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Friday, 29 April 2016

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Like last week none of the films I watched this week really grabbed me, but unlike last week there weren't many that deserved even a few kind words. The above coming-of-age flick (a latter-day John Hughes type film) was probably the best of the bunch, although I was tempted to focus on "Bad Words" (also 2013) directed by and starring the usually amiable Jason Bateman. He plays a 40-something slacker who, for his own reasons, has finagled the rules to take part in a national spelling bee aimed at eighth-graders and under. It's a mean-spirited affair with Bateman at his least likeable bullying the kiddies and the officials, although he does eventually find some sort of redemption through his relationship with a friendless Indian child prodigy, winningly played by Rohan Chand.

Back to the subject at hand, based on a young-adult novel with a screenplay by the "500 Days of Summer" scribes, the film was a Sundance hit with best actor awards for its leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Both are now rising young stars. I first noticed Woodley as Clooney's snippy daughter in "The Descendants" and she has made a name for herself in soppy teen sagas and the Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant series which also features Teller. His breakout role was the young drummer in "Whiplash". While both display fine acting chops, and theirs are the stand-out roles in this movie's large cast, both of them are really too old now to be playing high school seniors, however young-looking they may appear. Mind you, Teller's sprinkling of teenaged acne does help the illusion.

He plays Sutter, a good-time Charlie, the life-of-the party popular jock who has just broken up with dishy girlfriend Tiffany, Brie Larsen (also too old for the role) -- just before her Oscar-winning role in "Room".  To make her jealous he takes up with Woodley's Aimee, a studious, naïve, and vulnerable girl who has never had a boyfriend; not a beauty at the best of times, despite starting her career as a child model, Woodley is drabbed down for the role. Against all expectations it develops into a full-blooded (and shyly sexual) relationship. They meet when he wakes up after a drunken evening sprawled asleep on her front lawn with a 'Dude, Where's my Car' vibe. He's failing geometry, she agrees to tutor him, and things develop from there. They both come from single-parent families and have difficult relationships with their mothers, one workaholic and one feckless (hers brings in extra cash by having a newspaper delivery route, which most days she gets Aimee to service). His is played by the currently ubiquitous Jennifer Jason Leigh, a far cry from her own iconic teenaged role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". 

The one disturbing feature of this tale is the amount of alcohol Sutter consumes each day just to bolster his confidence and his 'front' and the consequent amount of driving under the influence that takes place. Aimee begins their relationship as someone who has never had a drink, but she soon becomes quite dependent on the mini-flask that Sutter has gifted. He has been pestering his mother to let him contact his absent father and Leigh has resisted. He discovers his whereabouts from a married sister and off the pair go to find what turns out to be a happy-go-lucky but deadbeat Dad. Sutter now believes that his mother didn't want him to meet the man because she believes he is turning out just like him, shiftless and hopeless. He rationalises his drinking as a crutch  -- he is afraid of the pressure of other people's expectations. When Aimee is preparing to go off to college and hoping he will join her, he lets her broken-heartedly go alone because he genuinely believes he is no good for her. The film finishes with a will-they or won't-they sop to the viewer (which was not in the original novel).

While it's a more intelligent than most scenario, graced with complex characters, much of the action doesn't ring quite true. It's as if we are watching an adult's conception of what it is to be a teenager. In this context, I do wonder how much longer Woodley in particular will be stuck in teen roles. She is only one year younger than Jennifer Lawrence who has broadened her range from the teenager in "Winter's Bone" and the 'Hunger Games' series to a variety of very different adult leading roles. So far the talented Woodley is not another Lawrence.     

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Potpourri of Pictures

It's been another of those weeks where no one film jumps out screaming to be reviewed, but unlike previous similar weeks I watched a number of movies worth mentioning (among the usual dross of course) -- so here goes:

"Little Fugitive" (1953): This one has been on my want-to-see list for ages. One of the first indies -- non-studio, black and white, low budget -- it was the dream project of professional married photographers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, and went on to win a Silver Lion in Venice and to be Oscar-nominated for best story. Non-professional child actors (neither of whom ever appeared in another film) play brothers -- the elder Lennie forced to look after kid-brother Joey while their mother is away. As a gag to get shot of the youngster, Lennie and his mates pretend that Joey has accidentally killed his big brother and the frightened child steals some cash and hops a subway to Coney Island. He mooches about stuffing his face with junk food and collecting bottles for the deposits to fund his passion for pony rides. Lennie meanwhile is terrified that he has 'lost' Joey and goes off in search.

With a minimum of dialogue and acres of Cinema Verite on the crowded Coney beach and the adjacent Steeplechase Amusement Park, this is a wonderful evocation of a time and place long gone. The adventures of young 'fugitive' Joey are sweet, endearing, and just a little scary.

"Rubber" (2010): I confess: exploding heads in movies are one of my guilty pleasures and this weird outing has three super ones, along with a final exploding body! It's a very silly movie which seems to covet cult status -- but it really isn't quite good enough, not unless you are prepared to buy into having an abandoned rubber tire as a serial killer. Yes, said tire goes on a murderous rampage in a desolate desert environment destroying flora, fauna, and all else that gets in its way, before recuperating by watching TV and going for a swimming pool dip. Yes, very silly indeed, but occasionally funny too in a very juvenile way.

