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Friday, 24 April 2015

Pieges (Snares) (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 April 2015

Wild Tales (2014)

The 'wild' in the title of the above Argentinian movie does not just mean outlandish, which this film is to the nth degree, but to individuals becoming 'wild' when they lose all control over their emotions and inbred civilised responses. Oscar-nominated for best foreign language film, this flick from the young director Damian Szifron probably never stood any chance of winning. It is too black, too tongue-in-cheek, and lacks the expected gravitas of Oscar contenders. It is also probably too hugely enjoyable to join such hallowed ranks. Surprisingly it showed in competition at Cannes-- a far cry from the Dardenne Brothers.

A compendium movie of six non-connected short films, the director has stated that its theme is about the pleasure of losing control. Each story is 'wild' in its own way, but perhaps the tales are not as completely far-fetched as they are presented; when someone is pushed beyond certain limits, he may well 'snap' and give in to explosive passions. Here are Szifron's little morality tales:

The tone is set by the first story, "Pasternak", where the passengers on a flight indulge in idle conversation and discover that they each have known a bad bit of business by that name. Amusing at first, as more and more of them pipe up to mention how they met the nasty fellow, the story becomes troublesome as they discover that they have all been given tickets for this particular flight. Soon they are bashing on the locked door to the cockpit; in the light of recent events this story is too close to the knuckle to remain amusing.

The film rapidly moves on to the second section titled "Rats", where a waitress in a small deserted café in the back of beyond recognises the new customer as the man who ruined her father and who tried to seduce her mother. The short-order cook at the back suggests that the rat poison in the cupboard might be the answer to her dilemma. Throughout, the movie makes several not-so-veiled references to the rottenness and corruption that characterise both people in authority and governments -- and such criticism does extend beyond the borders of The Argentine! Repeatedly characters say that folk want change but are seldom prepared to get involved or do anything about it. Here someone does something in an over-the-top way.

The third part "Road to Hell" deals with machismo and road rage as a yuppie in a new high-powered motor upsets a redneck in his junk heap. Their sparring behaviour grows more and more irrational together with the murderous gleam in their eyes. The segment ends with a totally unexpected and humorous tableau, taking away any potential bad taste in the mouth or mind.

Part four "Bombita" stars the most recognizable actor of the large ensemble cast, Ricardo Darin of "The Secret in their Eyes" and "Nine Queens" fame, as a demolition explosions engineer. His own usual mild manner also explodes when his car is continually towed away several days in a row, and he is forced to deal with a succession of petit bureaucrats who are 'just doing my job'. He risks his family and freedom to make a final stand and ironically becomes something of a hero in the process. 

The fifth segment, which also felt the longest, "The Deal", is possibly the least successful and the least amusing of the director's examples. A wealthy man tries to protect his feckless son from a 'hit and run' charge by getting one of his servants to accept the rap in exchange for a huge monetary sop. However as a greedy lawyer and an equally greedy prosecutor get involved in the wheeze, his patience finally snaps. A new deal is struck but the would-be shock ending was telegraphed too far in advance to work for any sentient movie-goer.

Finally "Til Death do us Part" crowns the movie with a fast-moving and totally outrageous series of events at a vaguely Jewish wedding feast. When the pampered bride discovers that her new husband has been unfaithful with one of the guests, she loses it completely. She turns on the groom threatening his financial and social ruin, before he snaps as well. Between them they just about wreck both the room, the multi-tiered cake, and the mental and physical well-being of their family and guests, before collapsing together into a heap of unmitigated lust. A delightful ending for a largely delightful movie.

It is no surprise to note that the film was co-produced by Pedro Almodovar's company, since this is a production right up his own off-beat alley and a movie that he himself would have been proud to direct.    

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The above Japanese animation from the wonderful folk at Studio Ghibli was one of the nominations for best animated feature at the Academy Awards earlier this year -- and no it did not win, despite a host of eager fans. The favourite for the award was "How to Train Your Dragon" Mark Two, which on the night lost out to "Big Hero 6". Despite its many virtues which I will touch upon below, I am not in the least surprised at Kaguya's loss to more 'child-friendly' films. If the truth be known its appeal is fated to be more for aesthetically minded adults.

Running 137 minutes and best seen in its subtitled original Japanese language version, it's not really kiddies' fare, even when American-dubbed. This film was a labour of love for its director Isao Takahata, who has announced that it will be his last movie. Together with the genius animator Hayao Miyazaki, who has also announced his retirement, they founded Ghibli way back when and between them produced a mind-blowing body of work.

This movie took eight years to reach the screen and since he is not himself an animator, Takahata farmed out part of the animation work to some nine other studios. Based on Japan's oldest folk tale, the 10th Century "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", the film faithfully relates the story of the poor woodcutter of the title finding a miniature babe in a suddenly sprouting bamboo stalk and taking her home to be raised by him and his barren wife (who suddenly develops bounteous milk-filled breasts!). He decides that the child is a gift from God, and as the infant grows at a prodigious rate, he decides that she is really a Princess, especially when he next finds a hoard of gold coins growing in his bamboo orchard. So off he goes to the City to build a palace suitable for the pampered princess that she is apparently meant to be.

Despite the impoverished lifestyle in the shack where she is being raised, the young girl finds joy in playing with the neighbourhood kids who call her 'Little Bamboo' and in appreciating the beauties of nature that surround her. Reluctantly she is snatched away from this simple life to a sheltered but opulent environment where a 'Lady of the Court' attempts to mentor her into becoming a high-class potential trophy and to force her to abandon her natural exuberance. Now fully mature after a relatively short period, word of her beauty spreads and potential suitors storm the mansion. She sends them all away with far-fetched tasks, vowing to only marry the one who can provide her with the impossible. Even the Emperor himself is rebuffed.

However she begins to pine at the futility of the life that her 'parents' (particularly her status-seeking 'father') have thrust upon her; she comes to realise that her true home is the moon, her days on earth numbered. She daydreams of running off with her long-lost childhood sweetheart (despite his having a very tangible wife and child of his own), but comes to accept the fate that destiny has decided upon, even if it means forgetting all the wonders she has experienced. In the film's emphasis on a strong-minded female protagonist with a great love of nature, the movie shares common themes with some of Takahata's earlier works like "Only Yesterday" and "Grave of the Fireflies".

What makes this film unique however is the quality of the hand-drawn animation. All of the backgrounds are so tenderly rendered in the pastel tones of Japanese water-colours, that one feels like one has wandered into a sea of classic ink-and-brush art. The movie is breathtakingly beautiful, hence its many adherents. Only the chunky rendering of the human figures lets the side down. It was this that I least liked about Takahata's previous film "My Neighbours the Yamadas" (1999). His style of animation may indeed be inspired, but I personally prefer the lush, rich colours and solidity of the Miyazaki movies. Alas we must now live without the output of these two influential directors, but I am sure their legacy will live on. The spirit can not be nourished by CGI alone!   

Friday, 3 April 2015

Nashville (1975)

Being the self-confessed film fanatic that I am, I'm frequently asked to name my favourite film. That's a pretty silly question if you think about it and one that is impossible to answer, since not only are there a large number of movies of which I am very fond, but also that 'list' is something of a moveable feast with different titles coming and going as the mood strikes.

