Thursday, 17 April 2014

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

I have a kind of love/hate reaction to the writer-director Peter Greenaway, whose movies are very definitely not for everyone. By and large I have found his films beautiful to behold and usually quirkily involving, but too often a little too 'precious' for words, too self-consciously arty for my taste. I was not terribly taken with the above movie when I first saw it many years ago, but had promised Sian a copy should it ever be shown on television. (Shamefacedly I must admit that I put a copy on my hard disc last Christmas and then proceeded to delete it in error.) Fortunately FilmFour scheduled it again in the recent wee hours. I needed to re-watch it to edit out the ads and was hoping that I would be sufficiently taken with it this time around to keep a copy for myself as well -- but more of that later.

The basic story is of three women of three generations, all named Cissie Colpitts, who decide to do away with their unsatisfactory husbands by drowning them -- in a bathtub, in the ocean, and in a swimming pool respectively. Drowning of course is the classic way of disposing of rats! The three are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. I have seen them described as grandmother, mother, and daughter (which seems a little unlikely), as mother and two daughters, and as mother, daughter, and niece -- but frankly it matters not. What matters is that they stick together in their personal allegiances and criminal pursuits. They are able to get away with their 'crimes' with the connivance of Bernard Hill's coroner who rules on natural causes of death in exchange for possible, but never realised, offers of sexual favours. He and his son Smut (now there's a name) are the main characters in this grotesque fable of life on the Suffolk coast.

While this is meant to be the most accessible of all of Greenaway's films, I would argue otherwise, since the film is loaded (nearly to the point of sinking) with esoteric touches, symbolism, and strange behaviour. It was not released in the US until 1991 and was only released then on the strength of his 'scandalous' next film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover". In contrast to ' Drowning', that movie as well as "The Baby of Macon" and "The Belly of an Architect" seem almost straightforward. In all of his films, Greenaway manages to combine a painterly, pictorial eye (enhanced here by Sacha Vierney's impeccable cinematography) with a bizarre story-telling sensibility. This movie opens with a young girl, dressed like a fugitive from Velazquez' Las Meninas, skip-roping up to 100 as she counts off the names of heavenly stars. Then the set is progressively numbered up to 100 with the numbers appearing in various and unexpected places -- on posts, on pictures, on paper-chase runners, and even on dead cows. In fact one could play a game of spotting all of the sequential numbers, although some are only spoken rather than pictured.

As Plowright's character says, 'why care about other people, life is just a game', and indeed the characters partake of their own made-up games with names like 'The Great Death Game' and 'Hangman's Cricket'. Smut, who is obsessed with creepy-crawlies and who at one stage attempts to circumcise himself with scissors, celebrates each death with a fireworks display. In the end he plays his own hanging game, the object of which is to punish those who have caused unhappiness by their own selfishness. He says this is the best game of all because the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final.

So did I warm to this movie the second time around? The answer is still 'no'. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it is impossible to empathise with its totally unsympathetic and amoral characters. It's all an intellectual exercise beautifully presented, but with a complete absence of humanity or heart.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sarah's Key (2010)

Were it not for BBC4 (hopefully not doomed like its lively younger sister BBC3), there would be hardly any foreign language films shown on British television. They have also gifted us with an amazing run of subtitled European television serials in their regular Saturday night slot. Yes, there is the very occasional title on Sky Premier (but only in the ratio of about l to 50 crappy television movies or animations) and the equally rare showing of one of the 'classics' on Film Four. CineMoi while it lasted was brilliant, at least initially, but most often I must seek out films that I would like to see in repertory showings or on disc. Meanwhile I can fondly recall the days when there would be whole seasons of foreign films on the now populist BBC2. More's the pity!

The above French movie actually premiered on Film Four along with a dreary policier starring Daniel Auteuil, and was something of a corker. Directed and co-written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and based on a popular novel ("Elle s'appelait Sarah") by Tatiana DeRosnay, it joins a number of recent films in movingly discussing the Holocaust by telling a small story on a very human level. Sarah Strazynski is a self-possessed and buoyant 10-year old, who, when the police come to round up her family in a notorious Jewish purge, cheerfully locks her younger brother in a bedroom wall cupboard, enjoining him to remain quiet during what she tells him is a "game"She believes that she is saving him and that she will soon be back to release him. Instead she and her parents are crowded into the Vel' d'Hiv cycling stadium along with 10000 other Paris Jews in this infamous 1942 round-up, kept in inhuman conditions for several days, before being sent off to various death camps.

This was a little known atrocity in the history of other atrocities of the period, although if memory serves it was also the staging point for the demise of Alain Delon in the scathing 1976 film "Mr Klein". The main point of contention is that the hazing, persecuting, and confiscation of property was carried out not by Germans, but by the French themselves against their fellow citizens. Separated from her mother and father and still in possession of the fatal key, Sarah manages to escape from a French camp with another girl, furiously driven by her determination to return to Paris and release young Michel. They end up at the farm of the Dufaure family where her companion dies, but where the initially unwilling-to-get-involved elderly couple conceal Sarah and ultimately raise her as their own. The patriarch is played by the imposing actor Niels Arestrup who has graced a number of French hits in the past few years (I saw him recently as the bull-headed vintner in "You Will be my Son"), and he is always a majestic force of nature. Eventually they manage to get Sarah back to the flat in Paris where another French family are now living (despite the horrible smell!!!), but of course it is too late. Sarah knows in her heart that she has killed her brother. The fact that he almost certainly would have died anyhow is very much by the by in her mind.

These events from the past are mixed in with her researches for an article by the American-born, but French-domiciled journalist Julia (played by the majestic Kristin Scott Thomas). She and her husband have a son and had hoped for a second child after a series of miscarriages. He wants the three of them to move into a renovated apartment owned by his aging parents, but Julia becomes convinced that it is the scene of Sarah's fatal if well-intended action. . She is also at long last pregnant, but her husband no longer wants a late-in-life child. Increasingly estranged from her husband and determined to discover what has become of Sarah, she traces the Dufaure descendants to discover that the girl left the family at the earliest opportunity, but sent them a marriage announcement from America. She journeys to the States and then to Florence to find Sarah's son, played by a horrified Aidan Quinn. When asked if he recognizes the photo of the young girl wearing her yellow star, he recoils and protests that his mother wasn't Jewish. It later emerges that she hauled him off to the nearest church after his birth to be baptized, convinced that being Jewish meant death. Julia also learns that Sarah's own death at a relatively early age was not really an unfortunate road accident but an act of suicide from a troubled woman who could no longer live with her own guilt.

Apart from the named actors above, I did not recognize most of the cast, but singular praise must go to Melusine Mayance who played the young Sarah with a mixture of pig-headed bravery and stoic pathos. The film definitely has its share of teary-eyed moments to engage the viewer, but these are done with only minimal fanfare and are never milked for sentiment. The movie is a fine testimony to some truly horrible history.   

