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Saturday, 22 July 2017

GIrl with all the Gifts...continued

My computer has now died the death and I am trying with some difficulty to complete this on my IPad. 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 blonde and blue-eyed and her teacher is black, but the races are reversed in the film. When their army base is attacked by the zombie hordes, the pair escape with Close and a pair of soldiers. It is then a scramble to stay safe and fed until they can be rescued.

However it soon becomes clear that there is no longer a safe haven and that the virus is on the verge of mutating into an airborne killer that will mark the end of mankind. One believes that a happy ending will be found by Dr Close and the precocious child -- but Melanie has other 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.

I will edit this further if ever ny computer returns to life since IPadding it is just too frustrating!

The Girl with all the Gifts (2016)

My computer seems to be having some sort of nervous breakdown at present, so goodness only knows if I'll actually be able to complete this review -- but I shall carry on regardless (as the film title would have it...)

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 -- and 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 but stand stock still until they get a whiff of fresh blood.

The movie begins as we are introduced to a pack of wheelchair bound kiddies being wheeled into their classroom for lessons from the fragrant Gemma Arterton (glammed down with little make-up). They seem harmless enough and wonder why the attendant soldiers treat them so brutally. We soon learn that they are the second generation of the broadly infected 'hungries' who 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 in turn to develop an antidote.

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.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Nightcrawler (2014)

I am more than a little mystified as to why this movie has as high a rating on IMDb as it does: 7.9/, when so few films break the 8/- barrier on users' votes. Myself, I would be hard-pressed to grant it even a 7/- despite it being well-made, photographed, and acted. The problem is that although the movie holds the viewer's attention, it is unrelentingly and irredeemably nasty, leaving a bitter taste by the film's end.

I can not agree as some argue that it is a scathing satire, since I suspect it is remarkably true to reality. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an immoral petty thief anxious to make his mark in the world. His 'lightbulb' moment arrives when he sees news cameramen at a crash site, videoing all the gory details amongst the gawkers. It seems that there is a profitable television audience for such footage. So Louis hocks his racing bike ("I rode it to win the Tour of Mexico" he claims) in exchange for a video camera and a police-frequency short wave radio. Now armed he can join the horde of gore-seekers who trawl the night streets in search of the latest bit of sensational slaughter with which to titillate the public.

Bloom finds an eager ally in Rene Russo, the news editor for a second-tier local television channel who is willing to pay good money for the latest scoop. Now in her sixties, she's still well preserved, but there is something very creepy about Bloom's making sexual overtures in her direction. "I'm twice your age", she protests; and while this is not quite accurate, it could be, with Gyllenhaal playing younger than his actual age. For this role he has lost weight, leaving him looking sallow, wasted and totally untrustworthy.

As he becomes more successful in getting to crime scenes first, he becomes more and more megalomaniacal, starring as the hero in his own make-believe world. He's driven, money-hungry, and not adverse to breaking the law in pursuit of unpalatable footage. He's a latter-day Weegee, with no redeeming qualities. He even withholds information which would lead the police to a pair of murderers in the hope of being there to record their capture in a dramatically satisfying scenario. He is without morals, seeing himself as invincible, and happy to sacrifice his underpaid assistant, Riz Ahmed, among the slaughtered.

Ahmed, an ethnic British hip-hop artist and actor in minor crime flicks, has made a surprising break-out in the U.S. market, with recent roles in "Jason Bourne" and "Rogue One", as well as the well-received mini-series "The Night of". Here he plays Bloom's naïve, but willing sidekick, paid a pittance, but promised great things by his manipulative boss. His puppy-like character really throws a spotlight on just how despicable a human being Bloom's 'nightcrawler' is. There is no comeuppance!

It's the perfect title for this movie. Bloom, in his relentless manipulation of truth and decency, comes across as some sort of creepy-crawly worm or snake that one would be advised to crush under one's heel.   

Friday, 5 May 2017

Carol (2015)

This movie may have been nominated for six Academy Awards -- none of which it won, but I must confess I didn't much like it. Thinking about this I remembered that I didn't reckon Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning turn in "Blue Jasmine", one of the seven Oscar nominations she's received, including one for the above film. and I think my main problem is with the actress herself.