However, if you were to ask me which film I have watched more than any other, "Nashville" would win hands down. I seem to play my copy which I've had since the Seventies (and incidentally it only recently became available here on DVD and Blu-ray) at least once a year, and you crafty mathematicians can work out that it celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The reason that I find this movie from one of my favourite directors, Robert Altman, so watch-worthy is that I notice something new and different each time it plays. There aren't many films with that continual element of surprise.. Yet, oddly enough, I have never reviewed it nor even mentioned it in this current blog. I did refer to it several times in my old AOL blog and wrote a brief, heart-felt R.I.P. for Altman when he died in late 2006.

So the time has come to wax lyrical about some of the movie's many charms. Altman only found success in feature films fairly late in his career, after churning away on industrial films and television series. He was well into middle age when he had his first hit "M*A*S*H" in 1970 and in the years between then and the above feature he directed six remarkable movies including "Brewster McCloud", "McCabe and Mrs Miller", and "Thieves Like Us". However it was with "Nashville" that his trademark techniques were established, utilising large ensemble casts with overlapping scenes and dialogue. He is not usually a story-teller as such, but rather an expert in creating a sense of place and the fleeting interaction of various and varied characters -- with their dreams, hopes, and fears.

In this movie he has 24 lead actors whose stories mix and match during a long weekend in the country music capital of the title. Foremost among these are Lily Tomlin as a gospel-singing mother of two deaf children, Geraldine Chaplin as a pretentious and self-deluding BBC documentary reporter, Keith Carradine as the womanizing lead singer of a pop trio, Henry Gibson (of Laugh-In fame) as the smug glad-handing local legend, and Ronee Blakley as the fragile and ultimately tragic country diva. Other stand-outs among the cast include Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Karen Black, Barbara Harris, Keenan Wynn, a very young Scott Glenn, Gwen Welles as an ambitious but totally talentless would-be singer, and Jeff Goldblum who pops up everywhere but who never says a word. Meanwhile in the background is the booming microphone of the 'Replacement' Party's campaign truck with its reactionary and populist political messages.

Altman creates the panorama of this place as a microcosm of American society at the time, all set to a splendid selection of country and western music. The movie was initially criticised by the established Nashville community for not showcasing their own established 'hits', but rather promoting a selection of new numbers all performed by various cast members (and only Blakley came from a musical background). Many of the new songs were written by the ensemble members themselves; in fact Carradine's "I'm Easy" won the best original song Oscar that year. The film was also Oscar-nominated for best movie, best director, and a double best-supporting actress nomination for both Blakley and Tomlin. Now, of course, the Nashville hierarchy treat the film as a classic paean to 'their town' and it has become a well-deserved cult favourite as well.

Coincidentally a new documentary titled "Altman" has just been released, but in celebrating the maverick who broke all the rules of movie-making, the film is apparently a pedestrian and fairly turgid re-cap of his career by a succession of talking heads. Only the clips from his many marvellous movies make it of any interest. One would be far better off re-watching some of the idiosyncratic films which made the term 'Altmanesque' so meaningful, so entertaining, and so influential to subsequent film-makers.

Friday, 27 March 2015

God Bless America (2011)

Not too much trouble deciding what to discuss this week, since the above movie from the annoying comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is a gem of black-laced satire. Goldthwait the entertainer may not delight me, but in his role here of writer-director (not his first shot at directing incidentally), he manages in this low-budget diatribe to hit a number of sitting targets from our self-centred, celebrity-obsessed, and generally dumbed-down society.

Playing like the love-child of "Idiocracy" and "Natural Born Killers", our Everyman hero Frank, embodied by Joel Murray -- primarily a television actor -- rants and rages at the media-obsessed world in which he finds himself. Plagued by his noisy neighbours and their screaming brat, he daydreams of splattering their brains, but it takes the combination of being fired from his long-serving job for supposed sexual incorrectness and being diagnosed with an actually non-existent brain tumour by his blase physician for him to decide to end his empty existence. However, rather than committing suicide, he is distracted by a reality television report of a spoiled-rotten teenager berating her parents for buying the wrong sports car for her Sweet Sixteen. Stealing his neighbours' flashy yellow roadster, he tracks her down to her high school where he proceeds to blow out her brains.

Watched by Goth classmate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr, another TV performer) who is delighted that he has taken out 'the bitch', she spins a story of her abuse at home and begs to be taken along with him on his mission to rid the world of people who just don't deserve to live. Unfortunately this includes nearly anyone who is full of themselves and inconsiderate, like the chatty, cell phone-using patrons of a movie audience; the pair have no problem finding suitable targets on their cross-country trek to rid society of its worst offenders. These are not, let it be said the politicians and attorneys who may blight our society, but rather the commentators on and judges of humanity, whose opinions are accepted as gospel by the rest of society.

For example, a fat, tone-deaf, talentless contestant on "American Stars", brilliantly played by Aris Alvarado, becomes a media sensation because everyone enjoys laughing at him. He too considers suicide, not because he is the wide-spread butt of a bad joke, but because he thinks he may eventually cease to be the television personality that he has become. Naturally Frank and Roxy put him out of his misery with their own brand of justice, along with the television judges who mocked his hubris in the first place.

Having started with a brilliant first half, the satiric joke does begin to wear a bit thin by the final bloodbath. Goldthwait's betes noires may be begging to be exposed and mocked and the film amusingly manages to do this, but no one would believe that he is seriously encouraging us to take up arms to right them. It's only a movie, folks, and an on-target exercise of black comedy at that. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Sanctuary (1961) and Champagne (1928)

It was not really a problem to decide which film or films to write about this week. Unlike last week I was not faced with the task of choosing between an over-hyped new release versus a surprising indie. Instead, neither of the above movies is brilliant -- in fact you could go so far as to say that neither is particularly good -- but they both have at least one redeeming feature which makes them worthy of comment.

"Sanctuary" is a very vague re-make of "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933) which I reviewed in June last year. Both are based on Faulkner novels and both are travesties of the original source material. However whereas the 'pre-code' film starring Miriam Hopkins was solely a bowdlerized version of Faulkner's steamy Southern hijinks, this cleaned-up parable makes the earlier movie seem like Sodom and Gomorrah. A young and lithesome Lee Remick takes the Hopkins role of the feckless Southern belle, but all of the story's bare bones have altered. After she and her drunken beau, Bradford Dillman, take refuge at a bootlegger's cabin, she is raped by Candy Man, played here by Yves Montand and  described as a Cajun to account for his thick French accent. Rather than being repulsed by the brute, she ends up in the thrall of sexual satisfaction and decides to bunk up with him at the local brothel, treating us to a display of her fine body in a series of negligees. However when she believes him to have been killed in a car crash she returns to the sanctuary of Judge Daddy's plantation and the arms of Dillman (the beast she has murdered, her grandfather, and not her husband of choice in the previous movie).

In fact the only thing that makes this film of any interest is the participation of Odetta, the wonderful American folk-singer, in the role of her faithful black maid. This was her only cinema appearance until the late 70s and she majestically inhabits the part. When Montand rises from the dead and threatens to whisk away young matron Temple from her husband and two boys, Odetta kills the baby to shock Remick back to the realities of life. So noble Odetta bravely faces the gallows, knowing she has saved Temple to march off into the sunset with Dillman. What a crock!

The DVD of "Champagne" was purchased for completeness rather than anything else, since it was one of a very few Alfred Hitchcock movies I'd never seen. I think this now leaves "Juno and the Paycock" and "Mary" (both 1931) as the two missing culprits. Tell me, has anyone actually heard of or seen the latter film? Hitch spent five not very happy years at Elstree Studios between 1926 and 1931 and most of the ten movies he directed during this period are largely neglected. To be fair nearly all of them have redeeming qualities, and a few like "The Ring", "Downhill", and "Blackmail" are quite watchable. The consensus on "Champagne" is that this is one of his very worst movies and few have bothered to disagree. One critic described it as "dreadful" -- and the name of said critic: Alfred Hitchcock!