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Yol (1982)

As I have oft written, 'I have a little list' (as the Mikado's Executioner would have it), except my ever-growing list is of films that I would like to see, or to be 'knocked off' to continue the analogy.. Not, you will note, films that I would necessarily enjoy seeing, but rather movies that my researches tell me are part of my never-ending education, that I am duty-bound to watch given the opportunity. Enter "Yol" as a case in point.

Winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes, nominated for a foreign language academy award, and a fixture of Sight and Sound's 10-best lists, it is definitely a movie that I had to view and definitely a movie that I confess I did not enjoy watching. The backstory of the film itself is perhaps rather more fascinating than the actual film. Written in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d'état in Turkey by Yilmaz Guney, it was also 'directed' by him despite the fact that he was in prison at the time. It was actually directed by his assistant on Guney's detailed written instructions. Guney escaped from jail, fled with the negatives to Switzerland, edited the film in Paris, and returned to his Swiss haven from which the final product was submitted to Cannes. The movie was banned in his native Turkey until 1999, not so much for its content (although it is critically strong of the country's regime and ethos), but because Guney himself was persona non grata.

'Yol' translates as 'the road' or 'the way' and the film follows the stories of five long-term prisoners who have been granted seven days' leave to visit their families, with dire threats of their sorry fates if they misbehave or fail to return in time. The picture intercuts among them and it was not always immediately clear which story we were following as the heavily-moustached protagonists all looked remarkably similar. Two of the tales were less detailed. The first involved a young husband who lost his identity papers and was thrown into another clink for the duration; the second was some jumble about Kurdish freedom fighters where our protagonist was forced to take on the responsibility of the wife and children of his slain brother. The other three tales were a bit more complex:

A man goes back to his family to visit his son and the wife who swore that she would wait for him. He finds that they have been thrown out because of her 'immorality' which brought huge shame on them all. He is urged to find and kill her to restore the family's honour. He treks over a snow-bound waste to find her in the home of other relatives and to discover that she has been chained up in an outbuilding for some eight months, been given only bread and water for nourishment, and forbidden from bathing or dealing with her other bodily functions. They have been waiting for him to appear and do what is expected of him. Even their son describes her as 'filthy'. He compassionately lets her bathe, comb her hair, and change her clothes, before forcing her back over the frozen wasteland (past the carcass of the dead horse that he shot on the way there), where she conveniently freezes to death -- saving him the bother of having to kill her himself. That description is my being a little flip, since he does try to carry her along and to stop her falling asleep. As he trudges through the snow with the woman on his back, he instructs his son to keep thrashing her to keep her awake -- one of the film's few memorable images.

In another story a man goes to find his wife and children but is snubbed by her family who consider him responsible for the death of their son during a botched robbery. In fact he did in cowardice leave the boy to be shot by the police, although he had previously denied this. His wife is horrified by his admission, but later on does in fact go off with him. On a train they enter a lavatory to finally rekindle their marital passion, but are spotted by the other passengers who are appalled by this display of lust, jeering and threatening to lynch them for their blatant 'immorality'. The pleas of their children provide a temporary escape, until a young relative of the woman's family comes along and kills them both! More misplaced honour!

The final story is rather lighter. A man goes back to his family and is attracted to a young woman whom he wants to be his wife, if and when he is released from jail. Their courtship is one of his telling her all of the dutiful things he will expect from her as a wife, while the pair are continually chaperoned by a nosy pair of black-garbed old biddies, a constant audience of noisy crows. Before returning to jail what he needs most is a visit to the local whorehouse.

All of these stories focus on the repression of life in Turkey at the time. It would seem as if people were forced to live by the prejudices of others, whether it is jailors over prisoners, soldiers over civilians, fathers over sons and daughters, husbands over wives, or the moral preoccupations of the mob. This is the message that Guney's film leaves with us. I genuinely think that some award-winning movies gain their plaudits by allowing us to witness a slice of life that the powers that be would rather we never saw. All very worthy I'm sure, but that's not entertainment!

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

It is absolutely bizarre when one considers the facts rationally for a fully mature young woman of 24 years to play a child who turns eleven during the course of the movie. However that is exactly what Mary Pickford does in this film and you just about find yourself believing and enjoying every minute of what should be a complete farce.

Pickford had played 'young' earlier in her long career, but never this young, and she was convinced that the film would be a flop and that it would put an end to her appeal. On the contrary, it proved to be a colossal hit and so popular with audiences of the time, that she was 'forced' to continue playing much younger than her years until she was well into her thirties. Bizarre is definitely the right word.

I have seen a number of her films over the years and generally didn't really think about the illusion one way or another, but she is totally believable here. She plays the pampered yet ignored only child of distracted parents who expend rather more effort on their social life and business respectively than they do on their daughter. Instead of their attention or affection, she is relegated to a lonely life with only a raft of servants and tutors for company. From her window she can view the thrill of childhood as she watches the neighbourhood kids, but it is a world away from her own experience. She tries to emulate their joie de vivre by inviting in an organ-grinder and a visiting plumber -- Mr Pipes -- for an impromptu dance or by trying to engage in a mud fight with some of the street children. Apart from Pickford's projecting herself into the body and spirit of the girlish Gwen, the illusion is enhanced by the skill of the film's director, Maurice Tourneur, a Frenchman specialising in fantasy pictures. Although a diminutive lady (I believe she stood under five foot), she seems even smaller here by Tourneur's employment of large scale sets and props, carefully-chosen tall actors, and clever camera angles.

The movie is also one of the first to employ actual dialogue rather than just descriptive scene-setting in the title cards, deftly created by the ground-breaking female screenwriter, Frances Marion. When some of the servants overdose young Gwen with a sedative so that they can go out to the 'theayter', Tourneur provides one of cinema's most inventive and surreal dream sequences as the girl hovers between life and death, finally to mommy's and daddy's concern. Her delirious mind visualises overheard phrases so that she can actually see 'the big-eared' and 'two-faced' servants or understand what it means for her mother to have a social bee in her bonnet or for her father to be at the mercy of Wall Street bears. It is all done in so charming a manner that one forgets that one is viewing a silent movie that is approaching its hundredth birthday. Of all her many films, this one is probably the best introduction to Pickford's enduring skills.

When as a punishment for throwing all her fine dresses out of a window, Gwen is forced by her father to dress for a while as a boy -- he can recall the reverse punishment when he misbehaved as a lad (again, how bizarre!) -- she totally delights in being able to mix with a local gang. With her long curls tucked under a cap, it is amazing how reminiscent of her successor, Shirley Temple, Pickford becomes. Temple did in fact star in a movie of the same name in 1936 which was pleasant enough on its own terms, but apart from the title, the two movies have little else in common and nowhere near the same spirit of invention. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

When I wrote last week that a film needs to be something pretty special for me to go to the cinema on its first week of release, I did not allow for the exception to that rule, i.e. it's a movie that the person I am with wants to see. This was certainly the case here, although I must confess to some curiosity,  given the amount of recent hype this picture has received.. Michael read the source novel by Michel Faber some years ago, which he liked, and wondered how it could possibly be turned into a clear and comprehensible film. I have no doubt that a secondary interest might have been seeing the delectable Scarlett Johansson in her nudest role ever, which might also account for the disproportionate number of men on their own at the matinee performance we attended.

