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. 

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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. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

FrightFest 15 - The last two days

Before I continue with the last ten movies viewed this year, I wonder to myself whether I mean the 'last two days' ever. I know we swore off the marathon two years back, but succumbed again this year. What will the future bring? Watch this space next year...

FrightFest Sunday kicked off for us with another Discovery viewing Takashi Miike's "Over Your Dead Body". This extremely prolific cult Japanese director always seems to have a few new tricks up his sleeve and nearly always the results are exceptional viewing. The very stylish film does not disappoint, although I would be hard-pressed to try to explain what in fact was going on. We have a famous female Kabuki actress deep into rehearsals for a new production based on a famous ghost story, casting her not-so-famous lover in a supporting role. He in turn is having it away with her stand-in and his betrayal is bloodily echoed in both reality and make-believe. I can't say I quite understood the tale, but gosh it was beautifully told.

Next up was a French movie "Road Games" which as mentioned last time (and I'll be damned if I know how this helps sales) has an English-speaking lead actor hitching across rural France. He meets up with a French gal, but the pair have little luck with lifts since everyone is afraid of the local serial killer. They end up accepting a ride from a superficially helpful driver and reluctantly agree to spend the night with him and his wife at their country mansion. Soon we are led to wonder how wise a decision this was -- could he be the feared local killer or is there a further out of left-field answer to the mystery. Naturally that's the film's kicker. 

Another Discovery film at the Prince Charles (the fest's first home), was a new restoration of the 1972 giallo "Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key" -- now there's a mouthful and a half -- from Italian director Sergio Martin. Films of this period are always a retro treat, with their free-wheeling decadence and slaughter. The lust objects were the tasty Edwige Fenech and Anita Strindberg, scream queens of the genre, and we also meet Fenech's dead-mother obsessed husband and an Edgar Alan Poe-ish devil-cat. Unfortunately the projector broke down just before the final (but not unexpected) twist and we didn't hang about to discover if the end credits were ever reached.

"Scherzo Diablo" from Mexico was another stylish number, although I gather a number of the fest-followers didn't reckon it, possibly because of its heavy use of classical music. I thought it was more than ok, the story of a jobsworth who kidnaps his boss's teenaged daughter and keeps her enchained and I suppose abused. All the while he's wearing a grinning skeleton mask .Being a big fan of Day of the Dead iconography, that suited me fine. Things get out of hand after the gal escapes and tracks down her assailant and anyone else she blames for her torment. The logic was a little incomprehensible, but the movie held my attention right up to the final hint of horrors to come.

The last film of the day was "A Christmas Horror Story" from Canada, a patchy compilation of several spooky encounters in one small town on Christmas Eve, taking place while local radio DJ William Shatner gets progressively pie-eyed. While there is something blackly amusing about Santa's little helpers morphing into hungry zombies, I found the overall tone of the film mean-spirited -- not at all in keeping with the holiday -- and in the end saw little to recommend it.

Wow! I'm up to the final Monday and I'd better speed things along if I don't plan to be hunched over my computer all day -- so let's go to shorter summaries:

"Curve" - Bride-to-be gives a lift (against her initial good judgment) to the fellow who helped fix her broken-down car; she swerves off the road when his evil intentions become clear, finding herself trapped upside-down in the upturned vehicle. He, of course, is thrown clear, and keeps returning to torment her -- until... Yes, she escapes and wreaks havoc.

"Night Fare" - An English-speaking (of course) fellow amongst an otherwise all French cast, visits a pal in Paris. After a boozy evening, they fancy some late-night partying and run out on a taxi fare en-route. Bad the apparently indestructible driver keeps the meter running and pursues them across the city, leaving a bloody path in his wake. So far so scary-ish until we segue into Manga introducing us to avengers who exist across the centuries to punish wrong-doing. Soon one of the young men must join the ranks -- or something like that.

"Nina Forever" is a UK would-be horror. Rob becomes an academic drop-out after the death of his beloved Nina, working in a supermarket, where he takes up with check-out gal Holly.
Soon they are an item, but the spirit and indeed the solid corporal body of Nina joins in their love-making, she's not about to let Rob go and begins to fancy Holly as well. Not your usual sort of menage-a-troi.

Our final Discovery movie was "Goddess of Love"  written-by, produced-by, and starring one Alexis Kendra, not so much a vanity project as a labour of love. She plays a stripper called Venus who soon becomes unhinged when she is dumped by the new boyfriend, who is still mourning his recently-deceased wife. No the latter does not return a la Nina above, but we enter Miss Kendra's twisted mind as she tries to fathom her feelings of betrayal and despair. Not too bad an effort.

