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Saturday, 16 December 2017

Christmas on the Box 2017

If I had not made a habit of checking out the annual Christmas schedules each year to recommend the best new film offerings, I probably should have given up by now...since each new set of listings reveals fewer and fewer delights.

From a purely selfish point of view and we all know that I have viewed nearly all of the likely suspects by now, there is but a single new movie on terrestrial TV that I actually have not seen and actually want to see: Shaun the Sheep (BBC1 on Boxing Day). That apart there are no other new-to-TV movies to tempt me. Thank goodness then for Sky with their 'a new premiere a day' credo. They have pulled out all the stops from the 23rd to the 26th and again from the 30th through New Year's Day...before reverting to the usual diet of pap. I've not yet seen any of the following and have reasonably high hopes: Hidden Figures, The Lego Batman Movie, Beauty and the Beast, and Guardians of the Galaxy in the first tranche and Boss Baby, The Zookeeper's Wife, and Kong-Skull Island in the second.

As for the 'big' premieres on terrestrial television they're a mixed bunch: yet another remake of The Great Gatsby on the 24th and Cinderella on the 25th. Boxing Day features Jurassic World which is a watchable but overblown late entry to the series. On the 27th is the animated Big Hero Six (which I have completely forgotten); the 28th gives us Denzel Washington over-emoting as a drunken pilot in "Flight"; on the 29th you might choose to watch "Gone Girl", a rather annoying movie not a patch on the novel; and on the 30th Avengers: Age of Ultron which has fused with all the other super-hero flicks in my memory. Not a bad choice for New Year's Eve with Into the Woods (surprisingly well translated to the screen) and The Lego Movie which is an entertaining bit of product-placing. Finally New Year's Day offers Maleficent (not terribly brilliant) and the most recent Bond - Spectre, the best bit of which is the opening Day of the Dead sequence in Mexico City.

A couple of other premieres which might go unnoticed are A Royal Night Out (Channel 5 on the 26th) -- an interesting bit of fictionalisation and The Hundred-Foot Journey on 1 January (also Channel 5) an unusual showcase for Helen Mirren. Surprisingly the first two Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies from 2009 and 2011 are receiving their television premieres on ITV2 of all places. Finally there's Ron Howard's love-letter to the Beatles on 5 January, which I've not seen but don't know that I want to see -- I probably will succumb. Otherwise it's pretty much a case of the usual culprits: a surfeit of animations (some good, some poor), a run of Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies, and very few films made in the 'olden days' before Star Wars  Interestingly the only foreign-language movie apart from Sky's earmarked Wednesday slot is Chevalier on Film 4 on the 27th, a Greek film that I know nothing about.

For compensation I shall gorge on the 8-part mini-series (showing in double dollops starting tonight) "Feud: Bette and Joan" concerning the trumped-up rivalry between Davis and Crawford starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange with other Hollywood personages also portrayed. (I understand that Olivia DeHavilland -- still alive at 101 -- is suing). Other film-related goodies (ignoring those previously screened) are Darcy Burrell on Fred Astaire on the 21st and the Sky Arts Channel celebrating the Spielberg/Williams collaboration on the 27th and a new feature documentary (there are actually a number extant) on Clint Eastwood on the 28th.

Since I  am unlikely to write again until just before the New Year (and maybe not then) let me wish you all happy holidays and hopefully happy viewing.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Documentaries

Perhaps it's some kind of mental/optical illusion, but it does seem that there are more and more documentary films being made and released in recent years than say ten years ago. Of course these have always existed from quasi-documentaries like Robert Flaherty's  "Nanook of the North" back in 1921 to rather less 'staged' ones in the intervening years. There were always the masters of the medium like the Maysles Brothers, Errol Morris, and Frederick Wiseman plus numerous serious one-offs, but they never seemed dominant cinema players -- and I'm still not convinced that many cinema-goers visit their local theatre to view the latest offerings. Yet they seem to abound.

As proof of the pudding, Film Four has run a 'documentary season' over the last five nights (late evening of course) showcasing the 'best' of current docs. I've yet to view "All This Panic" (2016) or "Precinct Seven Five" from the same year, but can and will give you my verdicts on the first three:

First up was "20 Feet from Stardom" (2013) which of course won an Oscar for best feature-length documentary. This was a not-too uplifting look at the unsung (no pun intended) heroines of pop music the mainly black backing singers who made so many hits from the 60s forward so memorable. Their musical talents were evident and we can sing along with their choruses without having any idea who these splendid anonymous ladies were. Names like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Merry Clayton mean little to most of us and these fine singers almost never broke through to mainstream recognition, despite their excellent voices and their valiant attempts. It is for this reason that I used the term 'not-too uplifting' above. Yet there were numerous talking heads like Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen telling us that these singers made a major contribution to the development of pop. Interesting viewing but not a real winner unless one is fascinated by popular music of the second half of the twentieth century.

The second offering required the patience of a saint to sit through: "No Home Movie" (2015) by the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman. She burst into the art-house scene in 1975 with "Jeanne Dielman...". I must confess that I've seen few of her (very long) movies and am no expert on her passions, but I do know that she often referenced her mother, a Holocaust survivor. This documentary was her last film and lets us see her mother for the first time as she potters about her Brussels apartment -- on her own or reminiscing with Chantal or her other daughter. Talking about watching paint dry! The old gal seemed chipper enough, but how to explain the five-minute opening shot of a tree blowing in the wind (her mother's resilience?) or the occasional long-shots of arid desert landscapes. Her mother's health deteriorated sharply during the making of the film; shortly after her death (not on screen) Akerman committed suicide, making the doc's title ironically prescient.

I was rather more taken with "Uncle Howard" (2016) with its focus on my own passion: movies. The 'Howard' in question was Howard Brookner who was part of the New York hippie scene of the late 70s and 80s and who died of AIDs in 1989 aged only 34. This documentary is an attempt on the part of his nephew Aaron, who adored his uncle but who was only 7 years old when he died, to honour his memory and his era. Howard spent five years making a documentary about William Burroughs which was well-received on its eventual release but which has subsequently disappeared from view, assisted by the now well-known directors Jim Jarmusch as his sound recorder and Tom Dicillo as his cinematographer. He only made one Hollywood movie "Bloodhounds of Broadway" which he did not live to see released. This compendium of four interlinked Damon Runyan stories, starring the likes of Matt Dillon, Madonna, Rutger Hauer, and Randy Quaid is not a particularly great flick but it makes one stop to wonder what Howard and so many more of his lost AIDs generation might have gone on to accomplish had federal funding to find a cure been more readily available.    

Friday, 1 December 2017

Creepy Indian Longlegs

Unlike a fortnight ago, I've watched several films this week which are worth discussing.

First up is "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag" (2013) an Indian movie which translates to "Run Milkha Run", a biopic of the runner Milkha Singh, known on the sub-continent as 'the flying Sikh'. I've previously mentioned that Channel Four runs the occasional Indian film season, usually buried in the wee hours of their schedules. I no longer watch all of them although they've screened some amazing classics in the past, but do try to 'set' the more promising ones on my Digibox and try to get them cleared when I can. This movie, all three hours plus of it, was certainly a worthwhile and inspiring watch, although I have no long-buried interest in Indian athletics.

The film opens with Milkha competing at the 1960 Olympics where he appears destined for gold, until he looks back over his shoulder to see the rest of the field overtaking. However from this disappointment the film looks considers the triumphs of his career and the very dark factors that shaped him. Born in a poor Sikh village on the new border between India and Pakistan after the Partition, his extended family choose to fight rather than be forced to live in Pakistan and to convert to Islam. He watches them being slaughtered by soldiers on horseback, creating the first occasion where he was beseeched (by his dying father) to 'run Milkha run'. After a hand-to-mouth existence as a refugee, he joins the Indian army where his talent is spotted and he sees this as a way to make something of his life. He succeeds despite various setbacks including being nearly maimed by a group of bumptious athletes and discovering that the village girl he loves has been forcibly wed to another. The crunch comes when Nehru asks him to run for India at a meet in Pakistan which is meant to repair the strained relationship between the two countries and Milkha is hard-pressed to agree to go back to a country which holds such terrible memories.