It's really not that bad at all, and there are plenty of the Master's trademarks in evidence -- inventive visuals, good sight-gags, and an intriguing blend of game-playing and lechery, all handled with a very light touch.  Betty Balfour -- a kind of British Mary Pickford clone billed locally as "Britain's Queen of Happiness" (!) plays the spoiled daughter of millionaire, Gordon Harker. To throw some cold water on her irresponsible behaviour and to prove that her beau, a very wooden Jean Braden, is only after her money, Harker pretends to have lost his fortune, forcing her to try to make her way in the world. Well she doesn't quite become a prostitute, but finds work as a 'flower-girl' at a seedy nightspot, where she is leered upon by "The Man", an evil-looking Ferdinand von Alten, actually a pal of her father's meant to keep an eye on things. Balfour demonstrates a certain comic sensibility in the role and furnishes the odd chuckle, but is not really the movie's saving grace. That would be the man in the director's chair, a youngish Hitchcock showing pleasant indications of the genius to come.  

Friday, 13 March 2015

Wrinklies in India vs. Cool Vampires

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo...decisions, decisions, decisions. Normally, if I have seen a new release at the cinema, that is my choice for the week's review. However, while I wasn't exactly dragged kicking and screaming to see "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2015) as part of a visiting family outing, I can state that it never would have been my own choice.

This sequel to the surprisingly successful 2011 movie celebrating golden oldies finding a new lease of life in India is quite honestly the same film again writ slightly larger. Yes, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy are always very watchable and the producers have dragged in silver fox Richard Gere for good measure, possibly as a lure for potential American viewers. However the situations are so contrived and obvious and the young hotel proprietor, Dev Patel, so very annoying that the movie is a colourful celebration of very little. Easy enough to watch but even easier to forget.

The crux of the tale concerns Patel's effort to open a second hotel with backing from an American mega-group and to navigate the problems and parties culminating in his wedding to his long-suffering fiancée. He decides that Gere is an inspector for the Americans, ignoring new guest Tamsin Grieg who might well be the culprit, while Gere seems intent on romancing Patel's dishy momma. Talk about ho hum...and two hours' worth at that.

In contrast the movie that really struck my fancy this week is Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" (2013). Jarmusch is an art-house/cult director, and many of his movies are something of an acquired taste. Of his previous outings, I really liked "Dead Man" (1995) -- a revisionist Western -- and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) which is unclassifiable, with Forest Whitaker as the most laid-back assassin in film history. However there are other movies in his filmography which are hard to love and equally a little hard to watch.

This film proved a surprising exception as Jarmusch creates his own unique vampire mythology. The ethereal Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old lovers Eve and Adam. They just can't get enough of each other, even if, when the movie opens, she is living in louche Tangiers and he is camped out in derelict Detroit, indulging his passion for classic guitars. Adapting to the new century, they do not feed on humans (whom they refer to as zombies) but on supplies from friendly doctors or blood banks. Wads of cash help to provide the 'life' style of choice for these immortals. Swinton's best friend in Tangiers is the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlow, amusingly embodied by John Hurt. They all wear gloves for some reason and are able to read by touch, just part of Jarmusch's new mythos.

The screenplay is replete with hip references to amuse the learned viewer. Hurt mentions that he wishes that Adam had been around with his critical ear before he wrote "Hamlet". Missing her lover, Swinton books flights to Detroit, stressing that she can only fly at night, as Mrs Fibanacci. When the lovers need to flee Detroit after the debacle mentioned below, she books similar flights back to Tangier as Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan. OK, not all of these little niceties will register with every film-goer, but they are pleasing nonetheless.

Adam's needs and privacy in Detroit are provided by Anton Yelchin in exchange for lashings of lolly, but the lovers' idyllic existence comes to a screeching halt when Eve's sister Ava (the ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska) decides to pay a visit from Los Angeles ('Zombie Central' says Adam). She rapidly depletes their store of O-negative (another little interesting touch) and craves excitement, convincing the couple to visit a jazz club with Yelchin. When they return home and Adam and Eve retire, Ava finds Yelchin just so cute that she decides to drain him dry for a tasty midnight snack. The least she could have done is 'turn' him says Adam, as they drive her out and find themselves fleeing back to Tangier.

Apart from the above there is very little story to this film, but it is so beautifully and lovelingly filmed  and so cleverly written that I found it enchanting viewing. Also measuring in at the two-hour mark, I would cheerfully watch this one again, rather than sit through the contrived kitsch of the Indian alternative.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Amour (2012)

Ever since this Michael Haneke film won the Academy Award for best foreign film, the DVD has been sitting on a table glaring at me to watch it -- it almost seemed to be daring me to do so. However, knowing the story concerned two octogenarians facing the end of their lives was so off-putting that it really was a case of forcing myself to finally play the disc. It is not a movie  many young people will appreciate, but anyone who has watched a beloved relative suffer and die or anyone in their later years facing the spectre of their own mortality, will find themselves relating to the story and wondering just how they themselves would fare in its brutal scenario.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmannuelle Riva, movie icons dating back to the 1950s, play Georges and Anne, retired music professors rattling around in their spacious mansion flat, going through the daily motions of their lives, and complacent with their routine existence. When Anne has a minor stroke and a operation does not ameliorate her condition, she makes her husband promise that he will not let her go back to the hospital or dump her in a care home. One can not 'spoil' the ending of this film, since the opening scene shows firemen breaking into the sealed apartment and finding Anne's decaying body covered in blossoms. We know from the start that there is no happy ending to come.

What Haneke gives us instead is the impossible situation that Georges finds himself in as Anne's health continues to deteriorate and he becomes her primary caretaker, straining with showers and nappies, knowing that his own health is beginning to suffer. This is the first film that Trintignant has appeared in for seven years (and his last to date) and the director wooed him to take the role. He reluctantly agreed saying that it was not a movie he himself would wish to see -- understandably since he was 82 at the time. He does a magnificent job with his sad eyes registering every indignity his wife suffers. This is not so much a film about love as the title would have it but rather about the responsibility one accepts (or resents) after spending a lifetime with one's partner or spouse. Neither the help of a part-time nurse nor the occasional nagging concern of their daughter, Isabelle Huppert, can free Georges from his being torn between duty and despair.  Love doesn't really get a look in.

Riva at 80, Oscar-nominated for her role, has the easier part, but it is heart-breaking to both her and the viewer to see her formerly independent spirit brought down by age and illness, to the extent that she has lost any will to survive. It's a story that plays itself out every day in every corner of the world and it is remorseless -- a very, very hard watch. Music features throughout this film, but no piece is ever finished, just as life, Haneke seems to tell us, can never be played out to the desired end. He won his second Palme d'or at Cannes for this film, but in my book his earlier winner "The White Ribbon" (2009) is the masterpiece of the two. This one is far too depressing in so many ways to completely engage the viewer, and entertainment doesn't enter into it.