Finally we reach the closing film "Tales of Halloween" another holiday spin, but not like the Christmas movie above. Here we have eleven tales of varying lengths from eleven directors, including several past FrightFest faves. What we watched was very variable but generally OK; however as I admitted in my last post, we didn't stay for the whole movie. The marathon had finally taken its toll and we crept out into the night. I suppose, one of these days, I'll see it through and will discover whether I should stuck with it in the first instance.  

Friday, 4 September 2015

FrightFest 15 - The first three days

Having sworn two years back that FrightFest 13 was FrightFest the Last, we did buy a selection of tickets last year rather than opt for the whole package. So why you may ask did we succumb this year for the long weekend and was it worthwhile? Good questions! I can't really answer the first part other than to say 'why not?' and as for the second part, I guess the answer is 'more or less'. As usual the selection of films was something of the proverbial Parson's Egg, with a few stand-outs, a selection of OK-ers, and a few turkeys. Or perhaps I'm just losing my tolerance for mediocre frights or more likely my stamina for fourteen-hour marathons...

Anyhow, of the maximum 25 films that we could have scheduled, we only saw 21 -- skipping the three late-night ones (old bones and transport considerations) and choosing to lie in and miss one of the dubious early ones. Or you could say we only saw 20 (2 x half-movies) since we walked out of two of them -- the first because I found it unwatchable and the second because a) it was getting late and b) I'd just about reached saturation point (not a pretty sight!). Of these 2l, 5 were from the Discovery Cinema sidebars most of which were wise choices -- the hard-working organisers manage to make one's final selection difficult by including an increasing number of tempting titles each year. Here follows a brief summary of the first three days and eleven flicks:

"Cherry Tree" from Ireland and "Hellions" from Canada were both 'The devil wants my baby' movies long after Rosemary set the trend. The first was strong on witches and not much else, while the second used some scary burlap-headed trick-or-treaters to raise the hackles. Frankly I've had my fill of accelerating pregnancies and initially gormless teenagers fighting to survive.

I wasn't expecting much from the New Zealand/Canada co-production "Turbo Kid" since it sounded like it was going to be a teen-aged Mad Max rip-off, but it was a real hoot. Set in a parallel post-apocalyptic landscape, our young hero scavenges for goodies, especially old comics featuring his super-hero alter ego. Then he meets up with a sweet-natured robot called Apple -- an appealing turn from actress Laurence Leboeuf -- who joins him in defeating the mad tyrant Zeus (an initially unrecognizable and chunky Michael Ironside) who controls the dwindling supply of water. Comic book violence, brightly coloured, and frankly irresistible.

Our first sidebar selection was "The Rotten Link" from Argentina, and while a slow-burner it nicely builds up to a crescendo of violence. Set in a small village in the back of beyond, inhabited by an unhealthy selection of degenerates, our heroine -- who is something of the town bicycle -- is warned that she is likely to be killed once all the villagers have made use of her favours. She tries to avoid the most lascivious of the lot until he rapes her, but then completes the cycle by having some incestuous enthusiastic 'rumpo' with her idiot brother. That triggers the final over-the-top (and therefore highly enjoyable) denouement.

"Diabolical" from the U.S. joins the ranks of the myriad possessed houses movies which have become a rather yawn-yawn staple of modern horror. The twist here is that mother Ali Lauter is physically unable to remove her two kids from the property without their falling into a stupor. (Kind of like I was beginning to...) As for "Jeruzalem", I was rather looking forward to this one since there have been some brilliant Israeli horrors (a relatively new genre for them) at previous fests. However like too many movies from non-English speaking countries, the makers chose to focus on two Jewish gals from New Jersey mixing with some heavily-accented and barely understandable Arabs in Jerusalem to produce an English-language movie, presumably to court a broader audience. However the real killer for me was the use of (not found-footage which has become a cliché but) point-of-view video footage (or Google-specs, I don't know which) from one of the gals, giving a shaky and annoying flow to the action. Maybe things got more exciting as the Apocalypse descended, but I didn't stay to find out.

Our second Discovery film turned out to be the one very bad choice. "Final Girl" stars Abigail Breslin who was such a talented child-actress. However here, a la Nikita, she has been trained to be a killing machine from an early age. Her mentor Wes Bentley turns her loose on a gang of posh young men whose favourite pastime is hunting down unsuspecting female dates in the forest. Naturally Breslin sees them off one-by-one, but a more ungainly and unbelievably amateur fighter you would be hard-pressed to find. For her sake, I hope her future adult roles are more rewarding both for her and for her erstwhile fans.

"Bait" is a rather nasty yet well-done British flick of two no-longer-young friends who want to open a tea shop in a Northern town. They fall into the clutches of an initially charming, but brutal moneylender and his strong-arm gorilla who have bloodied other suckers. The ladies are being asked to repay tons of dosh that they have never in fact been lent, to compensate the villain for all the trouble he has taken (!), and a few sexual favours won't go amiss. They must fight back to save their sanity, their lives, and their souls. Like I said...nasty.