"Standoff" (2015): Basically a two-hander, one-location thriller with Thomas Jane's suicidal ex-soldier bluffing professional assassin Laurence Fishburne that he has more than a single shell left in his gun. Yes there are other characters, particularly a young girl called Bird who can identify Fishburne and whom Jane feels obliged to protect. It's remarkably well-acted for what is really a B-Movie -- and tense with it.

"Elsa and Fred" (2014): Surprisingly the most enjoyable of the week's offerings, with wrinklies Christopher Plummer and Shirley Maclaine falling in geriatric love. Plummer plays an ornery old fart moved into a small apartment by his bossy daughter Marcia Gay Harden and Maclaine is the free-spirited, kooky next door neighbour -- actually a little too self-consciously kooky for my taste. She's obsessed with "La Dolce Vita" and sees herself as a latter-day Anita Ekberg ready to cavort in the Trevi Fountain. Apparently based on a 2005 Argentinian film which I don't know, the project was intended for Maclaine and Michael Caine until he dropped out. His replacement Plummer  does a lovely job, however, and there are useful roles for George Segal, James Brolin, and Scott Bakula as well.

"Age of Uprising, the Legend of Michael Kohlhaas" (20l3) is a French film starring the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in a revenge story very similar to his in "Salvation" which I recently reviewed. However this is much longer and rather less involving. Our hero eventually manages to satisfy all of his perceived grievances -- in exchange for being beheaded. Not a great deal of fun that...

Finally "Filth" (2013) and probably the less said the better. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, James McAvoy is the whole show as a dysfunctional, dissolute, and despicable Scottish cop using friend and foe alike to secure an undeserved promotion. At once surreal, sex-driven, and very nasty, this is a movie to vaguely admire but not to enjoy.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Lilting (2014)

This is a lovely little film which most movie-goers will never have the opportunity to see. Alternatively sad, funny, bittersweet, maudlin, uplifting, and heart-breaking, it riffs on how two very different people who deeply loved the same person cope with their devastation on his death.

Pei-Pei Cheng, a veteran Hong Kong actress, gives a remarkable performance as a Cambodian-Chinese widow Junn living in Britain for many years, but never adapting to the new culture. The focus of her life since her (from the sound of it wastrel) husband's death has been her only son Kai, who has resolutely coped with all the practicalities for her; she has never bothered to learn English, despite being proficient in various Chinese dialects. Kai is gay and has recently moved in with his boyfriend Richard; reluctantly he has 'parked' his mother in an old-folks home which she hates, since he can not bring himself to 'come out' to the hidebound lady. He plans to finally bite the bullet and confess all, so that she can move in with them, when he is killed by a drunken driver.

Richard is played by the very able actor Ben Whishaw (himself gay), who first entered my radar in 2006's "Perfume" (a wonderful film) and who is now a quirky Q in the Bond franchise. Richard wants to get closer to Junn, not so much as in trying to take Kai's place in her affections, but as a way of keeping his love for his dead lover alive. He hires a Mandarin-speaking interpreter (Naomi Christie) to help bridge the communication gap between them, but is wary about being overly open about his real relationship with Kai, whom he initially describes as his 'best friend'. Whether Junn was actually aware of her son's sexuality but managed to deny it is less apparent than her jealousy of Richard's closeness to her son. Had Kai lived and had the three of them found the strength to accept the realities of their existence, Junn might have found herself with two sons to love. 

Their interpreted 'conversations' don't really succeed in their finding common ground; we hear the anger in Junn's voice when it escapes from her musical Mandarin lilt and the frustration in Richard's when he can not break through to her. In desperation he blurts out the truth of his relationship with Kai. Her final words are that memories are all that she has and must be kept alive 'to comfort me in my loneliness or they will fade like the face of my (dead) husband'. They both grieve for the person they loved best but seem unlikely to ever bridge the chasm between them, despite an uplifting final scene.

The first feature film from Cambodian-born, British-based director Hong Khaou, it is apparently based on a two-hander French play. Wonderfully photographed by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the movie has a lighter touch than the above capsule may imply. Junn has an admirer at the home, Alan, played by sitcom comic stalwart Peter Bowles. He's really just a dirty old man yearning for some slap and tickle, but initially Junn is flattered by his attentions. Only when they borrow the interpreter for some more intimate confessions does it emerge that he thinks her breath reeks of garlic and she thinks he smells of urine! She now wants to avoid the amorous old coot, but Richard encourages her to give him a second chance, as he hopes she will give him as well.

Finally a word or two about the remarkable Pei-Pei. I saw her quite recently in the martial arts classic "Come Drink with Me" (1966), where as a 20-year old she played Golden Swallow (disguised as a man) who is out to rescue an official -- actually her brother -- kidnapped by thugs -- and she acquits herself memorably as an action heroine. She can also be seen in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). However neither of these prepared me for her dignified, grief-stricken turn as Junn.  