I've seen all of Haneke's cinematic output and there is a streak of nihilism and despair running throughout his oeuvre. He does not normally believe in giving us easy answers or a clear denouement. I found his other critical favourite "Cache" (2005) more than a little frustrating in this respect. In this film he leaves us wondering what Georges plans for the pigeon, an unwelcome visitor to the flat, that he so carefully captures or for that matter what in the world has become of his character by the film's end. It may be fine to let the viewer decide these things for himself, but it is also sometimes upsetting not to understand the director's intentions. Me...I like a tidy ending even if it's not a happy one.     

Friday, 27 February 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards (2015)

I didn't write about the BAFTAs this year since they are becoming unwatchable, as so-called 'national treasure' Stephen Fry's self-centred bonhomie and feeble jokes grate more and more. His introduction of Tom Cruise deserves to go down in infamy...

So on to the Oscars and yet another new host in the attempt to find someone to match the classic Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal years. I had reasonable hopes for the no-longer young Dougie Howser in the form of Neil Patrick Harris, who has both song-and-dance experience and a reasonable record of hosting other award shows. However it was something of a wash-out and I would be surprised indeed if he is invited back next year. While his opening number was fairly clever the remainder of his presentation became flatter by the minute -- his scripted patter not connecting with the audience and his ad libs more like damp squibs. I've read that he had a support team of some l4 people acting as writers and dressers but I fear they  didn't earn whatever exorbitant amount they were probably being paid.

And the show not only over-ran the scheduled time but was also overstuffed in a number of boring ways; I can quite understand why viewing figures were well down. For a start there was too much of Harris's shtick about his predictions for the evening in a locked box on stage with all to be revealed at the show's end. Then there was the complete omission of the themed compilations which I for one anticipate each year, too much focus on the nominated songs and their unending renditions, and far too much using the stage for political burbling (earlier winners being drowned out after their allotted 45 seconds but the A-listers being allowed to waffle on and on.) Even the 'In Memoriam' section suffered by not showing clips from the deceased's careers, followed by an endless dirge from Jennifer Hudson. Only the 50th anniversary celebration of "The Sound of Music" with Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews was truly memorable.

While it is probably politically incorrect to make the following comment, that's not to stop me! The Academy was criticised for its largely all-white list of nominees, and the show's producers seem to have tried to compensate by enlisting a plethora of black presenters and by giving the Academy President -- who happens to be a black lady -- the floor for a long and basically political speech. Even the standing ovation given to the winning song "Glory" from "Selma" seemed to be part of this overt compensation. It's a nice song but I'll be dipped if I can see where rap fits into a period piece.

What about the actual awards you may ask. As usual I have not seen many of the nominated films and performances (although I certainly have seen "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" which were the night's main winners.) However I have read enough about most of the movies and performances to have some fairly reasoned opinions. The Best Supporting Oscars to Patricia Arquette and J  K Simmons came as no surprise to anyone, as did the long overdue award to Julianne Moore as best actress. (Parenthetically here, she also won this award for "Still Alice" at the BAFTAs despite the fact that the movie has still not opened in the U.K. -- would someone please explain that to me). And I'm glad that the final swing toward "Birdman" did not deprive Eddie Redmayne of the well-deserved best actor award. Michael Keaton gave a brave performance and may have been a sentimental favourite, but Redmayne's transformation into Stephen Hawking was a tour de force.

As for "Birdman" taking the top prizes, I'm not so sure these were deserved. I've not yet seen "Boyhood" and am in no hurry to do so, but I think that any film which is twelve years in the making should have received more honours -- possibly for best film or best editing, since I doubt that the largely improvised acting required much directing from Richard Linklater. I would also have preferred the award for original screenplay to have gone to Wes Anderson for "Grand Budapest". Finally, as I wrote when I reviewed "Birdman", Emmanuel Lubezki's award-winning cinematography was brilliantly done but totally seasick-making.

It has been noted that audiences are losing interest in the awards ceremony because it remains determined to honour so-called artistic integrity rather than popular taste. In this context it is fascinating to note that the blockbuster best picture nominee "American Sniper" has earned more money at the American box office than the other seven nominees put together.  Also it is somewhat inexplicable why the very successful "The Lego Movie" was cold-shouldered in the animated feature category. The Academy sometimes moves in mysterious ways...

Being the buff I am, I'll certainly be back next year for my annual dose of excess in its many forms, but the ceremony would benefit from a good re-think.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)

This East German live-action fairy tale apparently traumatized a whole generation of British children. It was serialised and brought to late afternoon television in the 1960s. Broadcast when the days were growing short and in black and white since colour sets were not widely available, there were not even the deep rich hues of the clothing and production design to lighten the scares produced by a sinister dwarf, a prince turned into a bear and his steed turned into a pile of stones, and a huge goggle-eyed mechanical fish. For all those who remember this movie with fondness for a childhood now long gone, there are apparently others who have never recovered from its surreal weirdness.

I was not one of these poor kiddies and first saw the film a few years back at the National Film Theatre. I watched it again recently in its restored DVD version and was again enchanted by its appealing simplicity and naivety. A prince comes to ask for the hand of the world's first communist princess, a buxom Aryan spoiled brat, who disdains his gift of a casket full of pearls. She will only consider marrying him if he brings her the fabled singing ringing tree. He procures the straggly-looking tree from the aforesaid evil dwarf and is confident that the princess will now accept his suit, saying may he be turned into a bear if she does not.

Needless to say the selfish wench has eyes only for the tree that is neither singing nor ringing at present and rejects him again. Lo he morphs into a bear which, despite apparently requiring three hours of make-up each morning, looks like little more than a man in a furry onesie.  In debt to the dwarf, he abducts the princess from her pampered life and takes her back to Fairyland, where she is instructed to pick berries for food and find moss for bedding. When she baulks at such un-princess-like expectations, her beauty fades -- her nose grows long and her golden locks go lank. The dwarf takes great pleasure in the mismatched couple's distress and watches and snorts with glee as he creates more and more obstacles in their path.

Ultimately she warms to the 'dear' bear and learns that good deeds are stronger than magic spells; she regains her golden tresses and the bear again becomes her handsome prince. Apparently it is only when true love blossoms that the tree can sing and ring!  Sort of -- it's the quietest singing and ringing you can imagine, not great bells chiming out.

Obviously shot on a low budget with plenty of painted backdrops, primitive effects including antlers attached to a white horse, and a man in a swimsuit manoeuvring the big fish, the film is perhaps most suitable for young children who have not yet been brainwashed by computer-generated animations -- then again they too might be frightened by one of the scariest villains since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Childcatcher.  For adults it is a nostalgic return to simpler times and entertainments and can be enjoyed by its own colourful and imaginative criteria. Some would suggest that it is meant to be an East German political allegory about Communism vs. Capitalism, but that's a load of hooey says PPP. It's a simple fairy-tale that manages to encompass deceit, betrayal, jealousy, forgiveness, and love in its short and eye-catching running time.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

I was intrigued when this film was first released since it seemed to have a number of things going for it: two charismatic leads (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), a fascinating "true" story of an art world scandal, and it was directed by Tim Burton, whose quirky worldview usually manages to divert. Anyhow we never did get around to seeing it straight away, but caught up with it recently at a repertory showing. Once again, bless the Prince Charles Cinema for their idiosyncratic programming.

Despite what I wrote above, this is the most un-Burtonesque movie of his career, at least on the surface. Not only is there no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter, but he appears to be playing it straight in recounting the very strange relationship between the 'artist' husband-and-wife team of Walter and Margaret Keane (Waltz and Adams). The film opens with Margaret and her daughter fleeing her first marriage and landing in the 'boho' San Francisco of the late 1950s. There she finds work painting juvenile designs on baby furniture and indulges her true 'talent' of drawing portraits of the passing crowd at Sunday open-air art fairs. Her work is distinguished by large-eyed tykes who seem to be capturing all of the sadness of the soul in their mournful gaze.