Two more American movies were "Frankenstein" by cult director Bernard Rose and "Some Kind of Hate" -- the first a clever take on updating the classic tale, the latter a so-so flick which its director describes as 'a feminist slasher movie'??? Rose's version of the famous myth has scientists Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss creating a perfect grown 'baby' in the form of Xavier Samuel, but the creature's bodily perfection soon gives way to purpuric boils and lesions. He becomes the monster of legend as he escapes and tries to make his way in the hostile world that he finds, befriended only by a blind musician Tony Todd (Rose's Candyman). No happy endings here but some bravura story-telling. The other film (which included Breslin's equally uncharismatic grown brother Spencer in a minor role) is about a teenaged outcast sent to a desert reform school. Here he conjures up the vengeful spirit of a former resident who committed suicide, and soon all of  bullies are receiving their just desserts at her hands. Not exactly a feminist anything.

The last movie to be covered today was one of the best, but not really any sort of horror movie in the traditional sense. "Rabid Dogs" is a French thriller, reworking a Mario Bava scenario and starring consummate actor Lambert Wilson. He plays a concerned father whose car is hijacked by three on-the-run bank robbers as he is rushing to reach the hospital for a scheduled transplant operation for his comatose daughter on the back seat. The robbers have previously taken newly-wed Virginie Ledoyen hostage, and the six of them take off on a tense and violent road-trip just one step ahead of the pursuing police. The baddies are altogether not nice people, especially Francois Arnaud (Cesare from The Borgias) who is lasciviously coming on to the comely Ledoyen, while each of them tries to work out how to double-cross the others. The shock resolution comes right out of left-field, brutal and totally unexpected. Masterful film-making.

Well folks, that's your lot for today. I'll continue with the remaining ten movies next time.    

Friday, 21 August 2015

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

I have never outgrown a fondness for animated movies, although some of the gooey and simplistic films churned out today are nigh unwatchable. Against this the advances in digital technology have produced some wonderfully-detailed and warming tales from both Pixar and Disney (now of course the same company) and others. However I am still a sucker for the beauties of hand-drawn animation as exemplified by the early Disney classics and of course the amazing Studio Ghibli. These works are a labour of love.

Although I have seen the above movie many times over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how much I forget between viewings. Yes, I remember the gist of the tale and certain stand-out moments and songs, but at a recent viewing, I was staggered by just how brilliant, beautiful, meticulously detailed, amusing, and yes 'scary' the film actually is. It is definitely a landmark movie in cinema history. It was Walt Disney's first feature-length animation, costing 1.4 million dollars (over its original budget of $250,000), with more than two million individual illustrations and 1500 shades of paint. Before its release, sceptics immediately labelled it 'Disney's Folly' and the prophets of doom predicted the worst.

However it was an immediate critical and popular hit and, adjusted for inflation, it was long the highest grossing animated movie of all time. It was the first animated feature selected for the National Film Registry and it received a special Academy Award -- one regular-size Oscar and seven mini-Oscars for each of the seven dwarfs. Parenthetically I do have my own mnemonic for remembering their names -- a popular party trick -- but it is too rude to be immortalised on the net! There are no brownie points for discovering that it was one of Hitler's favourite movies, but Sergei Eisenstein declared it to be the greatest film ever made (and he should know). It certainly created the platform for the myriad full-length animations that have been released since.

I also did not remember just how eerie and dark the film is at times, with an underlying vibe of sinister menace. Initially the British Board of Film Classification gave it an A certificate rather than a U, making it off-limit to the under-sixteens. Although this was soon revised, I can understand that kids could be left with nightmares on viewing Snow White facing the murderous huntsman who has been ordered to place her heart in a casket, being attacked by trees while lost in the forest, seeing the evil queen morph into a wicked hag (a la Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde),watching her tempt Snow with her poisoned apple, and seeing her fall to her doom during the final storm -- with the last image of hungry vultures descending. There is no question that many of Disney's movies had their share of black moments and this one has them in spades.

But of course children are resilient, and they are more likely to come away with memories of Snow White's chirpy animal buddies, the jolly songs, and a fondness for the individualised dwarfs, especially the bumbling Dopey who is mute and the irascible Grumpy who is very very angry. The movie still holds up today -- apart from possibly the over-operatic warbling from the uncredited Adriana Caselotti as Snow White; it has lost none of its freshness and easy charm. It remains a timeless classic.

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I will not be blogging next Friday since, contrary to previous resolutions, we have again opted for the full FrightFest weekend from next Thursday through the Bank Holiday Monday. After only choosing a handful of movies last year, we were tempted to buy the whole package once again and well may regret doing so. They say that old dogs never learn -- and I won't take that analogy too far. So watch this space for the many reviews to follow....   