Friday, 8 April 2016

"The Bald Hairdresser" (2012)

If the above sounds an unfamiliar and unlikely title for a movie, you can be forgiven for not recognising it, since the film in question from Danish director Susanne Bier was released to the English-speaking world as "Love is All You Need". This may be a sappier sounding title, but the above original intrigues. It is also accurate -- albeit unappetizing.

The film's female lead, played by Trine Dyrholm, has just completed a hospital course of chemotherapy and is waiting to learn if her cancer has been contained. She works as a hairdresser and a glamourous blonde wig disguises the fact that she is currently as bald as a coot. She goes home and is horrified to find her husband, Kim Bodnia, humping away on top of his young mistress. Now, in the normal course of things I could accept this scenario as a stepping stone for the action to follow. However, since obsessively watching 'Scandinavian Noir' TV series has become part of my recent way of life, I had trouble accepting Dyrholm's conniving art gallery owner from "The Legacy" being married to Bodnia, the Danish cop partnering the Asperger-ish Swedish cop Saga from "The Bridge". When one has spent several years and several series in the company of these actors, their characters become quite rooted in one's mind. It would be like discovering that Ted Danson's Sam Malone is actually married to Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe Buffay!

But I digress...  Dyrholm's Ida (not-so-cute) meets Philip (Pierce Brosnan) when she bashes into his car (several times) in an airport parking garage. It seems they are both en route to Italy where his son is about to marry her daughter. They end up travelling together, and since everything is going wrong for her at present, the airline manages to lose her suitcase for good measure. Brosnan is a workaholic widower, still mourning his long-dead Danish wife, and a very distant father to his son. Now the whole family must come together for the current happy event, which includes his man-eating sister-in-law Paprika Steen (first seen in 1998's "Festen") and Bodnia, who has brought along his loud-mouthed and slutty paramour.

The scene is set for several family show-downs as well as the growing friendship between Ida and Philip, starting when the middle-aged Dyrholm bravely emerges from her sea-swim totally nude and bald. The various ugly tensions, especially between Ida's soldier son and her boorish husband, are counterpointed by the beautiful sunny Italian scenery and the promise of gracious living. In the end, for reasons that I won't disclose, there is no wedding and the cast of characters go their separate ways. Back in Denmark, Bodnia begs Ida to take him back -- and reluctantly she agrees to do so. However Brosnan (or James Bond/Remington Steele) can't forget Ida, turns up at her beauty parlour, and agrees to open the letter she has received from the hospital but has been too timid to open herself. He wants to spend his life with her, whether it's for years, or months, or weeks. The End!

Director Bier has created a warm and ultimately moving family drama -- and one roots for the two refreshingly mature leads to realise that happiness awaits them, despite previous traumas. I've seen a number of the director's films over the years and they are usually complex and satisfying dramas. However, her most recent directorial stint was for the not completely satisfying BBC serialisation of John Le Carre's "The Night Manager" starring that bloody, omnipresent Tom Hiddleston (see below).

Friday, 1 April 2016

High-Rise (2015)

I didn't exactly hate this movie, but I didn't like it much either. Tempted by the reviews which claimed that British director Ben Wheatley and his regular screenwriter Amy Jump had managed the impossible in bringing J G Ballard's 1975 novel to the screen, we gave it a go. It's always been thought that the book was unfilmable -- and it should have stayed that way if you ask me.

Wheatley is increasingly well-thought of as one of the best directors in the country, but I didn't particularly like any of his earlier flicks: "Down Terrace", "Kill List" (I tried watching it twice), the period piece black-and-white "A Field in England", or the would-be black comedy "Sightseers". There is a cruel streak running throughout his films, not leavened by a light touch, and this latest movie is easily his nastiest. Set in the 70s, the tale is obviously meant to be taken as some sort of parable on the Thatcher years as well as our society today.  'The Architect' dreamer, Jeremy Irons, has created a towering high-tech building which is meant to provide everything the tenants could desire -- from state-of-the-art kitchens and waste-disposal systems, from the supermarket to the pool, from the health spa to the squash courts. He lives in the top penthouse with his spoiled wife, surrounded by lush green gardens roomy enough for her pet white horse and various other farm animals; she can play at being Marie Antoinette to her heart's content. The lower floors are occupied by a hierarchy of classes, with the plebs near the bottom and the would-be aristos towards the top. The main cast of characters includes Luke Evans and his heavily pregnant wife, Elizabeth Moss, with their brood of kiddies, semi-courtesan Sienna Miller and her introverted genius son (who may well have been fathered by Irons), and a nasty lot of toffs led by James Purefoy. Our hero (and I use the word very loosely) doctor Tom Hiddleston has just moved into a flat on the 25th floor.

I confess that I am getting fed up with Hiddleston's omnipresence in film and TV nowadays, with his displaying his slim but buff body at every opportunity. Apparently some ladies lust after this would-be heart-throb, but his appeal leaves me baffled. I understand that he is angling to become the next James Bond when Daniel Craig finally packs it in, but I do hope a better alternative will arise to save the franchise.

