Friday, 21 August 2015

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 August 2015

Chalk and Cheese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 August 2015

Boardwalk (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 31 July 2015

Wild Rovers (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 July 2015

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2015

Now You See Me (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 July 2015

That was the Week that Was!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 July 2015

Mr Holmes (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 June 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

Having written last week that I'd not been to the cinema for a while, I was intrigued to read about the record massive box office takings for this movie's release weekend. Surely, despite the 22 year gap since the release of "Jurassic Park" in 1993, there couldn't be that many people who had never seen the original movie or one of the decreasingly effective sequels. Or perhaps like the visitors to the theme park featured in the new film, they were hoping for new and different thrills. Anyhow, I felt that I should investigate the phenomenon and went off to 'park my brains at the door' in my the quest for entertainment and enlightenment.

After two hours' watching CGI monsters eating each other and various human chow, my final reaction was that it is a fatally silly movie indeed. The growing sophistication of special effects, can never recapture the feelings of awe inspired by the original movie, when one viewed the revival of extinct species for the first time. More importantly, one definitely misses the skills of creating memorable characters and an intelligent script found in the first film and to a lesser extent the second. The failure of the third movie in the series should have put an end to trying to milk the franchise to extinction, but the success of this new film -- bringing back the extinct from the dead, as it were -- can only perpetuate the search for big bucks. More's the pity.

In its favour there are some clever and vaguely thrilling sequences in the new movie, especially when projected in in-your-face 3D; however much of the time I felt that I was watching a kiddie's playground with toy helicopters trying to show me the vastness of the new enterprise. The closest we come to having a well-developed character is with the likeable (but very lightweight) Chris Pratt playing a backroom trainer who believes he can communicate with his 'pet' raptors. It reminded me a lot of the scientist trying to humanise one of the living dead in the third Romero movie. Pratt's love interest, such as it is, is played by Bryce Dallas Howard the cool-headed park administrator, who is under orders to provide the punters with meaner animals and bigger thrills (just like the would-be movie audience). This leads to the development by geneticist B D Wong (the only surviving cast member from the '93 flick) of a fearsome cross-breed dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. This gigantic new creature is bred to kill, not just for food but for sport. Guess what happens when she easily breaks free from her isolated enclosure?

A major problem is that we are forced to 'live' the proceedings through the eyes of two slightly annoying youngsters, Howard's nephews Jake and Zac. When they appear to be in peril, she enlists Pratt's help to bring them to safety. Her initial contribution to the chase is to rip off her pristine white blouse, but she keeps her high heels firmly in place for the balance of the movie. The only other character that even registers is a now nearly unrecognizable Vincent D'Onofrio playing the park's head of security, who fancies turning the raptors into military weapons. Otherwise the cast of thousands leaves little impression, although it's always nice to see Omar Sy relocated to a Hollywood extravaganza.

I suppose the viewer could sit back and enjoy the creature-feature effects, ignoring the intrusive product placement and the script-holes that you could drive a 1993 jeep through (just like the kids do). However even if it is a better film than "Jurassic Park 3" that doesn't make it a good movie. It's really 'samey, samey' writ large...but it has and will make a ton of greenbacks. Even the ticket prices in Britain for this new 'treat' seem to be a rip-off in comparison with other countries -- and it is the first time we have been charged for the disposable 3-D glasses. Happy days!

Friday, 19 June 2015

This One or That One?

For various reasons I've not been to the cinema of late and the problem each Friday has become to decide which of the many movies I've seen at home should take centre stage in my weekly blog. It's not an easy choice, since as I have noted before, I do tend to endure a number of occasionally diverting but largely forgettable movies each week and few linger pleasantly.

The fact that I occasionally do not remember films that I have previously viewed is highlighted by the first of today's choices, "The Gathering" (2003). From the opening scenes, the story seemed more and more familiar, but I was unable to trace where I could have seen it previously. (For the record, I am normally scrupulous at recording all of the films I have seen and where in general I have seen them, but this one apparently evaded my listings.) I suspect the reason I had totally wiped the previous viewing from my memory is that while it is a potentially interesting semi-horror movie with a potentially intriguing premise, it's not really terribly good film-making and is, in the end, forgettable.