Milkha is played by the versatile actor Farhan Akhtar, who is not himself a Sikh, but who is believable with his large topknot -- covered by what looks like a small tea cosy when he is not wearing a turban. Of course no Indian movie would be complete without frequent musical interludes -- which is part of the problem I have with Indian movies in general since my Western ear is not attuned to what often sounds like caterwauling. However in this movie, most of the music came from the male characters and was made all the more enjoyable by their very muscular and athletic dancing.

While I'm on the subject of Indian movies, let me very briefly mention one that I watched a few weeks back: "Piku" (2015.). What made this tale of the high-flying female executive kept in domestic thrall by her demanding father whose main topic of conversation revolves about his bowel movements highly watchable was the presence of veteran actor Amitabh Bachan as the dominating, poo-obsessed bully.

Let me swiftly move on. When I noticed that "Daddy Longlegs" (1955) was being aired, I wondered why this was one of the very few Hollywood musicals of the period which I did not have in my own collection. So I watched it again to conclude that although Fred Astaire is always highly watchable and although Leslie Caron makes one of his more charming dance partners and although the pair are nicely supported by Fred Clark and Thelma Ritter (always good value in any movie) and although there is a fine Johnny Mercer score including the Oscar-nominated standard 'Something's Gotta Give', the director Jean Negulesco was a poor choice with his tendencies towards schmaltziness. The film if overly long, poorly paced, with hideous décor to fill the new cinemascope format and far too much time is devoted to Caron's badly staged ballets. It's a true parson's egg!   

I'm running out of time and energy, so I'll only briefly mention the Japanese film "Creepy" (2016) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- no relation to the great Akira K. A retired police detective, now a university lecturer on serial killers, moves to a new house with his young wife and their big fluffy white dog. They try to make friends with their new neighbours but mainly encounter hostile rejection. In particular the wife tries to befriend Mr Nishino next door with his invalid wife (whom she never gets to see) and his teenaged daughter Mio. Nishino is played by Teruyuki Kagawa, who also starred in the director's odd "Tokyo Sonata" (2008) and here he makes your skin crawl. Seems he is himself a serial murderer who never kills his victims himself but who somehow insinuates himself into families and gets them to kill each other. Mio briefly confides that he is not her father and a complete stranger, yet she is completely within his power as the young wife is beginning to be. This is not a particularly good or well-made film, but it certainly holds one's attention and yes, it is seriously creepy. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

I've never understood the Hollywood fetish for remaking 'classic' movies. These are meant to update the films in question to the tastes of the modern audience, who by and large are unfamiliar with the original -- and which nowadays means drenching the narrative with unnecessary CGI effects. Kenneth Branagh's recent revamp of the above title, which he has directed and in which he stars, is to my mind another pointless exercise. I understand this new version is attracting substantial box office, but from the reviews I've read, I am in no hurry whatsoever to view his magnum opus. However I thought it might be a good idea to refresh my memory by re-watching the original 1974 version to determine whether an update really is in order.

The answer is an emphatic 'NO'. Directed by Sidney Lumet and boasting an incredible all-star cast of Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Anthony Perkins, Rachel Roberts, Martin Balsam, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris (many of whom are sadly no longer available), the A-listers in Branagh's version are not really in the same galaxy. Since the tale's 'big twist' is probably well-known to most viewers, the film must stand or fall on the quality of the performances. While the 2017 version boasts some big names from Judi Dench downwards -- and I gather some overpowering special effects -- I fear that it will never be held in the same affection.

The original is a fun watch and even if it is a little leisurely at times, there are many compensations, starting with the fine cinematography and the snappy script and of course giving us another chance to view so many fabled actors in one place. Finney disappears into the role of Hercule Poirot with all his fussy mannerisms and is nearly unrecognizable. While Branagh is also a fine actor, I suspect that his penchant for hamminess and his apparent need to be centre-stage at all times (to say nothing of the ridiculous moustache he is sporting) will overpower the other 'name' performances. Pppatty being Pppatty, I will of course see the new version in due course, but I very much doubt that my overall suspicions will alter.

People say that the l974 version was the template for the further all-star adaptations of Agatha Christie stories which followed, but it seems to me that they have forgotten about the wonderful 1945 version of "And Then There Were None" and Billy Wilder's version of "Witness for the Prosecution" with its knock-out cast of Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich. However I must add that I did enjoy seeing the movie again and being reminded how much I miss certain actors. An example: John Gielgud's snooty butler is forced to share a rail compartment with a low-caste Italo-American car salesman. Trying to strike up a conversation the latter asks John-baby what he is reading. Having been told the title, he then asks 'what's it about?' 'It's about l0.30' retorts Gielgud.

As the saying goes, they don't make them like that anymore!

Friday, 17 November 2017

A Dismal Week...or is it me?

I'm beginning to wonder just what it is about so many recent releases that leaves me cold. Since my dutiful watching makes me look at any recent film that comes my way, I find that this is becoming something of a tiresome task. Let's consider the 'new' movies viewed over the past week to see if we can solve my malaise.

Last Friday there was "Voice from the Stone" (2017) starring Emilia Clarke as a drab governess in 1950's Tuscany trying to get her mute charge to speak again after the trauma of his mother's death. As an actress she's remarkably uncharismatic without her Game of Thrones blonde wig and I was hard-pressed to give a toss whether she would succeed.

Then on Saturday I felt obliged to watch "Fifty Shades Darker" (2016) the sequel to the dreary 2015 'hit' "Fifty Shades of Grey". Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan were even less appealing than before and even the additions of Ria Ora, Marcia Gay Hardin, and Kim Basinger to the cast did little to up the ante.

Sunday we re-watched "Terminator Genysis" (2015) since Michael said he could not remember it -- nor if the truth be told could I. Emilia Clarke again and the boring Jai Courtney in a muddled mess only enlivened by Arnie's occasional appearances, including old footage of the young Arnie reminding me of the passing of time. Guess what? Five days later I still can't remember much about it --- just another pot-boiler.

Monday was even worse when we watched "Assassin's Creed" (2016) a complete waste of the talents of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons, as the film was far too dependent on CGI-enhanced fight scenes for its very little excitement. Not being a gamer I can't comment on how successful this transition to the big screen might have been, but I found it as boring as nearly all the other movies based on video games going back to "Super Mario Bros." in 1993.

Tuesday's 'delight' (not) was a French film "Neither Heaven nor Earth" (2015) starring Jeremie Renier (the glum hero of so many Dardennes Brothers' depressing movies) as a army commander in Afghanistan whose men keep mysteriously disappearing. And the mystery remained unsolved. Yawn!

I was actually looking forward to watching "Effie Grey" (2014) on Wednesday, but this lacked much life to remain anything other than a worthy period piece telling of the unconsummated marriage between Effie and the eminent 19th Century art historian John Ruskin -- he was apparently horrified to learn that she had body hair. Scripted by Emma Thompson, who also played a major role -- along with her husband Greg Wise as the uptight Ruskin -- it was rather like watching a wax tableau. Effie was played by the talented Dakota Fanning -- once a teenaged sensation -- who has not grown up to be the beauty that her sister has become.