Anyhow, back to the subject at hand, things start to go wrong almost immediately -- the lights fail, the lifts don't work, the garbage becomes backed up, and despite being surrounded by acres of free parking, the inhabitants of the tower seem unable or unwilling to leave their microcosm of society. This is where I lose the plot as outlined. There seems to be no logic as to why they are unable to go outside or why their automobiles soon become burnt out wrecks; in fact we actually see Hiddleston go to his office in a nearby research hospital on several occasions. Things go from bad to worse in a kind of a "Lord of the Flies" world, where the rich in-bred bullies try to impose their will on the lower ranks through mayhem and murder. The analogy used in the movie is that of a children's birthday party run riot. The white horse and the many pet dogs soon become the only remaining sources of nourishment, although the diminishing number of inhabitants never seem to run out of cigarettes. It is the l970s remember...and everyone seems to smoke non-stop.

There's two hours of compulsive madness, non-stop carousing, casual sex, and mob-led bloodshed without any likely resolution in sight. One hopes we can look forward to a rosier future than the one created by Irons (and Ballard) in their ivory-tower master-plan for society.

            *        *        *        *        *

To end on a cheerier note, I have finally managed to watch the recent Academy Award animation winner "Inside Out".  It's a brilliant work of absolute genius. I just can't understand the many writers who have given it a one-out-of-ten ranking on IMDb. Draggy? Boring? They must be mad or weird or both.  Or is it me?  

Friday, 25 March 2016

August Rush (2007)/In the House (2012)

Memory is a funny thing...and two films viewed this week demonstrate this.

I first saw "August Rush" shortly after its release and thought, "OK, that was an interesting movie...maybe a little soppy, but OK". Reviews ranged from 'iffy' to adequate and I put it out of my mind. Or I thought I had. Yet snippets of the movie kept coming back to me and a gradual fondness began to emerge, so I decided upon a second viewing -- and I'm pleased that I did. It's a strange and as it turned out in my case a haunting film with much to recommend it.

In short, classical cellist (Keri Russell) and Irish rock musician (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) meet, have a one night stand, and go their very separate ways. When she finds that she is pregnant, she so wants the child as a reminder of that one carefree night in her ordered life, but her father-cum-manager convinces her that her son was still-born and that her career is all that matters. However she has lost the taste for his stern discipline and retires. Meyers too wants desperately to find what he now believes to be his destined and lost love, leaving his group to try to get on with some semblance of life. Meanwhile their child has been placed in a state orphanage, and youngster Freddie Highmore (in a remarkable performance) refuses all offers of adoption, believing in his heart of hearts that his real parents will find him.

Befriended by caring welfare worker Terence Howard, he runs away to New York hoping he will help him locate his family, but arrangements go astray and he ends up in the not-so-tender hands of Robin Williams, playing a latter-day Fagin, who is providing a home of sorts for a bunch of lost boys-cum-street musicians. The young lad has always heard music in the wind and the trees and he soon demonstrates a prodigious musical talent. Through a set of plot contrivances necessary to move the story forward, he ends up living at the Julliard School of Music where this teenaged prodigy composes an incredible urban symphony that is to be premiered (with his conducting) in Central Park. However Fagin Williams does not want to let the boy-wonder (and meal-ticket) escape his clutches. It is a frantic race for him to reach the park for the concert, where Russell has come out of retirement to play and where Meyers too is drawn. The inevitable family reunion is downplayed, yet the viewer knows as the music surges that they will now live happily ever after. 

With its amazing mix of music -- classic, rock, folk, symphonic -- and a likeable cast (except maybe Williams) I'm not surprised that the film stayed with me over the intervening years -- unlike some movies which I viewed last month and can now barely remember. I've always had a soft spot for the underused Russell (who started her career in the Mickey Mouse Club in 1991) though I've rather more ambiguous feelings about Meyers, even if his defining role in the TV series "Gormengast" (2000) is another memory-worm. And as mentioned above, young Highmore gives his all. He's had a wonderful career as a child actor from age seven and seems to be continuing along the same lines as a young man, even if he is now playing Norman Bates in "Bates Motel"! Yes, as it turns out, "August Rush" is a movie well worth remembering.

At another extreme, I scheduled BBC4's premiere showing of the French movie "In the House", even if the storyline seemed to ring vague bells. I checked all my many lists and decided that I couldn't possibly have viewed the film previously, but from the minute we started watching, it all seemed very, very familiar. We couldn't work out where or when we had seen it nor quite remember how it panned out, so we kept on watching. I eventually realised that I own a DVD of the movie. How stupid can you be Pat? Or how forgetful?

