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Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Chase (1946)

They're doing a Martin Scorsese season at the National Film Theatre and in what seems to be becoming a tradition with living directors, they asked him to curate some of his favourite films. This explains why the above little-seen and little-known dreamy film noir was programmed. Boasting a recently restored print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I can just about understand why it was one of Scorsese's selection; it is an interesting example of a B-movie noir, succeeding in maximising its small budget, but it is a little short of being a perfect gem foreshadowing David Lynch as the programme would have it.

Robert Cummings plays a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who is taken on as wealthy hoodlum's (Steve Cochran's) chauffeur when he returns the latter's lost wallet, in tact short of $1.50 which he has used to pay for a much-needed meal -- we are in 1946 remember. Cummings despite his two starring roles in Hitchcock movies is miles away here from his usual feather-light, happy-go-lucky leading man. Cochran. in one of his first leads, is too hairy and hunky to morph into the starring lead he later became before his early death, but he makes a fine, hissible villain as the heavy who wants to control everything, from business to his trophy wife (Michele Morgan) to even his chauffeur-driven limo with its dual controls that he can manipulate from the back seat. We know he's a bad egg when in his introductory scene we see him socking a manicurist whose hand has slipped and nicked his finger. His henchman Gino is wonderfully played by the ever-watchable Peter Lorre, who can portray nuances of emotion by the slightest twitch of his face, and the pair are formidable symbiotic rogues.

Morgan after her early successes in France went to Hollywood, not so much to escape the war but to capitalise on her reputation. Her first role there "Joan of Paris" was relatively well-received but she had already lost other career-making leads, such as Ilsa in "Casablanca" because of her relatively poor English. When subsequent films tanked she went back to France where her career regenerated and she won the first best actress award at Cannes for 1948's "Pastoral Symphony". In "The Chase" she is little more than a stunning blonde given an assortment of flashy gowns to model. After a series of midnight drives where she stares longingly out to sea, she manages to persuade Cummings to run off to Cuba with her. On arrival in Havana their first evening takes a nightmarish turn, ending with her murder and his flight from the authorities.

So far so good until two-thirds the way through we discover that Havana 'was all a dream'. It seems that Cummings is a recovering shell-shocked veteran given to lapses of memory. However he knows he has promised to do something, somewhere that evening, and miraculously regains his sanity in time for a happy ending with Morgan -- the script in the meantime contriving to kill off any threat in a spectacular way. I think I agree with the contemporary review of the movie in Variety which describes the film 'taut as sprung steel' for most of its running time then 'slackening limply into the commonplace'.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel -- the writer was an endless font for classic film noirs --  the movie delivers his dark pessimistic view of the world with some style. However I wouldn't go as far as Guy Maddin, who lauded the picture as illustrating the extraordinary potential of film as dreams, a series of unconnected elements morphing into a wonderful whole.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Baftas (not) and some foreign treats

I really can't be arsed to write in any detail about this year's BAFTAs. They have become a B-movie version of the Oscars, trying to slavishly prophesy the probable winners to come. This comment is not just my deep-rooted fear of a "La La Land" landslide; but when the Brits begin nominating films that have not yet been released here -- case in point "Moonlight" which only hits the theatres this week -- a sorry state has been reached. This is probably why Dev Patel (the only British winner) was gifted best supporting actor, since no one here knows who the heck Mahershala Ali (the probable Academy winner) might be. As for the host (for the umpteenth time) Stephen Fry, I just can't put up with any more of his luvvie twittering. If he is such a 'national treasure' he should be stuffed and exhibited in the British Museum. Even the Fellowship award (usually bestowed on a British worthy) was given to Mel Brooks, who was wheeled on looking the worse for wear. Bah, humbug!

The week was not, however, without its pleasures -- largely in the form of three lovely foreign-language movies, none of which are going to win any awards. First up was "Our Little Sister", a gentle 2015 Japanese film, reminiscent of Ozu's family sagas. Three very different, but loving, grown-up sisters discover on the death of their estranged father that they have a young teenaged half-sister.. Since she has been left with no blood relatives, they encourage her to come to live with them. Hers is a happy transition and the sisters' love for their new sibling infuses further warmth into what potentially could have been a troubled household.  Nothing much happens but we too are left with a warm glow and affection for these well-rounded characters.

I found the Brazilian film "The Second Mother" (2015) somewhat annoying at first, since it depicts the outcome of disrupting the sense of 'knowing one's place'. Regina Case plays Val, the faithful housekeeper for Dona Barbara, her husband, and her spoiled and lazy son. Val has virtually raised the now l7-year old and still showers him with kisses. Meanwhile her own daughter, whom she has not seen for years, has been raised by others, financed by the wages that Val sends 'home'. When the daughter arrives in Sao Paolo from the North, Val's employers agree that she can stay for a few days while studying for university entrance exams and have even paid for a new mattress to be placed on the floor in Val's spartan bedroom. However the feisty daughter soon inveigles herself into the luxury guest bedroom, eats at 'their' table, ingratiates herself into the husband's affections, scoffs up the son's special ice cream, and even has the audacity to swim in their pool! Val is beside herself with embarrassment and is not surprised when Dona B insists that the daughter leave and live elsewhere.

When she passes the entrance exams with flying colours (Val is more than chuffed) and the son of the family flunks his -- and is subsequently dispatched to Australia for six months, Val begins to realise how she has become the family's indispensable non-person. She now wants to re-establish the missing relationship with her own child, joyfully goes for a splash in the partly-drained pool, and finally hands in her notice to the family for whom she has sacrificed all. There is something heroic in Val's new-found freedom.

The last of the three movies is the least 'worthy' but probably the most entertaining. In the French film "Up for Love" (2016), the debonair leading actor Jean Dujardin (who charmed the world in 2011's award winner "The Artist") is shrunk from his normal height of just under 6' to a petite 4'5" by the magic of cinema. He plays a confident, rich, and successful architect who woos lawyer Virginia Efira (an attractive Belgian actress I've not seen before); she is estranged from her soon-to-be-divorced husband and law firm partner Cedric Kahn. Despite herself, she finds that she is falling for the charming Alexandre, who is not a midget per se but whose lack of growth results from a pituitary problem, and who only just reaches to her bust. She is well aware of the staring and giggling that this mismatched couple attracts -- even her mother who is remarried to a comically deaf husband and the jealously-possessive Kahn cannot imagine the two as a potential pair. The question is can Efira reconcile her feelings with the realities of a life with her diminutive lover.

There is probably too much slapstick included, especially as the oversized St Bernard belonging to Alexandre's normal-sized son bowls him over each time he enters the house, greeting him with slobbering affection. But it made me laugh... Both the Japanese and the Brazilian films have garnered much higher ratings on IMDb, but this French movie wins hands down for its clever optical effects and general rom-com feel-goodness.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Jenny's Wedding (2015)

Decisions, decisions. Each week I need to weigh up what I have viewed over the last seven days and to decide which of those films to dissect. It's easy if I've been out to the cinema or finally caught up with a long lost treasure, but most weeks it's a question of sifting through the dross and deciding which has had left any lasting impression (at least in the short term). I was tempted to write about "It Follows" (2014) which I found a refreshingly different horror movie. However it boasts a no-name cast -- the biggest 'name' is Maika Monroe (!) who is also a professional kite-boarder -- and the other leads could have been anyone. Its premise is that having sex with the wrong partner curses one with a relentless face-changing 'follower' (out to do you in) until you pass on the curse by having sex with an unwitting someone else. Not that this actually cancels out the curse from the various characters met here. Regardless, the film manages to be unusually creepy with a slightly disturbing vibe -- and I've not a great deal more to say about it.

So I am left with the above film which is an unlikely contender, since the tale of two lesbians hoping to marry but reluctant to come 'out' to their family is nowadays rather old-hat. It could well have been made a decade ago or even formed the basis for an intelligent TVM. Written and directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue, better-known as a screenwriter, it creates a leading role for Katherine Heigl, whose career path has taken a downhill spiral since her heyday of "Knocked Up" (2007) and "27 Dresses" (2008). In fact it is her most recent release to date, although I believe there are one or two in post-production. To mirror my own woeful lack of knowledge and possibly prejudice, she seems far too glamourous and unaffected to portray a believable gay, but what do I know?