It's a British movie directed by Brian Gilbert from a script by Antony Horowitz with a strong cast including Christina Ricci, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Dillane, Kerry Fox, and Simon Russell Beale. Ricci made her screen debut at age nine in "Mermaids" (1990), indelibly became Wednesday Addams, and was a strong presence in "The Ice Storm" and "Sleepy Hollow". However her recent roles have become less and less memorable and this one didn't add much lustre to her filmography either. She plays an American tourist who is hit by a car near Glastonbury, England and who is taken into Fox's and Dillane's home while she recovers from her temporary amnesia; there she befriends their somewhat fey and/or psychic young son, Michael. Meanwhile Dillane and holy-Joe Russell have discovered an early underground church, with a strange tableau of the Crucifixion, observed from the rear by its original witnesses, their heads and bodies embedded in the stone walls. So far, so eerie.

These witnesses are so-called Gatherers, personages who are doomed to silently congregate at every and all bloody or murderous events. They are cursed to observe each atrocity, early forerunners of the modern ghouls who crane their necks at road accidents. As Ricci recovers she has strange visions of death and decay amongst the locals -- a quick vision of a men's faces beginning to rot -- while Dillane and Russell begin to piece together why so many of the locals resemble the stone-bound witnesses. Her growing friendship with the strange Gruffudd (apparently they have a sex-scene together, removed from the copy I viewed) suggests that she too is one of the ancient folk of the wall. Meanwhile a local farmer is seeking revenge on the villagers who abused him as a child and he also has it in for young Michael, for reasons that escape me. The whole scenario doesn't bear too much deep thought or logical analysis, but in the end Ricci finds salvation.

The second movie that I want to comment upon briefly is a Swedish flick "Echoes from the Dead" (2013). Scandi-Noir is all the rage here at the moment but this is a somewhat minor entry. Julia returns to her childhood home on the island of Oland, when her father is taken into a care home. Twenty one years earlier her five-year old son disappeared in the fenlands, while Daddy-dear should have been looking after him. (Vanishing kiddies seems to be a favourite theme in this genre, viz. the current serial "Jordskott"). The local police claim that the boy probably drowned, but Daddy and his equally aged pal believe that the child was abducted; the fact that said pal is found dead the following day is a complete red (Scandinavian) herring.

The old-timers think that local bogeyman Nils Kant was responsible, although the latter no-goodnik supposedly died in Havana in 1968, some years before the incident. However we learn that the body in his coffin was that of an unfortunate seaman and Kant could well have been at large. Julia investigates the new possibilities with the assistance of the local copper who originally led the search for her son and whose own father had been murdered by Kant, and soon middle-aged romance blossoms. The story is rather ploddingly told, up until a sudden and unexpected twist near the end, which leaves the viewer feeling both cheated and depressed.

I bet I could inadvertently watch this film again in a few years' time and think, I'm sure I've seen this before, without remembering where or when or why!   

Friday, 12 June 2015

Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

There are dozens of actors (and actresses) from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies that were always entertaining but who are now largely forgotten, not having reached the iconic or mythic status of a Humphrey Bogart or a Cary Grant, their great black and white films of the l930s and l940s now rarely screened. Such a player was the debonair William Powell who began his career in the silent 20s and graced countless 'classic' films through his final appearance in "Mr Roberts" (1955). A polished leading man ('though never a heart-throb)--think of the Thin Man series -- and light comedian, he could be relied upon to bring a touch of class to even minor outings.

Here he plays the eponymous Mr Peabody, ironically in the same year that the British also unleashed their own mermaid movie "Miranda" ( He is about to 'celebrate' his 50th birthday -- a turning point in a man's life then, "the old age of youth" as the script has it. (Powell was actually 56 at the time). He and his wife Irene Hervey have leased a winter rental on the British island of St Hilda's while he recuperates from a bad bout of flu and where he begins to hear the mermaid's siren song. While out fishing he hooks the comely creature's tail and, smitten, promptly brings her home to his wife's bathtub; viewing only the creature's shiny tail immersed in an overflowing bubble-bath, Hervey demands that he return the 'fish' to the sea. Instead he installs Lenore, as he calls her, in the villa's decorative fish pond, where she proceeds to devour all of the rare tropical species.