It all came back to me -- although completely forgotten over the last few years -- and it was no punishment viewing it a second time. Adopted from a play by director Francois Ozon, whose films delight in playing games, it follows Fabrice Luchini's high school literature teacher (with the lovely name of Germain Germain) as he and his childless wife (Kirstin Scott Thomas) become increasingly bewitched by the essays turned in by one his pupils. Said student, Claude, played by Ernst Umhauer, has ingratiated himself into the family life of one of his classmates on the grounds that he is helping the dim lad with his maths. But he is besotted with 'the middle-class mother, played by Emanuelle Seigner and plots to whisk her away from the Raphas, Senior and Junior. Each instalment ends with the words 'to be continued' and Luchini and Scott Thomas hang on every syllable as the saga unfolds. However one never knows whether the youngster's stories are fact or fiction and to what extent he is trying to infiltrate into his teacher's own life. Luchini's mentoring of the young writer eventually backfires when he loses both his job and his wife, but the insidious little monster is already tempting him with the tales of what he imagines to be going on in many other flats and houses. 

If nothing else I should have remembered Scott Thomas' frantic attempts to make a go of her pretentious and wildly pornographic art gallery and the delightful cameo from one of my favourite French actresses, Yolande Moreau, playing twins. Such are the vagaries of memory.  

Friday, 18 March 2016

Anomalisa (2015)

There are a number of amazing things about this very strange animated film from card-carrying kook Charlie Kaufman, but the most amazing of all is the fact that it was actually Oscar-nominated. Unlike the usual culprits -- Pixar, Ghibli, Aardman -- this is not the expected child-friendly product to pack them into the multiplexes, but a movie directly aimed at an adult audience and one which it will probably be slow to find. Yes, we have had puppet sex before in "Team America", but with doll-like sexless wooden bodies, not with the finely detailed genitalia to be found here in Kaufman's everyman fable.

The second amazing fact is that after his ill-received directing debut ("Synecdoche New York" in 2008 -- admittedly a boxes within boxes complicated movie) no studio would dream of giving him money for a sophomore film, despite his award-winning strengths as a screenwriter ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). "Anomalisa" began life as a 40-minute voice play. Having formed a working partnership with animator Duke Johnson (which whom Kaufman shares the directing credit), the project was initially funded on Kickstarter, before scrabbling to finance the balance of the production.

Stop-motion animation is a very slow process at the best of times, but Johnson has done an amazing job of bringing Kaufman's play to life, down to the very smallest movements. Their computer-printed unstrung puppets are surreally lifelike as they go about their mundane lives, even if they do seem rather top-heavy and squat. Disturbingly their face-movement joins, usually painted out in post-production, are left in place -- and occasionally shift or even fall apart -- reinforcing the notion that we are watching some sort of parallel world, yet one with haunting implications for us all. A third amazing feature of this movie is that it has a cast of hundreds, but only three voices.

Our 'hero' Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker, who has checked into Cincinnati's bland Hotel Fregoli, before delivering his presentation on improving customer service. We gradually become aware that everyone with whom he interacts from the taxi driver from the airport to the soulless reception clerk to the bell-hop to the bar staff -- men, women, and even children -- all speak with exactly the same voice (all furnished by Tom Noonan) and facially they are indistinguishable. Michael seems to be suffering from Fregoli Syndrome, a condition in which one believes that everyone else is the same person but in a different disguise. He appears to be facing some sort of alienated middle-age crisis, desperately trying to bring some meaning to the emptiness of his own life. He may have written a book titled "Let Me Help You Help Them", but he soon realises that pretending to care about others is impossible when everyone else is identical.

And then he hears a third voice, Jennifer Jason Leigh's homely Lisa who seems to be a light in the darkness -- an anomaly, the 'something different' for which we all search. Michael is enchanted with the possibilities embodied in this plain, sweet, and inexperienced woman, and they soon spend the night together. However, despite his cockeyed dream of a future together, he becomes disenchanted with her perceived failings and dutifully returns to his wife, child, and friends -- all of whom look alike and sound alike. There is no redemption or happy ending for this Everyman, even if Lisa seems to have found something meaningful in their time together.

We are probably more receptive to Kaufman's thesis that we are all potentially lost souls by his embodying this nihilistic philosophy in his slightly skewwhiff puppets, rather than employing real actors with whom we might identify. It's an odd movie that will not set the box-office ablaze, but one that is destined to find its own cult audience, even with the yucky business about the antique Japanese sex 'toy' that he has purchased as a present for his young son. Very weird!    

Friday, 11 March 2016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

OK, I admit I was a little disappointed. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Coen Brothers fan, I had been looking forward to seeing their latest movie, partly for its purportedly all-star cast and largely because anything to do with 'old Hollywood' (especially sending it up) is guaranteed to tickle my funny bone. While this film is far from an all-out dud like their needless remake of "The Ladykillers", it is very definitely middle-range Coen Brothers and not up there with their best.

Despite their award-winning record, the brothers have never claimed to be part of the Hollywood establishment, and pointed barbs from talented outsiders are often on target. However, unlike "Barton Fink" which was ultimately a mean-spirited jab at La-la Land in the 1930s, finally sending the whole shooting match up in flames, 'Caesar' is an episodic and meandering look at 50s Hollywood, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to its output and foibles. Insofar as there is any story being told, we follow one day in the life of the film's main character (Josh Brolin), studio executive Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life and reputedly ruthless behind-the-scenes fixer of the period. A fastidious Catholic who confesses his 'sins' on a regular basis, Mannix's true faith is in Hollywood's 'magic'; tidying up other people's messes is really what keeps him going.