Friday, 14 August 2015

Chalk and Cheese

The two films under discussion today have absolutely nothing in common other than my wanting to write about them, for reasons which may or may not become apparent. At any rate they are the two from the past week's collection which lingered in my mind for possibly all the wrong reasons...

The Great Profile (1940): I have occasionally written about John Barrymore and he remains a great favourite of mine -- a genius actor with a fatally self-destructive bent. From a dynasty of famous actors and coming from the stage, he and his siblings Lionel and Ethel were movie stalwarts from the silent days. However, unlike those two, John was never recognized by the Academy with nominations or awards; yet he was probably the greatest actor of the three. Unfortunately he is little remembered today, especially by those who forget that movies existed before 1975 (!) or by those who only know of him as Drew's grandpa.

Considered the supreme Hamlet of his day, his film roles remain supremely watchable, even if his deadly attraction to drink undermined his natural talents. This movie was his fourth from last before his untimely death in 1942 and all of his late films are B-flicks at best, only saved by his indomitable joie de vivre. He may have tackled all of these roles through an alcoholic haze, reading his lines from cue cards, but he remains magnetic. In this film, originally intended for Adolphe Menjou but rewritten for the Great Profile himself here named Evan Garrick, he reappears from a three-day bender, desperate for work. The plot seems to have been written from his own life -- he may have been one of the greats once upon a time, but no one is willing to back the dissolute star.

Enter l7-year old Anne Baxter with a terrible play that she has penned and which she implores him to read. When Garrick and his fly-by-night producer Gregory Ratoff learn that her fiancé is wealthy, they are suddenly eager to stage the sorry drama. The first night audience sit stone-faced through the first act, but when Garrick has a few little drinkies before the next act, the play degenerates into pure farce much to the playgoers' delight. On one level this satiric spoof is very sad given one's knowledge of Barrymore's own history, but at a very simple level the subsequent slapstick is nothing short of hilarious. Po-faced Baxter does her best to reform him, but Garrick/Barrymore was well past reforming at this point of his ultimately disastrous career. How the mighty have fallen, but the actor's late 'ham' remains succulent.

No Name on the Bullet (1959): Having written recently that I am no great fan of minor Western movies, I was pleasantly surprised by this unusual oater. Audie Murphy, America's most decorated World War 2 hero, was turned into a most unlikely movie star by the studios. His acting talent was often derided and he himself never thought it was much of a profession for a grown man. Most of the films he made are forgettable, but this B-movie casts him against type as the villain of the piece, or more correctly as the anti-hero. He plays one John Gant, an assassin for hire, whose reputation precedes him. His clever ploy is that he has never been prosecuted as a contract killer, since he always goads his potential victim into drawing first and only responds in kind before witnesses.

When he rides into the small town here, nearly all of the populace are in dread, wondering whom he has come to kill and whether it might be they themselves. Old feuds and double-crosses rise to the surface, erupting in internal violence, as the baby-faced Gant (Murphy was 35 at the time but looked ever so young and innocent) bides his time. The second-tier supporting cast -- the likes of Charles Drake, R G Armstrong, Willis Bouchey, and Whit Bissel -- handle the tension nicely, but few of them come across as completely trustworthy or likeable, as they futilely attempt to drive Gant from the town. If anything the cool-headed Gant is among the more admirable personalities on display, even if his business is murder for cash. His intended victim does not come as a complete surprise, but the movie's denouement is sufficiently open-ended to be satisfying.  All in all, a more than competent small gem. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Boardwalk (1979)

At long last this movie is available on DVD -- in the U.S. anyhow. I have often thought about this film since I first saw it back in the day, but it has proved elusive until now. It's not that it's a particular brilliant piece of work from writer-director Stephen Verona (who was only involved with five movies and this is his fourth), but it is an infinitely sad and moving viewing experience.

It is also decidedly politically incorrect by today's standards and would never have received a green light in our painfully polite milieu. Becky and David are a loving couple who have been married for forty-nine years, perfectly captured by Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg. Their once-genteel and largely Jewish neighbourhood in the shadow of Coney Island has deteriorated over the years as families have moved to the suburbs and more 'unacceptable' elements have moved in, bringing with them falling property values, a host of robberies, intimidation, and a pervasive sense of fear. The pleasure of elderly folk sitting on the boardwalk to gossip or read the daily news is fast disappearing as the young thugs strut menacingly towards them. The fact that these toughs are black with only one token white girl among them, with absolutely no redeeming qualities, is what would make this movie a 'no-no' today. These yahoos are completely hateful to the old-timers, claiming that Jews always have money hidden away, and the viewer can't help but hate them as well.