Miss Johansson's jiggly bits apart (actually they are quite solid and not particularly jiggly), what can I tell you about the film? Well, one local reviewer wrote that she "hated, hated, hated" the movie and it is definitely a potential audience splitter. I wouldn't say that I 'hated' it, but I did find it slow, largely incomprehensible, and definitely pretentious. It is the third film from the British director Jonathan Glazer, whose debut movie was the well-thought of "Sexy Beast" in 2000, a film which left me rather indifferent. He followed it up in 2004 with the Nicole Kidman starrer "Birth" which I thought a load of old codswallop. It took him another nine years to make the above dream project and I think that more people will be put off by the movie than will champion it.

It is no spoiler to tell you that Johansson plays an alien dressed in a human body, and a very sexy human body at that. She drives a white van around the thronging streets of Glasgow, picking up as many single men as she can. With a looker like she, it is no mystery that so many are tempted to accept a lift on a journey with no return. She does not, however, want them to satisfy her own sexual desires; rather she is being used as 'bait' or a 'lure' by her alien co-conspirators to acquire human flesh to draw into their alien morass -- or whatever. This bit is as clear as the mud into which her prey are dragged before dissolving into nothingness. For the first hour of the movie, the viewer struggles to understand what the heck is actually going on and we never do discover many whys and wherefores. None of this is helped by the lack of coherent dialogue -- her own lines are few and the thick Scottish brogue of most of her victims really needs subtitling. She is the only 'name' actor in the cast.

One can argue that it is a brave and gutsy performance from Johansson, even if one wonders what in the world made her accept the role. On the surface she looks gorgeous, but she struggles to feel comfortable in the to her 'alien' human skin. She has trouble balancing on two legs, is repulsed when she tries to eat a scrumptious piece of cake, and is shocked at the feeling when she actually attempts human sex -- to the extent that she grabs a mirror to find out what is going on down below. As her dialogue decreases -- it is almost non-existent by the movie's end -- her feelings of humanity marginally increase. Initially she can not empathise with an abandoned baby, but later on she can not bring herself to destroy a deformed man (one of her cohorts takes care of that). She can not understand human kindness, but in the end is destroyed by human unkindness as she flees from a would-be rapist.

Some of the photography in the final section, as she runs through the sodden woods outside the city, is fairly spectacular with weirdly swaying trees and vast expanses of hostile wastelands, and the final revelation, when we are allowed to discover what is actually under the temptress' outer skin is also a nice bit of how-de-do. Unfortunately these do not compensate for the draggy and generally boring cinematography and deadly slow action that has preceded them.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

If I go to the movies to see a film on its first week of release, you can safely bet that it is one that I have been looking forward to with great expectations. You can also be pretty sure that it is unlikely to become a box-office champion blockbuster. Such is the case with the above new film from the winsome auteur director Wes Anderson. He burst on to the scene with the rising cult film "Bottle Rocket" at the ripe old age of 25 twenty years ago and has been consistently delighting, albeit small portions of the cinema audience, ever since with a dazzling variety of increasingly mature and idiosyncratic movies. This film opened the recent Berlin Film Festival and is now making the rounds, but it is still more akin to an art-house product than a potential fan-boy smash hit.

It thoroughly deserves the generally splendid reviews it has been garnering, but one critic whose opinions I often share dismissed it as mildly entertaining but too 'twee'. Now to my mind that adjective categorises the film as some sort of chocolate box and kittens childish affair, which is really akin to a negative review. This is far from the case as Anderson has indulged his love of the absurd by creating a fantasy Neverland, full of (yes) pink palaces, cut-out landscapes, and a sprawling rococo schloss. Set in a mythical Eastern European country akin to Ruritania and inspired by the quirky tales of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, we travel between various time frames. Much of the action is set in 1932 as Europe braces itself for the coming inevitable war, but we also visit the approximate present and the mid-sixties. At that point the once very grand hotel has shrunk to a run-down Communist pension, although still existing in the shadow of good times and high living now departed, and it is here that the young writer (Jude Law) questions the hotel's shadowy owner (F. Murray Abraham) as to how he came to own the now decaying  property. 

Anderson has a growing stable of regular actors keen to work with him again and again and he finds parts for all of them here -- Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Edward Norton to name but a few -- some central to the action and some no more than fleeting cameos. A newcomer to his stock company taking the lead is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the concierge who ensures that the pre-war hotel runs like clockwork and that all of his aristocratic and aging guests (especially the ladies) are kept satisfied in every conceivable was. The well-spoken classically inclined actor really lightens up here and gives a masterly- conceived and relishable performance in this often black comedy farce. It is rumoured that the role was originally offered to Johnny Depp who, likeable as he is, could never have produced such a well-rounded and delightful performance. The plot revolves around the McGuffin of a valuable painting left to Fiennes after the suspicious death of grande dame Tilda Swinton (made up with absolutely no 'side' as an ancient crone). He is accused by her greedy son (Brody) and his three ugly sisters of murdering the old lady, supposedly as witnessed by her butler (a nearly unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric), and is pursued by Brody's villainous and largely silent henchman, Willem Dafoe. He lands in pokey but manages to break out with the help of his 'Lobby Boy' Zero (Tony Revolori playing the very young Abraham), Zero's fianceé the master cake-maker Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark the shape of Mexico on her face, and a fearsome collection of fellow inmates led by a bald, bare-chested and tattooed Harvey Keitel. His chase to try to prove his innocence takes him across real snowy landscapes, assisted at every turn by the combined know-how of the concierges at the area's grand hotels and an assortment of closeted monks. When he eventually arrives back at the Grand Budapest the place has been seized by the new pseudo-Nazis as their headquarters; Gustave's cosy and pampered world has begun its change for the worse. Nothing ends happily for most of the characters, but then again they probably could never have been happy in this looming new world.

Anderson has made some very memorable movies in the last twenty years, among them "Rushmore", "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", "Moonrise Kingdom", and the remarkable stop-action animation "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". The only one which slightly let the side down was "The Darjeeling Limited" which was overly self-indulgently played by his three main leads. However all of his films have managed to give us a slightly different perspective of his skill in working with large ensemble casts, all of whom live in worlds we can never hope to visit, and all done with an amusing and highly decorative aesthetic. He may be an acquired taste, but my goodness, I find his movies ever so tasty.

My one objection to this otherwise glorious film was the unnecessary use of so-called bad language. I have no objection in principle to as much 'effin' and 'blindin' as you like, but I did feel it was inappropriate here. Fiennes with his trail of personal perfume was playing a character that could never really have existed, a man of such refined sensibilities that he would have shuddered to utter the kind of phrases that one associates with Samuel L. Jackson for one. This I think was a definite misjudgement in the otherwise enchanting movie that Anderson has gifted to us.     