His main problem today is the disappearance of superstar George Clooney (playing his third role as a Coen Brothers 'idiot'), one scene away from completing the epic of the title, who has been snatched from the set in his leather skirt by a disaffected bunch of Communist screenwriters (shades of the anti-American witch trials of the time). Clooney demonstrates that even great Hollywood stars can be gurning boobs as well! We are also introduced to Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams-esque mermaid, in the club with no husband to hand, for whom Mannix plans a scenario where she can adopt her own kid. (Hello, Loretta Young). Meanwhile on the studio lot we meet acrobatic cowboy Hobie, played by the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, who incidentally gives the movie's best performance, as he is roped into a high-falutin' drawing-room comedy, a la Gary Cooper?, under the exasperated eye of pernickety director Ralph Fiennes. Then there is song-and-dance man Channing Tatum, doing a remarkably able pastiche of Gene Kelly, although rather more sexually explicit than would have been tolerated back then.

The film's cast is huge, and most of them are given very little to do. Jonah Hill has about two minutes of screen time and Coen regular Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper-cum-Luella Parsons) is something of a waste of time. France McDormand, however, has a knock-out cameo as a film editor who nearly comes to an Isadora Duncan sticky end. There is even a Carmen Miranda-ish character for us to identify. The movie largely resembles one of those early talkie productions, where each of the studio's contracted stars did their little bit in the hope that these small turns would add up to a feature film.  "Hail, Caesar" is similarly far too patchy to be satisfying, although there are definite laughs to be found. For example, the scene where various religious leaders are called in to ensure that 'the tale of the Christ' which is shooting will not manage to offend any one is hilarious, especially with Robert Picardo's bolshy rabbi. However these affectionate felicities are few and far between.

Like Woody Allen movies, minor Coen Brothers' films are still potentially more entertaining than most, even if they occasionally turn out to be something short of a hoped-for masterpiece.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Shooting Oscars

This will be the first year that I haven't devoted a full blog to the Oscar ceremony, partly because I don't have a great deal to add to the widespread coverage of the recent event and partly because a film viewed yesterday shouts for some comment.

Considering the brouhaha over the past few weeks about the whiteness of the Oscar nominees, Chris Rock did all that was expected of him to emphasize the problems of so-called diversity and largely with good grace, although a few of his gibes fell resoundingly flat. He had a very valid point in stating that historically having nominees of colour was of little consequence to the black community when your granny is hanging from a tree. And in all fairness, there have been a fair number of black winners in living memory. The point has been made, but I'm not sure it needs to be drummed home ad nauseum. There was certainly a compensatingly high percentage of dark faces among this year's presenters, most of whom felt obliged to add their two cents to the argument, but I'm pretty sure genuine talent will continue to be colour-blind in the years to come. Rock's amusing recasting of black actors in some of this year's nominated films (I especially liked the 'black' bear that violated DiCaprio) drove the point home that not every role calls out for colour-blind casting.

As for the awards themselves, there were actually a few surprises -- always a pleasant turn of events. I miscalled the likely winner of best supporting actress (although I think Alicia Vikander was even more deserving of an award for her amazing turn in "Ex Machina") and I was flabbergasted that sentimentality did not bestow the best supporting actor gong on Stallone. Also surprising is the fact that this year was the first Oscar win for the incredibly prolific and talented composer Ennio Morricone. Leo's win (at last, say some) for "The Revenant" was a foregone conclusion, but I could have done without the incurably smug Alejandro G. Inarritu winning best director for the second year running. However if the Academy once again manages to split the best picture award from the director responsible for its gestation, a far more popular choice would have been awarding the directing Oscar to veteran George Miller. After all, "Mad Max: Fury Road" was the big winner of the night with six technical awards -- and the production design really was magnificent -- a seventh to its director would have capped the evening. I was chuffed to find that Stephen Fry's 'bag lady' Jenny Beaven took home another costume design award for that movie, and you could just about hear the dressed-to-the-nines audience's horrified gasps when she took to the stage in her leather jacket and motorcycle boots.

Now to the second highlight of my cinematic week: "Shooting Stars" (1928). This restored silent film was one of the galas at last year's London Film Festival, and last night was the first of its less spangled showings before its DVD release later this month. The direction and screenplay are credited in retrospect to Anthony Asquith, son of a former Prime Minister, although he is uncredited for both -- the directing credit ascribed to a forgotten A.V. Bramble. Asquith did indeed go on to a successful career in the sound era, but I am certainly underwhelmed by his silent output of which this is the third and final restoration.

Set in a film studio where two productions are underway, the glimpses of early film-making techniques hold a certain fascination, but the story itself leaves much to be desired as do the largely wooden performances. Married couple Brian Aherne, who went on to a distinguished Hollywood career, and Annette Benson present a false picture of marital bliss, while she actually has the hots for Chaplinesque comedian Donald Calthorp. The latter actor continued in memorable British roles throughout the 30s, but Benson seems to have disappeared from the scene after 1931 (there isn't even any biographical information available); frankly she was neither sufficiently gorgeous nor convincing in her femme fatale role. When her adultery (strong stuff for movies for 1928) becomes exposed, she fears for her future because of the morals clause in her contract, and tries to stage Aherne's death on set. Her plan backfires and Calthorp becomes the unintended victim. All highly melodramatic...

