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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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Kon-Tiki (2012)

I'm sure that once upon a time I must have viewed the original documentary of Thor Heyerdahl's epic 1947 journey, which won an Oscar in 1951, but if I did, it has long faded from my memory. This film is the lightly fictionalised version of the same undertaking, which became Norway's most expensive movie to date. It too was Oscar-nominated, but it was not a winner.

It's a perfectly passable entertainment, lovingly photographed with a few thrilling moments with sharks, whales, and men overboard, but it's mostly concentrated on the tedium and frustrations of the endeavour. Then again when one has six men on a small balsa-wood raft for a total of 101 days, there is going to be a limit to the excitement versus the daily boredom and petty squabbles. Heyerdahl was living with his wife in Polynesia when he developed the fixed idea that the area had been settled by Peruvian Inca tribesmen who sailed the Pacific, using the prevailing currents, to reach land. This theory was at complete variance with the accepted version that Polynesia was settled by Asians.

Heyerdahl fruitlessly attempted to raise funding for his project of recreating the 5000-odd mile crossing from Peru using only materials available 1500 years ago and was laughed out of court by all of the experts. Eventually having gathered his crew -- two war heroes, an engineer who was currently selling refrigerators, an ethnographer who confided that documentaries can make money, and only one man with any actual seafaring experience -- the President of Peru finally twisted some arms and the fanciful project was underway. It is probably well worth noting that despite having lived in a tropical paradise for many years, Heyerdahl himself did not know how to swim.

The actor portraying Heyerdahl was tall and handsome and unswerving in his belief that he and his theory were infallible. Even when lives were in danger and the raft in perilous condition, he refused to use any modern materials to reinforce it. From his crew he demanded unquestioning obedience and faith. Four of the five were not well-differentiated, and since by the end of the movie they had all grown bushy blonde beards, they seemed pretty interchangeable. The exception was Herman the fridge salesman who was treated as a bit of a clown and something of a liability -- although I understand that this portrayal was grossly unfair to the actual historic person. It wasn't helped by my recognizing the actor as the one who played the chubby sex-addict Benedick in three series of the droll Norwegian serial "Dag".

After so many days living in cramped conditions and not knowing whether survival was a real option, the men were overjoyed to sight land in Indonesia. Heyerdahl had finally managed to prove that his hypothesis was possible 1500 ago, but of course he could never prove that this is in fact how Polynesia was settled. His account of the journey published in 70 languages and the prize-winning documentary (for which he takes sole credit despite the help of the more experienced ethnographer) brought him lasting fame, even if it was at the cost of his wife and family. It remains one of the great feats of modern times -- or a great folly from a determined hothead.

Finally I am grateful that I was able to view the film in Norwegian with English only used sparsely when appropriate, whereas the Weinstein Company insisted on releasing the movie Stateside in a dubbed English version. Dumb!

Friday, 30 June 2017

Okja (2017)

This was the first of the two Netflix films to be shown at Cannes and the one that initiated the uproar about streaming services vs. 'real' movies. Here in Britain it has now in fact been released theatrically (to by and large very good notices) as well as being available via Netflix, which is how I viewed it a few days ago.

The director Joon-ho Bong has made some extremely intriguing Korean films including the policier "Memories of Murder" (2003), the superior creature-feature "The Host" (2006), and head-scratcher "Mother" (2009). He's not exactly prolific and I've not yet seen his previous English-language movie "Snowpiercer" (2013), although that too sounds interesting, despite apparently having been mutilated by Harvey Scissorhands. All of his films seem to strive for a pointed subtext beneath their surface entertainment value. "Okja" continues this trend, since while it is certainly an ingenious concoction, there are some serious underlying messages.

