included jaded actor Paul Dano, a meditating Tibetan who may or may not levitate, an elderly couple who never exchange a word, an obese ex-football icon, named Maradona, with a huge Karl Marx tattoo on his back, and an assortment of other wrinklies who are there for the treatments. There are many ins and outs to the motley assemblage, too many to detail here, including Weisz' husband leaving her for the singer Paloma Faith playing herself, a pneumatic but not-so-dumb Miss World causing eyes to pop, and Jane Fonda -- Keitel's previous leading lady -- begging off his latest project and made up to look like an aging hag. (I've seen her in other recent flicks and must assume that the make-up was heavy on prosthetics). However, basically the movie is a gentle meditation on aging and memory, and Caine and Keitel (who I normally just about tolerate) play off each other well. Again a beautifully photographed movie, using the Swiss locations to maximum effect -- playful and charming. I shall always remember Caine sitting on an alpine rock conducting a chorus of local cows.

The balance next time....



Friday, 2 October 2015

What Price Glory (1926)

Although I had already decided to write about the above film, I nearly changed my mind after viewing "The Dance of Reality" (2013), the first film from the now 86-year old cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky since 1989's wow-fest "Santa Sangre". Actually I tell a lie since he made "The Rainbow Thief" with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, in 1990, but very few people have ever managed to actually view that movie, including yours truly. His latest film which premiered at Cannes is a fanciful account of his childhood in Chile, with his son Brontis playing Jodorowsky's own father, a rabid communist tyrant. The movie is as colourful, weird, and off-the-wall as his earlier flicks and worth searching out if you're a fan.

Back to the business at hand, I actually reviewed the John Ford remake of this movie a while ago: While an enjoyable romp, the old Maxwell Anderson drama is largely played for laughs by James Cagney and Dan Dailey in the classic roles of Flagg and Quirt. The silent movie made two years after the hit Broadway show has its comic moments, but is more of an anti-war statement. Fox made the film as their answer to MGM's "The Big Parade" and it is every bit as good; if anything the battles montage are even more horrific as they brilliantly portray the brutality of war. As Victor McLaglen's Flagg says (in subtitles) 'There must be something wrong with the world if every 30 years it has to be washed in the blood of youngsters'.

Quirt is played by Edmund Lowe, a popular lead of the day, whose subsequent career through 1960 produced very few classics. McLaglen on the contrary became a stalwart member of the Ford repertory company and his boisterous, Irish shenanigans grace a number of that director's great films.  Quirt and Flagg are proud marines who have served together in China and the Philippines but who meet up again in a small French village during World War I. Flagg is now a captain to Quirt's top sergeant, but the joshing love-hate relationship they have established over the years is tested to the limits when they both make a play for the landlord's daughter Charmaine, an early role for Mexican beauty Dolores Del Rio. The still-popular song "Charmaine" was especially commissioned for this movie and reprised in the later one. The film and its characters were so popular that McLaglen and Lowe appeared together again in 1929's "The Cock-Eyed World" -- thought to be the first movie sequel -- and subsequently in "Women of All Nations" (1931) and "Hot Pepper" (1933). Again, perhaps, this buddy flick is one of the first 'bromances'.

Directed by Raoul Walsh who had been helming movies since 1913 and whose career continued into the 1960s to include such classics as "The Roaring Twenties" and "White Heat", Walsh embraces Anderson's pacifist message through the action and subtitles softening the horrors with a leavening of good humour and comradeship. Eying the new recruits, Flagg instructs Quirt to train 'these eggs until they are hard-boiled'. He asks them what work they did at home before joining up and we see the cross-section of youth to be sacrificed, from artist to farmer. Particular attention is paid to a young, homesick 'mother's boy'' who has received a letter from home reading that he must be so proud to serve his country. Naturally he is among the first to die, exposing the recruits' vain dreams of glory. Yet even knowing that 'glory' is a big lie, Flagg and Quirt remain loyal marines, ever ready to respond to the bugle's call.

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Advance notice: There will be no blog next Friday since by then I shall be well into the London Film Festival with nine tickets pre-booked.  My next entries will detail my viewing adventures in full....

Friday, 25 September 2015

All the Colours of the Dark (1972)

The moral of the story is 'don't believe everything you read'! When the programme for the current season at the BFI arrived, we both noticed the blurb for a showing of the above film, which I will quote in full:
   "Although not as widely known as Bava or Argento, giallo stalwart Sergio Martino provided  the sub-genre with some of its most enduring classics, and this tale of a London-based woman drawn into a satanic cult remains one of his most enjoyable efforts. Putting a sly supernatural spin on the classic formula, this is vintage giallo: gorgeous to look at and weird as hell".

In a pig's eye! as we say over here. I booked the tickets before we viewed "Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key" at last month's FrightFest, but doubt that I would have done so after seeing that mouthful of a title. Mind you, in comparison with the movie we viewed last night, the restored copy of 'Your Vice...' was a masterpiece. For a start, after booking, I received an email from the box office saying that they had been 'fortunate' enough to locate an original print from the U.S. and would be showing that copy...

So we ended up viewing a dubbed movie titled "They're Coming to Get You" which was six minutes shorter than the advertised feature -- I have no idea what if anything was cut, although there were some very abrupt jumps in the action. The second problem was that the print on obviously inferior colour stock had deteriorated to barely watchable footage at times, and was hardly the 'sumptuous Scope photography' promised in the programme notes. To cap things off, the film was something of a muddled potboiler.