She won best supporting actress for "The Aviator" which was an ever-so brief impersonation of Katherine Hepburn (big deal) and was also nominated for her two "Elizabeth" films, "Notes on Scandal", and "I'm not There".  I wasn't taken with any of these performances. I would not dream of questioning her acting chops which verge on the formidable, but I find her characterizations cold and bloodless. Like her Hepburn turn she comes across as impersonating the characters she plays, rather than inhabiting them. There's a kind of 'look-at-me' show-off feel to all of them. Even her Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies remains lifeless. I wish I knew what all the fuss is about.

In this movie she plays a bored, rich wife on the edge of divorce who takes up with shop-girl Rooney Mara (also Oscar-nominated, but for best supporting actress, although her role is on a par with Blanchett's). A full-blooded lesbian affair develops, and one suspects that part of the reason the pair both received nominations was for one 'brave' and fairly graphic lesbian scene; however this was in no way as erotic as some of the action in "The Handmaiden" which I reviewed last week. The chemistry between the two main characters never felt quite convincing, with Blanchett's Carol just looking for an escape from the nasty details of her pending divorce and Rooney's Therese letting herself drift into a new experience -- something of an exit from her humdrum existence. That deeper feelings developed from this in both of them remains a little unconvincing.

The only other female character, Carol's best friend Sarah Paulsen with whom she indeed had a lesbian relationship previously, is somewhat underplayed and all of the male characters are largely ciphers. Kyle Chandler plays Carol's husband as a vindictive drunk eager to get full custody of their child on a morals clause. The daughter in question is something of a red herring and Carol's professed love for the child never rings completely true; she wants joint custody but not at the expense of her own whims.

Of rather greater interest than the movie is the backstory of the novel on which it is based. Respected novelist Patricia Highsmith was advised by her publishes that a lesbian love-story, purportedly semi-autobiographical, would be career suicide, so "The Price of Salt" was published in 1952 under a pseudonym. It then fell out of print until the 80s when a Sapphic publishing house offered Highsmith one sum to re-publish under the real author's name or a lesser sum to re-publish it under the previous pen-name. It did not then appear as a Highsmith novel, now renamed "Carol" until 1990, towards the end of the author's life.

The 50's atmosphere is nicely invoked through the film's nominated set design and costuming, but the story could have played out just as well in another period. It's interesting that there was no Oscar nomination for director Todd Haynes, who rather more movingly directed Julianne Moore in another period forbidden love affair, 2002's "Far From Heaven". He may be a virtuoso woman's director, but "Carol" is the less involving of the two films.

Although the viewer is left hanging at the end of this film, it is pretty clear that the two main characters will find some kind of future together. Interestingly enough "The Price of Salt" is the only Highsmith work with a relatively happy ending -- one that the author might have wished for herself at the time in her disguise as the Therese character.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook is a fascinating director -- not exactly prolific but endlessly inventive. I've not seen all of this Korean auteur's films but I'm particularly fond of his 'Vengeance Trilogy': Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) -- his best-known flick, and "Lady Vengeance" (2005). I didn't much care for his quirky "I'm a Cyborg" (2006) nor his foray into English-language film-making with 2013's "Stoker" (something of a misstep I felt without the exoticism of his usual Korean cast). However, "Thirst" (2009) offered an interesting oriental slant on vampirism and he is back on top form with his latest film above.

He has taken the English novel "Fingersmith" and transported the action from turn-of-the-century England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, when mores and attitudes were still firmly 'Victorian'. This very long film is divided into three chapters, each largely (but not entirely) from the perspective of the three main characters. However this is not a latter-day "Rashomon" where we must guess which version is the real truth, but rather a gradual unveiling of a single truth. While we remain transfixed by the aesthetic opulence on display in the film's beautifully-crafted set decoration, make-up, and costuming, we don't immediately realise how we are being 'played' by the different storytellers. We do not know until the very end what or whom to believe.