She is spotted by Walter who is trying to flog his dismal Parisian street scenes, painted he tells the naïve and accepting Margaret in his dreary garret after studying at the Beaux Arts in Paris. When he proposes, she can see only a happy future together -- and with her short blonde bob Adams seems to be channelling Doris Day. Always eager to pursue a fast buck and a master of the fast line, Walter arranges for their paintings to be displayed in the corridors of a 'beat' night club. When his sorry works are ignored but hers attract some positive attention, he convinces her that they will sell better if they are thought to be the work of a male artist. She reluctantly agrees and for the next ten years churns out painting after painting behind locked doors (even lying to her daughter), while he courts acclaim and riches for 'his' haunting pictures. Always looking for commercial possibilities, he flogs hundreds of cheap posters to the all-too eager punters and grows rich and smug. Margaret is now almost a prisoner, toiling away in their lavish home. Adams forgoes any hint of glamour from her previous roles, and gallantly portrays the worn-down victim of a man whose behaviour verges on the psychotic if he doesn't get his own way.

The film was written by the same screenwriters who created Burton's "Ed Wood" and there is the same perverse fascination with Walter's larger than life character. This results in what could have been a conventional biopic of one person being dominated by another horrific OTT participant. I have no idea how true to the facts this film really is and how much is Burtonesque embroidery, but they would have us believe that Walter never actually painted anything original in his life and that he may have briefly visited Paris once upon a time...and there he is on national television telling the world how his painting was inspired by the ruins of Berlin after the war with homeless kiddies peeking through the barbed wire. For some reason this film, along with "Birdman", was considered a comedy at the recent Golden Globe awards. There is little to find amusing in Walter's misuse of his wife's talents.

When she bookends the first half of their life together by again driving away with her daughter, Walter tells her that he will only agree to a divorce if she sends him 100 original big-eyed paintings from her new home in Hawaii -- and believe it or not she begins to churn them out. It is only after being inspired by some cold-calling Jehovah's Witnesses that she seeks protection from the courts. In the trial that follows, Walter, acting as his own lawyer, produces so histrionic and unbelievable a performance -- inspired by TV's Perry Mason -- that the film seems to verge on high comedy were it not for the fact that the viewer is rooting for justice for Margaret, which she finally may receive. He may be a despicable bastard, but Waltz' performance is a master-class of high camp, even if one finds it hard to believe that he is the all-American bastard that he is meant to be.

The supporting cast of Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwarzman add little depth to the movie nor does Danny Huston as the local reporter who befriends Keane. Only Terence Stamp manages to give the film some momentum in his role of the New York Times Art Editor. who protests that these kitschy portraits are anything but real 'art'. I'm inclined to agree with him and wonder how her pictures ever became so popular, since they are little more than sentimental tosh. Then again, Andy Warhol claimed that the Keane oeuvre must be good if so many people bought them!

Burton may have given us a more conventional movie than we have come to expect from him, but he does insert the odd strange touch to remind us that he could be depicting a fairy-tale world where nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. For example when Margaret approaches the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, the water is ringed with non-existent palm trees and in the stressful years that follow, she often feels besieged by the same eerie big-eyed folk that she puts on canvas. The big question is when is a Tim Burton film not a Tim Burton film?    

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Circus (1928)

If you asked me a few days ago what I would be writing about this week, I probably would have confidently replied "Daisies", the 1966 Czech New Wave film from Vera Chytilova, a movie which has been on my 'must see' list for ages. Now that I have finally seen it, my initial reaction was one of extreme disappointment. Despite the occasionally flashy psychedelic visuals, I kept thinking that the director was just trying too hard to be 'kooky, and I was more annoyed than charmed. The non-story, such as it is, concerns two feckless teenaged girls living for the moment by exploiting older men. The final scene, after wantonly destroying an official banquet feast, shows the pair trying and failing to repair the massive damage they have wreaked, repeating to each other "If we work hard we'll be happy and good" a suitable mantra as the Russian tanks rolled in.

There's something to be said for being in the right mood for watching certain films. I suppose it is feasible that I would react differently to another viewing, seeing the movie for the imaginative mess and message intended by the director --  but I'm in no hurry to test that theory.

So today, much to my amazement, I find myself writing about Charlie Chaplin. As I've said previously you can divide film buffs between those who think that Chaplin was the greatest silent comedian and the larger proportion who are convinced that the title belongs to Buster Keaton (and I count myself amongst the latter).  Despite the universal popularity of Chaplin's 'little tramp', the more reflective viewer tends to be put off by his often mawkish sentimentality, leaving Keaton as the 'thinking man's' hero. However my recent view of the above title has to some extent softened my anti-Chaplinism.

This film is far less known than his other late and revered silents like "Modern Times" and "City Lights", probably because it was withdrawn by the man himself after its successful debut, and not re-released until 1969. However it was well enough thought of in its day to receive a special honorary Oscar for its virtuoso variety. Indeed Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film and even wrote its score, adding a song sung by him over the front credits on its re-release. On many levels I would judge it his masterpiece and one of my heroes, Federico Fellini, counts it among his favourite films and an inspiration.

In his little tramp persona, Chaplin becomes involved with a circus when he is chased into the big top by the police. He becomes an accidental sensation drawing more roars of laughter from the crowd than the regular clowns with their jaded routines and is soon taken on to continue to inadvertently please the punters. He is only unfunny when trying too hard (much like the auteur himself in my book). However the film contains some inspired slapstick, especially a bit of business in the funhouse mirror maze, and a staggering performance on the high wire. Thinking he is protected by a safety harness, he makes some unbelievable moves, not aware that the harness has become detached; he manages to keep his perilous balance while being attacked by a pack of affectionate monkeys. Cue genuine laughs and amazement.

Of course there's a love story as well as he befriends the owner's badly-treated daughter, the bareback rider played by Merna Kennedy. 20 years old when she made this film, she retired in 1934 to marry Busby Berkeley. (Not that the marriage lasted but a fascinating bit of movie history gossip). He is convinced that she loves him as much as he worships her when he overhears a fortune-teller predicting her falling for a dark and handsome fellow who is 'nearby'. However it turns out that it's Rex, the new flamboyant tightrope walker who has caught her eye. Sitting next to her as she idolises her new hero up above, Chaplin's face tells the whole tale of how he wishes his rival would fall to his doom.

Chaplin's performance here is the equal of Keaton's in every way, although being Chaplin, the film's ending is a little marred by undue sentiment and a sense of melancholy. We seldom feel that way with the 'great stone face', and thanks for that, Buster.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Some weeks I really do have trouble deciding what I want to write about amongst the various films I have watched.

For example this past week I viewed four relatively early silents: "The Penalty" (1920) with Lon Chaney's evil mastermind zooming about on the stumps of two legs, "The Cheat" (1915) a DeMille flick with a flighty society dame being branded by wily Oriental Sessue Hayakawa (always charismatic) from whom she has borrowed money, "Manslaughter" (1922) another DeMille morality tale of yet another flighty society dame finding redemption in prison, and possibly best of all "Hell's Hinges" (1916) in which the director/star William S. Hart's carefree gunslinger finds religion through his love of a woman. Any or all of these would have sparked some lively discussion.