Becky and David have raised three children who help out at David's nearby cafeteria. Neither of their two sons are played by well-known actors (Joe Silver and Eddie Barth), but their daughter Florence is played by Janet Leigh, who is far too much of a skinny blonde shiksa for the role and something of a fish out of water. When the café is fire-bombed by the gang, David decides that perhaps it is time to retire. Strasberg is best known as the moving spirit behind the Actors Studio in New York, but has appeared in the occasional film. He was Oscar-nominated for his role in "The Godfather, Part 2" and sparkled in "Going in Style (also 1979) with fellow oldies George Burns and Art Carney. Here he plays an indomitable spirit who refuses to be cowed by the black hoodlums and who will not contemplate abandoning his family home.

Gordon, an Oscar-winner for "Rosemary's Baby" has always been a distinctive character actress and is fondly remembered for "Harold and Maude" and the Eastwood monkey movies. In a long career as both an actress and writer, she has said that her part in this movie was one of her favourites and one of her best. Becky knows that she is dying from inoperable and painful cancer and all she prays for is to be able to celebrate her forthcoming 50th wedding anniversary. She does -- but only just -- leaving David to mourn her passing and to fill in his increasingly empty days.

The film is not entirely prejudiced against the black community, since a professional black couple buy the house next-door to David's -- much to daughter Florence's horror -- and her father recognizes that this is a step up from their own humble beginnings, much as emigrating to the U.S. was a positive step in his own life. As he tells the gang's leader, he escaped from prejudice and intolerance once and he is not prepared to be browbeaten into doing so again. While not exactly a vigilante movie, the gang's casual and vindictive trashing of David's synagogue and subsequently the elaborate model train layout in his home, does cause him to snap. The violence at the film's end is both unbelievable and in so many ways heart-breaking.

The movie is well-worth seeing for its two lead performances, but it is something of a cheapjack production with a largely unrecognizable and undistinguished cast. Of passing interest is that it includes brief performances (probably as a favour to Strasberg) from singer Lillian Roth -- her first screen appearance for 44 years -- and from song-writer Sammy Cahn.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Wild Rovers (1971)

As an extremely loose generalisation I'm not all that fond of Westerns. However since I reckon nearly all of John Ford's oaters, most of Clint Eastwood's, and a hefty selection of others by the likes of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah, maybe I enjoy them more often than I admit. Against this there are a host of B-movies which do their best to destroy the genre, and it is probably those which shade my flawed admission.

Now Blake Edwards is not a name that one associates with Western movies. Directing from the 1950s, he started being linked with first-rate comedies from "The Pink Panther" in 1963 and "The Great Race" in 1965. If one ignores (as I do) the increasingly desperate 'Panther' sequels, his comic craft reached its pinnacle in the early 80s with "10", "S.O.B.", and "Victor Victoria".  However, being Western-born (Oklahoma) and penning various Western scripts early in his career, maybe directing one (as well as producing and writing it) was just something he had to get out of his system. The above title is the flawed end-product -- a brave stab where the succulent parts do not quite manage to create a juicy whole.

It's another buddy movie but certainly sub-Butch Cassidy. William Holden fresh from "The Wild Bunch" and Ryan O'Neal trying to escape his "Love Story" icky-ness, work for big-time rancher Karl Malden. Holden is the old hand beginning to feel the weight of time on his shoulders and O'Neal is the callow youth, still wet behind the ears, who can't hold his booze; yet there is some tangible chemistry between the unlikely pair. Both are worried about their futures and, on a whim, decide to rob a bank: 'We're going where cowboys can kick off their spurs and be happy -- I promise you' says Holden's Bodine. The balance of the film has them attempting to outride the posse led by Malden's sons, Tom Skerrit and Joe Don Baker, with little idyllic interludes en route to the inevitably downbeat finale.

I was curious to discover just how much of Edwards' comic sensibility would leak into the script and there are indeed little throw-away felicities. At one stage Holden tells his sidekick that things can't get worse, just as a chamber-pot of urine is emptied on their heads. Or there is a scene with Moses Gunn's mule-trader (the pair initially made their escape with only one horse between them) where the puppy O'Neal has insisted on taking with them is suckled by Gunn's nursing-mother puss. Other pluses are some breath-taking photography in Monument Valley, a fine horse-breaking scene in deep snow, and a judicious use of folk tunes, some of which Holden croons. However, despite the film's highpoints, it is never as elegiac or humorous or violent as the best Westerns which it strives to emulate.

The movie was not much of a success, especially after being butchered and truncated by MGM. It is in fact dragged down by a superfluous ranchers vs. sheepherders sub-plot and Rachel Roberts' screechy turn as a madam. Edwards eventually tried to establish its potential cult status by releasing a longer version, complete with an intermission and exit music, which is the version I just watched. He really needn't have bothered since it remains a patchy if occasionally enjoyable pastiche. Holden with his expressive, remorseful face, is as usual very watchable, but he was better served by Edwards in his last film role ("S.O.B").  