Ex-pickpocket Sook-Hee is installed as the new personal maid-servant to Japanese-born heiress Lady Hideko on the recommendation of one 'Count' Fujiwara (actually a low-born Korean swindler who is scheming to take control of her fortune). To this end his competition is her elderly Uncle Kouzuki, who also covets his ward. He has kept Hideko isolated on his vast country estate, only letting her surface to read passages from his famous collection of erotica to a lusting audience. He has so far financed his lifestyle by selling the occasional rare book, except he can't bear to be separated from any part of his library and has used Fujiwara to prepare clever forgeries.

The 'Count' wants Sook-Hee to wage a war of attrition, promoting his rare qualities to the naïve and trusting Hideko. However a teasing and lustful intimacy soon develops between the two women, as the handmaiden indoctrinates the heiress into the ways of sexual love -- such as a man might expect. Fujiwara's fiendish plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, and have her confined to a madhouse, leaving him to enjoy the fruits of his wickedness, and having promised Sook-hee a relative pittance for helping him. To escape the unwanted attentions of her Uncle, Hideko eventually agrees to run away with him -- but only if Soon-hee can come as well. However the first chapter ends with the pair depositing the now well-dressed maid at the Dickensian loony-bin pretending that she is in fact the 'mad' Hideko. 

With chapters two and three we continue to gather previously unknown and withheld information about this trio and their interrelationship, leaving us to discover what secret game each of them is playing. At a bum-numbing 145 minutes the film manages to hold the viewer's attention with only minor gaps. One remains hypnotised not just by the gorgeous visuals but for a genuine desire to understand these complicated characters and to discover which of them will receive their just desserts. The true story emerges with Hitchcockian suspense while we are invited meanwhile to wallow in its depravity and raw sex.

It's a masterpiece of film-making which Park might never better, but he probably still has many years ahead of him and may well have further treats in store for us. I do hope so!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Paradise Alley (1962)

My love affair with the Showcase Channel is beginning to fade as they seem to have a limited number of movies in their repertoire, which they keep repeating, and the screenings are interrupted willy-nilly by ads with depressing frequency. However I still have a backlog to get through and hope that some new offerings might surface, so I'm enjoying the channel -- for now. This week I watched a selection of what I can only call French farces -- not quite up to the level of God coming down to earth -- but with some modest entertainment value. First up was "Proper Attire Required" (1997) where a pauper who has wrecked a taxi-driver's Audi is mistakenly supposed to be the feared expected Audi-tor by some corrupt hotel managers, who wine and dine him in error. It was all rather sweet but silly, especially since the script failed to wrap up the fate of some country bumpkins who were trapped in the meat locker and who have probably frozen to death by now.

Even more minor was "Love Vertigo" (2001) where a potential groom develops wedding jitters and envisions various scenarios before the bride backs out of marrying him. The main point of interest was his clandestine love interest played by Julie Gayet, who now sixteen years on has become M. Hollande's paramour. The short movie "Versailles Rive-Gauche" (1992) was also mildly amusing as everyman-schmo Denis Podalydes strives to impress the young lady who has come to dinner, while his mini flat is increasingly invaded by an assortment of family, friends, drunks, and a five-piece band who have lost their rehearsal space.

But on to the above-captioned film which is not to be confused with the later Stallone vehicle of the same title. This is a fascinating little poverty row movie which probably deserves cult status, if only it was not so difficult to access a copy. It was written, directed, and produced by Hugo Haas, who also takes the lead role -- so 'vanity project' doesn't begin to cover it. Haas was a popular Czech film star in the 1930s, but forced to emigrate with the Nazi invasion. He started small in America doing voice-overs in propaganda films and moved on to character parts after the war. When he had earned sufficient dollars, he began churning out his own B-movie potboilers, usually sensationalistic in feel, casting himself in "Blue Angel" scenarios of the older intelligent man who is besotted with a young hussy.