Then there was the rather belated follow-up to the 1995 Oscar winner for best foreign language movie "Burnt by the Sun", a charming and lyrical tale of love and betrayal in Russia in the 1930s. Its director-star Nikita Mikhalkov eventually churned out "Burnt by the Sun 2" as a two-parter, released in 2010 and 2011, titled "Exodus" and "Citadel" respectively and totalling a bum-numbing five hours! They continue the story of his disgraced and imprisoned general through World War II and believe you me they took some watching! Nicely filmed but a gruelling watch without much light relief from the mud-strewn battlefields of the first film -- although the movie improved mightily in the second half of the second film as it moved towards its relatively happy ending. Yes, I could have written about that...

However the film that impressed me most this past week is the coming-of-age story of the above title. Writer-director Stephen Chbosky has adapted his own best-selling novel of 1999, which has apparently replaced "Catcher in the Rye" as the cult go-to textbook for teenaged angst. This film is not just aimed at the high school crowd, but at any adult who can recall either with fondness or perhaps with horror their own teens. It touches on loneliness, bullying, mental illness, drugs, homosexuality, and even death.

Lead actor Logan Lerman's Charlie enters high school wondering how he will get through the next four years. He's not hoping to be popular or to outshine his fellow students or to get laid, he just wants to fit in and get on with his life, having, it is suggested, been treated for various mental problems triggered by the death of his favourite aunt. Lerman has been featured in movies since the age of eight, and although he was actually 20 when this film was made, he looks the naïve and innocent freshman. He is befriended by a group of seniors, led by step-siblings Ezra Miller's Patrick and Emma Watson's Sam. Now maybe things have changed a lot since my own high school days, but it was pretty much unheard of for a freshman to hang about with and be accepted by a group of seniors, even if they were all outsiders themselves.

Never mind, that's the story being told and the young actors all do an excellent job. This was the breakout role for Watson after the Harry Potter franchise with only a small part in "My Week with Marilyn" (2011) in between. She was actually 22 playing a 17-year old, but she acquitts herself well. However the biggest revelation is Miller, the Kevin in "We Need to Talk About Kevin", who swaggers through his role of the group's iconoclastic leader and unashamed gay. In contrast, the adults in the cast barely register. There is Dylan McDermott as Charlie's father, Melanie Lynskey as the dead aunt whose death also buries a secret, Joan Cusack as his therapist, and Tom Savini as the sadistic shop-teacher who calls Patrick 'Nothing'. Only Paul Ruud adds to the action in his role of the caring English teacher who recognizes the depths of Charlie's intellect and longings.

Although he actually directed a little-known Indie back in 1995, this is Chbosky's first mainstream movie and he has done a wonderful job of bringing his book to the screen. Set in Pittsburgh in 1991, everything evokes the period -- the dress, the décor, and especially the music. We care for all of the young characters that we meet despite their flaws. However, one does wonder how Charlie will get on in his sophomore, junior, and senior years, now that his protective circle has moved on to college. Chbosky implies that his protagonist has learned a lot of life lessons -- more than most high-schoolers -- in that first trying year and that he will successfully move on upwards in his own idiosyncratic way. We do wish him all the best...

Friday, 23 January 2015

Classe tous risques (1960)

It is always a source of great pleasure to come across a movie which I previously knew absolutely nothing about but which demands discovery. Such is the case with this tight and involving crime caper from director Claude Sautet. Sautet is something of an eminence grise in French cinema history, insofar as he did direct some fifteen films from this, his first major one, right up to "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud" (1995), but he wrote the screenplays for rather more and he was often the 'go-to guy' for script doctoring.

There is a nice little story in the booklet accompanying the DVD that is told about Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob, who was a lowly critic back in 1966 when Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Deuxieme Souffle" was released. Jacob claimed in his review that there were only three masterpieces among French gangster flicks of the 1960s -- the one he was reviewing, Jacques Becker's "Le Trou" (also 1960), and the above title. It turns out that they were all based on novels by an ex-con named Jose Giovanni and that they make an informal trilogy. The themes of all three deal with the myth of 'honour among thieves', the inevitability of betrayal, and finally an inescapable fate.

What helps to make this film special is that the lead role is taken by Lino Ventura, a big brute of a man with the trusting eyes of a child. Ventura's family emigrated from Italy to France when he was a youngster and he was raised in dire poverty. He broke away by using his strength as a wrestler and a boxer, before breaking into movies with "Touchez pas au grisbi"(1953) and was soon established as a charismatic 'heavy' in a succession of movies right up to his death in 1987. Ironically he was also adept at playing comedy, but felt more at home in tough guy roles.

In this film he plays Abel a wanted felon in France on the run in Italy with his beloved wife and two young sons. He is anxious to get his family back to anonymous safety in France and the movie opens with his dispatching the three of them to the border to await his joining them. However they are nearly broke and he needs to raise some funds for the journey. There then follows a bravura sequence actually filmed on the busy streets of Milan where Abel and his partner in crime attack and rob two bank couriers surrounded by the uncomprehending passing crowd of real locals. Meeting up with his family they then hijack a boat to get them to the South of France, but are involved in a shoot-out with customs officials, during which his wife and his partner die. Abel and his sons are left stranded.

He gets in touch with his old gang in Paris to help him out by sending an ambulance to smuggle the three of them back North. They are all indebted to Abel and they do find a suitable vehicle, but all of them find excuses why they are unable to drive the ambulance themselves. They arrange for a young, independent thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo in an early role) to make the journey with Abel.  Along the way they are joined by damsel-in-distress Sandra Milo, who poses as a nurse and who soon becomes Belmondo's love interest. Back in Paris his erstwhile cronies find excuse after excuse why they can not be involved in protecting Abel and his sons (who he succeeds in playing with the sister of an old family friend). Only Belmondo's Eric shows any loyalty to a man that he really doesn't even know. Abel needs the fabled 'one last job' to raise money for his sons and robs fence Marcel Dalio with whom he has some history, but betrayal is in the air. Abel feels obliged to seek revenge on his former friends who think nothing of betraying him to save their own cushy lives.

Ventura's character is sympathetically likeable but a definite 'hard man' like his screen models Bogart and Mitchum. Force, violence, and murder come easily to him. However since this movie was made in the days when 'evil must be punished', it is not a spoiler to tell you that the film ends very abruptly with the narrator saying our 'hero' is subsequently 'caught, convicted, and executed' and up pops the title "Fin". There is no false romanticism here.

The film more or less disappeared after its release and Belmondo's fine turn was overshadowed by his role in "Breathless" which was released at about the same time and which has gone on to be a classic of the genre. However it is certainly time for this movie to be re-discovered by crime buffs and cinema buffs alike. Sautet has given us a thrilling movie to rank with the best from Becker, Melville, and Dassin. 

Friday, 16 January 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

I've had a very frustrating and aggravating time (nothing whatsoever to do with movies) since watching the above film yesterday afternoon, so I'm probably not in the best frame of mind to give it as glowing a review as I might have. On the other hand, although it was not my choice to see this film, I was glad that I did, and found it an interesting watch. That is not to say that I might not have made a few negative comments regardless. Anyhow, here goes:

People have been trying to bring Stephen Sondheim's musical to the screen for some years now without success, before this Disney-financed, Rob Marshall effort. Being largely sung, without much spoken dialogue was part of the problem, but let's face it, that didn't stop "Les Miserables" being a big hit. It's probably more a case of Sondheim's music not being to the populist taste; while all of it is pleasant enough and largely clever enough, there is no single number in the show which leaves you humming as you exit the theatre.