She has lived with her 'roommate' Alexis Bledel for five years now but can't bring herself to tell her doting parents (Tom Wilkinson and Linda Emond) that her roomie is also her lover and that they wish to marry. At her parents' anniversary party (not the best opportunity I would suggest) she takes each of them aside and confesses the 'awful truth' to much shock and horror, but promises not to let the rest of their family and friends in on her secret, leaving her sister to spread the rumour that she is involved with a married man -- more 'horror' but not quite so horrible as being gay. Dad is a fireman and is completely au fait with the macho posturings at his firehouse and can not conceive what his beloved daughter might get up to in bed. Mom blames herself,  All of the best stereotypical reactions are on display, but actually both actors do a splendid and believable job considering the script's clichés. Wilkinson is at his usual authentic flabbergasted best and Emond, with whom I was not previously familiar, morphs into the broken-hearted mum who had always dreamed of her favourite child's wedding day.

Her sister (Meryl Streep's little girl Grace Gummer) learns the truth when she sees the pair kissing in a bridal shop and promptly tells her mother, who of course already knew. This convinces her that Mum has been lying to her and trying to protect her better-loved child. Gummer is the ugly duckling of the pair, something of a baby machine, and married to a no-goodnik; she's completely taken aback when Heigl asks her to be her Maid of Honour. Their brother of course has guessed the truth since their high school days. Gummer is gifted with the movie's best line -- 'happy people don't have dead grass' -- a reflection of her own loveless marriage vs. her sister's radiant happiness with her proposed life partner, and a cue to dump her husband.

There is a further showdown between daughter and parents at a funeral parlour (she really does choose her venues poorly) where family friends learn the big secret (and the disgrace!).
However the wedding plans proceed, as gradually Mum and eventually Dad (on the day) accept that love conquers all. It all sounds ever so corny as I have outlined it, but it was surprisingly watchable and at times even genuinely moving. So there you go!


Friday, 3 February 2017

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

There will always be an audience for 'feel-good' movies, although few of these manage to win major awards, unlike this year's over-hyped contender "La La Land". The cinema audience loves to root for plucky dreamers a la Rocky and Billy Elliot, especially when they ultimately win, but even when they lose, if they lose with style. Such is the heroic myth of Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, Britain's lone competitor for a ski-jumping medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, a man who never stood a dewdrop's chance in hell of winning.

While based on a true-life story, this crowd-pleasing film is more fiction than fact, but does successfully convey the essence of Eddie's endeavour. A sickly and gangly child young Eddie always dreamt of Olympic glory, repeatedly running away from home (as far as the corner) when he thinks he has set a new World Record, for example holding his breath under water in the bath for a full 50 seconds. Unsporty and uncoordinated we see him failing spectacularly in his backyard at all the traditional Summer athletic events. Inspired, he fixes upon the idea that he might succeed at winter sports, since Britain has not entered the ski-jumping stakes since 1929. Even a poor showing could establish a new British record!

Actor Taron Egerton who made a showy mark in "Kingsman: The Secret Service" (2014) morphs seamlessly into the pudgy and homely body of young Eddie, who hies off to the Continent with his mother's nest-egg and his dad's 'borrowed' work van to pursue his dream. He hovers around the training grounds taking advice from various French and German racers and coaches, not understanding a word of what they are saying, before his persistence and foolhardy bravery pays off. He manages (after nearly breaking his neck) to convince Bronson Peary, a washed-up, disgraced, and usually drunk former jumper, played by Hugh Jackman, to oversee his preparations. The British Olympic Committee don't really want to know and set an improbable qualifying distance for him to meet. By a fluke he does manage to qualify and off to Calgary he goes -- and now we are all rooting for him.

He is treated as something of a joke by the Committee, his fellow team members, and the other real contenders, but the audience laughs with him, not at him -- we can not help but admire his bulldog spirit and his pluck. We cheer when he successfully manages the steepest of the jumps without killing or paralysing himself, even if he does finish in last place. The legend of Eddie the Eagle is born -- and remember that this is the same Olympics that lauded the efforts of the Jamaican bobsled team whose story was told in "Cool Runnings" (1993). Eddie is a loser who becomes a media darling.

The film is lovingly directed by Dexter Fletcher who was also responsible for "Sunshine on Leith", another ultimately feel-good movie with some dark undertones. The only other 'name' in the cast is Christopher Walken, playing Jackman's original mentor, in the very briefest of cameos. 

Eddie was able to 'dine off' his fame for some years. Even his father who pooh-poohed his dreams and who urged him to take up his own trade of plastering was cock-a-hoop on his son's triumphant return to Britain. But false fame does wane and guess what Eddie does now? He's a plasterer!   

Friday, 27 January 2017

Endless Poetry (2016)

Alejandro Jodorowsky is not a name familiar to most cinemagoers but a cult God to many, ever since his "El Topo" (1970) and "The Magic Mountain" (1973) became midnight movie staples. He is the equivalent of cinematic Marmite -- if you are familiar with his films (and there have been so few of them) you either hate them or willingly accept their beauty and weirdness.

Born in Chile in 1929 he was a poet, puppet-maker, clown and general rabble-rouser before moving to Paris in 1955. There he studied mime with Marcel Marceau, mixed with the surrealists and made his first feature film in 1968 "Fando y Lis". He had ambitious plans for a version of "Dune" (to star Orson Welles) which never made it to the screen. Only 1989's fantasmagorical "Santa Sangre" attracted any notice while his two other movies "Tusk" (1980) and "The Rainbow Thief" (1990) had no theatrical distribution. The latter is purportedly not a great flick, but I for one would love to see a movie starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Lee surface. In between he busied himself with cartooning, working on graphic novels, and publishing several books. A renaissance man for sure!

He returned to film-making in 2013 with the autobiographical film "The Dance of Reality" which I reviewed in passing a few years back. That film covered his early childhood in Chile, as seen through a surrealist's eye. The above movie picks up the story with the same actors -- a teenaged Jeremias Herskovits essaying young Alejandro, Pamela Flores playing his hard-done-by mother whose dialogue is sung as operatic arias, and his eldest son Brontis filling the shoes of his authoritarian father. The youngster helps out in his father's store, watching out for shoplifters for his Dad to drag out to the street, kick (urging his son to join in), and strip naked as a warning to the gawping bystanders. Dad hopes that his son will be a great doctor, but the boy only yearns to be a poet -- a would-be faggot, says Dad. He finally rebels against his extended suffocating family by hacking away at a tree in his grandmother's courtyard and is taken by a precocious cousin to the home of a pair of rich artistic sisters where he is welcomed amongst their resident bohemia. In the next scene the teenager emerges from his room some years on as the young adult Alejandro -- now played by the director's youngest son Adan (who also composed the music for the movie). Jodorowsky's films are usually family affairs and the real Alejandro appears periodically as the old man he is, as a kind of Greek chorus. His middle son Axel has also appeared in his father's films and I only learned recently that there was a fourth son Teo who died aged 24 in 1995.

This movie may well be the director's most accessible work and the critic of the New York Times believes it to be his best. I wouldn't care to draw the same conclusion but it is an absorbing watch with masterful photography from cinematic maven Christopher Doyle. As a fan of Federico Fellini, Jodorowky fills his screen with big-busted females, an assortment of dwarves, and a variety of artsy-craftsy types to people the young poet's wild parties and mount his 'chair of truth'. Black-hooded ninja figures whom we are not meant to notice are used to move the props. Two-dimensional stage scenery is wheeled on to recreate the streets of his youth. Hordes of post WW2 Nazis invade Santiago to reinforce the young poet's need to emigrate -- but only before he is made to reconcile with his hated father, forced to acknowledge the bonds of family by the older Jodorowsky figure. His first sexual encounter (everything but penetration he's warned) is with a violently red-wigged Amazon (played by the same actress as his mother) who will only walk with him holding his privates...and more. Yes, it's a very strange film -- but completely fascinating, if not for everyone.