Lenore is played by 20-year old Ann Blyth, fresh from her turn as the nasty daughter in "Mildred Pierce", and has no dialogue. All she has to do is look dotingly and gooey-eyed at the 50-year old Mr Peabody to become the perfect woman who exists only for the man she loves. She also has a nifty angry glare when any other woman threatens to divert her beloved and some nicely-photographed underwater manoeuvres. The plot is complicated by Hervey's flirtation with a local British diplomat and Powell's being pursued by the dishy Andrea King. When Hervey leaves in disgust, thinking that her hubby is still carrying on with King after he has sworn that she means nothing to him (having seen mermaid Blyth sitting poolside in King's evening dress -- don't ask), the locals are convinced that murder is afoot.

On many levels it's a B-movie, but a well-written adaptation by Nunnally Johnson of the original novel and neatly put together by director-actor Irving Pichel (whose own forgotten career includes "The Most Dangerous Game", "The Moon is Down", and "The Pied Piper"). The film is also lovingly cast with a bunch of little-known bit parts players including Clinton Sandburg as the local PR-man forced by his quack doctor to give up cigarettes and booze ('we're two Americans surrounded by the Redcoats') and Mary Field as the shopkeeper selling Powell only halves of 2-piece swimming costumes to preserve Blyth's modesty.

In the end when Hervey drags Powell to a psychiatrist to cure his affliction, the doctor advises him not to tell his story to anyone who has not hit 'that air-pocket' -- the 50th birthday, where all sorts of fantasies might take hold in the attempt to preserve one's youth.

On balance both movies have their own delights; but despite relishing Powell's charismatic leading role, I must vote for "Miranda" with husky-voiced Glynis Johns --and, after all, that movie does boast the ineffable Margaret Rutherford amongst its cast.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Warm Bodies (2013)

Ever since George Romero created the 'rules' for zombie movies back in 1968 with "The Night of the Living Dead", we have been inundated with hundreds of feature films in this genre, occasionally cheeky or diverting, but largely with diminishing returns. Even Romero's own continued riffs on his pet subject have become less and less entertaining. It was therefore a breath of fresh air to chance upon this first successful zombie rom-com (yes, there have been other flawed attempts) which upturns the usual horror conventions. Director Jonathan Levine has blessed us with a zombie film that has an upbeat happy ending and a warm feel-good vibe.

He has adapted Isaac Marion's young adult novel to show us a future world where most of the population have been infected and the minority survivors are entrenched in a doomed fight for their continued existence. Nicholas Hoult plays R (a 'corpse' who can't quite recall what it stood for or how he ended up in his current sorry state); he also acts as the film's narrator -- fluently setting the scene with his deepest thoughts and fears, while in his daily existence he can barely string two words together. He and hundreds like him wander aimlessly through a deserted airport, only emerging in the quest for living food. It is during one of these raids with his best zombie buddy (a wonderful turn from Rob Corddry), that he meets Julie played by the Australian actress Teresa Palmer. She and her boyfriend (Dave Franco, a far less self-reverent actor than his brother James) have gone in search of medical supplies when their party is attacked and decimated.

R is the one who noshes on Franco and debates whether to let him return as a 'corpse' like him (the term 'zombie' is sparingly used in this flick) or whether to destroy him completely by munching on his brain. No contest, thinks R, since the brain is the best part! In eating a living brain he can absorb his victim's memories, the closest he can get to dreaming. Therefore he becomes able to visualise Franco's love for Julie and their shared past; infatuated with the possibilities, R spirits her away back to his airport bolthole. As he does his best to protect her from the surrounding hungry hordes and the so-called 'Boneys' -- skeletal nightmares that are so far gone that they have passed beyond death and will feast on anything that moves -- the pair begin to bond and to become closer. She is no longer frightened of her strange dead companion and somehow he seems to be getting warmer. However, she eventually convinces him to let her return to the fortified city and to its leader, her martinet Dad, John Malkovich.