In this his last film -- actually shot in 1958 but not released until 1961/62 -- he changes pace by playing a down-on-his-luck 'actor' who takes lodging in a seedy boarding house in the condemned area of the title. It turns out however that he was once a famed director of classic films, Karl von Stallburg, who was committed to a sanatorium by greedy relatives. On his release, he lands in this quasi-slum where he is horrified by bickering neighbours and would-be juvenile delinquents. By chance one of the lonely residents is a veteran cameraman, played by silent comic Chester Conklin, who has kept his (non-working) camera as a memento, along with other movie memorabilia. Between them they concoct a plan to shoot a documentary in the Alley, provisionally entitled "The Chosen and the Condemned" -- only without any film in the camera. They see this as a means of healing the neighbourhood since of course EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES!

The film is mainly notable for its cast of old-timers which include Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), Billy Gilbert (known for his sneezing routines and a classic comic foil), Marie Windsor (still a sexpot in her forties), Corinne Griffith (a star of the silent screen), and other even more minor players. Unfortunately the love interest young leads are taken by Don Sullivan (whose two previous roles were in "The Giant Gila Monster" and "Teenage Zombies") and Carol Morris who is credited as "Miss Universe" (Lord knows when!) Despite this mishmash of players the story develops nicely with the enthusiasm of the local residents, eager to shine in this make-believe film. It even manages to heal the ongoing spat between Hamilton and Gilbert when she is cast as a disguised Russian countess whose hand he must kiss. When they finally 'shoot' this scene, it turns out that she has soaked her hand in vinegar, to the general amusement of all.

Since this strange fable is really a sort of fairy tale, some studio bigwigs get wind of the wheeze and offer to finance making the movie a reality, agreeing to put all of these would-be actors on their payroll. Yeah, yeah, yeah! 

Haas is a largely forgotten figure in Hollywood history, but he deserves to be remembered, if only for this unusual swan song.  

Friday, 14 April 2017

Showcase on European Cinema

I am ever on the lookout for new sources for watching relatively obscure foreign-language movies, but every time I find an unheralded satellite channel with imaginative schedules, the channel in question seems to be doomed -- i.e. insufficient viewers to attract the necessary advertisers to support it. The subscription channel CineMoi was a sad instance of this, disappearing up its own whatsit within a year -- and there were earlier instances too.

Therefore I was completely charmed to discover that the hitherto boring channel Showtime now screens what they label "Eurocinema" between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. daily with an hour out for some weird Chinese programme. I discovered this recently when the ShowBiz Channel (showing the occasional film programme of interest) went suddenly out of business -- literally a case of here today and gone tomorrow.  Since there are an inordinate number of minor satellite channels whose listings are considered too obscure to be included in any of the standard newspaper or magazine programme listings, I have made a point once a week to check out the forward schedules on various channels (Talking Pictures, Movies 24, True Movies etc.) on my DigiGuide for which I pay an annual subscription.

With Showbiz disappearing I noticed that I had not checked Showtime for a while since most of their film offerings were in "The Attack of the Giant Leeches" or "I was a Teenaged Caveman" category. So when I checked that channel a few weeks back, I made the happy discovery outlined above. I have no idea when they started this European strand (or how long I've been missing out on it) nor how long it will last given past disappointments. So I am recording as many movies that I've not seen previously to my hard disc and hope to get through these before yet another channel bites the dust.

It's an interesting assortment of films, many of which I've not heard of previously, so I'm looking forward to some happy viewing while this source lasts. So far I've watched the Russian flick "Taxi Blues" (1990) which has been on my 'would like to see' list for a while (I didn't actually reckon it much in the end although it is well thought of) and several very strange short films. However the pick of the bunch so far has been "Let There be Light" (1998) a charming, French fantasy film from director Arthur Joffe, whose filmography is otherwise short and fairly undistinguished.

It seems that God has written a screenplay (as thick as a Bible) and wants to go down to earth to have it filmed. Since the Almighty is invisible, he needs to assume a corporeal presence and moves from body to body (including a cat and a pigeon) as the mood takes him; we can tell where he is at any moment since the host body develops a noticeable eye twitch. In fact his shape-shifting is so volatile that it is hard to keep tract and a number of familiar French faces such as Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale have cameos so brief that they literally pass in the blink of an eye. This taking over of unsuspecting bodies reminded me strongly of the cult horror movie "The Hidden" (1987), but with a very different agenda. God is accompanied throughout by his assistant and sidekick angel played by Ticky Holgado who bemoans that he has not yet received some fully functional wings and who improvises makeshift ones throughout.