This quasi-autobiographical movie which was partly crowd-funded is meant to be the second of five proposed films. That's a pretty ambitious project for a writer-director who will be 88 next month!  

A serendipitous aside: I saw this movie in the cinema on Wednesday afternoon and by coincidence watched one of Sky's dreary premieres that evening, "Kids in Love" (also 2016). It stars the likeable young actor Will Poulter as a gap-year student being lured into the circle of some spoiled and gilded youth (including current flavour Cara Delavingne) through a chance meeting with a tasty young French student. And who was this temptress? One Alma Jodorowsky, daughter of Brontis.  A nice coincidence but a pretty awful movie, so don't seek it out. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

5 to 7 (2014)

Tomorrow looks to be a busy-ish day so I thought I'd better move my usual Friday blog to a Thursday. This week's review comes courtesy of Sky's new one-premiere-a-day policy which has been providing an unconscionable number of obscure movies, many of them straight-to-disc, but which occasionally unearths a rare gem. While the above film has attracted its share of negative criticism, I found it rather sweet and charming to begin, and ultimately realistically bittersweet and believable.

Written and directed by Victor Levin, the only feature film to date from this television writer, it is not only well-written and well-crafted, featuring an eclectic yet excellent score, but it is far from a conventional rom-com.The title will ring bells amongst cineastes recalling the French film "Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962), the accepted timeframe for extra-marital affairs (although in that movie the heroine was actually anxiously awaiting some test results from her doctor). However the hours are meant to imply a certain French freedom where sexuality might be explored without jeopardising family commitments.

The relationship in question begins with our hero Brian Bloom played by Anton Yelchin 'meeting cute' with older French siren Arielle played by Berenice Marlohe (primarily a television actress whose first feature role was in 2012's "Skyfall" with this movie being her second). He is an aspiring but so-far unpublished writer -- the walls of his flat are papered with rejection letters -- who spies a vision of loveliness forced to smoke outside a public building; he crosses the street to join her and they strike up a conversation. She mentions that she can be found same place, same time every Friday; Brian is smitten and can't wait to see her again. Weekly, they spend two hours together at a museum or the movies and romance is in the air. However when she casually mentions that she is married with two young children, he is repulsed by the idea (typical American horror of the unconventional we're meant to think) and he resolves to stay away from her. His resolve lasts only three weeks before they tumble into bed together.

Oh but it's a civilised affair! Her husband (an underused Lambert Wilson) casually invites Brian to a family dinner party also attended by his mistress Jane (Olivia Thirlby) and a sprinkling of New York intelligentsia. Even their two kiddies accept Brian as maman's  boyfriend. So it continues for some time and they all are in attendance when Brian's talent is eventually recognised at a 'New Yorker' award ceremony. With the award cheque in his pocket, Brian decides the time has come to buy a ring for his lover and to propose to legitimise their union. This is the breaking the rules! After initially accepting his proposal and telling Wilson, she breaks off the relationship in a heart-felt letter. Heartbreak stirs Brian's creative juices and his first novel churns from his word-processor.

Yelchin plays with wide-eyed puppy-dog enthusiasm and has been criticised for being far too young and unsophisticated for Marlohe's older woman of the world, but a genuine love between the pair develops as just about believable. Before his recent death in a freak accident, aged 27, the Russian-born actor has appeared in a variety of roles, starting aged 10 in an episode of 'ER' and making his feature debut as an 11-year old opposite Anthony Hopkins in "Hearts of Atlantis" (2001). Best-known for his recurring role in the new "Star Trek" series, he embraced a wide variety of characters and a promising future was certainly cut short. Yelchin, like every one else in this movie is a complex yet strangely likeable character. There are no villains.

Mention should be made of Glenn Close and Frank Langella who play Brian's parents in a too-brief interlude. While they make a most unlikely and non-stereotyped Jewish couple, they exude a nice mixture of  paternal horror and maternal love when they are introduced to Arielle. I would have liked to see more of them.

My one criticism is that like many movies, the picture doesn't know when to end. It would have been perfect to finish with Arielle's seeing a stack of Brian's newly-published novel in a bookshop window and happily smiling to herself. But no, Levin is determined to fill in all the gaps with scenes that let us know what happened next. For once, I really didn't need to know.

   

Friday, 13 January 2017

Venus in Fur (2013)

There have been numerous films titled "Venus in Furs" (plural) based on the infamous novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to both S-M and masochism...an interesting legacy. However most of these have used just the title for their own spin on sexual perversions. You can find this title as part of a 1967 triple bill from Something Weird Video. Then there are two 1969 versions -- the slightly more polite Italian version starring Laura Antonelli known as "Devil in the Flesh" and the garishly coloured soft-ish porn version from schlockmeister Jess (Jesus) Franco released as "Paroxismus". To be honest I can't recall much about this movie from the cheapy Spanish auteur, (and for my sins I have seen most of his trashy output). His version has a young musician finding the corpse of a woman on a beach, who returns from the dead to take revenge on the sadists who abused her. With a supporting cast that includes Klaus Kinski and Dennis Price, I should really remember it. There's also a 1994 Dutch flick that remains obscure.

However the above French film from director Roman Polanski is a class act, based not on the novel but on a stage play by David Iver. It's a two-hander on a single set, but it is 100% absorbing thanks to the superlative acting from Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. The success of this movie is its cast rather than its story. Seigner's would-be actress arrives late at the theatre where writer-director Amalric is holding auditions for his new play. He is about to leave but she bullies him into letting her read and he reluctantly agrees. As she morphs from know-it-all tart to consummate stage diva his own reading of the lines moves from rote responses to heart-felt emotions as he succumbs to the power of her acting and her sensuality. The audition continues despite the occasional telephone calls from his impatient fiancée until the roles become reversed with his becoming the dominatrix and her becoming the obedient servant. He dons the high heels and 'fur' and even a smear of lipstick, so reminiscent of Polanski's own turn in "The Tenant" (1976), a study in humiliation. Amazingly, Amalric begins to resemble the director physically more and more as the film progresses.

I've always known that Almaric is a fine and prolific actor appearing in dozens of movies since his debut in 1984, including English-speaking roles in recent years, like the villain in "Quantum of Silence". However I have surprised myself by discovering how remarkable Seigner is in this movie. I was first aware of her opposite Harrison Ford in 1988's "Frantic" and have seen her in various roles since, most recently in "In the House". Yet none of her turns have captured my fancy, even her previous pairing with "Amalric" in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" where he alone took centre stage. Married to Polanski since 1989, she has previously appeared in only two of his films "The Ninth Gate" (1991) and "Bitter Moon" (1992) and I have but the vaguest recollection of her acing chops in either. However in this movie Polanski has worked his magic, as he has often done for his leading ladies, and she is magnetically superb. 

As an unrelated but fascinating aside, Almaric's mother is from a Polish-Jewish family and was born in the very village where the Polanski family lived prior to World War II.  

Friday, 6 January 2017

Last Year's Top Ten

According to my film diary -- yes, I actually keep a list of the movies I view each day -- I watched 832 films in 2016. Wow! Obviously not all of these were recent releases or new to me; the list is liberally sprinkled with ancient rarities that I have finally caught up with plus a good lashing of old favourites re-visited. Sad to say, however, reading the titles of all 832 pictures, I really do not remember what many of them were about nor my reaction to them. Perhaps I should annotate that diary in future with some notes that might jog my fading memory. Or maybe I really do watch a lot of dross in my efforts to see every new film on offer.

Anyhow in deciding to feature the ten films I most enjoyed last year as opposed to the 'best' films, I shall limit myself to movies either made or released within the last few years which I viewed for the first time in 2016. One that will not be among them is "La La Land" which I saw at the London Film Festival back in October, but which has just been released in time for Oscar consideration. It is being broadly hyped as the shoo-in winner for best picture, but I found it patchy and ultimately downbeat. Parenthetically I finally watched last year's favourite "Revenant" recently, and will not be including that in my top ten either --  gruelling, nicely done, but not a film to enjoy -- a 'feel-bad' movie.