R begins to sense something has changed not just for him but for his zombie mates as well -- their hearts seem to have begun beating and they are beginning to remember their own pasts. As Corddry's M tells R about his own 'dream' "I saw memories - my Mom, summertime, and cream....of wheat". R now not only yearns to be with Julie but to let her people know that things may to be getting better. He sneaks into the city and finds her, knowing that at any moment Malkovich might happily put a bullet through his brain if they are unable to convince him that R and the other 'corpses' may be able to co-exist with the besieged survivors. When Julie twigs that R is morphing, she exclaims "You're alive!", sounding just like Dr Frankenstein when he first animates his Creature. In a scene which demonstrates Levine's apt choice of popular music on the soundtrack, Julie and her best friend apply make-up on R's colourless skin, scars, and dark-circled eyes in an attempt to help him pass muster, all to the strains of "Pretty Woman".

Hoult, who has been acting on television since he was a seven-year old and who came to prominence in his first feature movie "About a Boy" (2002) is just brilliant in this role and the chemistry he creates with the comely Palmer is tangible. One can help but root for the mismatched pair. Comparisons have been drawn with the dreary and never-ending 'Twilight' series of films, but this movie is far more involving and heart-warming than that soppy saga. Some folk claim that zombie-ism is a metaphor for society as a whole, with the majority seeking instant gratification and wandering about apparently brain-dead the rest of the time. I think we can file that interpretation as a case of bonkers pretension and just enjoy a movie like this one for its sweet nature and ultimately cheerful outlook.     

Friday, 29 May 2015

Painted Faces (1988)

YouTube to the rescue again! Being a big fan of Hong Kong movies of the 80s and 90s, I have wanted to see the above film since I first read about it. It's not exactly easy to get hold of nor widely reviewed. There was a late night showing on German television a while ago which I managed to mis-set, so I was delighted to find a wide-screen copy complete with subtitles for the Cantonese dialogue on the Net.

The movie is loosely-based on Jackie Chan's memoirs of his early training at the Peking Opera School back in the 1960s, along with other future stars like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. Children were indentured for up to seven years' non-stop training from dawn to dusk in the traditional Opera skills, with little or no emphasis on book-learning. The film's focus, however, is not on the youngsters, but on the charismatic yet strict head teacher, Master Yu, embodied here in the solid form of Sammo Hung himself. In fact it is a little surreal to see Yu sternly training the kids under his command, including one named Sammo -- the actor himself as a child.

The movie is more a docudrama than any kind of kung-fu actioner, with a series of unrelated scenes over the years. It tends to view the apparently harsh daily realities and daily punishments through somewhat rose-tinted glasses. Master Yu's mantra is one of tough love; as the students practice their tumbling, fighting, voice projection, and yes face-painting skills, the reality that all might be disciplined for one student's failings is played down. In fact the kids seem remarkably cheerful, despite being subjected to a heavy-handed routine and forced to earn their keep by being lent out for evening performances. When the Chan character, affectionately called 'Big Nose' here, is first taken to the school when his parents left to work in Australia (autobiographically correct), he is keen to stay there for maybe ten years, if his days will be filled with little more than doing acrobatics and playing at sword-fights. The realities were much more severe.

But as mentioned, the movie really centres on Master Yu: his students are being trained in a disappearing art and he is the ruler of a dying empire. His best friend, a former opera player turned stuntman is Uncle Wah (a wonderful performance by Lam Ching Ying); the pair go out drinking together and reminisce about the good old days. However Wah is getting older and tired and disillusioned, and there is a wonderful last scene where he is trying to perform one difficult stunt too many. Yu himself and the school are symbolised by the pet turtle holding up one corner of his wonky bed; he feeds the creature over the years and watches it grow, all the time keeping it under tight control. When word comes that the school will soon be closed, he frees the turtle and watches wistfully as it struggles to walk free. Soon, his pupils too will need to find their legs in the cut-throat world of Hong Kong cinema and we now know that some of them did -- spectacularly. Incidentally, Wu himself left for Los Angeles where he continued to teach youngsters (rather more benevolently one assumes) until his death in 1997.

Jackie, Sammo, and Yuen all survived those early and often difficult years, and when one watches their films, there is a certain child-like and endearing quality to their acting. They still take delight in the skills that were drilled into them back in the days when they had no real childhood to call their own.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Bit of This, A Bit of That

Yet another week where the more recent films available on satellite and terrestrial TV were so dire that I won't even bother with capsule reviews. This leaves me to mull over some recent 'silent' viewing and one re-watched 60s' classic.