Let me say at the start that (unlike some critics) I would not describe this film as his masterpiece. It is certainly entertaining, but it loses pace and sags in the middle, and there are some horrendous bits of acting among the Korean and English-speaking cast. Tilda Swinton who is beginning to seem ubiquitous nowadays fecklessly plays twins, one of whom -- supposedly the good sister -- runs the family's Mirando Corporation. In an attempt to solve the world food crisis, she has placed 26 genetically-modified piglets with different farmers throughout the world to test which will grow the biggest, fattest, and most importantly the tastiest. One of these piggies has been raised in Korea by Seo-Hyun Ahn's grandpa, and little Mija treats Okja as her own beloved and irreplaceable pet. So when has-been TV personality Jake Gyllenhaal (an absolutely embarrassing turn) visits their mountain-top farm, declares Okja the top specimen, and prepares to whisk her (Okja is a female too) off to New York, Mija is distraught. What we have here is the classic story of a boy and his dog translated into the tale of a fearless young girl and her mutant pet.

The CGI Okja is brilliantly conceived and fits into all of the action scenes seamlessly. From the rear she looks like a hippo -- and is even bigger -- with the head of a bull terrier, crowned by floppy friendly ears -- there's not much pig-like about her and she's like nothing we've seen before. Mija follows them to Seoul to try to free her pal, letting her loose in an underground shopping arcade where the creature becomes the proverbial bull in a china shop. Mija is befriended by Paul Dano and his motley Animal Liberation Front chums -- the most polite bunch of eco-terrorists you could hope to meet -- who want Mija to allow the animal to go to the States, complete with a hidden camera, to record the Mirando Corp's underhand cruelties. When their Korean interpreter asks the girl to co-operate she replies that she just wants to go back to her mountain with Okja, so of course he tells Dano that she agrees! 

Finding herself Stateside Mija continues to try to spring her pet from ending up in the slaughterhouse which is the second and now in charge more evil Swinton's intention, and only a bit of bribery at the denouement saves Okja from this awful fate. However I was disappointed that when Mija managed to free her pal that she did not then release the myriad GM-animals waiting in turn in the stockyard to be killed. Now that would have been a scene well-worth seeing with hundreds of these creatures stampeding!

So the only happy ending is the pair back on their mountain, together with a single piglet that they managed to smuggle out (? a male to mate with Okja ?) and we are left with the overriding message that 'Meat is Murder', amusingly told.    

Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood of a Leader (2015)

I was actually quite keen to see this directorial debut from the charismatic actor Brady Corbet, ("Mysterious Skin", "Funny Games", "Melancholia" et.al) which won the DeLaurentiis Award and the Best Director gong at the Venice Film Festival when Corbet was still in his mid-twenties. Another Orson Welles I wondered. No way! The film is a heavily flawed, pretentious slog, put together by someone who has bitten off far more than he can chew.

The picture begins with an overture from composer Scott Walker, former lead singer of the Walker Brothers, and his ear-jangling score remains intrusive throughout. Corbet's film is further hindered by the largely murky cinematography, with its often dark and barely visible interiors and static shots held for no good reason. Then there is the script itself with the director credited as co-writer. The title comes from a short story by Jean Paul Sartre -- who is not credited --arguing that childhood identity and sexuality are factors in producing the eventual adult. The movie is divided into three chapters outlining the three 'tantrums' of child actor Tom Sweet's Prescott over a relatively short period of time, before moving many years forward for an ending that takes the viewer by surprise.

The story begins in 1918 when American envoy Liam Cunningham (a "Game of Thrones" regular) and his fragrant wife Berenice Bejo (in a role originally intended for Juliette Binoche) move into a French chateau with their young son, as Father heads the talks leading to the Treaty of Versailles. The family consider themselves 'citizens of the world', proud and invincible. Prescott is something of a handful, generally ignored by his busy father and distracted mother, whose care is left in the hands of a local teacher and the household servants, especially the matronly and doting Yolande Moreau (a great favourite of mine). The teacher whose job is to teach the child French, despite his mother being fluent in the language, is played by Stacy Martin, star of von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films. She takes her work seriously, even if the camera does not, lovingly lingering on the nipple visible under her see-through blouse (highly unlikely for 1918.) The only other character given brief screen time is family friend Charles, a nothing role for  Robert Pattinson -- no treats here for his 'Twilight' groupies.