Before revealing my idiosyncratic choices, a few comments about some of the premieres over the recent holiday period. I was terribly disappointed with "The Lady in the Van" which left a sour after-taste, and was similarly let down by "Zootropolis" ("Zootopia" Stateside) which I found a little too twee and preachy and by "Deadpool", amusing but trying just a little bit too hard. "The Dallas Buyers Club" was well-done but worthy, although both lead actors certainly deserved their Oscars. I was smitten by the French animation "Long Way North" with its hand-painted slightly abstract design -- so unlike most other animation nowadays -- and I thought that "Ethel & Ernest" (whether or not the BBC consider it a movie) was movingly worthwhile. Finally I was surprised how much I liked Jon Favreau's new "Jungle Book"; Bill Murray gives great Baloo! 

So the time has come to list out my favourites from last year -- the one's I would be more than happy to re-view time and again. In no particular order of merit these are:

"Florence Foster Jenkins" -- I hope it gets a slew of Oscar nods.

"The Forbidden Room" -- a maddening tour de force from Guy Maddin.

"Tale of Tales" -- a feast for the eyes married to quirky storytelling.

"Anomalisa" -- stop-motion for adults.

"Wishin' and Hopin" - a great contender to join the ranks of the best Christmas flicks.

"Paddington" -- the tale of a loveable bear told with great British charm and affection (although I am getting fed up with Nicole Kidman trying to be a villainess -- it doesn't quite ring true).

"Call Me Jeeg Robot" -- the only movie from our FrightFest attendance worth watching, although this Italian quirk-fest is unlikely to achieve widespread release.

"Populaire" -- A French movie from 2012 which I had actually seen before about a typewriter whizz -- colourful and unusual.

"The Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" -- possibly a terrible movie but I enjoyed every minute of it.

"Hail Caesar" -- not the Coen Brothers' best but a lively look at old Hollywood.

There you have it. Let's find out what joys are in store for 20l7...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Christmas on the Box 2016

I know I said I would be blogging yesterday, but it was just one of those days when I didn't get anywhere near my computer -- although nowadays people in general seem surgically linked to one or other of their devices. So belatedly here are my rather dismal recommendations for the Christmas fortnight on UK terrestrial television starting today.

Without double-checking previous Christmas blogs, it really does seem that terrestrial TV in Britain is disappointingly more malnourished than ever this year. There are all of four -- count them four --  studio movies premiering that I have not already seen and only two of these are producing even a frisson of anticipation: "The Lady in the Van" on Christmas Eve and "Dallas Buyers Club" on Boxing Day (courtesy of Channel Five no less). The other two "Hercules" this evening and "Love Punch" also on Boxing Day I could take or leave, although knowing me I will almost certainly watch them on principle. The only other new 'goody' and it's not even listed as a movie, is the animation of "Ethel and Ernest" on BBC1 on the 28th which sounds, promising, along with the new short animation of "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" -- memories of reading this over and over to young Harri.

If I'm counting correctly, there are only seven other terrestrial premieres which are not animations: "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas" (silly), "Saving Mr Banks" on the 23rd (worthy), "Captain Phillips" on Boxing Day (predictable) along with "Pride" (unusual and not too bad), followed by "The Amazing Spider Man 2" (more of the same stuff), "Captain America - Winter Soldier" (superheroes, yawn), and "Muppets Most Wanted" (OK-ish). Otherwise all of the premieres are animations of which only "Frozen" on Christmas Day is noteworthy -- and tell me please which youngster hasn't seen that one a quadrillion times! In fact the schedules are littered with wall-to-wall animations most of each day. When were sentient adults barred from watching movies over the holiday period??? And obviously there's not a single foreign-language film to be found nor much in the way of documentaries.

Among the myriad repeats there are of course several old family favourites and if you have a tradition of watching the same old chestnut every Christmas you can probably unearth suitable candidates like "It's a Wonderful Life" (one of my own all-time greats) sparkling in the schedules. Otherwise watch Sky or read a book or (like me) catch up on the backlog. Sky, with their daily premieres (many of which are extremely iffy) have held back their 'big guns' for 24 to 28 December with new showings for "Zootropolis", the "Jungle Book" remake, "Deadpool", "Kung Fu Panda 3", and "A Long Way North" (a highly rated French animation). FilmFour by contrast seems to have gone to sleep with virtually nothing new over the fortnight. I also found a goody for my own pleasure buried in the late night schedules for Sky Arts: "Everything is Copy", a documentary on Nora Ephron on the 20th.

I can only see one new film-related programme, yet another tribute to Judi Dench, plus part two of a skimpy Walt Disney biography which started last Saturday. Non-film-wise the schedules are also strangely culturally barren with only one opera and no new programmes featuring classical music or art. I am mildly tempted by the two-part dramatization of "Witness for the Prosecution" on the 26th and 27th, but however well-done it promises to be, I doubt it can hope to hold a candle to the classic Billy Wilder film which starred three of my all-time favourites: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich.

Unlike previous issues of The Radio Times, the Christmas edition doesn't run through New Year's Day, so being the eternal optimist, I do hope that the next issue starting on 31 December is packed to the brim with all those movies I really want to see which have fallen through the proverbial cracks. Fat chance! However let me close on a more upbeat note with my best wishes to all for the holidays...see you again in 2017. 


Friday, 9 December 2016

Mr Turner (2014)

This biopic of the renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner is a labour of love from writer-director Mike Leigh and his lead actor of choice, Timothy Spall. Widely hyped as their joint masterpiece, it did not prove popular, largely because it is far from a conventional biography. Focussing on the last quarter of the artist's life before his death in 1851, its 150-minute running time alienated movie-goers who prefer films that tell a story. What Leigh provides instead is a series of vignettes illustrating different facets of Turner's life, with little linear connection between the various parts. However, like Gestalt theory, these do indeed create a rounded portrait of a talented but eccentric man.

The film was Oscar-nominated for cinematography, costume, original score, and production design, winning none of these. It did not receive any acting nominations, although one might have hoped that Spall would be recognised after a long and remarkable career and who even learned to paint for this role. His bulky physique morphs readily into the gruff, matter-of-fact genius who travelled widely with his sketchpad and painted some of the most romantic landscapes ever. Turner was an accomplished Impressionist before his time. The cinematography is in fact brilliantly done and the outdoor scenes can accurately be described as 'Turner-esque' in their beauty. As his purported last words would have it "The sun is God" and we revel in the light.

However in the large and well-cast ensemble, my top kudos would go to Dorothy Atkinson, who plays his drab, devoted, and obviously love-struck housekeeper Hannah, whom Turner takes for granted, barely notices or communicates with, and whom he uses for rough sex when the urge arises. For my money, she steals every scene in which she appears with her expressive face counterpointing the action. The artist was, it would seem, something of a lecher, denying his estranged and bitter wife and daughters -- claiming blithely that he never had any children. He eventually takes up with his occasional Margate landlady Sophia Booth (well-played by Marion Bailey) to whom he introduces himself initially as Mr Mallard (she subsequently remembers him as Mr Duckworth) and who has little idea of his fame before he is recognised by a local doctor. They live together on and off through his death and her devotion does manage to partially soften his prickly demeanour; as far as his Chelsea Embankment neighbours are concerned he is the devoted Mr. Booth.

In between there are telling tableaux of his interaction with other artists of the period at the Royal Academy, his championing by the effete art critic Ruskin (a nice turn from Joshua McGuire), his having his portrait taken by one of the new-fangled cameras (and returning to have another taken with the reluctant Sophia), attending a theatrical performance where both he and Ruskin are satirised, and the sickly Hannah's heartbreak on discovering that he is shacked up with another doting woman. I found the movie largely satisfying, since the whole certainly does add up to far more than the sum of its parts.