I'm sure I've written before that there was a time when there was at least a sprinkling of silent movies available on British television. For a start there was Brownlow and Gills' Thames Silents series which re-introduced golden oldies to a new generation, often with new Carl Davis scores. However those days seem gone forever. Nowadays I rely on the wonderful selection available on YouTube and the occasional seasons on the German/French satellite channel Arte. The latter can go months without showing any new silent films and then schedule a weekly cornucopia of flicks new to television -- for which I for one am most thankful. Their selections are often obscurities and are not always terribly memorable but that doesn't stop my watching them and hoping for the best.

The past three Monday nights have offered the following: "L'Inhumaine" (1923) which I kind of hated when I saw it at the National Film Theatre a while back (, but it was worth another watch for its splendid Art Deco design.  The second (much more) rarity was "Pest in Florenz" (1919); this obviously translates as 'The Plague in Florence' and was a delightful telling of how licentious aristos and clergy received their comeuppance for their loose living by 'The Pest' embodied in a dead-eyed walking female. It reminded me in many ways of Corman's "The Masque of the Red Death" but without its glorious colour and Vincent Price. Most recently there was "Die Stadt der Millonen" (1923), a documentary love-letter to Berlin, with some interesting cinematography, but not a patch on Walter Ruttman's 1927 "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City". Next Monday's offering is "Chronicle of the Grey House" (1925) which I await with bated breath... sort of! 

The 1965 re-watch was Vittorio De Sica's "Marriage Italian Style" of which I seem to have two copies for some reason. This is not the joke-fest of the earlier "Divorce Italian Style" but a semi-serious look at a non-marriage. The movie was Oscar-nominated for best foreign film and for best actress for Sophia Loren in the lead. I have never counted how many movies she made with Marcello Mastroianni but they are numerous and memorable for their effortless chemistry. This one traces their relationship over twenty-two years from their first meeting in a brothel during World War II where she plays a wide-eyed and terrified seventeen-year old through their on-off relationship over the years. Mastroianni plays moneyed Lothario Domenico who always returns to Loren's Filumena for a bit of 'how's your father'. He moves her out of the brothel and into a sumptuous flat where she is expected to tender to his senesccent mother; he also employs her to run several of his bakery businesses. When she learns that he is due to marry the latest of his popsies, she feigns a fatal illness forcing him to compassionately marry her on her would-be deathbed (from which she rises triumphant).

And so it goes over the years with Domenico ever in the background between his many liaisons until lawyers annul their marriage on the grounds of her deceit. No worry she retorts, your money has helped me to raise my three sons -- 'only one of which is yours'! This sends him into a flap to discover which is his son and heir, only for the movie to move forward to the totally expected happy ending. Loren gives a virtuoso performance as she moves between naïve innocent, strutting tart, and devoted earth mother, embodying the many sides of womankind. As for Mastroianni, well Marcello is always the cheeky, twinkling Marcello that we know and love. After his early masterpieces, this may be one of De Sica's finest late offerings, along with "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1970). 

Friday, 15 May 2015


Why is it that some Fridays I look back on my week's viewing and can't grit my teeth to write about one or even two movies in some depth? Why is it that I struggle to remember even a small detail about some of the flicks that flash by my jaded eyes? Why, you may well ask, do I watch so many forgettable films? And why when a worthy title begs for some insightful analysis do I shy away? I don't actually plan to answer any of these questions today, but will fall back on my answer to previous 'barren' weeks -- to briefly comment on some of the week's contenders for blog glory:

Let's start with a few of Sky's boring, boring, boring premieres. The two that have faded into oblivion only days after watching them are "The Hooligan Factory" about an old-time football yobbo taking a youngster under his wing as some sort of lost-son surrogate and "Deliver Us from Evil" a cross between a policier and supernatural hokum. Then there was "Sex Tape" with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in an idiotic chase to retrieve copies of their aging lust, inadvertently sent to all and sundry. Desperate, if you ask me. "Keeping Rosy" which played like a British TV Movie was marginally more interesting with Maxine Peake's life spinning out of control after she accidentally kills her cleaning-lady and finds the char's child parked in the back of her car and nothing but champagne in the fridge. A rather nicely constructed nightmare for a totally unsympathetic heroine. As for "The Devil's Knot", I'll be dipped to justify this film even being made since the same story has been dealt with in depth in the three "Paradise Lost" documentaries and "West of Memphis" --teenaged goths unjustly imprisoned for so-called ritual kiddie killings.