Eventually God finds would-be filmmaker Jeanne winningly played by Helene de Fougerolles (another new name to me) who eventually manages to shoot his script despite studio interference from Tcheky Karyo, who is in fact playing the Devil. God is particularly keen on this namesake of Joan of Arc on whom he 'had a crush' and whose fate he has been regretting for centuries. When the finished film is finally screened the audience members are completely charmed since what they are viewing is exactly what each of them would most wish to see in a movie, which of course is different for everyone. Even Karyo can not restrain his laughter and they all go soaring off into the sky, just like the final scene in "Miracle in Milan" (1951). It's a strange but ultimately satisfying film that could only have been made in France. I shudder to think what a U.S remake might be like.

I've also discovered that Showcase has a sister channel, Showcase 3, which is still largely screening B-movies although occasional cult movies like "Beat the Devil" (1953) and "The Great Flamarion" (1945) can be found in their schedules. To my amazement, last week that channel screened "The End of St Petersburg" (1927) which ran 20 minutes longer than my own copy and which also boasted a fine orchestral score -- my previous copy was really a 'silent' movie.

I'll keep my fingers crossed for Showcase. Long may it wave!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

It's been a while since I was keen on anime based on Japanese manga. My initial enthusiasm for the likes of "Akira" (1988) and "Legend of the Overfiend" (1989) waned sharply and by the time I got around to watching the 1995 anime of the above movie I had just about lost interest. Therefore I can not join the legion of fanboys who claim that this new movie is a complete betrayal of that mind-bending original.

Let's be honest, this Scarlett Johansson starrer is not a remake of the anime, but rather a dumbed down, or to be less pejorative,  a simplified take on the concepts of the original manga. Johansson plays a hybrid human-android warrior trained to fight against cyber-terrorism in a cityscape of the future -- an imaginatively designed amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and the L.A. of "Blade Runner". She is the invincible Major, a triumph of design by cyber-scientist Juliette Binoche -- a sexless feminine fighting machine or as the New York Times described her "a giant dream Barbie, hairless pubis and all". (One might note here that the same character in the anime had noticeably prominent nipples). The 'ghost' in her shell are her earlier human memories and her soul. The film's poser is 'what is it like to be human in a synthetic body?'

Her sidekick Batou is played by a beefed-up Pilou Asbaek, who like many of the city's denizens has some cyber enhancements, in his case upgraded eyeballs which I found rather disturbing. Johansson must have a soft spot for this Danish actor since he also had a small part in her recent "Lucy". The biggest name in the supporting cast however is the iconic Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano who plays the Major's aging controller. It's fascinating that all of his dialogue is in subtitled Japanese while everyone else speaks English, but I guess in a cyber-society everyone has the built-in facility for instantaneous translations. There are a few agreeable nods to his own penchant for stylish violence. For example when the big baddy sends his goons to try to assassinate him, he makes short work of them quipping that it is pointless to send rabbits to kill a fox. Otherwise the cast was filled out with little-known players -- but then again it is really Scarlett's show.

Directed by ad-man Rupert Sanders, whose previous film "Snow White and the Huntsman" was singularly underwhelming, he has produced along with a technical staff of thousands a feast of eye candy. With incredibly inventive cinematography and visuals one can predict the movie's winning a number of technical Oscars, but the film itself is far from coherent or thrilling. The nub of the story is that the Major was the first successful prototype after a slew of failures and the corporation behind her are really only interested in her kind as weapons of mass destruction. Johansson continues here with her action roles from the Marvel movies and her idiosyncratic sci-fi roles that began with "Lucy" and "Under the Skin". However, none of these movies do much to spotlight her acting chops.