Then yesterday afternoon I decided that I had better have a look at "Cemetery of Splendour" (2015) which has been languishing on our hard disc for some weeks now. Directed by the Thai art-house darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul (apparently 'Joe' to his friends) it required as much close attention as his previous films like "Tropical Malady", "Syndromes and a Century", and "Uncle Boonmee...". The plot -- such as it was -- concerns a group of hospitalised soldiers struck down by a mysterious sleeping illness. I think it must have been catching as I gave up half way through.

To wake me up I watched A.C.O.D. (2013). The acronym stands for 'Adult Children of Divorce' and while the movie was no great shakes, at least it had a lively cast headed by Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O'Hara, Amy Poehler, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jane Lynch, and Jessica Alba. It seems that Scott's younger brother (Clark Duke) who has been living in his garage and who doesn't even possess a credit-card wants to marry his Japanese-American sweetie and wants his estranged divorced and multi-married parents to be present at a big wedding.. At least the cast seemed to be enjoying the ensuing shenanigans before the rather ambiguous ending.

Finally last night's choice was "The Olive Tree" (2016) a rather winning Spanish flick telling of a young lady's quest to return a 2000-year old tree to the family plot before her beloved grandfather dies. The tree in question had been sold by her father some years before and now has pride of place in the Dusseldorf headquarters of a multinational corporation. She sets out with her uncle and a friend in a 'borrowed' truck -- and with no clear plan -- to rescue the ancient tree. One always knew that hers would be a fruitless endeavour but her determination and its resulting media uproar provide a pretty satisfying and even moving experience.

I think the answer is that I watch too many movies (the above selection is not all of the past week's viewing) but it would be rather to difficult to wean myself from my obsession. And of course I never know when a real gem will suddenly appear to surprise me and to make it all worthwhile.        

Friday, 10 November 2017

Illustrious Corpses (1976)

And so another of my longstanding 'would like to see' films (Italian title "Cadaveri eccellenti") bites the dust...and once again I was a little disappointed. From the socially aware director Francesco Rosi the film focuses on Italy's bloody decade of political turmoil in the l970s. In the director's own words the film is 'a trip through the monsters and monstrosities of power'. It's a paranoid thriller in the vein of 1974's "The Parallax View".

Someone has murdered three senior judges in different parts of the country and Italy's top homicide detective Rogas (Latin for 'you ask') is called upon to clean up the mess. Played by the strong and tough actor Lino Ventura, he soon develops a theory that the murderer is one of three victims of a miscarriage of justice and he soon hones in on one elusive killer. However the murders continue and it becomes apparent that these are 'copycat' killings to rid the State of potential enemies by unknown powers-to-be. Rogas finds evidence of widespread surveillance -- wiretaps and bugging -- and even his own apartment is being watched. Who can one trust?

The film has a wonderfully brilliant opening set in Palermo's Convento dei Cappuccini with the first victim wandering through the crypt with its 8000-odd bodies, some mummified, some rotting, indulging in a silent dialogue with power figures from the past. As he emerges into the sunlight and reaches toward a new spring blossom, he is shot dead. Unfortunately this is the only involving scene and I found the construction of the remaining movie something of a jumble, with meaningful scenes cut short and irrelevant scenes played at length.

With cameos from Fernando Rey, Max von Sydow, Charles Vanel, and Tina Aumont, it's only Ventura who holds the plot together -- but I found the largely linear story far from clear or straightforward. It finishes with a shock ending (no spoiler here) in a classic museum setting, as throngs of banner-waving communists march through the streets while just out of sight tanks are revving up for their right-wing antagonists.

I remember viewing an American television movie from l999 called "Falcone" (original working title "Excellent Cadavers") with Chazz Palmentieri as a crusading cop. However that film is not a remake of the above political expose; rather it is a semi-documentary of the fight against the Mafia set in Sicily a decade later. This earlier Italian film above is considered a classic by some, but I can't count myself among them.,

Friday, 3 November 2017

Toni Erdmann (2016)

If there is a lesson to be learned it's that over-hyped movies often prove disappointing. This was certainly the case with "Meyerowitz" which I reviewed last week and to some extent -- but in a different way -- with the above film.  Sight and Sound magazine selected this film as the best of the bunch at last year's Cannes and Germany submitted it as their entry for best foreign film at this year's Oscars. From what I had read I fully expected it to emerge the winner (which it didn't); nearly all of the reviews stressed the movie's hilarity and mile-a-minute laughs with the tagline of 'who says the Germans can't do comedy?'

Well, let me pull the wool from potential viewers' eyes -- the film is NOT funny; if anything it is a tragedy with strange comic overtones. Peter Simonischek plays divorced music teacher Winfried who is devastated when his elderly pooch dies. He realises that there is little to love in his life, despite his penchant for pranks, and that he has lost any meaningful relationship with his only child Inge, played by Sandra Huller, who is a high-flying executive with an international company in Bucharest. So he ups and books a flight to Romania and finds that he is an unexpected and unwanted visitor.  His sense of fun makes him confide in her boss that he has had to hire a replacement daughter since his own child is too busy to cut his toenails. This jolly jape goes down like a lead cloud and Inge can't wait to get shot of him.

She believes that he has taken a flight home but finds that Toni Erdmann -- her father in fake buck teeth and a dark mop of a wig-- is beginning to turn up at every social and business venue, wildly claiming to be a famous life-style coach or in one instance the German ambassador to Romania introducing Inge as his secretary Miss Schnook! Of course she knows who he is even if her colleagues do not twig that this madman is her Dad. While this strange bonding exercise seems to be a failure it becomes clear that her current career has probably hit its glass ceiling, her business meetings come across as pure gobbledegook, and she shows absolutely no emotional depth when she meets with her 'secret' lover. After Toni has crashed a local Easter party and has forced her to entertain the assembled guests -- singing an actually very moving version of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" -- she escapes back to her flat where she is to host her own birthday party for her friends and colleagues.

Distracted while dressing and making the final preparations, she answers the door in her underpants and soon strips off completely, remaining totally unclothed for the remainder of the scene, as horrified or accepting guests arrive for her 'nude party' which she claims to be an exercise in team bonding. This weird gathering is then interrupted by Toni/Winfried now garbed as an eight-foot Kukeri -- a hairy Bulgarian costume meant to ward off evil spirits. After disrupting the proceedings he leaves, but Inge chases after him and when she eventually finds him, she gives him a big and heartfelt hug.

However when the film ends with them both back in Germany for a family funeral, one is left in doubt whether father and daughter are truly reconciled, especially when she announces that she has accepted a new position in Singapore which will keep her even further away from her embarrassing Dad. Both actors give fine performances -- and in Huller's case a brave one, but at 162 minutes the film is too long and too poorly paced. Yes, it's an outlandish movie and an ultimately tragic one -- but funny, definitely not. 

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

A few months back I wrote about Adam Sandler and Netflix and ended with how much I was looking forward to the above film which caused such a stink at Cannes for not being a 'real' movie. It has now been released on both the streaming service and in selected cinemas to generally enthusiastic reviews. I therefore feel obliged to explain why I found it something of a disappointment -- which has absolutely nothing to do with its being Netflix-financed.

For a start I really don't 'get' Noah Baumbach and I have now seen most of his films going back to his first major dysfunctional family flick "The Squid and the Whale" in 2005. The above film is largely the same again, reportedly loosely based on his own dysfunctional family history. Even with his more female-centric movies starring his squeeze Greta Gerwig I find it hard to get on his wavelength or to hail him as one of the best 'young' directors.