Prescott's first manifestation of bad behaviour is to throw rocks at the parishioners of the local church, soon followed by his deciding that he no longer needs his teacher (after grabbing her breast), by his refusing to dress or leave his locked room, and finally by declaring his hatred for God and prayers at a high-powered dinner. Mother can only respond by firing whichever staff displays any sympathy for the child and Father can only respond with corporal violence. Perhaps his parents should have considered cropping his flowing locks, since he is constantly taken as the daughter of the house by the diplomatic guests.

Prescott's bad behaviour takes up the bulk of this draggy film, but the next thing we know is that the unsympathetic child has morphed into a Mussolini-like dictator (also played by a nearly unrecognizable Pattinson for some reason). We are meant to think that everything we have seen previously is a fable on the rise of fascism. The director's message is that one's childhood makes one's adulthood a fait accompli. However it is hard to fathom how a rich, obnoxious, spoiled brat can develop into a revered and god-like figurehead. It just does not scan in any believable way and Corbet's parable does not manage to credibly hit home.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Netflix and Adam Sandler

There was an almighty hoo-hah at the recent Cannes Festival over two Netflix-financed films being allowed into competition. While there is a valid argument that only movies granted cinema release should be considered for the top gongs -- whether in France or elsewhere -- this is ignoring current trends. Streaming services are prepared to finance various projects which the major studios reject as 'non-commercial' and a number of interesting movies, few given even a token cinema release, have managed to see the light of day, like the recent Oscar-winner "Moonlight", financed by Amazon. For this we should be grateful.

I have a lot of time for Netflix, not so much for their original series -- I've watched neither "Orange is the New Black" nor "House of Cards" (I'm too fond of the original), but for making available a long list of recent releases which have not yet surfaced on either satellite or terrestrial channels. I've watched several dozen such films over the last year including "Force Majeure", "Brooklyn", "Still Alice", and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople", to name but a few not yet available elsewhere, with many more saved to view. And I've enjoyed three of their original series: "Stranger Things", "OA" (although I found it over-hyped), and "The Santa Clarita Diet" (a hoot).

However it was their backing of the most recent Adam Sandler movie "The Meyerwitz Stories" that raised the Cannes' eyebrows. Adam Sandler is the polar opposite of the serious cineaste's idea of a leading man, despite his huge popular success over the last few decades. Personally I never much liked any of his films, with the exception of 2002's "Punch-drunk Love" where he was in serious mode, but I can understand his mass appeal. While his popularity may well be on the wane, it is fascinating to note that his last four films have all been made for Netflix, who have a world-wide audience in the multi-millions, ensuring that they will be seen by many more people than most cinema releases.

Thus it was, a few days back, wanting some light relief from a recent run of arty grim-fest films, that we watched Sandler's "The Ridiculous Six" (2015). This proved silly, goofy, mindless fun. Here he plays remarkably against type as a white man raised by Native Americans after his mother is killed, who has morphed into a nimble, ninja-like, fast-moving tracker -- totally unbelievable of course, but this is a farce after all. When he is contacted by his long-lost father, Nick Nolte, and sees him abducted by a fierce lot of outlaws led by Danny Trejo, he resolves to find the $50000 that will save his daddy's ass. Along the way he encounters five previously unknown half-siblings from Nolte's various liaisons, and the motley crew become the non-Magnificent bunch of the title.

The five are made up of Sandler's pet actor Rob Schneider (Happy Madison Productions usually finds work for this oft-annoying 'comic') playing a Mexican with a donkey sidekick, Terry Crews (an ex-footballer in films since 2000) -- black as the ace of spades who 'reveals' to his new brothers that he's not actually white, a nearly unrecognizable Taylor Lautner playing a village idiot, Jorge Garcia (the fat guy from "Lost") playing an incomprehensible mumbling moonshiner, and Luke Wilson as the erstwhile bodyguard who did not prevent Abe Lincoln's assassination. They're a watchable bunch of would-be losers who sort of triumph in the end, even after discovering that daddy Nolte is really an unredeemable baddie.