Friday, 24 July 2015

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Occasionally in the past I have written how movies that I have yearned to see for years turned out to be little short of disappointing when I eventually tracked them down. Therefore I am more than pleased to write that the above film, which has eluded me forever (as far as I can trace it has never been shown on television in Britain nor released here on VHS or DVD), is a literate, wondrous, and joyous view. I can not begin to understand why it is so seldom screened.

Written by Herb Gardner from his successful Broadway play, it provides Jason Robards Jr. with one of his very rare leading roles. His very long screen career began with television work in the l950s, moved into screen roles in the early 1960s, and ended with "Magnolia" in 1999. While he was always an intriguing presence, his only other film lead was in the elegiac "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970); but he was always difficult to ignore, from his slimy Nixon-ish president in "Washington Behind Closed Doors" (1977) through a showy host of supporting characters.

Here he is definitely centre-stage as Murray, a free spirit, constantly pursuing life's little pleasures, and disdainful of those poor mortals who rush off to clock into work each morning. For the past seven years he has been nurturing the nephew dumped on him as a five-year old by his feckless sister. Since the child -- a remarkable turn by Barry Gordon who was actually 16 when he played the part -- was born out of wedlock with no patriarchal surname, his mother never bothered to give him a forename. Murray tells him to use whatever name strikes his fancy, as long as he makes a decision by the time he turns thirteen. He has variously called himself Raphael Sabatini and Dr Morris Fishbein; today he calls himself Nick and skives off school to pursue adventures with his uncle.

Enter Social Services on a witch-hunt looking to remove the boy to a more stable environment, threatening to take him away if Murray doesn't clean up his act and find regular employment. These jobsworths are played by prissy William Daniels and his new assistant and fiancée Barbara Harris, but her Sandy soon succumbs to Murray's quirky charms. She looks around the cluttered one bedroom flat (the kid's 'room' is an alcove) full of miscellaneous bric-a-brac and concludes 'No wonder Nick loves it here, I'd love to live here myself if I was eleven years old'. Daniels is appalled by her unprofessional approach and leaves in a huff; Sandy ends up spending the night.

Thinking she can reform Murray and safeguard Nick's future, she sends Robards off to find work while she tarts up the apartment like something out of Ladies' Home Journal. Murray turns to his more successful and fruit-fetishist brother (played by Martin Balsam) who arranges various interviews for him including one with previous employer Chuckles the Chipmunk (!) -- for whose obnoxious children's television 'personality' he was a scriptwriter --  but Murray ducks out of each interview, not accepting that his relationship with Nick is at stake. Balsam, Sandy, and even Nick are beginning to lose patience with his fecklessness. Although he may be a child, Nick is the more sensible, a 'middle-aged kid' vs. a carefree character who refuses to grow up.

The film's title comes from Sandy's saying that after meeting Murray she hasn't the faintest idea who she really is. He replies that life is like a circus where a small car, big enough for a midget, pulls up and a thousand clowns jump out -- there are infinite possibilities for each of us. However, as likeable as the Murray we first meets seems and as much as we wish he could maintain his irresponsible outlook, by the film's end he (and we) come to accept that sacrifices are part of life's rich pageant. Murray agrees to go back to work for Gene Saks' Chuckles, if only for Nick's sake. He explains, 'I want him to stay with me until I can be sure that he won't turn into Norman Nothing, to know why he was born a human being and not a chair'. In the final scenes Murray joins those 'clowns' dashing off to their morning responsibilities.

An acting Oscar was awarded to this film, but it was given to Martin Balsam; Robards was not even nominated. While Balsam gives a fine performance, as he has always done since we first noticed him tumbling down the stairs in 1960's "Psycho",  his is a relatively small part here with only one short 'moving' speech. Strangely, the movie was also nominated for best picture, with additional nods for its writing and music, but it should have been Robards' day in the sun. It would also have been nice if the Academy had acknowledged the fine black and white cinematography of New York City, where the film was shot on location.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Now You See Me (2013)

There are some movies which seem to split their audience into two factions. Some viewers will look forward to seeing a film and subsequently decide that it was a colossal crock of doo-doo and a waste of time; others will have no special expectations, but come away pleasantly surprised as to how entertaining it was. I certainly fall into the second camp with this movie.

I must confess that I found the movie's premise intriguing and have always been something of a fan for a well-turned magic trick of the 'how did he do that?' variety. In different parts of America we are introduced to four street magicians/hustlers: cocky Jesse Eisenberg, the flamboyant Isla Fisher, fly-by-night Dave Franco (James' slightly less annoying brother), and Woody Harrelson, an aging mentalist and hypnotist -- all of whom are after the fast con and the fast buck. Each of them is summoned by a well-placed tarot card to journey to an address in a run-down area of New York; the purpose of the summons is unclear but they are all sufficiently intrigued to make the journey.