The Meyerowitz in question is minor artist (sculptor) Dustin Hoffman who has never received the recognition and acclaim that he believes is his due and who is now on his fourth marriage to Emma Thompson (underused and wearing a fright wig). He's a consummate failure as an artist, a husband, and a father. There are three half-siblings from his first three attempts at wedlock: eldest son Adam Sandler who has spent most of his life as a 'house-husband' and whose own marriage is disintegrating, the younger son Ben Stiller who has always been Daddy's favourite and who is mind-staggeringly successful out on the Coast, and withdrawn sister Elizabeth Marvel, who apart from one scene, is also given very little effective screen time. There follows a series of vignettes outlining the family's attempts to humour their impossibly demanding father and underlining the sibling-rivalry riffs that have grown between them. They are finally drawn together when Hoffman is hospitalised with an undisclosed but serious ailment and seems to be at death's door. However he recovers and is just as obnoxious afterwards as he was before.

Perhaps that's the biggest problem for me. I have never been much of a Hoffman fan and his characterization here is 100% off-putting; he's shallow, selfish, and completely obsessed by his very minor talent which the world has refused to acknowledge. The most that he can claim is an unexhibited piece at the Whitney Museum and his inclusion in an exhibition at Bard College where he has taught for years. The real revelation here is Sandler who proves just how good an actor he can be when reined in by a tasking director (remember "Punch-drunk Love") and not allowed his own free hand to go OTT. Stiller is less successful in what is largely a straight role and he has certainly played similar comic-tragic characters in the past; he's never really been as clownish as the worst of Sandler. Thinking about it, Sandler is really the only player in this ensemble who seems to have grown by the fraught family reunion and one admires him.

In short, despite some sharply written dialogue the movie is neither sufficiently dramatic nor comic to be completely satisfying -- it's rather a bitter slice of life that's better soon forgotten.

Friday, 20 October 2017

London Film Festival - Part 2

Just two films left to review taking my overall average to three and two halves (not really the same as four) out of six:

The really good choice was to see "Lucky", the swan song of Harry Dean Stanton who died last month at 91. No one knew at the time that this would be his last movie, but this character study of an old man living out his last days in the shadow of death yet managing to celebrate each waking moment is a wonderful and heartfelt testament to one of the great character actors. I suppose how one reacts to this film rests with how one feels about Harry himself. His only previous leading role was in the unforgettable "Paris, Texas" (1984), but his weathered face and caustic manner brightened many a film and I, for one, was always happy to see him. A case in point is his two-minute role in 1999's "The Straight Story", where his face registered a potpourri of emotions on seeing his estranged brother arrive on his tractor.

"Lucky" is a character study rather than a narrative and indeed very little happens. We just observe the daily routine of a cantankerous and opinionated old man in a small desert town. Everyone there knows this old fella and have learned to accept his atheism, bolshiness, and brutal honesty and he ekes out his days smoking, walking, stopping for a coffee, and enjoying an evening drink at the local bar. The femigreilm is graced with telling cameos from Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr, Tom Skerritt, and his old friend David Lynch who was always glad to feature Harry in his works -- most recently of course in the Twin Peaks sequel.  A highpoint in this movie is his spontaneously singing a Spanish ballad at a local birthday fiesta -- breaking everyone's heart. We will miss the old rascal.

The half mark goes to 1926's "The Prince of Adventurers" a recent restoration from La Cinematheque francais. Had I read the programme more closely I should have realised that this movie is actually called "Casanova" and I have had my own copy for some years. My copy runs 132 minutes (which is long enough) but the restoration runs a bum-numbing 159 minutes including some hand-coloured sequences. Of course these were worth seeing but I probably would not have booked tickets had I realised that I already knew the film well. It's a sumptuous affair from the French producers trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, but I must confess I am somewhat impervious to the would-be roguish charms of its lead, the Russian émigré Ivan Mosjoukine, with his narrow lipsticked cupid's-bow mouth. 

So that's it for another year. Four years ago I missed the Festival courtesy of a broken ankle. This year I managed to attend despite finding myself with a fractured wrist. I really must stop this damaging myself nonsense!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

London Film Festival (so far)

I said that seven out of eight wasn't bad for FrightFest. Well I'm only batting 2 and a half out of four so far for this year's LFF. With four films seen and two to go over the weekend, I can enthuse over two of them, react kind of 'meh' over one, and admit that I really disliked the fourth.

To deal with the worst first, the audience for "Ghost Stories" seemed to be comprised largely of fans of the original stage play on which the movie is based, some of whom raised their hands to admit to having seen it multiple times. I've not see the play but both the programme blurb and the enthusiast who introduced the film promised scary thrills. I was expecting some sort of compendium movie like the old Amicus productions, but instead was given the tale of ghost-debunker Andy Nyman (one of the co-writers and co-directors and also the lead player) being asked to explain three so-called inexplicable cases of ghostly apparitions. Well -- and big SPOILER coming -- it was all a fever-dream from his hospital bed with the sickroom staff featuring in each episode. Apart from some clever sound effects there was not a single jump or shock to be found and the film-makers seemed to subscribe to the school of bad horror film-making that things shot in total blackness are scarier than well-lit frights. They weren't here. 

Next up was "Blade of the Immortal" from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, who was in attendance to introduce his 100th (!) film (and he's but two years Tarantino's senior). Since there was to be no Q and A afterwards the presenter fired a few questions before the showing, one of which was to ask how many people had been killed in his movies. This was an impossible question to be answered and today's film upped the ante astronomically -- a classic samurai tale based on a famous manga series and the kind of film the director loved from Japan's cinema past. The twist here is that a witch has fed our protagonist sacred bloodworms which can heal the most horrific and life-threatening injuries, making him immortal. Seeking revenge on the bandits who murdered his adored little sister, he is joined by another youngster seeking revenge for the swordsmen who murdered her father: cue constant and extreme bloodshed in non-stop battles. This is exactly what one has come to expect from the auteur and it is masterfully presented. 

I usually try to choose silents from the Festival programme and our third selection was "Little Veronika" aka "Innocence", described as 'Austria's most beautiful silent film' from either 1929 or 1930, recently restored and hailed as a great discovery. I've read reviews by others in its praise, but could not work up any great enthusiasm for the oft-told tale of the naïve and inexperienced country girl who is corrupted when she visits the big city. The viewing was somewhat spoiled by the presenter who told us in detail exactly what we were about to see, leaving no room for any fresh reactions and who more or less told us how the film would end. I can't say that the film was particularly 'beautiful' in any way, although the location scenes of old Vienna had some historical interest. The lead actress Kathe von Nagy was actually 25 years old when the film was shot which made her a little long in the tooth to be playing a pre-Communion teenager. I was also slightly perplexed why the film was titled "A Virgin's Ordeal" with French intertitles rather than German. As I wrote above: 'meh'.

Yesterday we saw the latest movie from the masterful Guillermo del Toro which was a complete delight and which ranks right up there with his very best: "The Shape of Water". Set sometime in America's Cold War past, it tells the improbable love story between Sally Hawkins, a mute cleaner at a secret government laboratory, and  a captured aquatic creature (straight out of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon"), which is intended as some sort of secret weapon against the dangerous Russkies.. Security at the lab is being handled by the sullen-faced and cruel Michael Shannon, who fails to prevent Hawkins from escaping with her new friend, the creature, to be kept in her bathtub until she is able to return him to the sea. I don't always like Hawkins, but she was terrific in this role, as was Octavia Spencer as a fellow-cleaner, Richard Jenkins as her effete next-door neighbour, and Michael Stuhlbarg's Dimitri posing as an American scientist. The telling was a little leisurely and the sub-plot about Russian spies a little extraneous, but one so warmed to the characters (other than Shannon) that we were charmed and cheered the fantasy of this inter-species romance. 

Reviews of the remaining two movies next week....

Friday, 29 September 2017

Not for Sale (1924)

An obscure rarity this week -- but I guess that's what this blog is meant to spotlight. The film is the last in a comedy trilogy (the other two are "His Grace Gives Notice" and "The Mating of Marcus": more obscurities) directed by the then British Comedy King W P Kellino, who started directing silent comedy shorts back in 1910 and founded the Teddington Studios in 1912.