Other channels offered some watchable fodder mixed in with the standard made-for-television dross (although "The Devil's Teardrop" was a superior offering in the latter category.) "Bunraku" (2011) was a feast for the eyes with its mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, samurai actioners, video games, anime, and more, with a surprisingly starry A-list cast. However the colourful staging began to pall half-way into its two-hour running time, undermined by the somewhat incomprehensible plot. "Safe" (2012) starring the inexplicably popular and money-spinning action star Jason Statham (I do wish he would learn to shave) had him entering into the fray between nasty Russian gangsters, fiendish oriental gambling kings, and corrupt cops, as he tries to protect a little Chinese girl with an eidetic memory for important numbers. I didn't (or couldn't) count the number of bodies Statham dispatched, but it's amazing there were any baddies left in New York when he finished. And what ever became of the Mafia? I especially liked the fact that one of the Chinese villains was that nice Wu out of Grimm (one of the few serials I faithfully watch). No kind words, however, for "Soldiers of Fortune" (also 2012) with Christian Slater (he once had a career!) shepherding thrill-seeking millionaires into actual war-zones -- largely spoiled by the prominent role given to what must have been the producer's or director's girlfriend.

Then there were the 'golden oldies' or at least two of them along with two now rather tarnished early talkies. "Salome" (1928) is always worth a look for its visuals with Natacha Rambova's sets and costumes evoking Aubrey Beardsley and the would-be actress Nazimova throwing her all into this Wildean folly as she is spurned by John the B. "Beggars of Life" (also 1928) is another worthy watch, if only for the charismatic Louise Brooks spending half the film disguised as a boy as she is on the run from a murder charge and fending off the lecherous approaches of Wallace Beery. No, they don't make them like these anymore! Against these two 'classics', "Ten Nights in a Barroom" (1931) -- it felt more like ten months -- had little to recommend it as an upright man succumbs to the perils of booze and his sickly little daughter must plead "please come home Daddy" before being knocked unconscious by a rogue whiskey bottle. The other pre-code movie was "Blood Money" with George Bancroft as an iffy bail bondsman and Judith Anderson, of all people, as a vaguely femme fatale. The highpoint of this movie for me were the two appearances of chanteuse Blossom Seeley, a kind of cross between Mae West and Al Jolson.

That's not the lot, but it will certainly do for now, as I face another week of who knows what delights....   

Friday, 8 May 2015

Moebius (2013)

Since the coming of sound to motion pictures there have been but a handful of 'silent' movies, where there may be some music and/or sound effects -- much like the early transition films between silents and talkies -- but no (or very little) spoken dialogue. Titles that spring to mind include Aki Kaurismaki's "Jura" (1999), the wonderful nearly dialogue-free Hungarian flick "Huckle" (2002), of course the Oscar-winning "The Artist" from 2011, and the delightful Spanish movie "Blancanieves" from the following year. Also, I can just about recall seeing actor Ray Milland's directorial debut "A Man Alone" (1955) where his Western hero had no dialogue at all for the first half of the film.

However none of these exercises in style prepared me for this new 'silent' film from cult Korean director Kim Ki-duk, which might actually mollify subtitle-hating cinema-goers. He has been a prize-winner in Berlin, Venice, and Cannes, and has given movie-lovers a challenging catalogue of titles, from his early movie "The Isle" (certainly censored here for the painful things the heroine did to herself with fish-hooks), the elegant and elegiac "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...Spring" (2003), the smart "3-Iron" (2004), and more recently the fraught mother/son drama "Pieta" (2012). The above title, his 19th or 20th directorial outing, was actually initially banned in his own homeland and it is not difficult to understand why.