Lo and behold one year later the mismatched quartet are headliners in Las Vegas as The Four Horsemen, stunning their audiences with unbelievable illusions. On one night they select a random member of their audience -- a Frenchman as it happens -- and 'teleport' him to the inner vault of his bank in Paris; he somehow removes the piles of cash and reappears in Vegas, as the money rains down on the audience. Ten minutes later when their bank opens, the French officials enter their vault and find it bare, with only the magicians' calling card in sight. How did they do it?

One begins to suspect that insurance mogul Michael Caine whom the four acknowledge as their patron is somehow benefiting from this grand heist and that he is 'fifth' Horseman who gathered them together in New York. But this is a red herring, for in their next gala performance, their audience learns that the meagre amounts in their personal bank accounts is mysteriously swelling,  as Caine whom they have called to the stage sees his own vast fortune -- illustrated by a bank check for a ginormous figure -- diminishing by the second. Again, what's the trick?

Soon both the FBI in the swarthy shape of Mark Ruffalo (I do wish he would learn to shave properly) and Interpol in the comely shape of Melanie Laurent are on their trail albeit as reluctant 'partners', assisted by serial magician-debunker Morgan Freeman. I wonder if it is some sort of Hollywood rule nowadays that Freeman must appear in every other movie, much as Steve Buscemi did in the Nineties! The four magicians lead them on a merry chase making the authorities seem more foolish by the minute, with their own adage of 'the more you look, the less you see'. This culminates with a spectacular outdoor performance at 5 Pointz (the former graffiti mecca) in New York where The Horsemen 'steal' a vault full of cash which the authorities have chased across the city, only to see it blown open at the venue to rain hundreds of multi-coloured balloon animals and showers of phoney money. The real cash somehow ends up in Freeman's car...

In fact this film is something of a detective story to unearth the true motive behind these spectacular stunts and to discover who is the real power behind the throne. The surprise 'reveal' when it comes is miles from what we might suspect -- and like all good magic it takes the viewer to another level. This is the sixth film from director Louis Leterrier and there is little in the popcorn titles of his filmography ("Transporter 2", "The Incredible Hulk", "Clash of the Titans" and so on) to prepare one for this smart and exciting film. OK, I can agree with the movie's critics that the characters are not as well-developed as they could be, that some of them are rather annoying (the smug Eisenberg for example, although Harrelson in particular is 'ace' here), and that the scenario doesn't quite hold together. However, sometimes there is little point trying to work out all of the logic or to fill in all the plot holes. There's something to be said for suspending disbelief and to just be carried away by the spectacle. I know, I didn't adopt this attitude for "Jurassic World" reviewed below, but "Now You See Me" grabbed me from the start. Like I said, I'm a sucker for a clever bit of magical illusion.

I understand that plans are in the works for a sequel, not that I can begin to imagine what more could be done given the denouement here. But I look forward to finding out...

Friday, 10 July 2015

That was the Week that Was!

No, not the hoary old television satire show, but a suitable heading for yet another week where I neither went to the cinema nor fell with relish on much of my satellite/television/DVD/YouTube viewing. However rather than attempting to capsule all of the bad and/or interesting films that I watched, I just want to comment on a few of them and mention a few more in passing.

First up was a 2015 television movie "A Deadly Adoption" which the channel in question billed as a 'black comedy'. Since it unbelievably starred Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell, widely considered ace comic actors (not that I have ever found either of them particularly hilarious), I thought the film could be worth a watch. When the US Lifetime Channel announced on April 1 that this pair of A-list actors would be starring in one of their movies, people thought it was an April Fool's joke -- and believe me it would have been more amusing if it were! This is a bog-standard TV film about a married couple with issues (one child miscarried by accident and one child with diabetes) who take in Jessica Lowndes as the supposedly pregnant slut from hell, whose unborn child they hope to adopt. How either of the lead actors managed to stay po-faced through the increasingly ludicrous action is beyond me. If this was meant to be some sort of spoof, it fell flat on its unfunny face, since one has seen too many bad television movies with near enough the same idiotic storylines. I suppose one could ask whatever possessed Wiig and Ferrell to appear in this nonsense in the first place, although the answer is almost certainly 'money' or maybe a sense of the ridiculous.

I had heard some fairly positive comments about "Arbitrage" (2012) so I was pleased to catch up with it and Richard Gere's 'Wolf of Wall Street' turn. However despite being reasonably well made and with a singularly starry cast including Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marley, an aged Stuart Margolin, and French model-turned-bad actress Laetita Casta (who fortuitously was killed off early on), one just didn't give much of a damn for the fate of any of these flawed characters, especially the ruthless tycoon Gere. He may have been moving heaven and earth to prevent his financial shenanigans coming to light to say nothing of fleeing the scene of a fatal car crash, but the only character for whom one had even an ounce of sympathy was Nate Parker's young black guy drawn into Gere's cover-up by a misplaced sense of loyalty.