Based on a novel by Monica Ewer, a forgotten writer who was also the film and drama critic for a long-dead daily newspaper, it's a sweet and rather unoriginal tale of Lord Dening, a spoiled young aristocrat with little idea of the value of money, who is cut off by his exasperated father and reduced to living in a struggling Bloomsbury boarding house and finding work to justify his new weekly allowance of £5.00. His snooty fiancée dumps him in the process (not that the horse-faced bitch was much of a catch) and he soon becomes enamoured of his landlady, the rather more fetching Annie and a curiosity to the other eccentric boarders. "What might you do" asks one old biddy; "I might join the Swiss Navy" he replies. He finds work as a chauffeur for a scatty nouveau riche lady, but loses his job when he is framed for the theft of a diamond brooch. He leaves the house when the other tenants adopt an 'it's him or us' threat against the now 'untrustworthy' crook and he falls into even harder times, forced to seek work in the Kent hop fields. Naturally love wins out in the end and Annie returns the now sickly fellow to the bosom of his high-class family home.

Nearly all of the cast were silent film stalwarts whose careers more or less ended with the coming of sound but who, without exception, give fine performances. Of particular note is Mickey Brantford as Annie's young brother who adopts a secret salute with the young Lord (now calling himself Mr Smith) and who does his best to frighten the other stuffy and elderly tenants with Lon Chaney's 1923 "Hunchback of Notre Dame" grimaces and mechanical mice. Annie is played by the comely Mary Odette, French-born, which may account for her eclipse with the coming of sound. The big exception is Lord Dening himself, played by handsome Ian Hunter in his first film role. Hunter went on to appear in three of Hitchcock's silents and to a notable career in a string of Hollywood classics between 1934 and 1942. Although his first love was the stage, he managed to make over 100 movies, while criss-crossing the Atlantic with a variety of roles in the West End and on Broadway. "Not for Sale" is something of a charmer -- not a great film by any matter of means but a pleasant look at a long-gone slice of 1920s London life.

Now for some housekeeping: There will be no blog next Friday as I balance a week of family celebrations with six tickets for the upcoming London Film Festival. I have one free day in the midst of this, Thursday October 12th and will try to touch base then. 

Friday, 22 September 2017

Forsaken (2015)

It's been another of those weeks where despite more or less constant viewing no one film has leapt to the forefront. The movies I watched were either overblown and preposterous like "Underworld - Blood Wars" or worthy like Tom Hanks' "Sully" and "Tanna" (filmed entirely in Yakel, a South-Sea island dialect!) or depressing like "Man Down" (I'm really beginning to dread Shia LeBeouf) or the French flick "It's Only the End of the World" from the over-rated young director Xavier Dolan or completely forgettable like "Eliminators" (featuring action 'star' Scott Adkins -- who?) and "Ordinary World" about an aging punk rocker. Even the classic "Jealousy Italian Style" (1970) nearly put me to sleep as Monica Vitti  see-sawed between Marcello Mastroianni and Giancarlo Giannini.

So that leaves the above old-fashioned Western from TV-director Jon Cassar as this week's contender, notable for co-starring father and son Donald and Kiefer Sutherland -- if they have appeared together before, it escapes me. Set in a frontier town in 1872, Kiefer returns after many years to try to mend fences with his estranged father, the local preacher. When Kiefer's John Henry went off to fight in the Civil War, he not only lost his taste for senseless killing but he also lost his faith in a God that would allow such bloodshed. However before he could return to the simple life, he inadvertently became a killer and subsequently a feared gunslinger. So it's yet another tale of a retired gunman seeking salvation, but being forced to take up arms again for one last showdown.

It seems that local land-grabbers led by dyed-in-the-wool baddie banker, the great Brian Cox, will do whatever it takes to force the local farmers off their land. His henchmen include the uncontrollable Aaron Poole who thinks nothing of shooting first when arguments fail and the older hired gunman with principles Michael Wincott. Poole has already had a go at beating up John Henry while Daddy stands by, but his big mistake is beating up the preacher as well, nearly to the point of death. That's the final straw for Kiefer, who makes short work of the bunch. And then rides off into the sunset...

The cast also features Demi Moore (again) as John Henry's lost love, now married to another. She doesn't make much of an impression and seems to take any old role she can get nowadays. However the film is not without some merit. The standard of acting is high, the scenery impressive, and the mounting tension gripping. There's even a scene set in the church where John Henry desperately tries to regain his faith and father and son nearly reconcile. The one drawback from my point of view is that I really don't believe that the F-word was in such common parlance back in the day.

Friday, 15 September 2017

It (2017)

I understand that this new film version of the Stephen King blockbuster (aka doorstop) is doing amazing business worldwide. I'm not surprised, since King is one of the most popular and best-selling living authors and there is at least a generation now who have never seen the 1990 two-part television mini-series of the novel. Subsequently there is a widespread suggestion that this movie is an instant cult-classic, resplendent with scary chills. I'm not so certain.

I certainly enjoyed watching the film -- all 132 minutes of it! However catering to modern tastes it struck me that there is an over-reliance on CGI effects without really managing to make the movie any more frightening than its original, unadorned concept: a shape-shifting demon, usually manifesting itself as the friendly-cum-threatening clown Pennywise is feeding off childhood fears resulting in a plethora of missing or mangled kiddies. Right, the story itself is eerie, but there is little here in the way of 'jump-scares'.

Unlike the book and the previous dramatization, the movie focuses on the seven youngsters who make up the 'Losers Club' and their campaign to destroy the demon -- stuttering Bill, fatty Ben, motor-mouth Richie, Munchhausen-by-proxy victim Eddie, Black Mike, Jewish Stanley, and the token girl/honorary boy Bev. The casting is excellent particularly with Jaeden Lieberher (first seen in 1914's "St Vincent") as Bill whose brother Georgie was one of the first victims, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Chubby Ben who has been studying their town of Derry's periodic history of disappearances and tragedies, and Sophia Lillis' Bev, a mini-Amy Adams, which would make the casting perfect for the sign-posted second part of this saga. The kids have great chemistry together, and as in another King adaptation "Stand by Me" there are a bunch of slightly older and slightly bigger bullies out to make their lives a misery. How the group sticks together, outwits the bullies, and banishes the Demon (albeit temporarily as implied) make this movie more of a boys' own adventure story ('the best summer of my life' says one) rather than a straightforward horror movie. Yes, there are Pennywise's gnashing teeth and occasional buckets of blood, but it's far from scary.

By the end of the movie the seven have vowed to return to Derry if and when the Demon reappears in its 27-year cycle, setting us up for a follow-up film featuring the grown-up kids. This is the big difference between the current movie and the original book and mini-series, which cut between the childhood buddies and the seven adults they have become, and which I think gives us a much greater insight into all of their characters than this 'Part One movie' allows. It's crucial to understand how the child becomes the man (or the woman in Bev's case) and how some fears and patterns of behaviour remain deeply ingrained. It's something of a cheat to expect us to sit through a second film when the two stories were previously successfully intertwined and could have been done so here.

Nevertheless it's a good movie and deserves to be popular, but it is certainly not the best King adaptation ever. Granted his novels have produced some rather iffy movies. but "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption" would easily vie for 'the best'. Bill Skarsgard adequately fills the over-sized Pennywise shoes originally worn by Tim Curry, but despite the extra rows of teeth, he is not any more frightening.  We all realise that clowns are creepy at the best of times!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Rough Night (2017)

Despite the recent hype of the growing power of women in the film industry, not all movies written and directed by women are worthy of our attention, and this Scarlett Johansson starrer is a sorry instance. Perhaps the A-list actress wanted a break from her recent more serious roles, but this film is hardly light relief -- and unfortunately she is no comedienne. Worse yet, nearly all of the female ensemble 'comedies' post-"Bridesmaids" (and I would include the recent distaff "Ghostbusters") have been singularly unfunny. No doubt this flick was inspired by the run of stag-night films where everything that can go wrong does go horribly wrong, ranging back to "Very Bad Things" in 1998 through the increasingly less successful "Hangover" movies. If men about to marry can behave badly, why not women?