It is not because the film has neither dialogue nor music, but because of its very controversial subject matter. It's not possible to discuss the movie without certain spoilers and a brief summary of the plot: briefly a married couple are at daggers drawn in a loveless marriage, and their teenaged son seems indifferent to both of them. However the wife reaches boiling point when she observes her husband shagging his mistress -- the shopkeeper from across the way -- in his car outside her window. What does she do? Well she tries to castrate him in his sleep, but when he manages to kick her away, she successfully does the same to their sleeping son and eats the cut-off! From then on we have a selection of scenes featuring rape, mutilation, ridicule, sexuality, self-abuse, penis transplants, and incest. There may be no dialogue in this film but there are plenty of gasps and groans of both pain and pleasure.

If the viewer manages to survive the opening horrors, the film continues to pique one's curiosity to discover just where it is going. It is certainly well-acted by the main cast of three. It was not until I double-checked the credits that I realised that the wife and mistress were both played by the same actress, who looks completely different in the two roles, although both characters seemed to flash their substantial embonpoint and tight-knickered crotches with gleeful abandon. I will refrain from any more spoilers regarding the action or denouement, but will quote the director's own words about the film. He said, "We are not free from physical desire for our entire life; we either self-torture, maltreat, or become maltreated -- and in the middle of all this lies our genitals". He goes on to claim that our whole body is a sexual organ and he includes scenes where a climax is reached by vigorous self-abrasion of 'non-sexual' body parts or by the pain of knife-gouging. Behind this is meant to be some sort of Buddhist message that one must try to deny both desire and ego. The action is book-ended by a man kneeling in the street before a spot-lit head of Buddha in a shop window (and a similar head at home hides the knife used to inflict the damage mentioned above); it is suggested that the figure dressed as a monk in the final scene can well smile beatifically for the first time in the movie, since he is now finally free from any sexual urges.

The title presumably refers to the mathematical twisted strip, a loop where time has no beginning and no end -- presumably another Buddhist precept. This film is anything but an easy watch but if you are able to take in shock after shock, you may enjoy this outing from the eclectic Mr Kim.  

Friday, 1 May 2015

The Salvation (2014)

The Western is alive and well and living in Denmark! This European take on the western genre, a la the spaghetti westerns of yore, was finally released here a few weeks ago. The first review I read didn't sound that promising, but further critics managed to pique my curiosity, so off we went; however, like so many new and potentially more interesting releases than the latest Marvel bang-whizz, the film is no longer showing widely -- down to only one central London cinema -- and will probably disappear shortly from live showings. This is a great pity as the director Kristian Levring has displayed a finely-tuned understanding of the genre's conventions and has embodied these brilliantly in his protagonist Mads Mikkelsen's determined, set-in-stone features. His film may be somewhat derivative in its story-line, but it is a definitely cool addition to the ranks of great westerns.

Although it is an English-language movie, much of the opening section  and occasional later scenes are in Danish. Mikkelsen and his brother have emigrated to America, veterans of the mid-19th Century wars; after seven years' hard slog he has finally sent for his wife and young son. His joy on seeing them again is short-lived, as the two ruffians who force their way onto their stagecoach are drunk, uncouth, and violent. After trying to molest his wife and grabbing the son with a knife to his throat, they throw him from the coach. Heartbroken, he plods through the barren countryside, finally finding first his son's corpse, then his wife's, and finally the stage's driver. Grabbing the latter's rifle, he happily kills the pair.

Reaching the homestead where he is joined by his brother, he buries his family and decides to sell up and move on. In town he is offered a desultory sum for the property from the mayor-cum-undertaker, Jonathan Pryce. In the meantime the brother of one of the two dead men rides into town, a charismatic turn from Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the embodiment of evil, and demands that the community deliver his brother's killer by sunset, blithely killing several of the townsfolk as an example of what will happen to them if his revenge is thwarted. The town seems to be populated by a bunch of cowards, straight out of "High Noon", so Pryce together with the weaselly minister-cum-sheriff Douglas Henshall finger our hero and arrest the brothers. Mikkelsen is handed over to Morgan and his gang (including his second-in-command Eric Cantona) for some gratuitous torture. Eventually rescued by his faithful brother the pair escape, but while our near-death hero recovers his strength, the baddies capture and kill his brother, leading to further resolves of revenge and retribution and the movie's blood-soaked denouement.