In passing, let's mention the following:
 "If I Stay" (2014) - a soppy non-tearjerker, as teenaged celloist Chloe Grace Moretz has an out-of-body experience after the rest of her family are killed in a crash and she evaluates whether she should return to life and the arms of her rocker boyfriend. Ugh!

"Riot Club" (2014) - a thoroughly distasteful look at the decadent and privileged members of an Oxford society, who no doubt will 'grow up' to be tomorrow's leaders -- a thinly veiled poke at our current government.

"Dragon" (2011) - Donnie Yen is given yet another outing for his martial arts skills in this fairly leisurely period-piece of a man who tries to hide his criminal past in exchange for a quiet family life, but whose deadly behaviour gives the game away. Watchable, but no more.

"Kid Boots" (1926) - Golden Oldie Time with Eddie Cantor (something of an acquired taste, but quite amusing here) trying to woo Clara Bow (not a vamp role for her surprisingly), and attempting to keep a new rich pal from the clutches of the vampish wife that he wants to off-load in the divorce courts and her scheming lawyers. A few nice bits of silent business are ample rewards for sitting through the film's scant 60-minute running time.

Probably the highpoint of the week was "Le Notte Bianche" (1957), better known as "White Nights" (but not the 1985 Baryshnikov movie). It's the only Luchino Visconti film I've not viewed previously. Based on a Dostoevsky novel, it stars Marcello Mastroianni (as watchable as ever) as a poor clerk who falls in love, despite himself, with a comely waif he sees moping on a bridge one evening. She is played by Maria Schell, who apparently learned her Italian parrot-style for the role to avoid being dubbed; she is waiting for her lover's promised return and resists Mastroianni's attentions, much as she appreciates his taking an interest in her sad little life. With a Nino Rota score, some fabulous black and white night-time cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno, and an extended scene of young lovers dancing away their daytime cares in a swinging club, this film manages to expertly mix hope and melancholy before its bittersweet ending.

Finally I must briefly mention my first viewing of "Manos: Hands of Fate" (1966), courtesy of YouTube. This movie with its 1.9 rating on IMDb is considered one of the worst films ever made, right up there with "Plan 9 from Outer Space", but not even as pleasingly laughable as the best bad movies can be. I must confess that awful as it was, I for one have seen worse than this tale of a family falling into the hands of 'The Master' in his long black cloak with its appliqued giant red hands and his female acolytes in their diaphanous white robes (with bras underneath). At least it had something of a (stupid) story and an acceptable if clichéd ending. 

Friday, 3 July 2015

Mr Holmes (2015)

Wow! Another actual outing to the cinema and the second review in a row of a new release. But I welcomed the chance to see the great Ian McKellen as the aged Sherlock Holmes. Taking a break from Gandalf and Magneto, McKellen presents us with a acting master class in this elegiac BBC movie based on the 2005 novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind".

Holmes is so established a character in our mythos that we tend to forget that he was never a real person and it comes as something of a shock to be introduced to the great detective in his dotage, when both his mind and his body are beginning to fail. With minimal make-up, the 76-year old actor plays Holmes aged 60 when he tackled his last case and aged 93, living on the Sussex coast, bee-keeping, and tended to by his doughty housekeeper Laura Linney -- suitably drabbed-down and with a pretty consistent rural accent. The war-widow's sole joy is her bright-as-a-button son, a wonderful turn from young Milo Parker. The boy worships just about everything to do with the fabled Holmes and dreads the possibility of his mother's moving on to a new job.

After staunch friend and biographer Dr Watson married, leaving Holmes alone, the detective finally felt the need to retire, especially after the unsatisfactory end to his last case, a series of events that continue to plague him. He understands that the decisions we make can haunt us to the end of our days and he resolves to write his own version of that case, even if the actual details continue to elude him. He wants to abandon Watson's romanticised telling of his exploits which have coloured the world's perception of the great man. He protests that he never wore a deer-stalker and prefers a cigar to a pipe!  Now that all his contemporaries have turned to dust, he wants to demystify the legend.

Directed by Bill Condon, who also drew a memorable performance from McKellen in 1998's "Gods and Monsters", this picture is a world away from current blockbuster cinema. It's a small film with little plot and is more sad and remorseful than jolly, as Holmes recalls a life cut short versus his own life gone on too long. However the movie does pull back from a potentially tragic ending to one that leaves us pondering life's mysteries and sweetness. The cast are all excellent, and there are memorable cameos from Frances de la Tour and Phil Davis. A seemingly unrelated strand of Holmes' visiting Japan and meeting Hiroyuki Sanada's bitter son adds a confusing layer to the plot, but this too is something that old Mr Holmes must finally put right.

The movie has not yet been released in the United States but will be soon. Do try to catch it before it is driven out of the theatres by super-heroes and rampaging dinosaurs.

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