The list of recognizable faces doesn't stop there. There's roles and cameos for the likes of Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro as the inventor of baseball, Jon Lovitz, David Spade, Vanilla Ice as Mark Twain (!), and many more, including Will Forte as the leader of the fearsome (not) Left-eye Gang, whom Steve Zahn must poke out his own right eye to join. The action is non-stop slapstick but all in good humour. While the movie may be a tad too long to accommodate all of co-writer Sandler's would be jokes -- the first-ever baseball game with Turturro could easily have been scrapped -- it's a pleasant enough romp that possibly would have flopped at movie-houses, but which should give less discriminate viewers a few welcome chuckles. Many reviewers on IMDb rate this flick as an all-time low for Sandler, but I found it a welcome change of pace from my usual viewing and now look forward to 'Meyerwitz'.  

Friday, 9 June 2017

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

I'm sure I've said previously that I'm none too keen on Australian movies -- mainly because I have a hard time understanding the accent. However when there is a subtitle option, I am happy to give them a go and I'm certainly glad that I did so to view the above film. It's a purportedly simple story of a seventyish man who has learned that he has incurable stomach cancer and a scant six month to live.

Michael Caton, a veteran Aussie character actor on the big and small screen, plays Rex, the local taxi-driver in Broken Hill, New South Wales. His has been a simple and unrewarding life with its daily slog, his love-hate relationship with the aboriginal woman, Polly, who lives across the way, and his nightly pint(s) with his drinking cronies. He is reluctant to confide his plight to any of them, but when he learns that euthanasia is about to be legalised up in Darwin, he takes off in his cab to make the 2000 kilometre journey. He doesn't want to end his days in a hospital and is too afraid to take his own life. Doctor Farmer's (Jackie Weaver's) heralded euthanasia machine looks to be the answer and he announces that he is on his way. He can not bring himself to say goodbye to anyone, but speeds off, having left his mutt and his house in Polly's care.

Dr Farmer tells him to keep in touch during the trip and to stay hydrated -- so he promptly purchases a six-pack. There are ups and downs along the way, including being robbed by Michael Coles Smith's Tilly, a would-be aboriginal football star, who soon becomes Rex's helpmate and companion. In the back of beyond they are joined by Emma Hamilton's Julia, an English ex-pat nurse working as a barmaid, who quits her job after initially fancying Tilly (despite his being a 'blackfella') and who subsequently helps look after Rex when he takes a turn for the worse. Not having heard from the taxi driver, the good doctor has alerted the publicity machine and soon the whole country is aware of his epic journey.

When the threesome eventually reach Darwin, they learn that Farmer's famed machine is not yet ready for use and that not only is she waiting for final government approval, but that Rex must first be examined by a psychiatrist and an oncologist. He passes the psych exam with flying colours (sample question: "Do you have a pet?" "Yes a dog." "What's his name?" "Dog, since 'Rex' was taken!") But he's far from thrilled with the delay since his remaining days are fast retreating and another bad turn has landed him in a dreaded hospital. Julie helps him escape and back at Farmer's surgery she hooks him up to the machine, where death would come when he punches three 'yeses' into a computer. However, with seconds to spare, he pulls the needle from his arm. He know what he needs to do. He makes the return journey to Broken Hill to put things right with Polly (a tetchy but charismatic Ningali Lawford) whom he has loved for years. He may be on his last legs, but he has finally worked out what really matters in life.

This road journey movie gives one a real feel for the varied outback scenery and is not afraid to touch upon the ingrained white prejudices on frequent display. Weaver might be the only well-known name in the cast after her Oscar nomination, but she is the least impressive of the main players. Lawford, Smith and Hamilton all do ace work, but it is Caton who manages to emotionally involve the viewer in the fate of a man who has lived an ordinary life, accepting what may be may be, until our tears swell by the film's end.


Friday, 2 June 2017

The Red Turtle (2016)

It was a sad yet joyous day when the animation genius Hayao Miyazaki released his last feature film "The Wind Rises" (2013).  As the face of Studio Ghibli he was responsible for producing some of the most remarkable hand-drawn animations of recent years and his creative input is sorely missed. The studio's two subsequent releases "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and "When Marnie was There" honour his creative spirit but are slightly less richly drawn and less imaginative than Miyazaki at his peak.