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards

Well, I was 100% correct when I wrote that "Nebraska" would not win an Oscar in any of the six categories for which it was nominated and I am not the least bit surprised. As an independent movie which didn't boast an A-list cast and which didn't benefit from loads of publicity and which didn't set the box-office alight, it never stood a chance. Then again, I read last weekend that the new Lego Movie grossed more in the preceding week than all nine of the Best Picture nominees combined and that 66% of Americans had not seen even one of the nine. So we're all in good company.

As I have written in previous years I myself have not yet viewed most of the contenders, but I have seen enough clips and blurbs to feel that I have. Therefore I have my own pre-formed prejudices sufficient to evaluate the final selections. "12 Years a Slave" may have won best picture (I can imagine the voters choosing not to be politically incorrect), but it was not really the big winner of the night, failing to win best director as well. It did win best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress, although I was a little surprised that popular girl of the moment Jennifer Lawrence did not stumble off with the award, as she did at the BAFTAs. Lupita Nyong'o (the new Red Carpet favourite) quite probably deserved the Oscar for her convincing on-screen suffering, but I'm afraid that will not make me look forward to finally seeing the film. The big winner of the night was "Gravity", taking best director, cinematography, editing, music, and a trio of technical awards. I'll tell you a secret: that's another movie I am not looking forward to seeing.

I'm sure that Matthew McConaughey, who is having a remarkable career renaissance, and Jared Leto richly deserved their awards for best actor and best supporting actor in "Dallas Buyers Club", especially since the Academy seems to look favourably at the physical discomfort of a role and losing vast amounts of weight always seems to do the trick. To be fair, they were probably both pretty good despite their emaciation, and McConaughey's acceptance speech was pitch perfect. As for Cate Blanchett winning best actress for "Blue Jasmine" which seemed to be the most sure-fire bet, I can't help feeling that it would have been lovely for Judi Dench to finally receive this accolade. I don't know whether Blanchett was actually as marvellous as people seem to think, since despite being a massive Woody Allen fan, I missed seeing this flick in the cinema because of my physical limitations during the period of its release. I just love the fact that she crowed that she was "exacerbated" to receive the award from Daniel Day-Lewis, which actually means to make bad things even worse! But at least she had the good grace to thank Woody Allen for writing and giving her the role, despite the current hoo-ha and attempts to brand him a paedophile (again!).

To cover the other awards briefly, "The Great Gatsby" (which I have seen) deserved its gongs for production design and costume design, since these were pretty spectacular, even if the film itself was decidedly overblown and lacking in so many ways. (I still prefer not the 1974 version with Robert Redford, but the 1949 version with Alan Ladd, which is virtually impossible to view nowadays -- although you could ask to see my copy!). It was good to see Spike Jonze winning for best original screenplay for "Her", a movie that I am hoping to catch up with soon. I've not yet seen any of the animated feature, although I understand that "Frozen" was enormously popular and did big, big business; it's just a shame that Hayao Miyasaki, a true giant of animation, was overlooked for what is reputed to be his last feature. As for best foreign language film, I'm sure "The Great Beauty" deserved its award, the most joyous of the five nominations, and the DVD awaits my attention even as we speak. I can't comment on the short subjects -- animated, live action, and documentary -- since I know nothing about any of them yet, but I can express my surprise that "The Act of Killing" (one of two of the nominees that I have seen) did not win best documentary feature, since it was quite extraordinary. However, having read a bit about "20 Feet from Stardom" (the winner), I can see why it was the popular choice.

As for the ceremony itself, I don't feel that Ellen DeGeneres did as brilliant a job as some would have it, although obviously she was a vast improvement on last year's host. She had only one really good joke (at Liza Minelli's expense), and her get-down-with-the audience antics were mildly jejune -- ordering pizza, taking a whip-round to tip the delivery boy, and posing for the much vaulted 'selfie'. It's amusing that one now knows that this was a paid-for bit of product placement by Samsung. That's really typical of Hollywood's ingrained commercialism. The montage clips, this year celebrating various 'heroes' were as always pleasingly nostalgic, even if they occasionally seemed a strange assortment. The homage to the 75th Anniversary of the "Wizard of Oz" was a timely inclusion, but the visuals played second fiddle to Pink's vocalizing. Finally, in a year with the loss of so many great talents, the 'In Memoriam' section was better done than some previous ones, giving each loss near enough the same exposure; and the whole tribute was capped by Bette Midler's beautiful rendition of 'The Wind Beneath my Wings'. Pretty moving stuff...

I understand the U.S. television audience for the show was an improvement on recent years, so that's good news for future years, even if the show is over-bloated and marred by too many commercial breaks. Never mind, I'll be amongst next year's viewers with my usual anticipation.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Watch them while you can...

I'm still jumping between my regular film watching -- TV, Satellite, DVDs, cinema as often as possible now -- and the amazing rarities I have found on YouTube. One problem with the latter is that movies which are still in copyright rather than in the public domain are often deleted by the powers that be, after complaints from interested commercial bodies. I truly believe that most of these uploads are posted in good faith (the people in question have nothing to gain by breaching copyright or perhaps do not even realise that the exchange of information is far from as free as we imagine or hope), but that does not help their longevity on YouTube.

In the last week I have watched two wonderful foreign language movies that I have long wished to see: "The Revolt of Job" (1983) and "The Crucified Lovers" (1954). The former has never been issued on DVD (and I saw an offer on Amazon to provide a new VHS copy for $999.00!) and the latter is only available on a French DVD at a pretty steep price. Both of them are currently available to view free of charge on YouTube with good quality English subtitles; however these titles are not hard-embedded, so it isn't possible to download them to watch intelligibly offline. Believe me I would if I could. Watching movies on one's computer or other electronic device is hardly the ideal way to see a film, but I would strongly advise making a beeline for these two titles while they are still there!

'Job' really warrants a place amongst the best 'Holocaust' movies ever made and given the number of fine films within this genre, it is amazing to me that it has not been more broadly available, especially since it was Oscar-nominated. Job is a relatively wealthy shepherd in rural Hungary, who like his namesake fights stoically against his destiny. He is an observant Jew and the rumblings of Hitler's armies and racist policies may not have reached his rural community in 1943, but he can see the writing on the wall. He and his aging wife have lost seven children to childhood diseases and he dearly wants an heir to whom he can leave not only his wealth but his wisdom. He goes to a nearby Christian orphanage to 'buy' a son (it was already against the law for Jews to adopt).  He takes home the initially rebellious Lacko, a boy with a 'way' with animals, who eventually comes to love his new mamma and poppa. The child also gradually learns the Jewish traditions that Job cherishes and to naively find God in all small things. When the round-up finally arrives and he sees his 'parents' being carted off to the camps, they pointedly avoid acknowledging the 'son' whom they have housed with former servants. Their heartbreak becomes ours as well. All of the casting is superb, particularly Ferenc Zenthe as Job (later a stalwart of Hungarian television drama) and non-professional Gabor Feder as the winning and inquisitive Lacko. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jews is underlined without resorting to unnecessary violence or histrionics, and it is therefore all the more powerful.