Next week my annual picks for British television viewing over the Christmas period...

Friday, 2 December 2016

Wishin' and Hopin' (2014)

I had every intention of making this week's blog another of those 'that was the week that was' summaries, since my viewing since last Friday included a number of A-list films which I have only just caught up with. These included "A Royal Night Out" (unbelievable but sweet), "Sicario" (a nasty drug wars flick), "Revenant" (long and gruelling, but hardly my cup of tea even if it did win DiCaprio his Oscar), "Hitman Agent 47" (a far-fetched live video game), Jackie Chan's historical bore "Dragon Blade", "The Battle for Sevastopol" (a worthy Russian biopic), "Strangerland" (a minor Nicole Kidman Aussie drama, not particularly good), and "Horns" (Harry Potter grows a pair -- interesting, but what it was all meant to mean is beyond me).

Now I could have written about any of these or I could have wondered aloud how Sky Movies manages to source so many obscurities in their weekly selection, but one film -- and a made-for-cable one no less -- stood out as the most entertaining of the bunch. It's that time of the year when a number of channels dredge up their dreary backlog of Christmas-themed movies, most of which are silly rom-coms of a high-powered female executive returning to her home town to sell a Christmas tree farm or a cookie factory or a diner and falling for a local hunk and simple down-home values. Yawn.  However the above film soars above that sort of dross threatening to become a new Christmas cult classic, much in the vein of l983's "A Christmas Story".

Based on a New York Times best-selling novel by Wally Lamb, the movie takes a nostalgic look back at l960s Connecticut and the Catholic Funicello family, whose main claim to fame is that they are distant cousins of pop-star Annette. Ma and Pa are Annabella Sciorra (nice to see her back if only in a small part) and Danny Nucci; there are two teenaged sisters, and little Felix, beautifully-played by Wyatt Raiff, a wee ten-year old charmer. At his parochial school we meet terrifying nun Conchata Ferrell and the creepy Monsignor Muldoon, played by Meatloaf. Felix's class has a temporary lay teacher, the Canadian Madame Frechette, essayed by ex-teenage queen Molly Ringwald with her best French accent, who must take over the class' portion of the annual Christmas pageant and who decides upon a series of living tableaux. All of this is narrated by the adult Felix, voiced by Chevy Chase.

However it is the child cast that stands out and provides most of the smiles and laughs. These include the Miss-know-it-all young lady who is Felix's nemesis, his 'dumb' bestie who has been left back twice, Zhenya a l7-year old new and sexually precocious Russian arrival, and a token black who knows all the sympathy-evoking ploys. The rivalries and jealousies all come to a head at the disastrous pageant where poor little Felix ends up playing the Baby Jesus when the Jesus doll is trashed. An earlier attempt to make his mark as a talented Funicello occurred when he appeared on television as part of a special audience for the 'Ranger Andy Show' (a real local TV show of the period). All the family and friends are merrily gathered watching the box when he is invited to tell a joke. He repeats one that he has heard recently from a helper at his father's diner without realising that it is filthy, not understanding what the words imply. His innocence is shattered, but only temporarily. He has the good-natured love of his family (and famous Cousin Annette) to see him through. It's delightful! It's a winner!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

No more Korean movies for the time being; today a relatively obscure -- but quite remarkable -- Spanish film from writer-director David Trueba. I am not familiar with any of his earlier work but should note that he is the younger brother of Fernando Trueba who has directed a number of notable films going back to the Oscar winner "Belle Epoque" (1992). Mind you little brother David did very well with the above film at the 28th Goya Awards, winning six gongs including best picture and best director.

Inspired by actual events in 1966, veteran actor Javier Camara (a familiar face from Almodovar's "I'm so Excited") plays Antonio, a Beatles-obsessed English teacher, who uses their lyrics to inspire his teenaged students. When he learns that John Lennon is filming "How I Won the War" in Almeira, he sets off on a road trip to meet his hero. Driving a rattletrap old banger, he picks up two teenaged hitchers: Belen, a feisty three-month pregnant young lady who has absconded from a home for unwed mothers, and 16-year old Juanjo, who has run away from home and the dictatorial Dad who wants to cut his shaggy mop. Antonio may be a shy and somewhat repressed bachelor, but the one thing he understands is how to relate to youngsters. He is far more comfortable advising them than he is in interacting with adults.

Eventually they reach a local hostelry where Antonio books two rooms for himself and Belen and finds a temporary job for Juanjo at the nearby bar run by the kind Ramon, who lives with his disabled son Bruno. After several unsuccessful attempts to 'crash' the film-set and the house where John is staying, Antonio manages to arrange to meet the 'shy' Lennon to discuss the many topics that he has re-and re-rehearsed; he manages to convince the Beatle to subsequently include the lyrics to all the songs on future albums, so that they can be used as a teaching aid.

Meanwhile some rednecks at the bar have taken it upon themselves to chop off Juanjo's unruly hairdo, totally devastating the lad. Antonio seeks out the ringleader of the bullies and gets soundly slapped for his trouble. Parenthetically I have never seen a movie where so many of the characters get slapped for one reason or another. However the bully finally gets his comeuppance when Antonio ploughs his car through the baddie's tomato fields on the way out of town.

Antonio does offer to marry Belen, an offer which is never accepted nor refused, but she does provide Juanjo with some gentle sexual favours before his father arrives to cart him back to Madrid, allowing her to travel with them as well. I've barely touched on the many themes in this bittersweet film, but kindness, friendship, loyalty, and trust all figure brightly. The title of the film comes from a line in "Strawberry Fields" which Lennon actually wrote while working in Almeira.

During their journey Antonio invites his new teenaged pals to guess the nickname his students have given him. They guess 'baldy' or 'fatty' or 'four-eyes' all of which he accepts with good humour. But these are all wrong; in the end we discover that his pupils have dubbed him 'the fifth Beatle'! He is the kind of inspiring teacher we all wish we could have had. 

               *               *               *               *

Just a footnote to say that I have finally viewed "Still Alice" (2014) for which Julianne Moore won her long overdue Academy Award; it is indeed a bravura performance in a totally depressing movie. I would far rather she'd been rewarded for her barn-storming role in "Map to the Stars", released the same year.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Fish (2011) is Alone (2015)

Today will be the last of Korean film reviews for the time being, unless something remarkable comes my way over the next months. I wish I could say that our festival attendance ended on a high note, but unfortunately the reverse is true -- two nearly incomprehensible movies.

I was intrigued by the description of "A Fish" in the festival programme: 'Superbly shot in home-made 3-D, delivering more frissons-per-minute than most Hollywood thrillers'. Well this turned out to be brochure hyperbole. In his indie debut the director created his own version of 3-D lensing, at times effective and at other times headache-inducing, and I understand that most of the film's screenings have been the 2-D version. It starts with the hand of an unseen body knocking on a car window to question the driver and continues in much the same vein with, for example, the back of our protagonist in the foreground listening in to the telephone conversation of another character. Even when a whole landscape is shot in clear prospective, this expertise only makes the story being told even more obscure.

Our 'hero', a university lecturer, has hired a seedy detective to trace his runaway wife who has apparently become a shaman on Jindo Island -- and they journey there to drag her home. Meanwhile we have two anonymous fisherman on a platform in a foggy river wondering whether fish can dream, catching a talking fish which they proceed to cut up for sashimi, and subsequently forgetting each other's identity. Characters disappear at random and there is an over-reliance of mystifying mirror shots. I have not the foggiest idea what the film was meant to convey; perhaps we are all something of a hunter suddenly morphing into the hunted. Don't ask me to explain this any further.