And now there is "The Red Turtle" the first non-Japanese film produced by the studio. The story goes that Miyazaki was enchanted by minimalist animator Michael Dudok De Wit's Oscar-winning "Father and Daughter" (2000) and initially asked for the rights to release it. Subsequently he asked the Dutchman to make a film under the Ghibli banner. De Wit was both surprised and flattered by this request, but now some years later we have the above movie -- a film very much removed from the typical Ghibli product but artful and ultimately moving in its own right.

The film pits one man (and for one man read all men) against the forces of nature as our shipwrecked hero fights the waves and eventually washes up on a deserted tropical island. He explores his new environment, finding food and water, and narrowly escapes its entrenched perils. For the first third of the movie he makes every effort to escape, honing the island's bamboo forests into makeshift rafts. However each time that he launches his flimsy craft, escape is undermined by a fearsome red turtle, who breaks the raft into splinters, forcing the man to swim back to his desolate island. Finally in his frustration he drags the turtle back to shore and upturns the creature, harkening its demise.

He begins to regret this rash action and helplessly tries to revive the animal, but to no avail. But soon, in a bit of magic realism, it begins to morph into a red-headed woman, who eventually overcomes her suspicions to become his helpmate. The red turtle of the title has sent him a way to find a meaningful way of life -- and soon there is a son. (I must confess that I wondered why there was only a single offspring, but never mind). This family unit finds an idyllic way of life until a fearsome tsunami rips the island apart and threatens their solidarity. They begin to rebuild their relationship to nature, until the son succumbs to adolescent yearnings for something more and swims off into the sea with some friendly turtles (his relatives?). The years pass and when the grey-haired man eventually dies his grey-haired partner turns back into the titular turtle and re-joins the sea. This leaves the viewer to wonder if this was all a fever-dream on the part of the marooned man, but regardless, the depth of feeling between the man and his animal-bride and their hostile environment is effortlessly moving.

The animation style is De Wit's trademark simple with the humans rendered in sub-Tintin style, but the waves and the woods and the endless sky are ravishingly and lushly portrayed. There are even some occasional humorous sand crabs for light relief. Most daring of all, there is no spoken dialogue, just the sounds of the island, sighs, deep breaths and the occasional scream. This delicate movie is a far cry from the usual joke-laden 3D animations aimed at kiddies and has little in common with live-action films like "Castaway" or "All is Lost"; it is rather more laid-back and contemplative of man's place in the world. De Wit will never be the new Miyazaki -- nor I think would he choose to be -- but he has given us a beguiling look at survival, love and loss. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Homesman (2014)

The viewer is readily suckered into the impression that this is a Hilary Swank movie showcase. She plays strong frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough cookie who can match any man, but who knows she is aging and secretly yearns for a husband and family. Her desperate proposal to a would-be candidate is roundly rejected, despite her relative wealth, since she is plain as the proverbial pikestaff. She believably rounds out the role.

When three local women lose their marbles for various reasons, leaving their families unable to cope, Mary Bee 'wins' the draw to drive them back east to Iowa, across the Missouri, where they can receive the necessary care. She seems every bit as competent -- if not more so -- than the weak-willed men who should have undertaken this five-week traipse across the prairie. However she realises that a man's help could be useful, and she enlists the services of wastrel and general chancer Tommy Lee Jones, who has been left to hang by vengeful locals -- not that they actually hanged him, but left him sitting on his restless horse with one end of the rope attached to the tree above. Mary Bee agrees to cut him loose and to pay him 300 dollars at the end of the trek if he in turn swears to help her look after her three crazy charges.

The madwomen are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter and prove more than a handful for their mismatched minders. Swank and Jones gradually develop a modus operandi and a grudging respect for each other, despite his history of running away from any challenge when the going got tough (the army, a marriage) and her revealing her buried softer side. (Incidentally, he too dismisses a tentative marriage proposal). Then two-thirds through the film Swank's Mary Bee is unexpectedly and shockingly written out of the script and it becomes, what it was probably intended to be all along, a starring showcase for Tommy Lee, who directed the movie (his second directorial outing) and who co-wrote and co-produced. His usual curmudgeonly character is given top billing in a movie that Clint Eastwood would have been proud of, less a classic Western, more a character-driven road movie through the early pioneering days.