The second film is from the prolific Japanese master director Kenji Mizoguchi, made two years before his death. A fixture of the cinema scene in Japan since the late 1920s, his list of classics is endless and includes "Ugetsu Monogatari", "The Life of Oharu", and "Sansho the Bailiff". Indeed he produced three more late masterpieces after "Crucified Lovers" ("Princess Yang Kwei-fei", "The Taira Clan Saga", and "Street of Shame"). Set in l7th Century Kyoto and based on a drama from the l7th Century playwright Chikamatu) -- hence its Japanese title Chikamatu Monogatari (A Tale from Chikamatu) -- it is a tragic saga of human fallibility and doomed love. Osan has been married off to the older and miserly Ishun, the emperor's master printer, by her mother to provide for her feckless son; Osan's brother continues to beg for funds to prevent the family falling into disgrace. Meanwhile serving maid Otama harbours deep feelings for Mohei, Ishun's creative genius craftsman, while Mohei in turn would do anything to win the heart of Osan. He agrees to help her find the funds to bail out her brother yet again which would involve some financial sleight of hand with Ishun's hoarded wealth. Things come to a head when the plan is uncovered by Mohei's immediate superior who has been lining his own pockets for years.

Despite Otama's claiming that she had asked Mohei for the money, everyone is so very honourable that they will not accept any one else's lies. Ishun is furious with everyone,  threatens Mohei with jail, and will not accept Osan's pleas on his behalf. In fact he is now convinced that they are secret lovers (overlooking his own licentious approaches to Otama), despite the fact that they are both completely innocent. The fate of adulterous lovers who dare cross class boundaries is public crucifixion, as we have seen in an earlier scene, and the pair are forced to flee his wrath. Proud and greedy he wants his chattel of a wife back and deploys his minions to track them down; however he does not report the purported adultery to the police. When Osan feels that all is now hopeless and proposes to drown herself, Mohei admits his own long-repressed feelings and she finally falls into his arms. Cue a sorry end for all of the players, including Ishun whose wealth is stripped from him. This is about the only part of the tale that gives one any satisfaction, although it is lovely to see how truly happy the lost couple are together even as they face their own deaths.

I've gone into rather complicated and melodramatic plot detail perhaps unnecessarily, since the drama moves quickly and is surprisingly riveting. I seldom remember the names of many Japanese actors, but the faces remain recognizable over a range of fine films. The actress playing Osan was still active in 1993 in one of my favourite late Kurosawa films "Madadayo". Along with that director, Mizoguchi earns his place as one of Japan's truly great auteurs. Although this is a fairly formal story, fairly formally filmed, the director's eye is that of a true artist. As the lovers are shown fleeing over the water, the picture atmospherically becomes a mobile Japanese etching -- beautiful in its simplicity.

See them now!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Nebraska (2013)

I've now made my second excursion to the cinema this year to see the one movie of the awards season that has really piqued my interest. If you've watched any of the award shows so far, you may have noticed a grey and tousled-hair elderly chap seated amongst all the glitterati. That's good old Bruce Dern who has been Oscar-nominated for best actor in the above film. The flick has five other nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), and Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael). While it would not surprise me in the least if none of the above are honoured, passed over for more popular or worthy entertainments, all of the above are well worth discussing and the film is more than well worth viewing. In fact I recommend it highly.

Dern has been around since the early 60s, starting in television series, and moving on to some well-known features in the late 60s and 70s. Generally few recognised him as much of an actor and he was largely slotted into a variety of criminal, sociopathic, and psychopathic roles in which he excelled. He reached the epitome of creepy evil in the largely-forgotten but still memorable "Tattoo" (1981). Everyone assumed that he must be the archetypal 'baddie' since he is the only actor to have killed the All-American John Wayne on screen in "Cowboys" (1972). Although Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in "Coming Home" (1978) and a fine Tom Buchanan in the l974 "Great Gatsby", his career just toddled along. He worked constantly to date with plenty of small roles in recent movies and television movies, but very little that you might remember. That's until Payne cast him as the lead in "Nebraska".

He plays Woody Grant, a nobody, worn down by life, loss, booze, and the early stages of dementia. When he receives a marketing ploy letter advising him that he has won a million dollars (if his numbers match and he buys various magazine subscriptions), he is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to claim his 'winnings' in Omaha, Nebraska. No longer able to drive he tries to set out on foot along the dusty highway, until the police return him home. His caustic wife (Squibb) thinks he's a nutter and keeps threatening to put him in a home, but his younger son (Will Forte), who has never connected with his Dad, volunteers to drive him to Omaha in a last ditch attempt to win his father's affection. En route they plan to spend the weekend with relatives in Woody's home town in Northern Nebraska and Squibb arrives by bus to join them. Over a few beers Woody casually mentions to the old-timers that he has 'won' a million and soon everyone in town is celebrating his good fortune -- and quite a few of them want a piece of the non-existent bucks.

Squibb whom I really did not know previously steals every scene in which she appears, even though it is still Dern's movie overall. She played the very small part of Jack Nicholson's recently deceased wife in another of Payne's road movies "About Schmidt", but here her forthright manner and no-nonsense approach to life shine brightly. There is a scene in the local cemetery where she has a few choice words for each of the departed that is among the more memorable movie moments of recent times. While not himself nominated special praise should also go to Forte, best known as a comic starting off with his success on Saturday Night Live. There is nothing remotely funny about his role here, except possibly when he and his brother (Bob Odenkirk) try to retrieve a 'stolen' compressor from the wrong farm. He plays it straight, doing his best to protect his deluded Dad, and the movie's denouement arrives as a heart-warming surprise. That comes after he 'decks' local  Stacy Keach, Woody's former business partner and compressor-thief, who demanded most to profit from Woody's would-be wealth (audience cheers!).

Perhaps I should have mentioned sooner that the film is in black and white. Papamichael's camera work is nothing short of magnificent, capturing the bleak and desolate landscape of middle-America with its soulless and deadening roads and towns. It just wouldn't have worked in colour. Payne has made only a few movies but all of them interesting, the first of which ironically starred Dern's daughter Laura (Citizen Ruth in 1996). In this movie with it spot-on casting, he assembles a cross-section of monosyllabic and occasionally imbecilic characters who seem to personify the drab and largely uninteresting story of Woody's world. Some shots, like all of his male relatives gathered around the ballgame on the goggle box, would translate beautifully into remarkable stills of a world that modern technology has bypassed and time has forgotten. It's a grey, small-minded, and generally hopeless life.

I last saw Dern seated in the stalls at the recently televised BAFTAs and no, he and the film didn't win any awards. I expect the same scenario at next week's Oscars, but the movie truly deserves every one of its nominations and more.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My Dream Movie

There I was lying in bed trying to get back to sleep, when I started thinking about the film that I would write about today. I decided to start by saying that I was tempted to write 'they really don't make them like that any more'. I would then go on to rave about the inky blacks and dazzling whites of the cinematography and the sophisticated production design, costuming, and banter. I had to keep reminding myself what movie I was thinking about before drifting off, and could not quite keep the title in mind. Can you guess why? The answer is that I viewed no such film in the last week or so, although this daydream speaks volumes about my fondness for so many movies from the 30s and 40s.