The story is a mash-up of certain well-known fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, plus a wicked witch and the aging childless couple characters from Tom Thumb), with the various protagonists being thrown together in the deep, dark, and dangerous woods. However this was never intended as a tale for children, but rather for adults who are more able to deal with some very dark themes. It is probably this dichotomy between children's bedtime stories and some very bleak business that has alienated some of the movie's audience. Despite doing reasonable business Stateside, there are a host of negative users' comments on IMDb.

In the all-star cast, the standout performances are from Meryl Streep as the ugly witch and Emily Blunt as the baker's wife. In order to lift her curse of barrenness, the latter and her husband (James Corden) must provide Streep with a milk-white cow, a red cloak. a golden slipper, and spun-blonde hair; these will counteract the spell cast when the baker's father stole Streep's magic beans, to say nothing of restoring her to her previous beauty. So we have the characters dashing about their business and crossing paths in the woods before the witch's deadline.

I knew that Streep possesses a fine singing voice, but Blunt's melodious one came as a pleasant surprise. I thought that Corden (who started his professional life here as a fat sit-com character and who has now graduated to a slightly chubby Hollywood player) made a reasonable fist of his role. Anna Kendrick who has a background of musical theatre was in fine voice as Cinderella, but is it too awful to say that she is just not pretty enough for the role? Of the youngsters, Daniel Huddlestone as Jack was very good indeed, but Lilla Crawford (whoever she may be) was guilty of creating ear-ache in the role of Little Red. As for Johnny Depp's cameo as the wolf who gobbled up grandma, this was an amusing enough -- and mercifully short -- turn.

Other cast members who gave their all, more or less successfully, include Christine Baranski as Cinderella's wicked stepmother, Tracey Ullman as Jack's mom, Frances de la Tour as a giantess (the murdered giant's widow!), and Chris Pine as Cinderella's prince. The latter has been roundly criticised in some circles, but I thought he did well, assuming a hammy and humorous tone in his duet with Rapunzel's lover. If only more of the characters had adopted this slightly tongue-in-cheek approach, the film might have had more appeal.

The biggest problem however, apart from being over-long, is that this is a film of two halves. One would expect fairy tales to end with 'they all lived happily ever after', but Sondheim's musical takes a much darker turn. In the second half of the film, each of the characters loses someone dear to them -- there are a number of off-screen deaths, which turn the earlier feel-good factor into something downbeat and miserable. We are meant to take heart in the final scenes by Corden gathering the very few survivors around his knees to 'tell them a story'. I would guess that most people prefer the magic of fairy tales to the harsh realities of life, which this film underlines with a vengeance.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Birdman (2014)

I really had to go to see this movie on its release since there has been so much hype and Oscar-buzz in its wake. It seems to be heading for nominations for best film and for best actor for Michael Keaton in a bravura comeback role -- and quite probably for cinematography, best director, best original screenplay, and goodness knows what else as well. But while this film certainly has a great deal going for it, it is more a movie to be admired than to be enjoyed. I would not go so far as to liken it to the proverbial parson's egg, since there many positive things to write about -- however there is some room for a few negative comments.

It's the fifth film from the previously unsmiling Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and undoubtedly his most accessible, since it is well laced with a high degree of black humour. After the heavyweight earlier movies ("Amores Perros", "21 Grams", "Babel" and his major downer "Biutiful") Inarritu flaunts his outsider's viewpoint to give us something of a diatribe against Hollywood and its excesses, while still managing to create a largely entertaining if somewhat mystifying movie, using a host of Hollywood A-list stars.

Michael Keaton, now 63, has never gone away, but he has not been much in evidence of late, except as the voice of Barbie's friend Ken in the third Toy Story flick. However, he is fondly remembered for his early and rather eccentric outings in movies such as "Night Shift", "Beetlejuice", and the first two "Batman" films. He famously declined the third Batman when the franchise began its steep descent before its recent reinvention, and a series of turns as a psychopath marked the start of his own minor eclipse. He is the perfect actor for the role of Riggan in this film, an actor who found fame in three superhero "Birdman" movies but whose career is in the doldrums. He therefore has set out to prove his acting prowess by adapting a Raymond Carver story, financing it, directing it, and starring in it for a Broadway debut. Keaton has famously denied that the film is autobiographical, and I believe him, as he takes on the part with little in the way of false modesty. We see close-ups of his weathered face and his balding pate when his hairpiece is removed.

We first encounter Riggan in his run-down dressing in a state of suspended animation several feet above the floor and he seems to possess other super-powers such as the ability to move objects without touching them and, indeed, to fly. Since Riggan keeps up a running conversation throughout the movie with his Birdman persona (whom we eventually see and who looks nothing like Keaton), one doesn't know how much of his erstwhile glory days with their concurrent powers are real and how much they are a figment of his overwrought mind.

Most of the main cast are also superb. Particular kudos must go to Edward Norton who is brought in to replace an untalented cast member who is seriously injured during rehearsals; he plays the epitome of a big-headed 'method' actor who has definite ideas on how the play can be improved, who thinks it's appropriate to try to screw the leading lady when they are semi-dressed in bed together, and who complains that the prop gun used in the play's final scene is just too unrealistic. One just knows that a real gun will play a part in one of the film's several denouements. Also compliments to Emma Stone, playing Riggan's previously ignored daughter, fresh out of rehab, and acting as his stage assistant. With her big-eyed head and emaciated body (the actress is something of a chameleon in her various roles) she delivers an impressive monologue and plays off Riggan's insecurities and lack of awareness of how the various social media are essential to an actor's 'success' in the modern world. Zach Galifianakis, playing Riggan's best friend and stage manager, proves that he can succeed in a straight role -- a very welcome turnabout from my point of view.

The other main female parts are all fine if slightly underwritten. Naomi Watts is a needy Hollywood star, anxious to prove herself on Broadway. The English actress Andrea Riseborough plays the fourth member of the play's cast and Riggan's would-be lover, who may or may not be pregnant by him. Then there is Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, still concerned for his well-being and his relationship with their daughter. Best of all, however, is Lindsay Duncan as a fierce newspaper critic (think New York Times) who has threatened to trash the show for providing a showcase for over-the-hill Hollywood stars, who exist in a miasma of self-congratulatory award shows for cartoons and cartoon-like heroes, and who think they can prove their worth and acting chops by treading the hallowed boards of Broadway.

Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography for this film has been praised to the hilt. Using a series of carefully edited long takes made to look like one continuous take (which they are not), his camera moves swiftly and dizzingly through the underbelly of the cavernous theatre from scene to scene, leaving the susceptible viewer with a somewhat queasy tummy. I was also not particularly taken with the drum-heavy musical score.

The film's subtitle is 'Or the Unexpected Virtue of Innocence' and I would be hard-pressed to explain this to you. Perhaps it refers to the way that most of the characters go about their business and even manage to succeed without any real idea of what life is really about. Who knows? In many ways the movie is a succession of scenes without much linking logic, but some of these such as Keaton purposely marching through Times Square in his underpants after being locked outside a stage door are a real tour de force. That videos of his march back to the theatre foyer, passing a selection of other costumed 'heroes', subsequently go viral on You Tube, proves Stone's point that 'fame' hinges on many unlikely factors nowadays.