With Mary Bee out of the frame and having found the promised $300, Tommy Lee's first thought is to abandon his mad charges, but they chase after him and he perseveres through many hardships to get them back 'east'. Chuffed by his unexpected success and gradually accepting what a fine woman Mary Bee was, the viewer fully expects him to emerge as a reformed character. However, contrary to all expectations, he regresses -- sadly in this case -- to the feckless ne'er do well he has always been. What has been an occasionally humorous journey reveals itself to be an actual tragedy in the end moments.

One shouldn't have too many high expectations at seeing Meryl Streep's name in the 'and' role in the front credits. Hers is a brief cameo as the holier-than-thou Reverend's wife with whom the three mad ladies are deposited (a role than any middle-aged actress could have played, but no doubt agree to because of the casting of her daughter Gummer). In fact the movie is full of second-rank well-known actors: Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld., who each have a few minutes to strut the stage. The truth is that this is the Swank-Jones Show with the final emphasis very much on Jones. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

I nearly didn't watch this extraordinary documentary -- seven and a half hours shown over five nights -- thinking can I really be bothered watching a story that has been newsworthy for decades. However since the film has been widely hailed as a masterpiece, "the ultimate documentary", I thought I should give it a go. It was well worth the effort, as compulsive viewing as the best thrillers, even if it was nearly impossible to emerge from the experience with any doubts regarding that fateful night when O.J.'s abused, white wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered.

Film-maker Ezra Edelman has taken the time to examine the background of his subject in detail and has called upon both archive footage and current interviews with dozens of the dramatis personae. Little in the end is left to the imagination and the viewer knows all he needs know to make up his own mind. What we have is akin to a modern Greek tragedy, a potentially great hero undone by his hubris and falling in the end to unimagined depths. There is little doubt that Simpson was an icon to many as a sporting superman, turning his fame into riches through sponsorship, personal appearances, and movie roles. He seemed charming, kind and infallible, with a life that could only continue to move happily forward -- but personality flaws became his downfall.

At the height of his fame his endless ego and self-confidence created a sense of invulnerability and untouchability. When invited to add his weight to the civil rights movement, he declined, announcing that his fame and status were nothing whatsoever to do with his racial identity. He was O.J. -- the Juice -- deserving of his celebrity status. However when he was arrested for murder, after a day-long, knuckle-chewing flight, staged for his ever-growing flock of supporters, his identity as a black man became paramount to his defence team of high-powered lawyers. Having been warned by the (it would seem) easily-led presiding judge, who no doubt was considering his own future, not to play the 'race card', this is precisely what they did; they even invited the largely black jury into Simpson's home, replacing the many photos of him with white celebrities with more appropriate black ones. Eventually the long, long trial became an indictment of the city of Los Angeles, its historically racist police department, and one purportedly racist cop who could have planted evidence. They were on trial, not the defendant whom the incontrovertible evidence alone should have convicted. His lawyers turned the courtroom into a media circus, making the prosecutors look inept, as they defended the wealthy man who could afford the legal costs of some $50,000 a day.

In the end the jury, after only a few hours deliberation, acquitted Simpson of murder to the jubilation of the black community. To them this was payback for the Rodney King affair and a thousand other indignities. They didn't give a damn if he was guilty or not; all that mattered is that a black man won a long overdue victory. To the white community, O.J. was a man who got away with murder. The division was wider than ever! A civil suit by the Goldmans resulted in a 'guilty' verdict with an order for him to pay 33 million in damages, and his life became a spiral into deceit and decadence thereafter. He could still put on the smiling charm when it suited him to do so, but the days when he was an infallible hero, to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, were long gone.

Currently he is serving a 33-year jail sentence on charges of robbery, kidnap, and threat of violence which frankly seems like overkill on the part of the sentencing Las Vegas judge. Whatever his flaws this 'poetic justice' is probably uncalled for and ridiculously punitive.. I suspect that many people now feel sorry for him, a sorrow that a golden life could end in such ignominy. There is probably little further drama to emerge from this very sad tale that has absorbed the public for the best part of fifty years and which Edelman has so brilliantly chronicled.