Another hoo-hah has been that the role should have been given to an oriental actress rather than a dishy Caucasian. This complaint is a little idiotic since the heroines in manga anime seldom look remotely oriental. The writers have addressed the controversy by suggesting that Major's original 'ghost' was in fact Japanese and that she has had false memories implanted, but I doubt that this argument is sufficient to satisfy the nay-sayers.

All in all this was an enjoyable movie to watch largely because of the ravishing visuals. I think a neat little analogy lurks here. The 'ghost' of the first challenging film can be found in the 'shell' of this second simplified extravaganza. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Little Thief (1988)

The screenplay for the above film was co-written by Francois Truffaut who hoped to direct it as well, but died before he was able to do so, landing the script with the more pedestrian Claude Miller. One can see why it would have been a pet project for Truffaut since it is the distaff side of his famed "The 400 Blows" (1958). Instead of charting the history of a troubled and anti-social youth, the story here is of 16-year old Janine, brought winningly to life by 17-year old Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Set in the years shortly after the Second World War, Janine is a compulsive thief, cutting a lonely yet somehow sympathetic figure. Abandoned by her mother and unloved by the stern aunt with whom she lives, her only outlet is through the theft of articles that she hoards rather than desires and cash from the local church to fund her cinema obsession. Forced first from her school and then from her village, she lies to secure the position of maid in a grand house in a nearby town, escaping to the ready-made dreams of the local cinema on her days off. There she meets an older married man, Didier Bezace, 42 to her 16 and tries to entice him to deflower her. He is horrified at the suggestion that he should do this, so she quickly contrives to lose her virginity to a workman in the house and subsequently presents herself to Bezace as an experienced 'woman'. He no longer resists the temptation and a clandestine relationship ensues. Mind you, this is no 'Lolita' fantasy; she's far from a simpering innocent and knows exactly what she wants. In his favour he does his best to educate her in the ways of the world and enrols her in a secretarial course as a step up from domestic service. However she soon becomes enamoured of a young thief and casts her older lover adrift. 

Her new paramour is played by Simon de la Brosse a charismatic 23-year old who committed suicide a few years later. He encourages her to steal from the household where she's been working (much to the dismay of her mistress who has tried her best to befriend the girl), and off the pair go on the run until their romantic idyll ends with a police raid. He escapes capture but she ends up in a drab borstal overseen by a pack of stern nuns, dreaming of escape and reuniting with her lover. When she and a new friend manage to break out, there is no welcome for her anywhere, but armed with the camera her friend has given her she hopes for an independent and crime-free future. We in turn wish her well despite any lingering doubts.

The film verges on the plodding, as scene follows scene in unearthing her sorry progression, but Gainsbourg holds one's attention and saves the film from drowning in its own misery. She's a fascinating actress. Here she is an odd-looking but not unattractive teenager. As she grew older her looks became progressively strange, but were tempered by her growing prowess as an actress. There is no law that says lead actresses have to be raving beauties. She made her feature debut as a 13-year old and the above movie was her seventh. She won a Cesar in 1986 as most promising newcomer and went on to win a best actress award in Cannes in 2009. She relishes challenging roles -- one has only to look at the parts she has taken for Lars von Trier --and she has remained an intriguing player throughout her long and successful career.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Surprise of "The Surprise" (2015)

It's been a hectic weekend filled with enjoyable celebrations, delaying my regular Friday blog until today. Then there was the problem of deciding which movie to spotlight.

Usually if I go to the cinema to watch a film, whether repertory or modern release, that movie gets pride of place. However I note that an outing to the National Film Theatre at the start of the month got buried when I decided to review "Elle" instead. The movie in question was "Dernier Atout" (1942) from reliable director Jacques Becker. Folks, this Vichy-era potboiler was so forgettable that I needed to remind myself a few minutes ago what in fact it was about. And please don't ask me why we chose to book tickets for it in the first place. It's a contemporary crime melodrama set in a fictitious South American country, since of course there was no crime whatsoever in German-occupied France at the time. Pierre Renoir (son of the artist and older brother of the director) plays a slimy crook out to retrieve the fortune stolen from him by an erstwhile colleague. There's a murder and a lot of business over a string of pearls which may or may not be genuine. And since the senior policemen are all buffoons, the crime is investigated by a pair of new graduates from the police academy, assisted by their jolly mates. The only trouble is that they all looked as if they were pushing forty... Hugely forgettable.