So what have I been up to? Well I am still having a ball with the infinite treasures available on YouTube. There one can find nearly all the Mary Pickford films that have managed to elude me and a host of other rare silents from Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and other long-departed geniuses. I have now saved so many movies to 'watch later' that my down-time is spoken-for for months to come, especially since I need to slot these in with my regular pattern of satellite and terrestrial showings, the DVD backlog, and now the occasional cinema outing. YouTube is also providing the opportunity for me to find other titles that have been loitering on my 'must see' list and in the last week I have been able to cross out "Street Scene" (1931) -- very dated from the award-winning Edgar Rice play but still fascinating, "Pitfall" (1948) and "99 River Street" (1953) -- moderately entertaining noirs, and "Baby Love" (1968) -- a fairly vile British exploitation movie wasting a good cast as foils to Linda Hayden's nymphet.

I have also been busy burning copies of those films which are either sufficiently rare or personal favourites to add to my collection, and  I have a number which I have yet to view. Did I hear someone mention the word 'obsessive' again? Two of these that I have managed to watch are "Destiny" (1920) and "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925). The former, also known as "Der Mude Tod", is a Fritz Lang film which I saw at the National Film Theatre some years ago and which I thought I would never be able to view a second time. It's a bitter-sweet tale of a young girl who loses her beloved fiancé to Death and begs Him to reunite them. They make a bargain that if she is able to prevent the deaths of three people whose 'candles are flickering low', her wish will be granted. We then move to three tales set in Arabia, Venice, and China, where a loved one can not be saved.  Brilliant stuff! As for 'Windermere', one of those stories that continues to be re-made, from 1916 right up to the modern-day "A Good Woman (2004) with Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson, the 1925 version directed by Ernst Lubitsch (he of the famous 'touch') is notable for an early role for the ever-dashing Ronald Colman. As luck would have it, he also starred in another of this week's movies, the early talkie "Condemned" (1929) with the gorgeous, but soon to be forgotten star, Anne Harding. As a further coincidence, she also appeared in 1935's "Enchanted April" -- one of her last pictures as a leading actress, a hoary chestnut of a movie remade to better effect in 1991 with Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson, and another of this week's entertainments. What a happy bunny I should be...and am!

In closing I must offer my R.I.P. to darling Shirley Temple who brought joy to so many, not just back in the Depression era, but who still charms viewers today. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I discontinued updates on my mobility after my fracture, when I decided that these were really only of interest to me (like a lot of the stuff I write about I suspect). However, going to see the above film was actually something of a landmark. It's the first time I've been able to get to a cinema under my own steam since FrightFest at the end of August. So that was something of a red-letter day for me -- and I shall now cease and desist with all things medical.

This Coen Brothers' film premiered at Cannes to great critical acclaim and I was eagerly looking forward to viewing it. By and large I have really loved most -- but not all, let it be said -- of their movies and their quirky takes on various genres. Only their re-make of the "Ladykillers" really disappointed me and I'm not too fond of their Clooney/Zeta Jones farce either, but they can normally be counted upon for providing something rather special. I therefore wish that I had warmed more to this latest flick which is being promoted in the ads with adjectives like 'charming', 'delightful', and 'amusing'. It is nothing of the kind, but rather a somewhat bitter look at the latest in their catalogue of losers.

Oscar Isaac plays the eponymous hero, although 'hero' is too strong a word for the sorry fellow. Llewyn is a minor folk-singer, hoping to forge a solo career after the suicide of his former partner. Isaac possesses a more than pleasant voice and makes a good fist of recreating the folk scene in Greenwich village in the late 50s/early 60s. In fact the whole period and shades of the legendary Dave van Ronk are beautifully re-created by the Coens, with indeed some affection for its passing. We see how popular groups like the Clancy Brothers clones on display need make way for new (and more profitable) talents like Bob Dylan. It is clear from the start that Llewyn, as embodied by Isaac, is never going to quite make it. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, bumming a night here and there on acquaintances' couches. As his sometime-friend Carey Mulligan (who he may or may not have impregnated, despite her being the partner of another friend, Justin Timberlake) comments, "You're like King Midas' idiot brother" -- meaning that everything he touches turns to something far more base than gold. Llewyn is an anti-hero firmly set in the Coens' galaxy of life's failures. It's a folk tale about a folk singer, a minor talent doomed to be left by the wayside, bound to fail in a world full of nobodies. The moral being that talent and hard work need not breed success. To make matters worse, Llewyn does not even come across as a likeable chap!

Yet there is something about this movie that is captivating and I suspect that it may well be worth watching a second or third time. The real star of the movie and the best thing in it is a ginger cat that Llewyn finds himself lumbered with after it escapes from a professors' apartment where he has spent the night. He loses it, searches for it, eventually returns it for the best line in the film (it was the wrong sex puss), and finds himself looking after another unwanted moggy. You might say that the movie is something of a shaggy cat story, as the cat becomes a companion on Llewyn's fruitless odyssey. Incidentally the first cat manages to find his way home and it turns out to be called Ulysses. (Yes, the Coens do have something of a 'thing' about The Odyssey). The film does have shades of a mythic, never-ending circular structure, as it starts and finishes with the same scene of Llewyn being beaten up in an alley by an unknown assailant. It seems that he is doomed to plod on the perpetual treadmill of despair.

While nicely cast, there are few familiar names among the players; but some mention should be made of Coens' regular John Goodman. In a few brief but amusing scenes he plays a drug-addled bluesman, half asleep on the back seat of a shared-expense road trip to Chicago, where Llewyn hopes to impress impresario F. Murray Abraham (no soap!). Goodman manages to throw out a number of caustic remarks, belittling Llewyn even further, about folk-singing, Welsh people, and even the best bridge for committing suicide. There's just no hope for our hopeless protagonist.

Some people think that this film was 'robbed' by not receiving Oscar nominations in various categories. I'm not too sure that any would have been deserved given the competition this year. Even the only original song in the movie (the others were all lesser-known traditional ones cleverly culled by T-Bone Burnett), the vaguely amusing "Please Mr Kennedy" did not come across as a suitable contender.

Before closing I must mention a timely oddity that I viewed yesterday courtesy of German satellite TV, "Das Weisse Stadion". Made in 1928 as a homage to the winter Olympics that year in San Moritz, the film was believed lost until 201l, when it was reconstructed from various sources. Lovingly and poetically filmed, it recreated a long-gone world. Did you know that the winter games used to include such competitions as horse-racing on ice or horse-drawn ski- racing? There were also some charming exhibitions of skating prowess, including one from Sonja Henie who went on to Hollywood fame. Great stuff!