In fairness the film did have a few well-staged niceties, in particular its moralistic ending, but the hyped 'boldly expressionistic' shooting style and dramatic lighting from so-called rising talent Asquith is barely in evidence. Variety published two reviews on its original release -- one from an American critic praising the work and a second from a British critic knocking it. However a third review three months later more or less said that the film was of little consequence and not worth screening. Of course now we are meant to hail its brilliance as some sort of masterpiece.

This performance was graced with a live score from composer John Altman and his chosen l2-piece jazz ensemble. The music was the better half of the evening, even if it didn't always seem to tally with the images on screen. Unfortunately we were seated just across the aisle from the musicians and the effect was a little overpowering to say the least.

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The latest film from the so-called Sage of Winnipeg, Guy Maddin, sounded fascinating from the first reviews I read. We finally caught up with it at the six-row Studio in the National Film Theatre. "Well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back" said Michael, and it is very definitely a movie that will divide viewers into two camps -- with the majority, I suspect, joining Michael who found it a pretentious and nearly unwatchable mishmash.

I, however, really liked it despite its bum-numbing length -- and there can be no argument that it is totally unlike any other film that gets a cinema release. Maddin's output has always verged on the decidedly quirky, often with the feel of silent cinema, normally focussing on complicated but unsuccessful romances, and with not very subtle motifs of sexual repression. I've not seen all of his output, but my reaction has wavered between those which left me bemused like "Archangel" (1990) and "Careful" (1992) and those which I found brilliant, like "Dracula, Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002) and "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003).

For the last decade, Maddin has been more involved in installations and art projects. Developed from a series of short scenes performed before the public in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Phi Centre in Montreal, the fifteen or so 'stories' were edited together into overlapping and fragmented circles to create the final film. Inspired by 'lost' films and abandoned projects, the movie takes its title from the definitely lost 1914 short film from Canadian-born director Allan Dwan (who went on to have a distinguished Hollywood career). The overall feel of this movie is one of dream-like images stitched into a hallucinogenic wash of colour with absolutely no linear coherence, and featuring such weirdnesses as a Filipino vampire, a cult of lycanthropes, stolen squids, a mid-air Zeppelin collision, and a scantily clad amnesiac young heroine who wanders aimlessly through the proceedings. In addition, some footage is shot to resemble deteriorating nitrate stock, reminding one of the really unwatchable documentary "Decasia" (2002).

Add to this the 420 kitschy intertitles in this non-silent movie and one is inundated with something resembling sensory overload. The enormous cast, many of whom play multiple parts, and most of whom are credited with a title card when they first appear, seem to be having enormous fun; the list includes such well-known names as Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and Elina Lowensohn, as well as a number of Maddin regulars like Louis Negin and Roy Dupuis. Parts of the movie were actually laugh-out-loud funny, like initiation rites of 'offal-piling' and characters regressing into amoeba-like monsters, and most of it was quiet-smile amusing.

However first and foremost the film which the director himself has described as a "basically ectoplasmic splooge" seems to be one long metaphor for the orgasm. From the gnarly seamen trapped in their tube-like submarine whom we continue to revisit as they plot their escape and the many quests through rosy pink caves, the movie ends with a series of explosive climaxes. The viewer too experiences a sense of release that this very odd viewing experience has actually come to an end.

I imagine it would take multiple viewings to absorb everything that Maddin has thrown into his wizard's brew and I don't know that I could stand doing this again on anything less than a large screen. Yet I can definitely recommend seeking out the film. You too might describe it as two hours that you can never retrieve, but they would be two hours of movie-making such as you have never before seen.   

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Baftas 2016

While I have written about the British version of the academy awards previously, I note that I have not done so for the last few years, since the forced bonhomie of 'national treasure' host Stephen Fry is increasingly hard to take. But due to popular demand (???) he was back for his llth time last Sunday, showing little improvement, other than managing to introduce his 'surprise' presenter Tom Cruise without last year's f***ing adjective.

However since the ceremony likes to bill itself as one of the leading signposts on the so-called 'road to the Oscars', it is possibly worth examining the differences between the two occasions. For a start, the Baftas make a point of trying to recognise British talent, not only presenting awards for the best British film, the best British debut, the best rising star, and the best continuing contribution to British cinema (amusingly won this year by the theatrical costumiers Morris Angel), but also load the nominations with Brits whom the Academy has ignored (and who stand little chance of winning anyhow).