The second most interesting character in this melodrama is played by the French actress Eva Green, who has had a fascinating career in English-speaking films and who previously co-starred with Mikkelsen in "Casino Royale". Here she plays the widow of Morgan's brother after whom he has always lusted and whom he ravishes with great enthusiasm. Her backstory is that her tongue has been cut out by vengeful Indians, with her face still bearing the scars, and she is mute. However her acting is nothing less than brilliant as we understand her every emotion through her expressive eyes and her generous heaving bosom. When she tries to escape her situation on the next train, Morgan's men drag her back to their base and are given leave to do what they wish with her body before slitting her throat. I should mention at this stage that although Morgan looks every inch the black villain that he is portraying, I found his mumbly, low-pitched delivery hard to understand; he put me in mind of Benicio del Toro's character in "The Usual Suspects".

It helps that the film's cinematography is superb evoking the feel of the best westerns of the past. It was actually filmed in South Africa, but the American West of John Ford looms over the chosen locations and we can just about believe that Monument Valley is around the corner.
Highly recommended.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Pieges (Snares) (1939)

The director Robert Siodmak had a fascinating career, divisible into a number of disparate sections. Although his official biography shows his being born in Dresden, he was actually born in Tennessee where his Jewish parents were visiting. The family returned to Germany when he was a one-year old and he was raised as a proper German gent. After trying his hand at various jobs, he drifted into the world of film. His first cinematic outing was the influential semi-documentary "People on Sunday" (1929) which he co-directed with two other burgeoning talents, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer, from a script by Billy Wilder. He continued with a successful career at UFA before Hitler's rise to power, at which time he followed Wilder to Paris for a brief fling at French film-making. He arrived back in the United States in 1940, travelling on the last ship to leave France before the German occupation.

His early Hollywood years were with Paramount where he was only trusted with B-pictures. However when he moved to Universal in 1943 and given a freer hand, he churned out a remarkable run of titles; he successfully blended the techniques of German Expressionism with American naturalism to create a run of film noir classics such as "Phantom Lady", "The Suspect", "The Killers", "Cry of the City", "Criss Cross", and perhaps his masterpiece "The Spiral Staircase". His films combine broody violence in sombre or sordid urban settings and he could be relied upon to produce a professional-looking movie on the tightest of budgets. His is an unsentimental vision of underworlds, both of crime and the damaged psyche. After 1950, there were only a couple of notable American films and his career turned full circle when he moved back to Germany.

The above film also known as "Personal Column" was his last French movie and a template for the American films to follow. A serial killer has been responsible for the disappearance of eleven young girls, taunting the police with cryptic poetic letters. Commissioner Tenier enlists a young taxi dancer, Maria Dea, in her first film role to reply to ads in the personal columns which seek young ladies for unspecified duties. There follows a series of vignettes as she follows a number of possible leads in the search for the killer, briefly introducing us to various lonely and not altogether reputable or sane suspects. The stand-out scene, but one which does not really further the action in any way, is a ten-minute section with Erich von Stroheim in one of his many charismatic film roles after his directing career hit the skids. He plays a has-been couturier who employs her as a model to strut his designs before an imaginary audience.

The film's male lead is the inherently charming, despite himself (and despite what one knows of his collaboration during the war years), Maurice Chevalier, returning to the movies after a two year absence. He plays a night-club owner, a debonair ladies' man, who notices Dea at one of her rendezvous, and woos her non-stop. Siodmak even manages to include two of his jaunty songs into the action. The man is a charmer, no doubt, but he is not really much of an actor, and when he finds himself having to play things seriously when he is accused of being the sought-after killer and facing death row, it is something of a stretch for the boulevardier. His friend and lawyer played by Pierre Renoir (son of the painter and older brother of the director) offers him no real hope. Of course the real culprit is revealed at the last moment in a whirl of images -- clocks, shadows, mirrors -- invoking the terror and confusion of a guilty man now caught in an inescapable net.

While this movie has its moments, it is a little too leisurely and 'bitty' to be wholly successful. However as a teaser for the psychological thrillers to follow it is well worth a glance, especially since there are the turns from von Stroheim and Chevalier to tickle one's fancy.     

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