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Like an increasing number of movies featured on Sky Box Office (i.e. pay-per-view), this film never made its way to Sky's Premier Channel and I was beginning to think that it was yet another movie that had fallen through the cracks. I was therefore pleased to see it turning up on Channel Four in an early evening 'kiddie' slot. I was particularly interested in watching this film, not because I am a great lover of updated fairy tales, but because I think its director, Tarsem Singh (occasionally billed as just Tarsem) possesses incredible visual style and flair. His little-seen 2006 movie "The Fall" was one of the most imaginative and beautiful films of the last goodness-knows-how-many years.

As its title implies, this movie is another version of the Snow White story but it had the misfortune to be released the same year as the infinitely more successful "Snow White and the Huntsman", which Sky did deign to show. Perhaps that flick with its trendier casting, including Kristen Stewart, had more box office clout, but it is certainly to my mind the lesser film. "Mirror Mirror" stars Julia Roberts as the wicked stepmother, an improvement I think on the other film's gorgeous but icy Charlize Theron. Roberts seems to be having a ball playing the baddie, hamming it up beautifully, and is not particularly vain about her aging looks. When her younger version in the magic mirror comments on her wrinkles, she retorts that they are not wrinkles, but 'crinkles'. The Snow role is filled by Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, who looks every inch the virginal innocent despite her caterpillar eyebrows, and is certainly more appealing than the downbeat, pouty Stewart. Her Prince Charming takes the hunky form of Armie Hammer, just before he began to loom large in popularity, and he displays an unsuspected ability for mocking self-disparaging humour. Rounding out the cast are comic stalwarts Nathan Lane and Michael Lerner and seven 'proper' dwarfs with three-dimensional personalities -- unlike the other movie's use of actors such as Ray Winstone's and Bob Hopkins' heads on little bodies. 

The respected film critic Leonard Maltin whose opinions I normally trust, especially when it comes to movies for youngsters, writes that this film is a poor excuse for a fairy tale, lacking whimsy, magic, and heart. I must disagree. I found the movie a charmer, enhanced by Tarsem's taste for flamboyant sets and costuming. For a start, having the dwarfs fighting on stylized stilts so that they appear as fearsome giants, is an awesome idea -- this alone is Maltin's whimsy and magic run riot. As for 'heart', Tarsem may adopt a certain tongue-in-cheek approach to his love story, but the players manage it with complete aplomb. The bit where Hammer is possessed by one of Roberts' love potions -- a 'puppy-love' spell as it happens -- and reacts to the world as an overgrown puppy is beautifully realised. The dwarfs do their best to release him from her clutches by various bits of bodily violence, but only Snow's first kiss can do the trick. Roberts withers into the old hag she always was, Snow's 'dead' father is freed from her curse, and everyone can live happily ever after. How much more do you want Mr.  Maltin?

The end credits are fun too with updates on the dwarfs' future lives and with the whole cast doing a Bollywood style song and dance a la "Slumdog Millionaire". Don't knock it, Tarsem Singh is Indian-born after all. This may not be the most brilliant fairy tale rendering of all time, but it certainly is both a lot of fun and beautiful to behold.   

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Splendor (1989)

I probably saw this movie about ten years ago at the National Film Theatre and loved, loved, loved it as a homage to the beauty of cinema. I have been trying to see it again ever since, but it just wasn't available through the usual channels and seemed to be little-known, even amongst the most ardent cinema buffs. Now, courtesy of friend Richard (he of the mini-cinema), I have my own copy and was delighted to have the opportunity of a second view. It was written and directed by the prolific and still active Ettore Scola whose filmography includes a number of remarkable Italian movies, although perhaps one rung down from the so-called 'greats'.

Marcello Mastroianni, one of the most consistently entertaining cinema stars, plays Jordan, who as a youth toured the Italian countryside with his father's mobile movie van, setting up sheets for a screening in rustic town piazzas, which filled with wide-eyed and star-struck locals, sucked in by the fascination of the movies' dream-world. Now an adult he has inherited the small town cinema established by his dad -- The Splendor. When new, it formed the centrepiece of the town's social life, with crowds rushing in to fill every seat to view each new attraction. However over the years the locals have morphed from finding it the biggest event in town to a who-gives-a-damn attitude as television and other activities replaced its appeal. One has only to consider the number of local 'movie palaces' from one's own childhood which have closed down over the years in favour of multiplexes and home entertainment to understand Jordan's concern. Where once he sought to present world cinema as an art form -- a way of broadening the town-folks' experience to a world view -- now his crumbling cinema is being consumed by rising debt and will soon join the dinosaur's graveyard.

Along the way Jordan has acquired a love interest in the curvaceous shape of French actress Marina Vlady (it is not clear to me that they ever actually married) whose shapely form as the Splendor's usherette and ticket-seller was a magnet to the menfolk of the town. Foremost among her admirers is Massimo Troisi's Luigi, who learns the projectionist's art to remain close to her and the movie-house. ( Troisi was the heart of the great film "Il Postino" and he died shortly after it was completed at the terribly early age of 41). In this movie, lured by his obsession with Vlady's Chantal, he also learns to love the magic of the movies along with Jordan and can empathise with the latter's heartbreak in the theatre's closing days.

Throughout the movie Jordan reminisces about times long gone by; the past shot in black and white seems far more colourful than the present-day action's Technicolor drabness. At one point we see him watching the closing scenes of "It's a Wonderful Life" in his nearly deserted theatre, and the tears form in his eyes, not just for the moving film itself but for a way of life fast disappearing. On the day before the Splendor is due to be re-developed into some sort of modern furniture store, the theatre is filled one last time by an audience singing "Auld Lang Syne" just like in the Jimmy Stewart flick, and indeed they and we can feel the tears welling.

This film was released the same year as "Cinema Paradiso" which stole all the kudos. They are both great Italian movies, but are really different kinds of homages to the movies. 'Paradiso' is more of a love-letter to Toto's youth and his love of father-figure projectionist Philippe Noiret, while this movie's melancholy focus is the fleeting loss of the dreams that movies can provide. I'm sure you are all familiar with the charms of 'Paradiso', but this film is well worth seeking out as an appropriate and equally moving companion piece.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969)

I'm sure I've said it before, but that won't stop my saying it again. There are many films that I 'know', i.e. that I can recall having seen and can just about remember the 'important' bits, as opposed to the many, many movies I watch which are increasingly nearly instantly forgettable. The film above is a good case in point, as I have certainly seen it at least twice previously, but would not have suspected that a third viewing would alter my perspective and evaluation. 

It is in fact a very good and in its way a very bitter film from director Sydney Pollack, based on the 1935 novel by Hector McCoy. He extracts the madness of that era's dance marathon phenomena and shapes into not just a haunting portrait of the Depression years, but also an allegory on the America of his own period. In his worldview, the great American Dream is rotten at its core. To readers not familiar with the craze, desperately poor couples would enter the dancehall for the initially important seven meals a day and the ultimate jackpot, here l500 silver dollars -- a fortune in their eyes -- payable to the last couple left standing after a gruelling sixty or so odd days on their increasingly shuffling sore feet, with only ten minute rest breaks every two hours. They are cheered on by a paying audience, each with their own favourites, who have come to enjoy the 'show'.