Those considerations apart, this year's choices in the main categories were boringly predictable and likely to be echoed -- with one exception -- at the upcoming Oscars. "The Revenant" which I admit I have not yet seen and which frankly I am in no rush to view seems to be on an unstoppable roll, largely fuelled by the hype that poor old Leonardo DiCaprio has never won an Oscar. I don't doubt that it was a hard shoot and gong-givers seem to love actors who have suffered for their 'art'. So Leo walked away with his prize and the same honour was granted to the film itself, its director, and its cinematographer (all for the second year running). Yawn! Interestingly Leo thanked his British co-star Tom Hardy, who surprisingly is Oscar-nominated but was not among Bafta's own choices.

The other two predictable awards were to Brie Larson for best actress and to Kate Winslet for best supporting actress. Despite all the flag-waving for "Carol", I doubt that Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara, will upstage them for the same awards later this month. Incidentally nominating Jennifer Jason Leigh for "The Hateful Eight" by both academies is something of a joke. The one predictable big difference between the two ceremonies is in the shape of best supporting actor. The British actor Mark Rylance won here for his soaring performance in "Bridge of Spies, but the sentimental favourite for this award must be Sylvester Stallone, who was not even nominated by Bafta.

One or two other interesting points: The selection for best foreign language film was completely different from the Academy's with only "Theeb" in common, and the winner was Argentina's "Wild Tales" -- a refreshingly deserving choice rather than selecting some 'worthy' or pretentious outing. Secondly this year's Fellowship Award which usually goes to some aging Brit was presented (by satellite link) to Sidney Poitier. Take that Academy -- we have honoured a black man! They also made certain that black Brit Idris Elba received a nomination.

Going back to the annoying Mr. Fry, he created a twitter-storm after awarding the best costume design plaque to Jenny Beavan for "Mad Max: Fury Road". She accepted the prize wearing a leather jacket and sensible boots and Fry quipped that it was strange for a designer to turn up dressed as a bag lady. How the shit hit the fan! He subsequently claimed that she is in fact a dear, dear friend, that it was all a big joke between dear, dear friends, and told the Twitter trolls to F-off in fairly explicit words. I suppose it is too much to hope that we will be spared his return in 2017.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Prisoners (2013)

How far should a parent be willing to go to save the life of a beloved child? That is the basic question behind this long (two and a half hours) but riveting movie.

Blue-collar neighbours Hugh Jackson and Terrence Howard, together with their wives (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) and children are celebrating Thanksgiving together in a snowy Pennsylvania suburb. When the young daughters of each family go outside after lunch and subsequently disappear, a range of emotions, including panic and anger, surface. The girls had earlier played outside a parked camper van, with the driver obviously inside, and the now missing van is the first object of the police search. It is soon spotted at a nearby service area, and when the driver attempts to flee as the police approach, he is apprehended. However Alex Jones (beautifully played with a minimum of fuss by the versatile Paul Dano) has a mental age of ten years -- despite having a valid driving license -- and is soon released from police custody, since he is unable to furnish any coherent explanation for his behaviour. He returns to the home of his aunt, Melissa Leo, who has looked after him from an early age.

The police investigation is being headed by a fiercely determined Jake Gyllenhaal, who has a sterling record in solving local crimes, but a chance remark from Dano to Jackson, makes the latter 100% certain that the child-like Jones should never have been set free and that he does indeed know what has become of the missing girls. So while the police futilely search the nearby woods, Jackson goes into overdrive and abducts the simple and very frightened young man. In the attempt to force information from him, Jackson employs increasing deranged methods of torturing him, even after the police have identified another potential suspect. First Howard, and then Davis, are unwitting accomplices to Jackson's brutality, but there is no stopping the ferocious bereaved father. (Bello meanwhile has taken to sedatives and her bed in a complete withdrawal from the hopelessness of the quest). When bloodied garments belonging to the two girls are found in the second suspect's house (after he manages to blow his head off while under arrest!), Jackson still thinks Dano know where to find their dead bodies.

It's a very intense turn from Jackson, and some reckon it's his best performance ever, but I still have trouble accepting his not quite believable and overly dramatic acting chops; he's much more at home in musicals and light comedy (if one ignores his supposedly iconic turn as Wolverine). Gyllenhaal in contrast gives a barn-storming performance, seething in his anger when he believes he had let the families down, and Dano -- as mentioned above -- is, as always, creepily effective.

The fraught action and seething emotions on display are reinforced by the increasingly stormy rainy and snowy weather, beautifully captured by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. This movie is the first English-language film from the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve whose "Incendies" was Oscar-nominated in 2010, and he has since moved on to Hollywood blockbusters. It's not meant to be a 'feel-good' movie, even if there is an ultimately satisfying denouement, but the gritty handling of difficult subject matter and the relentless pacing keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat throughout.

I confess that the film's 'big reveal' did come as a surprise to me, but the twisty action -- some of which seemed confusing at the time -- all turned out to be logically related: a dead man in the parish priest's basement, a local history of missing children, hordes of creepy snakes and an obsession with mazes, all finally made perfect sense. And, for once, I liked the fact that everything was not tidily wrapped up in the last minutes, leaving the viewer to decide what might happen next. Would the now missing Jackman be found in time to save his life? And if so, would Gyllenhaal arrest him for Dano's torture? There were several many sets of prisoners to be reckoned with in this very absorbing flick.

  

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.  
 

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