Johansson's bride-to-be hen party reunites her college buddies 10 years on for a would-be riotous weekend in Miami, which means drugs, booze, and outlandish behaviour. The fact that she and her mates are getting too old for such jejune shenanigans is neither here nor there. Her posse includes raucous fat bestie Alice (Jillian Bell, a Saturday Night Live writer), latent lesbo activist Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon (who is not Australian) playing a scatty Australian (with a cod accent), and Zoe Kravitz as a young mother facing a custody battle. Perhaps Johansson briefly considered the possibility that she would shine better if surrounded by a bunch of 'dogs', but in fact Kravitz is the best-looking of the bunch (with the best legs as well). And even the usually tasty Scarlett has seen better days.

Add to this unsavoury mix the sex-mad next-door neighbours Ty Burrell and Demi Moore, who was once I recall an A-list actress herself, and the stage is set for a singularly stupid scenario where the 'girls' think they have murdered a stripper (who wasn't it turns out the stripper they hired) when fat Alice throws herself onto his lap causing his chair to tip over. We are then offered some sub-"Weekend at Bernie's" nonsense as they try to dispose of the body. Then the real stripper turns up! Meanwhile Scarlett's not-so-glamourous fiancé is having a restrained stag-night back North with his dweeby friends enjoying a wine-tasting. When he thinks that the wedding might be off, he is encouraged by them to drive non-stop to Florida wearing nappies to avoid pit-stops (don't ask) to win her back. You think one or all of them might have joined him on this stupid journey to share the driving -- but that might have made the flick less idiotic than it is.

You might well ask why on earth we went to see this terrible film. Well Michael is something of a Johansson fan, but this movie could well kill his attraction temporarily. For some reason the picture ends with McKinnon serenading us over the end-credits (like the end-credits of the equally disappointing -- for different reasons -- recent series of "Twin Peaks") and she is no singer. The film runs an overlong 101 minutes but it might have been too long as a 10-minute sketch.  Avoid! 

Friday, 1 September 2017

FrightFest 2017

Well, seven out of eight's not too bad! No longer having the stamina to face the full five day fest, we cherry-picked eight possibilities, based on only minimal info, and chose fairly well. At least it's better than last year's one out of three. There's only time to comment briefly on our selections taken in the order viewed:

The Glass Coffin (Spain 2016): With only very minor exceptions this is a nicely played one-hander. Glammed up A-list actress Amanda boards her waiting limousine en route to an awards gala honouring her distinguished career. Wallowing in self-satisfaction as she rehearses her acceptance speech and helping herself to the copious champagne, she gradually becomes aware that she is a prisoner, trapped in luxurious cage, and threatened by a commanding voice to abase herself in various ways. Any disobedience or attempts to escape are rapidly met with painful violence from the strapping chauffeur. Why she is there and who her tormentor might be are the mysteries to be unravelled. At a quick 75 minutes, the film does not outstay its welcome as one wonders how the increasingly distraught Amanda might escape her fate.

Fashionista (USA 2016): This was the choice that left us distinctly cold, although I gather it was shown previously at the Glasgow fest earlier this year to great acclaim -- I'll be dipped if I know why. From UK-born but Austin-based director Simon Rumley whose two previous movies I found distinctly underwhelming, it's a long 110 minutes of watching our heroine April, who runs a second-hand clothing store with her husband, boss her staff about and spend an inordinate amount of time sniffing the schmattes. She takes up with rich guy Eric Balfour (one of the ugliest actors about -- the kid's boyfriend out of "Six Feet Under") who plies her with expensive gear, until she works out that he's a dangerous crook. Meanwhile there's an anorexic female in some rehab clinic who may or may not be April's alter ego. Your guess is as good as mine.

68 Kill (USA 2017): This is a heist-gone-wrong epic that is constantly engaging despite being increasingly gory. Dominated by his way-out girlfriend who wants to rob her sugar daddy, wimpy Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler, the lead in the long-running series "Criminal Minds" which I've not seen) finds himself in increasingly threatening and nightmarish circumstances. Although the actor made his film debut back in 2004 in "The Life Aquatic..." and has also appeared in several other movies that I've seen (as well as voicing one of the annoying animals in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" series), I did not recognise him. However his bewildered face and play-it-as-it-comes approach makes the film. All of the female characters are frighteningly fierce, but the wimp is the winner. I'll watch out for him in the future.

The Bar (Spain 2017): We chose this film for its director, Alex de la Iglesia, who burst onto the genre scene with the off-the-wall "Accione Mutante" in 1993 and whose subsequent movies have also dealt with comically black horror. His latest follows the fate of eight strangers thrown together by unknown factors when the coffee bar they are in is quarantined by HAZMAT-suited soldiers and two patrons are gunned down when they attempt to leave the premises. It's a one-set movie and each of the personae becomes increasingly defined -- the glamour-puss, the bearded hipster, the homeless Bible-quoting derelict, the dissatisfied hausfrau, the aged proprietor and her faithful waiter, and a couple of mysterious businessmen. A dead and diseased body is found in the toilets and paranoia reigns as each wonders which them might be infected. The closed set opens out to the basement storeroom where some of them are banished and then to the sewers from which escape and salvation might be possible, but the action does not become as claustrophobic as it might. We never do work out exactly what is going on in the outside world but we root for those who may or may not reach safety.

Mayhem (USA 2017): Another film where the premises become quarantined, but here a large office headquarters where a definite hierarchy exists between the downtrodden proles and their boardroom masters. A known but occasional 8-hour virus has entered the building causing a breakdown of inhibitions and an outbreak of violence. We watch the action through the eyes of ambitious lawyer Steven Yeun who has just been unfairly sacked and Samara Weaving who has come to complain about an eviction notice. The pair try to work their way up to the top floor where they hope to find some kind of justice, but have various obstacles along the way as the employees' pent-up frustrations segue into physical and sexual action. Anyone who has ever held a dead-end job in a corporate maze will cheer the 'peasants' revolt. 

The Villainess (Korea 2017): Unfortunately this long, long movie was very late starting which didn't put us into quite the best frame of mind to appreciate its sinuous plot and mind-blowing action. The film starts with a Tarantino-esque bout of fighting a la "Kill Bill" as small Sook-Hee singlehandedly overcomes dozens of opponents. She is picked up by a national agency to become one of its pet assassins with the promise of a new identity and freedom after ten years' service. It's not helped by the fact that she has given birth to a little girl, a souvenir of the husband killed on their wedding day -- and we gradually get the backstory of her early life and the treacherous past that has shaped her. However she is still in thrall to the Agency and despite finding a new husband, the past is far from dead -- unlike the fate of most of the characters who inhabit the tale. A good film which was feted at Cannes, but perhaps not one of the best Korean thrillers -- and certainly not really at home at a FrightFest.

Meatball Machine Kodoku (Japan 2017): Word fail me to describe this OTT movie from the director of "Tokyo Gore Police" which is reminiscent of the black and white 'Tetsuo' films where the hero grows metallic appendages; here the human players are invaded by some alien entities and become Tetsuo-like characters with appendages in full Technicolor gore and glory. It's something of a love story between a middle-aged nonentity who's just been told he has incurable cancer (shades of "Ikiru") and a damaged young woman who works in his favourite bookshop. As they both morph into uncontrollable machines being menaced by a cop who has become an even more murderous creature, they are helped by some kung-fu fighting policemen who are valiantly but futilely trying to restore order. None of it makes much sense but it is a glorious riot of mindless gore and a laugh a minute.