Among the participants are a hard-faced and disillusioned Jane Fonda, who when asked why she has come to California, replies that at least you don't freeze while you starve. When her obviously ill proposed partner is disqualified from entering on health grounds, she pairs up with drifter Michael Sarrazin (a handsome but slightly vacant actor whose career became less and less interesting). Then there is glamourpuss Susannah York with her Jean Harlow platinum bob and slinky dress, who hopes some passing talent scout will see her and her equally dead-keen-to-succeed seedy at the edges partner and whisk them away to stardom. A young Bruce Dern has entered with his heavily pregnant wife, Bonnie Bedelia, two stockcar drifters yearning for some security for the expected 'bundle of joy'. Red Buttons is an aging ex-sailor and a marathon veteran who is hoping for a last success with his similarly mature partner. The rest of the crowd is comprised of less well-known actors who appear more and more familiar as the days march on and the numbers dwindle.

Overseeing these pairs is the ex-fairground barker Gig Young (who won an Oscar for his role) as the goading MC with his cries of "Yowser, yowser, yowser". He is assisted by a ghoul-faced Al Lewis (formerly Grandpa of the Munsters), a roller-skating steward Michael Conrad (later familiar from Hill Street), and a gaggle of 'doctors' and 'nurses'. To Young and his team the gruelling procedure is far from being a contest, but more a series of gimmicks to keep the punters entertained. Every so often the slow drag of weary couples, usually with one of the pair asleep on the other's shoulder, is interrupted by a frantic 'horserace' around a painted circle with the last three couples across the line to be eliminated. The sick determination on the participants' increasingly strained faces is painful to behold. When any of the contestants fall by the wayside with exhaustion, psychosis, or indeed death, they are carried off by the 'caring' crew and the audience assured that the 'kid' will soon be fine.

Fonda and Sarrazin fall out when she suspects him of canoodling with York and they switch partners. But when the York's would-be superstar boyfriend leaves Fonda for a 10-day offer of work on a Western oater, she has 24 hours to find a new partner or to be disqualified. First she latches on to Button's sailor when his partner falls aside, but is left on her own again when he in turn collapses after one of the gruelling races. Later when York too needs to be carted off after her breakdown under a streaming shower, Young shows a surprisingly understanding and tender streak (despite his having previously 'stolen' her spare dress and make-up to make her seem more pathetic to the audience). So Fonda and Sarrazin are forced back into each others' arms; "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl", crows Young. They decline his suggestion that they get hitched on the floor (to score lots of congratulatory loot from the crowd) and in fact drop out of the 'contest' when they discover that the hard-fought for grand prize will be proportionately reduced to cover Young's many expenses supposedly on the winning couple's behalf. We never do discover which couple 'wins' as they are all losers and the charade goes on and on and on.

The film is slightly flawed in my mind with its flash-forward and flash-back structure. We are aware that Sarrazin has been arrested and tried for some crime, but we don't yet know the whys and the wherefores. Apart from an introductory reminiscence from his childhood, which is important to the narrative, the other short sequences only detract from the picture's continuity. Still Pollack's puppet-master shows great skill in manipulating his large cast, making us feel that we know each of them better than we might wish. Also his use of music -- obviously important in a dance competition -- is wonderfully fluid and timely; it's amazing how many songs of this sad period have become classics in their own right, and how moving they remain. This is a major exercise in motion picture-making and perhaps deserves its own classic status. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Silent Souls (2010)

After a longer than desirable holiday break in posting some new insights into the weird and wonderful viewing that dominates my life, as predicted in the previous entry below, none of the proposed Christmas-scheduled gems really turned me on. Of the proffered titles, I only found "Wreck-it Ralph" of vague entertainment value, largely for its psychedelic images and rather strange story-line, and "The Wonderful Burt Wonderstone" a definite oddity without being overly diverting. I haven't gotten around to "Drive" yet, which is currently languishing on the hard-drive of my Sky Box. However to temper my earlier comments, I must congratulate the usually derided as low-market Channel Five for their selection of classic golden oldies over the period. I didn't watch any of them mind you, since I have my own copies of virtually all, but at least they showed some thought and intelligence in their selection. (And their programme on the 'best' Christmas movies wasn't as bad as I feared either).

So what is the above-titled film? Good question! It has been sitting on a VHS tape (remember those?) for some four months now, having been taped on an upstairs recorder on a night when I had too many overlaps on the Sky Box and it resolutely refused to play on a downstairs machine. (OK, I admit we still have two VHS machines in addition to our various DVD players and recorders -- which we continue to find useful). Anyhow when I was generally living downstairs with my pesky ankle, I put the tape aside to watch upstairs in due course and only remembered it a few days ago. And what a strange and fascinating movie it turned out to be.

It's a Russian film (original title "Ovsyanki) which made the festival circuit a few years back but which probably never had much of a release anywhere. I know nothing about its director Aleksey Fedorchenko, but he and a very talented cinematographer have fashioned a gripping insight into a previously unknown culture. The two leading characters are factory-owner Miron and his employee and good friend, the bachelor Aist; they are descendants of an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe that lost its own language and national identity many centuries ago, but which retains -- almost as a folk memory -- the ancient myths, traditions, and rituals of their Meryan heritage.

Miron's much-loved and much-younger wife Tanya has died, but he refuses to commit her body to the morgue. He enlists Aist to accompany him on a road trip to a distant sacred lake where he spent his honeymoon, for them to cremate the body (on a pyre of axe-handles!) and to then scatter the ashes in the lake. The Meryan tradition is that drowning is the best possible death enabling one to merge with the water, but scattering the ashes therein is the next-best thing. Aist, whose late father was a naïve native folk-poet considered somewhat gaga by the local population, also wants to find his narrative voice but has so far been unsuccessful. He also nourished some serious lust for the late Tanya, although a rather promiscuous approach to sexual matters is another feature of their inherited culture. Knowing that he will be away from his home for several days, he takes with him a pair of caged buntings (some drab birdies) which he has just bought. They and the blanket-wrapped body of Tanya on the back seat are the other passengers on their journey. Dialogue is sparing as they pass through the endless barren landscape, apart from 'smoking'; "do you mind if I smoke", asks Miron, which in this context means revealing all of the sexual perversities that he and Tanya have enjoyed.

After the pair have completed the funeral finalities, they seek out the company of two young whores to help them feel more alive, but Miron can really only look forward to the day when he will be reunited with his wife in the holy waters. Without getting into any serious spoilers, I will only tell you that the buntings become the conduit by which the pair are enabled to find their respective ideal destinies. The ending comes as both a shock and a satisfying poetic conclusion to the story of two unusual lives.

Now, that to me was far better viewing than most of the disposable movies on offer over recent weeks....  The movie is available on DVD and is probably worth seeking out.

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