I didn't twig when booking that "Alone" was the sophomore feature of the same writer-director Park Hong-Min (and of course I'd not yet viewed the elusive "Fish"), but had I known, I might have saved myself another interminable and largely unintelligible movie. This one started OK as a photographer witnesses a murder (maybe) from his rooftop, and is then chased by thugs who corner him in his studio. The next thing we know is that he is wandering totally naked and nearly amnesiac through the labyrinthine alleyways built on hillsides in the old districts of Seoul, apparently due for demolition and redevelopment. He winds his way back to his workshop where he finds a headless corpse and is next seen still wandering, but now clothed, through the same twisty streets. Here he encounters a sobbing young boy (who may or may not be him as a child) dragged off by his abusive father. He also sees his now dead mother and his on-off girlfriend (who probably isn't the same actress as his ma, but might well be) and these characters keep re-appearing and disappearing as he struggles along, up and down.

The movie is reasonably well-shot in the night-time byways of the city, and the lead, a stage actor Lee Juwon, won the award for best new actor at last year's Busan International Film Festival, but the film remains a puzzle. I guess one could hypothesize that the nightmare alleyways represent the nightmare confusion in the character's mind, a maze from which he is unable to escape. However I am only second-guessing what Park may or may not have been attempting to convey. Not an uninteresting scenario, but a far from comprehensible one. Maybe I should have been guided by the two films' IMDb ratings, 4.9 and 5.7 respectively which I would normally interpret as 'proceed with caution'.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Last Princess (2016)

More Korean cinema today and almost certainly next week as well, as the London Korean Film Festival gets under way. To be quite honest I wasn't particularly looking forward to the above historical movie, since I was expecting some sort of beautiful but quaint costume drama of ancient times. Instead this true story begins in 1925 and is therefore a 'modern' telling of the fate of the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Deok-hye, a now largely forgotten historical figure.

Beginning when she was a youngster in her father's court, she witnesses his death by poisoning by pro-Japanese agents working for Korea's annexation by Japan (a historical fact). At the age of thirteen she is reluctantly forced to go to Japan to 'study' like her elder brother, the heir to the throne, who has never returned. In Japan she is treated with some respect but used as a political pawn to further the enslavement of her countrymen. She yearns to go home, especially when she learns that her beloved mother is ill, but promise after promise is broken, her loyal servant is dragged away, and she is told that she will never again set foot in Korea. Her childhood friend Kim Jang-han to whom she was meant to be betrothed, but now an officer in the Japanese army, hatches a plan to help her and her brother escape. However his careful planning and their fraught flight ends in tragedy and her recapture.

Forced into a loveless marriage, she again attempts to return to her country when Korea regains its independence after World War II, but is crushed to learn that her name is on a forbidden list, the new government fearing that the Dynasty might be re-established through popular support. Years pass, but Jang-han has never given up the hope of finding her again and eventually traces her to a mental asylum where she has been imprisoned, gradually losing her beauty and her wits. He eventually manages to shame the political leaders in Korea to permit the return of this broken woman.

The outlines of the plot are delineated above but these bare bones don't begin to suggest how the film plays out like a gripping thriller. We want to root for the feisty princess and we feel let down each time she is thwarted; we sense her heartbreak. When she eventually is allowed to return, we wonder whether she is 'all there' but are moved to tears (or at least choked up) when she visits the former Imperial Palace, now a museum, and has a vision of past times featuring her beaming father and mother and herself as the young, mischievous, and innocent child she once was. I didn't recognise radiant lead actress Son Ye-jin from previous movies, but she gives a restrained yet moving performance as she ages, forcing us to remember this now forgotten Princess.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Karaoke Crazies (2016)

For a festival called the 'London East Asia Film Festival' it is a little ironic that we ended up choosing only Korean movies, especially since the Korean Film Festival (for which we also have tickets) starts this week. However there is a very good reason for our choosing the above title, since it is one of the movies that we could have viewed (but didn't) at this year's FrightFest -- and their blurb certainly sounded appealing as did the LEAFF's own. Unfortunately both were very misleading and the movie was a disappointment.

In fact I am beginning to think that the FrightFest organisers probably did not pre-view the movie at all and merely chose it on the basis of its hype; they describe it in their brochure as a "madcap brilliant ride that deftly mixes humour, horror, and more". It is nothing of the sort and is completely out of place in a fantasy/horror festival -- no imagination, no gore, no suspense -- in fact very little of anything. The LEAFF brochure is even more effusive...

This is not to say that the film had no redeeming qualities -- it's just not a horror movie. We are introduced us to Sung-wook, the proprietor of a run-down karaoke joint (just a couple of private rooms) in a small town. He can barely meet expenses, is haunted by past tragedies, and spends his days watching porn and contemplating suicide. He posts a hand-written notice for a 'singing helper' in exchange for room and board and takes on an asocial, tracksuit-wearing, and tone-deaf loner, who spends her hours gaming on her computer. She does however manage to satisfy some of the paying customers by offering a particular sexual act. Is it strange that her Korean name is Ha-Suck?

This mismatched pair are joined by the dishy Na-ju who has her own reasons for working at such a dead-beat venue and tries to satisfy the punters in more traditional ways. The fourth member of the household is the fat and deaf 'Big Mole' who is found squatting in the basement and who has also suffered family bereavements; he washes the floors and joins in Sung-wook's porny pastimes. A rather comic cop appears periodically to advise that a serial killer has been targeting women working in the entertainment industry, but we are not shown any of this fiend's kills. Eventually he does appear at our featured karaoke, where his motives become clear, ending in an off-screen (and therefore bloodless) murder. The denouement is that this killing turns things around for the three remaining misfits and they find a new lease of life running a 'family' karaoke.

The movie is the sophomore feature and his first in nine years for director Kim Sang-chan. Since his previous film "Highway Star" (2007), which I've not seen, is about a would-be rocker who is taken on as a reluctant 'country' singer (that's Korean country songs!), I seriously doubt that we have lost out on a potentially-wasted great directing talent in the intervening nine years. Or perhaps I'm being a little unfair.  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Curtain Call (2016) for The Goldwyn Follies (1938)

Family commitments kept me away from my computer all day yesterday, hence my regular Friday blog appearing on a Saturday:

I wish I could give you more details about the first film above, our first selection from the LEAFF programme (and yet another Korean movie), but it's not yet listed on IMDb. I certainly recognised some of the cast from earlier Korean films, but can't put names to the faces.  What I can do is endorse this flick from director Ryu Hoon as an entirely pleasant and inventive 99 minutes. The storyline concerns a third-rate group of actors (all of whom are proud of their craft), who are reduced to performing mildly erotic and innuendo-laden farces, directed by a man who was once destined for Shakespearian stardom. Their chance to improve their standing and to rescue their theatre, threatened with closure, is to partake in a competition celebrating Shakespeare's 400th anniversary and offering a prize for the best performance of "Hamlet".

This is quite a challenge for the ragtag ensemble but one that they take seriously, drafting in a great Shakespearian actor, now on the verge of Alzheimer's, to play Claudius and giving the lead to a young man in their troupe with pretensions of grandeur. They are further lumbered by the theatre-owner insisting that his squeeze 'Cutie' be given the role of Ophelia, even if the condition is that she will only speak her learned lines (to save her voice!) and all other communication must pass through her assistant. When the actor playing Hamlet is tripped up on his entrance and lies there unconscious, the players improvise that he is dead. We are therefore left with a production of "Hamlet" with no Hamlet! By the interval, half of the audience has walked out, appalled by the remaining cast's faffing about.

Backstage the theatre-owner bursts in, flabbergasted that the troupe is not playing their regular soft porn, and tries to stop the second half. This even upsets his mistress, who by now is revelling in the thrill of performance, so they lock him in a closet, and proceed with the play, having worked out a way of announcing that Hamlet is actually alive. The only trouble is that the actor, who has stormed out in a huff, is now halfway across the city. They rope in the director to play the final scene -- which is largely the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy out of sequence -- silently mouthed in part by the veteran Shakespearian whose aged mother is in the audience, never before having seen him on stage.

They succeed in charming the remaining audience and indeed the viewer with what has developed into a jolly romp. I certainly recommend this movie unconditionally.