Like "Your Vice..." this film also stars Edwige Fenech, who looks even more gorgeous and delectable here; at the time she was the girlfriend of Luciano Martino, the director's brother, hence the rash of their collaborations. However little can save the mishmash of the storyline. Fenech plays Jane the mixed-up girlfriend of another Giallo stalwart George Hilton -- the actors of the period has a great penchant for anglicizing their Italianate names -- whose child she has recently miscarried. He is away too often on business and she is afraid to confide her growing panic, her frightening dreams, and the increasingly recurrent glimpses of the blonde, icy, blue-eyed fellow who she thinks wants to kill her. Is she losing her grip on reality??? Her sister has arranged psychiatric counselling for her which isn't doing much good, while a new glamorous neighbour thinks that joining her local satanic coven might do the trick. All together now, yeah, yeah, yeah.

While one is used to the genre having gaping plot holes, they are broader than ever in this film. Of course Jane is happy to be sexually abused by all of the coven, and of course she may have murdered her neighbour as part of the ritual, and of course her psychiatrist will offer her sanctuary at his little 'summer house' (more of a country mansion) where she awakens to find the caretakers bloody and dead, and of course she will end up killing her boyfriend. Or perhaps these were all figments of her tortured mind. In the wake of "Rosemary's Baby', satanic cults were all the rage and the Italian directors were never averse to borrowing the odd story line. However I would be hard pressed to even classify this movie as a classic giallo, which has its own rules all of which are totally ignored here, or even as a successful merging of two fashionable genres.

Perhaps if we had seen a better (or restored and undubbed) print, the film might have had some redeeming features. Certainly the pictorial insights into Jane's confused brain were occasionally shot with a certain bravura, and Martino's use of swirling camera movements, skewed angles, and stylized surrealistic tableaux produce further indications of an auteur at work. However the additional programme note which claimed that Fenech's performance succeeds in turning the ridiculous into the sublime is a case of film criticism soaring off into cloud-cuckoo land -- says Pretty Pink Patty. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

Irrational Man (2015)

Anyone who has followed my blog will know by now that I am a big Woody Allen fan. Hence our trip to the cinema to see his latest, despite some very disparaging reviews. Only one, by Kevin Maher in The Times, managed to see beyond the familiar 'gorgeous young chick falls for middle-aged man' moan that greets so many of his films. Maher wrote that one shouldn't complain about the long-standing themes, but should welcome each new spin from Allen's fertile pen. His movies show up most modern releases for the childish pap they are, with their intelligent, witty dialogue, their eclectic casting, their masterful eye for location, and their thoughtful musical choices. 

Here we have Joaquin Phoenix as cult philosophy professor Abe Lucas, lecturing for the summer term at a small, prestigious Rhode Island college. To put it mildly he is a grumpy old sod, forever sipping whisky from his pocket flask, literally letting his fat gut hang out, and having lost both his sexual prowess and his lust for life. This doesn't stop indie queen Parker Posey, a married scientist at the college, doing her best to end up in his bed. One of his students is music-major Jill played by Emma Stone in her second film for Allen, leading one to wonder if she is becoming his new muse a la Diane Keaton or Scarlett Johansson. Despite her long-standing relationship with boyfriend Jamie Blackley (who he ?), Jill and Abe become good friends, and she tries to make him lighten up. Of course, being a Woody film, she soon develops strong feelings for him -- the student having a crush on a professor is far from unknown -- while he continually fends her off for a variety of reasons.

While grabbing a snack together in a diner, the pair eavesdrop on a conversation about a mean old judge who is tormenting a local woman in her custody case, largely because he has the power to do so. (Of course the Woody-haters will immediately relate this to Allen's court battle with Mia Farrow those many years ago). Abe resolves to do away with this tyrant who he feels deserves to die; as he carefully plans and carries out this existential act, he is newly energised, regaining his confidence and joie de vivre. He is now able to perform sexually with Posey (and Stone) and seems more alive than ever with new purpose. As Allen told his Cannes audience where the film premiered (to very mixed reactions), if one maintains a rational approach to life everything seems depressing; but once you start thinking that your life has meaning and that what you do matters, you begin to find happiness in your existence.

The murder is big news in the small college community and everyone, including Jill and Abe, has his own theory. However as more and more small details emerge, Jill becomes convinced that Abe is the culprit. He eventually admits the truth to her, but she becomes disenchanted and increasingly shrill. She gives him an ultimatum that he must confess to the crime 'by Monday', especially after another man is arrested and charged. However, he now realises that he really relishes his freedom and thinks he just might take off for Spain with Posey; he begins to understand that one murder can beget another. I will not spoil the movie by revealing which character finally meets its maker, but I will say that it is not necessarily the neatest end to the film and I can easily envision alternate scenarios.

I was intrigued by one of the characters in the movie, one of Jill's friends who looked like a Bette Midler mini-me. I was therefore pleased to note in the end credits that she is played by one Sophie von Haselberg (Midler's married name) and is in fact her daughter. She describes herself as an actress, but this is her first film role, apart from that of a child extra back in the 90's. Her apart, this movie is one of Allen's least starry features. Although his skills are well-thought of, I have never fancied Phoenix's performances, except possibly as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line". Stone and Posey acquit themselves well, although both actresses are something of an acquired taste. The remainder of the cast were all adequate, but not exactly memorable. The choice of locations and the cinematography were up to Allen's usual impeccable standards, but his choice of music -- usually a mix of old classics and trad jazz -- was a little weird, heavy on the Ramsey Lewis Trio's less disciplined harmonies.

Following the film's release here, I read another article positing that creative artists should know when they are past their prime and should know when to stop -- pointing a not so veiled finger at Allen. I couldn't disagree more, since this would deprive the world of so many lost masterpieces in all areas of artistic life. This movie may not be one of Woody's best and I will admit that it could have done with a lighter touch and a leavening of humour -- the things that his script mocks are a little too subtle to create guffaws, just small smiles. It's a talky film, but one that makes you think, and I would not be surprised to find it considered one of his most underrated in the years to come. 

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