Tragedy Girls (USA 2017): The closing movie is a fresh and funny mash-up of the teenaged slasher film as best-friends-forever McKayla and Sadie write their blog warning of impending murder and mayhem in their small community -- most of which they are responsible for after capturing a roving serial killer (played by one of my genre faves Kevin Durand). They pose as concerned citizens but are increasingly involved in perpetrating the violence that has hit their town -- memories of "Heathers" but bloodier. Interestingly the black girl (Alexandra Shipp) is the daughter of a happy and well-off household while her white bestie (Brianna Hildebrand, who made her mark in "Deadpool" as Negasonic Teenage Warhead) is pure trailer trash. The cast also includes Josh Hutcherson of Katniss fame but rather interestingly the boyfriend who comes between the girls is played by one Jack Quaid, Dennis' and Meg Ryan's not so little boy. These evil little hussies manage to get away free and clear -- and that's the modern moral of the power of social media!

Wow, that's it for today with the annual proviso that our FrightFest years could well be at an end at last. Finally I just want to say that I've been getting an inordinate number of hits from Russia of late. Maybe they think Pretty Pink Patty's Pictures is some sort of porn site, in which case they'll be sorely disappointed....

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

I could have written yesterday if we had gone to the cinema as originally planned for Thursday to see "Atomic Blonde". The first review of that film sounded very promising, but the subsequent ones were so negative that we were put off going out, especially since we already had tickets for the above French film last night.

In retrospect I'm not sure which I would have preferred since the above movie from Jean-Pierre Melville is quite possibly his most minor -- I won't go so far as to label it his worst. The young Frenchman adopted the pseudonym Melville as a homage to a favourite American author when he served in the Resistance during the Occupation of France. After the war he tried to enter the film industry through the accepted doorways, but rejected he became a sort of outlaw film-maker and as such he is considered a godfather of the French New Wave. He wrote and directed "Bob le Flambeur" in 1956 as his version of an American gangster movie, but its limited success and the subsequent panning of the above film turned him away from small budgets and the lofty ideals of Godard and Truffaut. He went on to create such classics as "Le Doulos", "Le Samourai", "Army of Shadows", and "Le Cercle Rouge" before his relatively early death in 1973 -- all gritty stories of hard men and brotherhood.

Since so many of Melville's films are milestones of French cinema, I needed to complete his filmography by viewing this 'Two Men' movie. Set in largely neon-lit night-time New York, it is the very slim tale of French news agency drone Moreau being asked by his boss to investigate the non-appearance of a leading French delegate to the U.N. at the most recent session -- the diplomat seems to have vanished into thin air.  Moreau joins forces with a dissolute compatriot photographer, played by Pierre Grasset, to follow the leads of recent photos showing the diplomat with an assortment of arm-candy, one of whom might be the mistress who holds the key to the mystery.

Melville himself plays Moreau and he seems to be grinning within at living his dream and playing a hard-boiled lead in an American-set noir; however he's not really much of a actor and it's all a little embarrassing. Similarly most of the female players sought out by the pair -- backstage at the Mercury Theatre, in the Capitol recording studio, at a high-class brothel, and in a Brooklyn burlesque house are so amateurishly acted that the film seems more of a documentary than a thriller. Grasset in contrast is excellent, as is the street-scene cinematography and the somewhat incongruous jazz score. Therefore the film is something of a mixed bag, finally centring on the conundrum of whether the diplomat's memory -- yes, he turns up dead -- should be honoured or smeared. The ending is both unexpected and vaguely satisfying, but it was a bit of a ham-fisted plod to get there.

Housekeeping: Sorry but there will be no blog next week. It's FrightFest weekend yet again...and no, we haven't succumbed and purchased a pass for the full festival. We have, however, honed in on eight films between Friday and Monday. I just hope we've made better selections than we did last year. Full details to follow....

Friday, 11 August 2017

Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (1977)

This Italian film, translated as 'An Average Little Man', is relatively unknown and difficult to source, but it is one of those movies that once seen becomes unforgettable. It stars Alberto Sordi, best known as a satiric comedy actor in more than 150 films, who began his career back in the 30s dubbing Oliver Hardy into Italian, and who moved into international recognition with his roles in Fellini's early 50s films "The White Sheik" and "Il Vitelloni". I watched him recently in another little-known Italian flick "The Scopone Game" (1972) co-starring with Bette Davis believe it or not.

Anyhow one might expect yet another comic turn from this versatile actor and the movie certainly begins in that way, but soon moves into the blackest of black tales. Sordi is Giovanni, a Roman government jobsworth, married to hausfrau Amalia (played by Shelley Winters no less), desperate to get his beloved son Mario, newly qualified as an accountant, a coveted post with the government against fierce competition. Giovanni has cosied up to his superiors and has even agreed to join their Masonic Lodge in his attempt to get his son preferential treatment. Mario, a hangdog gormless youth, reminiscent of the young Gene Wilder, is coached, coddled, and blessed by his doting parents, before going off for the final examination. However, as Giovanni escorts his son to the exam venue, they get caught in the crossfire of a bank robbery, and poor Mario is shot dead -- a heap on the pavement with his seven pens spilling from his pocket -- his assassin's smug face burnt into Giovanni's memory.

The news is broadcast on the telly causing Amalia to suffer an irreversible stroke. Giovanni is now faced with both the loss of his beloved son and having to do everything for his helpless wife. When he is brought into police headquarters to identify the culprit in a line-up, he deliberately chooses not to point out the hated face; instead he trails the young man, patiently waits to accost him, knocks him unconscious, and takes him to his country allotment. There he binds the chap with wires and generally abuses him until he dies-- having wheeled in Amalia in her chair to admire his handiwork. The film which began as a jaundiced view of Roman society segues into sub-Tarantino "Reservoir Dogs" torture porn. 

It was really no surprise finding Winters (or Davis for that matter) in an Italian movie, since many fading Hollywood stars found work in the booming European film industry back in the 1970s. Winters made a number of appearances in Italian films, normally dubbed of course; however in this movie little dubbing was needed since she was both paralyzed and mute for most of the story. She did, however, portray her suffering beautifully!

Despite the film's macabre tone, director Mario Monicelli skillfully manages to poke fun at contemporary Roman society's many foibles. Most memorable are Mario's initiation ceremony into the Masons (I have no idea whether the bizarre rituals portrayed are realistic or not) and a scene at the cemetery where Mario's coffin in stacked with hundreds of others -- occasionally exploding -- in a huge warehouse, since there is a shortage of space for new graves.

As for our hero who is of retirement age, he is cut loose to 'enjoy' his retirement, being given the smallest of medals to mark the occasion, and being generally ignored by his erstwhile colleagues. Then Amalia dies. Giovanni is overwhelmed with sadness and despair. What is left for him? Well there are the brash young men that he encounters who remind him of his son's sad fate -- just maybe they deserve punishing as well...

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Lost Fortnight

With my computer dying the death, it's amazing how many films I watched over the last two weeks as compensation. If truth be told there were a few which had totally slipped from my memory (and which I needed to look up on IMDb to refresh myself). Chances are I'll forget them again once today's blog is finished.