As for the oldie above, a chance e-mail took us to the Regent Street Cinema to see this film. What we did not know in advance is that Wednesday afternoons there are devoted to viewings for senior citizens at a knock-down cost (£1.75) and the cinema was jammed. I had certainly seen the film previously long, long ago, but I had forgotten how truly awful it is. In what seems a nearly interminable two hours Goldwyn puts together a miscellany of diverse 'talents' (and I use the word loosely) to pad out the clichéd story of producer Adolphe Menjou striving to reach a renewed audience with movies they can relate to. He drafts in 'hick' Andrea Leeds whom he names 'Miss Humanity' to advise what will and what won't appeal to the mass audience. For example, her advice causes a ballet (!) of "Romeo and Juliet" to forego its regular tragic ending for a happier one.

The featured 'talent' includes German ballerina Vera Zorina pretending to be Russian, Metropolitan Opera star Helen Jepsen giving us endless arias from "La Traviata", a very unfunny Phil Baker (a radio personality of the day), tenor Kenny Baker (the poor man's Dick Powell), ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wise-cracking dummy Charlie McCarthy -- Bergen was a popular radio performer but his lips move on screen, and the Ritz Brothers with some largely unfunny routines (apart from their rendition of 'Here Pussy Pussy' which I had extracted to my 'bits' collection those many moons ago) . 

It's really a hodge-podge despite Goldwyn's apparently spending a fortune to obtain some quality. The ballets are by Balanchine and the music is by George Gershwin, who was working on the score when he died aged 38. It includes such classics as "Love Walked In" and "Our Love is Here to Stay", largely massacred by Baker's out-of-date (even then) singing style. It's not surprising that the film was a flop on release and it has not grown is stature, despite its eye-watering Technicolor -- one of the first musicals to sport this new invention. It truly is a 'Goldwyn Folly'.


Friday, 21 October 2016

The Last Three (and a half)

And so another London Film Festival winds to a close -- and I was a little more enthusiastic about our final three choices.

First up was "Lost in Paris" from the unmistakeably eccentric duo of Dominique Abel and the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, who wrote, directed, and starred in this eccentric tale. I first discovered them at the Festival five years ago when I was charmed by their film "The Fairy" and I made a point of searching out their earlier and equally delightful collaborations. Here Fiona plays a gawky Canadian tripper who manages on her first day in Paris to lose her backpack, money, and passport; these are found by the homeless Dom who dresses in one of her sweaters and takes himself to the fanciest restaurant he can find. Their paths cross and situations develop enabling them to demonstrate their elastic-jointed flexibility and quirky child-like chemistry. The addition of rather more dialogue than before does not distract from their visual comedy so reminiscent of silent cinema. The big surprise here, however, is their co-star, the 89-year old Emmanuelle Riva, playing Fiona's dotty aunt. Who would have believed that the star of "Hiroshima mon Amour" (1959) and more recently the tear-jerker "Amour" (2012) could have such a ball playing farce.

We're always game to view silent movies which we've not seen previously, so we booked tickets for "A Woman of the World" (1925), a showcase for the great silent diva Pola Negri. The showing was preceded by a recently restored 1926 short "What's the World Coming to?" which is the 'half' of this week's title. It's set 100 years in the future from that date, i.e. ten years from now when women and men have reversed their roles with the former being fierce and fearless adventurers and the latter helpless, blushing grooms. Michael thought it stupid, but I found this role-reversal comedy pleasing enough and mercifully sufficiently brief. Mind you, today's feminists would have a stroke to think that men might morph into a gender that they refuse to accept for themselves -- weak, silly, fashion-conscious, and vain.

As for the main feature, Negri plays a countess who discovers her lover (she has just had his family crest tattooed onto her arm) is unfaithful and she moves from the sophistication of the Riviera to her cousin's home in Maple Valley, Iowa. Said cousin is played by the silent clown Chester Conklin, whose goofy antics are a little out of place in this vaguely serious drama. The countess's worldliness (to say nothing of her tattoo) both awe and flabbergast the small-town busybodies, who think nothing of paying 25 cents each at the local fund-raiser to 'talk to a countess'! She is romantically pursued by an infatuated youngster Charles Emmett Mack (who tragically died in 1927) and the town's moral guardian Holmes Herbert, an actor with a long but relatively undistinguished career from 1915 to 1952. Despite resisting temptation he fails to drive her from Maple Valley and falls hopelessly for her charms. I stress the word 'charms' since despite her ability to fill the screen, Negri was never one of the great silent beauties. I'm glad I saw this programme, but neither of the two films were that wonderful.

Our last choice was "On the Milky Road" from the Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica, who not only wrote this epic three-part story, but also directs it and takes the lead role. Starting during the region's civil wars when his character Kosta rides his donkey to deliver milk across enemy lines, it moves to the period after the armistice when he falls in love with an outlaw, the still-gorgeous Monica Bellucci. Their love is doomed since the couple are relentlessly pursued by remorseless mercenaries who do not hesitate to slay all and sundry in their search. In the final section Kosta has become a monk constructing a never-ending monumental pattern of rocks in his great love's memory. The movie is a consummate mix of the realistic horrors of war together with more magical realism, elements of folk myths, and enchanting animal imagery -- a faithful falcon, a milk-loving snake, and a bear. In other words it's all very typical and satisfying Kusturican cinema. 

Next up over the next few weeks, a pair of movies from the first London East Asia Film Festival and our regular Korean Film Festival selections.      

Friday, 14 October 2016

Four from the Fest

We've now seen four more of our London Film Festival selections, leaving the remaining three to be viewed over the coming weekend. I must confess that I am a little disappointed so far, so let's have a look at this week's festival movies.

First up last Saturday morning at 10.30 am was the Venice Film Festival hit "La La Land", a modern musical from director Damien Chazelle -- a long-cherished project made possible by the success of his first feature "Whiplash" (2014). It just happened to be my birthday as well and I thought, 'Great! The perfect start to the day'. The film has been hyped to the skies and was even introduced by the Festival director as 'the best 10.30 am of your lives', or words to that effect, so I was expecting something truly remarkable.

Well the rest of the audience seemed very happy with the movie and it is receiving rave reviews on IMDb; I found it jolly enough viewing but not a great film. It struck me as being very derivative in part from so many other musicals and the original score from Justin Hurwitz is by definition an unknown quantity and not terribly catchy. In a way Chazelle might have done better with more familiar classic tunes a la Woody Allen. The personable leads, Emma Stone as a wannabe actress and Ryan Gosling as a wannabe jazz pianist are pleasant enough and have reasonable chemistry, but neither are strong singers nor graceful hoofers. They do try hard and the end result is not without some charm, but it hardly leaves one 'breathless' as promised.

The story starts as the usual boy hates girl, boy comes to love girl, boy loses girl, but not the expected happy-ever-after of boy gets girl. Towards the end we are presented with a scenario of what might have been, but this is not how the movie actually finishes. Realism is fine, but fantasy happy endings are what we've come to expect from most musicals, unless you're looking at Shakespearian tragedies morphed into the musical genre like "West Side Story". This is not the feel-good movie that one might have wished or as it is being promoted.

Well, I have spent far too long on the above film, so I will rush through the remaining three. Christopher Guest can always be relied upon to provide amusing tongue-in-cheek mockumentaries and his latest "Mascots" is no exception, even if it is not quite in the same league as his very best. Here he looks at those costumed animals and whatevers who prance about during major (and minor) sports fixtures. We're privy to a competition where the best of them are vying for the bronze, silver, and gold Fluffy. Most of Guest's regular stock company are present and correct, although I do miss Catherine O'Hara, but few of them are given much to do apart from the ever-fragrant Parker Posey. He fills in the movie with a number of new faces from American and British TV, most of whom I don't know, but they all manage amusing turns with the possible exception of Chris O'Dowd. Still it's always lovely to see Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, Bob Balaban, and the rest of Guest's crazy gang. However this movie is unlikely to reach your local multiplex as it has been made for Netflix and has now debuted on their service. How the world changes!