Far be it from me to spoil the movie's final scenes, which go against every expectation, but which don't really make clear whether Riggan has found the success that he so craves or whether he is still living in Birdman's cloud-cuckoo land. Inarritu's film is a welcome change of pace for him, but far from the 'masterpiece' some claim.   

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Post-Christmas Appraisal

Well, Happy New Year one and all! My blog resolution is to try to remain more positive over the next twelve months -- a resolution I might have difficulty keeping as I grow older and more jaded. But before I assume this sunny mantle, I must at least summarise how the past fortnight matched my bah-humbug expectations. I apparently watched thirty movies in the last two weeks -- which is not as many as it sounds (just over two flicks a day which is well under my running average).

Of the five new-to-me films on terrestrial, I somehow managed to forget to set "The Look of Love" (pity!) and have not yet seen "Quartet" which was on last night. "Salmon Fishing..." was a watchable enough experience with good chemistry between Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor in a rather peculiar tale of fish. "The Raven" gave a welcome lead role for John Cusack, who started off on a career course which looked as if it might eclipse that of Robert Downey, Jr.; however, quite the reverse has occurred with Downey rocketing (literally) into super-stardom and Cusack beginning to fade. Unfortunately the moany role of Edgar Allen Poe was not the one to restore his box-office appeal. As for "Hunky Dory" which seemed something of a vanity piece or 'ego-bath' to use the word of the week for Minnie Driver (another erstwhile star whose shine has dwindled), one was left wondering why the film was ever made. Set in Wales in the 70s, it was a maybe-true tale of a charismatic teacher (Driver of course) helping her dead-end students to mount their end of year play, a musical version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". The musical bits were pleasant enough -- even Driver's crooning -- but the framing tale left a very great deal to be desired.

It was left to Sky Premiere to make up the balance of the 'new' viewing, but I've just had to look up the summary to remind myself what "Trespass" was about (Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman as an unlikeable couple in a home invasion). I also can't recall what the dire-titled "Ironclad - Battle for Blood" was in aid of, but that's because I managed to doze through most of the medieval derring-do. "Jackass's Bad Grandpa .5" was a waste of time as a series of out-takes obviously intended as a DVD-extra. "Noah" with Russell Crowe as the obsessed lead character on the ark and a stowaway Ray Winstone chomping away on some of the animal pairs (now do we know why there are no unicorns?) was completely OTT and not particularly enjoyable with it. In the watchable but not really Patty-positive category were "Ride Along" with Ice Cube as a seasoned cop with a really annoying sidekick and "Captain America - Winter Soldier", another of the many scheduled releases from the Marvel stable -- well-enough mounted but ultimately yet another superhero movie to forget.

That leaves the two animations mentioned last time -- "The Lego Movie" and "Frozen". The first of these was exceedingly cleverly written with possibly more appeal to the adults in the audience than is usually the case, with the worthy moral that even a yellow-faced nonentity can achieve greatness and some fairly spectacular animation of cascading Lego pieces; or one can conclude that it was 100 minutes of shameless product placement. Pretty good 'though! As for the crowd-pleasing "Frozen", yes it is probably Disney's best film for years, with strong female characters (a la "Brave") and charming supporting characters in a clumsy-hunky potential love interest, a talking reindeer, and a loveable snowman. The music was fine as well, even if it seems that there is no escape from 'Let it Be' everywhere one turns.

I suppose it behoves me to comment on the two bio slots I mentioned. The one on Julie Walters was a little too adulatory, but not without some interest, although there was too much on her television roles and not enough on her film parts. As for the retired ballerina Darcey Burrell seeking her idol Audrey Hepburn like an overly besotted schoolgirl, I nearly gave up, but the bio was saved by input from Hepburn's two doting sons, to the extent that it actually became very moving.

I know the above-mentioned don't add up to thirty, but I have ignored some dire horrors from the so-called Horror Channel and Film Four, a few Christmassy TV movies (still hanging about even after the event), and the odd golden oldies from my own collection. However I must announce that I have now re-evaluated Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" from 2002. Having only seen it before on an airplane, I have been saying it was his worst film ever. It was never released in the UK, but courtesy of an Italian DVD (now the only source for this movie) we watched it again a few days ago. Guess what?, it's actually nicely-written, generally quite amusing, and with a few laugh-out-loud bits of business as well. This redemption on my part, now definitely leaves "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) as the Woodster's worst.

Once more, Happy New Year!! Armed with my well-intended resolution -- which might last as long as next week -- here's to happy uncritical viewing. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Movies on TV This Christmas - bah humbug!

Although I threatened previously to stop doing this, it has unfortunately become traditional for me to comment on the film choices on British television each festive season. Long gone are the days when I would await the fortnightly Christmas edition of the Radio Times with baited breath. Now one's sources of film viewing are so broad via satellite, streaming, and the internet generally, to say nothing about actually visiting ones local cinema, that it is becoming impossible for the television schedulers to offer us much in the way of 'treats'. I doubt that many are looking forward to the umpteenth showings of the popular animations of the last fifteen years -- but perhaps it keeps the kiddies quiet.

Of the 34 film premieres on Freeview over the next fourteen days (yes, I did count them), there are only five movies that I have not already seen. I suppose I should count my small blessings. This is omitting FilmFour (which has all of two premiere showings -- neither to write home about.) Once one has deleted the made-for-television Christmas flicks and the really dire children's fodder, one is left with 21 'real' films which this scribe has previously viewed -- and since these 21 include three of the highest-grossing films ever ("Skyfall", "Avengers Assemble", and "The Dark Knight") I would surmise that plenty of others have also seen a fair number of then. The premieres include the classic Disney animations "Cinderella" (1950) and "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" (1960) which may be their first showings on the box, but hardly 'new' to most of us.

As always the premieres are heavy on animation -- not much else on Christmas Day, the best of these being "Puss in Boots" and "Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists". There are some real 'turkeys' among the remaining 'live action' movies like "John Carter" and "Wanderlust", but the recommendable ones include "Gran Torino" (from back in 2008), "Men in Black 3" (this series is always fun), and "The Help" (a remarkably clever film). There's not much else to tempt the discerning adult.

Of course there is the usual sprinkling of 'classic' charmers (what the Radio Times euphemistically call 'another chance to see') like "Casablanca", "It's a Wonderful Life", "The Wizard of Oz", "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "Singin' in the Rain" -- but we seem to get the same selection every year. What about less-known 'oldies' and non-English language premieres and 'classics' -- there is nary a one in the schedules.

In case you want to know, the five premieres that PPP has not seen and which she will therefore definitely schedule (you all know I'm a completist!) are "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen", "Hunky Dory", "The Raven", "The Look of Love", and "Quartet".  All of these were previously shown on Sky Box Office, only to fall between the cracks, never shown on Sky Premiere, and left to surface on terrestrial TV in very due course, leaving literally dozens of movies which appear to have disappeared completely. I should add that none of the five, except possibly "Quartet" are films which get me the least bit excited. Meanwhile Sky will be screening both "Frozen" and "The Lego Movie" (neither of which I've seen) -- two more kiddie flicks for the child in all of us.

While I'm having my usual Christmas moan, I should add that there is also a dearth of film-related other programming. The usual' let's make a stupid list' compilations are all repeats and the only two new bios are Darcey Burrell on Audrey Hepburn and a documentary on Julie Walters. Yawn, yawn, yawn...

I would hate to leave my readers with any damper on their seasonal spirits, so let me wish you all a joyful holiday season and a productive and peaceful New Year. I'll be back in 2015, hopefully with renewed enthusiasms.
 

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