Let's save the newish and relatively mainstream ones for last and start with some of the oldies. "London Belongs to Me" (1948) is a lovely ensemble piece most notable for the great Alastair Sim (always watchable) playing a gold-digging phony medium and that late luvvie Richard Attenborough playing a criminal punk. "The Ruthless Four" (1968) -- a spaghetti Western also known as "Every Man for Himself" is worth a watch for pitting old-timers Van Heflin and Gilbert Roland against the young and amoral Klaus Kinski and George Hilton in the search for buried gold. "Salt of the Earth" (1954) has the dubious distinction of being the only movie ever banned in the U.S. It was made by a bunch of blacklisted Hollywood folk documenting a strike by Mexican workers at a New Mexico zinc mine -- and it is now on the National Registry! Then there was "The Devil at Four o'clock" (1961) memorable for starring Spencer Tracy's alcoholic priest with Frank Sinatra's career criminal as they work together to save a bunch of leper kiddies form a Southsea island threatened by an erupting volcano. (No, they don't make them like that anymore).

Then there were the foreign entries. Another oldie "The Devil and the Angel" (1946) with Erich von Stroheim in one of his rare film roles (and in French) as a disfigured forger deeply in love with a blind carnival worker; worth a watch. I caught up with Sky's weekly foreign offerings of which the Swedish flick "The Here After" (1915) was totally depressing and forgettable and the French film "The Connection" (2014) was not even saved by star Jean Dujardin. The French-Canadian "My Internship in Canada" (2015) with a Haitian go-getter acting as an intern in rural Quebec (the only MP who replied to his circular request) was mildly pleasant. Finally. the Russian "I Won't Come Back" (2014) where an ex-orphanage young girl runs away with a 13-year old desperate to reach her grandma in Kazakhstan was both involving and ultimately emotionally devastating.

The less said about the few television movies seen, the better, although one of them "Dreamhouse Nightmare" (2017) aka "Mother of the Year" was much nastier than the usual saccharine run.

I also watched three animations of which the Chinese-made "Unbeatables" (2013) about plastic footballers coming to life was pretty awful. However I found "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016) rather amusing and "Moana" (2016) potentially a Disney classic. I particularly enjoyed the demi-god's (voiced by The Rock) tattoos coming to life on his body -- a bit of hand-drawn animation amongst the computer-generated main.

I'm not sure I have the patience to say much about some of the more recent offerings on Sky. "Breaking the Bank" (2016) set in London has Kelsey Grammer as a pathetic failed banker -- and what kind of demented angel thinks that he can carry a movie nowadays? "A Street Cat Named Bob" (2016) is based on a true story of an ex-druggie redeemed by a stray; the cat was very good!  I did enjoy the new Marvel entry "Doctor Strange" (2016) with its largely European leads of Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelson, although it looks like future outings will be as a part of the increasingly boring Marvel ensembles. Some others very briefly: "The Gift" (2015) directed and written by and starring Joel Edgerton (rather nasty); "The Stamford Prison Experiment" (2015) yet another nasty take on the oft-told tale; "Good People" (2014) starring two of my least favourite actors James Franco and Kate Hudson -- more nasty; "White Island" and "Laid in America" (both 2015) -- a waste of time; and "Finding Altamira" (2016) a watchable account with Antonio Banderas of the cave paintings found in Spain.

Had I in fact written last Friday, I probably would have picked "I am not a Serial Killer" (2016) for its unusual storyline and casting. It stars Max Records (far less cute than his appearance in 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") as a death-obsessed and unpopular high school student, who works in his mother's mortuary in his spare time, and Christopher Lloyd as his spooky neighbour and an inveterate serial killer. The interplay between the pair once the kid has established that alerting the police will only result in more murders is a fascinating game of cat and mouse.

And that's about as up to date as I shall get....     

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Girl with all the Gifts (2016)

I came to this relatively low-budget British film without any great expectations but was pleasantly surprised by its unusual treatment of what has become a stereotyped genre. In simple terms, it's yet another zombie flick -- but quite unlike the usual run. For a start it doesn't follow the rules laid down by the recently departed George Romero -- these zombies are a breed apart. When we finally catch up with them well into the first half hour of the movie we discover that they are fast-moving, yet stand stock still until they get a whiff of fresh blood.

The film begins with our being introduced to a pack of wheelchair bound kiddies being trundled into their classroom for lessons with the fragrant Gemma Arterton (glammed down with little make-up). They seem harmless enough and we wonder why the attendant soldiers treat them so brutally. We soon learn that they are the second generation of the broadly infected 'hungries' and that they have literally eaten their way out of their pregnant mommies' tummies. Unlike the first infected generation they have the gift of speech, but are just as dangerous if let loose. Resident scientist Glenn Close is hoping to dissect them each in turn to develop an antidote.

One student stands out as being more 'human' and humane than her cohorts...little Melanie, played by newcomer Sennia Nanua. In Mike Carey's novel she's blond and blue-eyed and her teacher is black, but the races are reversed here. When their army base is overrun by the zombie hordes, the pair escape with Close and two soldiers. It is then a scramble to stay safe and nourished until they can be rescued. However it soon becomes clear that there is no longer a safe haven and that the infecting virus is on the verge of mutating into an airborne killer that will mark the end of mankind.

One hopes for a happy ending from Dr Close and the precocious child, but Melanie has different shocking ideas about the world's future. The adult actors including an initially hostile Paddy Considine are all fine but it is little Miss Nanua who steals the show and orchestrates the devastating finale.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Le Grand Chemin (1987)

It's been a while since I wrote about my friend Richard and the 13-seat cinema in his garden. Although he schedules at least two movies a month for his newsletter group, I have usually seen his selections -- and credit where credit is due he does try to schedule lesser known films, and most often I have my own copy. Therefore I was delighted to visit him last night to view the above French film which was completely unknown to me. The only copy with subtitles that he could obtain was a DVD of a VHS tape taken off a television showing some years ago, so it was not up to Blu-ray standards, but still well-worth the experience.

What surprises me is that the copy was taken off a Channel 4 showing which I normally would not have missed -- so perhaps I was away at the time. (That's no excuse, Pat!)

Anyhow, back to the business at hand. The film is an effective and affecting coming-of-age story based on director Jean-Loup Hubert's screenplay from his own autobiographical novel. Nine-year old Louis (charmingly played by the director-s own son in his film debut) is 'dumped' for the summer by his heavily-pregnant mother on her childhood friend Marcelle in a 1950's small Brittany town. Mom must cope with the later stages of her pregnancy and little Louis' father is keeping himself well out of the picture. At first the boy, Paris-raised, is traumatised by the rough country ways he encounters. His introduction to Marcelle is her bleeding a rabbit for dinner and skinning its 'pyjamas', leaving Louis with no appetite that night.

Marcelle's husband Pelo played by Richard Bohringer -- the only well-known name in the cast -- is a hard-drinking, rough-edged carpenter, and any marital love that may have existed between the pair evaporated after the death of their infant son. They live together like two bickering strangers. Marcelle takes the boy to church; Pelo's preference is to take him fishing. However neither adult has as strong an influence on the sheltered boy as the ten and a half year old tomboy Martine, who lives next door in another fatherless home with her mother and ripe teenaged sister. Martine, beautifully played by Vanessa Guedj, indoctrinates Louis into the ways of the world and helps him to overcome his fears and inhibitions. By the time the summer ends, Louis is on the way to becoming his own person, but he has also softened the animosity between Marcelle and Pelo. They begin to rekindle their long-dead passion.

I was not previously familiar with the actress playing Marcelle, Anemone-- like so many French players particularly in the 30s and 40s, she uses a single name (in her case taken from her first film role back in the 60s.) Both Bohringer and she won French Cesar awards for their roles in this film, but the natural and charming performances by the child players are what makes this movie memorable and moving.

Perhaps one reason that the film remains obscure (unrightfully so) is because it got a Hollywood remake as "Paradise" (1991) with Melanie Griffiths and her then-husband Don Johnson as the adults and youngsters Elijah Wood and Thora Birch as the children. I'd quite forgotten having viewed that movie. However, I am sure I shall long remember this film for its poignancy, beauty, and subtle evocation of a particular time and place.