The remaining two movies will get even shorter reviews. "Interchange" hails from Malaysia and is an exotic tale of how an ancient curse from Borneo 100-odd years ago came to create a series of vampirish killings today. Very stylishly photographed with a foreboding atmosphere and great special effects of a man morphing into a bird, it probably would help if one was more familiar with the anthropological background to the story, but the intriguing film does not outstay its welcome. The same can't be said for the Korean film "The Wailing" which starts off as a straightforward policier but rapidly becomes a supernatural horror with the cop's daughter's possession by an evil spirit, an orgiastic shaman, a strange Jap who may be the devil, and a lurking woman in white. However at 156 minutes the movie manages to lose its way and become a muddled mess of occult mysticism. I'm none the wiser.   

Friday, 7 October 2016

Miss Peregrine and French Cinema

I did say I would begin reviewing London Film Festival movies today (of which I've only seen one so far), but I would be derelict in my duty if I did not comment on "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" (2016), the new release from that very individual director Tim Burton. Even with eight sets of tickets for the LFF in hand, I was still tempted to view Burton's latest treat earlier this week.

Now as luck would have it, I have actually read the 'young adult' novel (the first of a trilogy) by Ransom Riggs on which the movie is based. In a way I wish I hadn't, as the film departs wildly from the book, especially in its last third and denouement. Despite being full of Burton's trademark visual niceties, the screenplay by Brit Jane Goldman has been over-Hollywoodised to provide a slam-bang finale. The action remains in Britain, largely on an island off the Welsh coast, and the cast is also mainly non-American apart from a smallish part for Alison Janney and the film's arch-villain Samuel L Jackson, whose role has been overly beefed up to provide him with an opportunity for over-the-top make-up and histrionics.

After the death of his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), troubled young Jake (Asa Butterfield) yearns to visit the children's home in Wales where Abe spent his youth, tales of which have haunted Jake's childhood, together with a series of weird old photos. His psychiatrist encourages Dad Chris O'Dowd (thankfully more restrained than usual) to travel to the island with Jake, only for them to discover that the home was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943 and that all of its inhabitants perished. This is where the magic of the narrative kicks in, since all of them, led by their governess Eva Green, have entered a time loop, enabling them to relive that day over and over. And a weird collection they are: from the bird-like Miss Peregrine (a strong turn from Green) through the lass with the lead shoes to prevent her floating away, the super-strong toddler, the girl with a mouth and another set of teeth at the back of her head, the masked twins, and many more, straight out of the sepia photographs. Jake begins to wonder what peculiarities his grandpa and he himself might have to fit in with this unusual bunch, but we learn this as the tale unfolds. Rupert Everett and Judi Dench (as Miss Avocet) also make brief appearances.

Burton provides us with many visual wonders throughout and with magical images that will long remain with the viewer, however I do wish the ending had been a little more faithful to the novel. Those who come new to the material may well appreciate all of the movie's CGI fireworks, but I do feel that a little less would have provided a more memorable and less confusing storyline. Butterfield, now a gangly teenager after his memorable turn in Scorsese's "Hugo", suggests a young Tim Burton avid to understand the wonders of this strange world, but the character in the film who is probably most Burton-like is the mutant lad who can fix a jeweller's loupe in his eye and project his vivid dreams. That's the director in a nutshell.

Back to the Film Festival and the 190-minute (!) "A Journey through French Cinema" from the respected director Bertrand Tavernier. This was a fascinating voyage across French films from the l930s to the early 1970s, with the emphasis on those directors, composers, and actors who had the most impact on Tavernier himself. It does not set out to be a detailed history of the period, but rather an idiosyncratic look at his personal favourites, both the famous and the little-known, with a great selection of clips and a straight-to-the-camera narrative; he does not try to play down his dislikes while extolling his heroes, nor does he try to whitewash reputations (Renoir at the start of the Occupation being an interesting case in point).

Tavernier concentrates on the period before he started directing films himself and provides many insights into the work and thinking of directors Becker, Melville, Sautet, and Chabrol, actors Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Eddie Constantine, and Belmondo, and many more stalwarts of French cinema history, with an interesting sidebar on composers. The film successfully encouraged this viewer to want to re-watch  some of the movies that I know but have not seen for a long time and to search out those rarities which remain unknown. I just wish Tavernier could have accomplished this feat in well under three-hour mark -- it's a long time to sit in what are unfortunately the very uncomfortable seats at the National Film Theatre!

Friday, 30 September 2016

Housekeeping

No new film review(s) today as I want to touch on an 'improvement' to my viewing opportunities that I have been meaning to write about for some weeks now. Back in July Sky Movies (or Sky Cinema as they now style themselves) announced that they would be premiering a new film every day, as opposed to the maximum of four a week that we had been receiving. Great, I thought to myself, perhaps now they will be showing more of the top-quality movies included on their pay-to-view Sky Box Office, many of which manage to fall through the cracks, never making it to the regular subscribers' Premiere Channel. In addition they promised a foreign language movie every Wednesday, another big plus for this viewer.

My verdict? I'm afraid it has been something of a disappointment. I do try to watch -- or in some cases begin watching -- each new movie, but there have been a sad number where I have been forced to give up well before their end. In this category I would place some very inferior European and Asian animations -- and I do count myself an avid fan of the best animated movies. Among the 'unwatchable' I would dump "Dragon Ball Z - Battle of the Gods" and its sequel "Resurrection F", "A Warrior's Tale", "Animal Kingdom - Let's Go Ape", and "Frog Games". Never heard of any of these? Nor me.

There are still one or two A-list productions each week as previously, but mixed in with these are some little-known and probably straight-to-DVD bummers with an average IMDb rating of well under 5/. I don't know how Sky sources these movies which are filling out their one-a-day promise, but there have been some real obscurities and an unfortunate few with no redeeming qualities. Some have proved strangely watchable like the South African trilogy of "Spud" movies about the growing pains of a teenaged boy in boarding school (each with a minor role for the usually annoying John Cleese, but quite likeable here)) and a few ambitious horrors like the American remake of "Martyrs" and the largely incomprehensible "Don't Blink". However looking back at the list of movies that I have attempted to watch these last few months -- and I did persevere through most of them, I'm ashamed to admit I have little or no recollection of many -- or even worse a negative recollection of some.

The same is unfortunately true for the weekly foreign language flicks, again largely little-known or only marginally-released films including several South African ones in tribal languages. There have been a few decent Danish ones -- although even these have left little impression, and the only two films which I can recall with any enthusiasm are "Tokyo Tribe" (a Japanese hip-hop musical live manga!) and "Welcome to New York" with the ever-watchable and enormous Gerard Depardieu recreating the sex scandals of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Not that either of these were particularly 'classic' movies, but I'm happy to have seen them; however there have been numerous other foreign releases over the last few years which I have not yet seem and which I would love to be made available.

So what of the future? Ever the optimist I do hope that Sky will keep up the good work of bringing more and more movies to my attention, although I can but hope that the overall quality will improve. However their current television ad promoting all these premieres talks about September and October only, with no assurance that this will be an ongoing phenomenon. Despite all the bitching above, I do hope they will continue this increase in my potential viewing and never return to the past. With all their new potential competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like, who are grabbing up some of the better new films, they do need to keep on top of their game to satisfy their own viewers -- especially since the subscription price has rocketed over the years.

Next subject: It's London Film Festival time again and it's always a challenge to try to select the right balance of films to book over its 1l-day span. We have honed in on eight showings which I'll be reviewing over the next few weeks. These are a three-hour "Journey through French Cinema"; two American films which will undoubtedly be released soon-ish but which I am keen to see: the Cannes hit "La La Land" and the new Christopher Guest "Mascots"; "Interchange" a Malaysian-Indonesian horror (I think); "The Wailing" a Korean foray into the occult; "Lost in Paris", the latest concoction from the offbeat team of Dominque Abel and the unforgettable Fiona Gordon; "A Woman of the World" -- a silent from 1925; and finally "On the Milky Road" from the quirky Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica. This selection probably tells you a lot about me and my rather rarefied (some would say peculiar) tastes; I only hope these choices prove wise ones. 

 

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