I have written previously that not all foreign films are worth the effort of seeking them out, although fortunately many of them are; and it is a rule of Patty's thumb to watch as many foreign-language movies as possible in search of the occasional gem. Looking back at the other foreign films that I have seen since the beginning of March, it's very much the traditional parsons egg. From my film diary I can report that I have seen the Belgian flick "2 Days, One Night" a worthy effort from the Dardennes, starring Marion Cotillard trying to get her job back and her colleagues wanting to keep their bonus if she is laid off. Yawn! Then there was "The Cow and I", a French movie from 1959 starring the ever droll Fernandel as a prisoner of war in Germany trying to get back to France with a cow in tow as a disguise; quite sweet but sufficiently long that it became a shaggy-cow story. On Netflix I caught up with "The Clouds of Sils Maria" (2014) for which Kristen Stewart won a Cesar award -- why, I can't begin to imagine -- since she didn't even attempt to speak French in this French-made movie starring Juliette Binoche, and the film itself was really nothing special. I also finally saw "Ida" the Polish foreign film winner from a few years ago where a novice nun discovers that she is really Jewish...absorbing, but her flawed and dissolute aunt was the more interesting character, as they strove to discover what had become of her parents during the Holocaust.

I'm not done yet! I also watched "The Tale of Tsar Saltan", a colourful Russian animation from 1984 of the classic fairy tale (and I have the older live-action version languishing in my backlog of movies to view). And while strictly not a foreign film, since America-made and largely in English, the 2016 documentary "The Lovers and the Despot" tells a fascinating saga of the abduction of a famous South Korean actress and her director-husband to North Korea to create more kudos for dictator and film-buff Kim, with plenty of subtitled Korean talking heads.

As I have mentioned before Sky Cinema is currently gifting its subscribers a new foreign film premiere every Wednesday. This month I started watching but gave up on French flick "Summertime" (2015) with Cecille de France establishing her lesbian credentials during a 'summer of love' and "Game On" (2016) a largely sung Polish tale of a street artist forsaking her dreams to look after her family who are about to be evicted. It is meant to be cheery but it struck me as dreary. That's two movies whose ends will never be seen by yours truly.

"The Commune" (2016) is a watchable but ultimately depressing film about a rich, hipster couple who decide to turn their large villa into an experiment in living with other like-minded folk (who largely came across as a bunch of freeloaders). Everything is more or less hunky-dory until the husband decides that his mistress should move in as well.

Finally there was one more than pleasant surprise, a Dutch movie from 2015 actually called "The Surprise". Written and directed by Mike van Dien, it is his first feature film in eighteen years since his Oscar-winning "Character" (1997). It's an Wes Anderson-esque fable of a wealthy youngish man who feels he has nothing to live for when his overbearing but beloved mother dies. His own pathetic attempts at suicide having failed, he contacts a covert organisation that arranges a speedy dispatch for rich clients eager to shuck off the mortal coil. He chooses the option for his death to come when least expected, and returns to his sprawling fairy-tale estate to dismiss the servants and to await the end. However to his dismay and amazement he begins to fall in  love with a young lady he encountered in the coffin-choosing room, despite clients being forbidden to fraternize. He now wants to cancel the contracts on his beloved and himself, but that too is against the rules according to the company's head honcho, English actor Henry Goodman and his goon-like gang of sons. Goodman is the only player known to me in the otherwise Dutch cast, but they all are splendid, especially the rather moving sub-plot of the estate's old-faithful head gardener who yearns to join his recently deceased wife.  Despite the black subject matter, this movie is indeed a rather jolly and ultimately satisfying confection. Recommended.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Elle (2016)

This long and masterful film from provocateur Paul Verhoeven is totally absorbing, always shocking, never boring, thoroughly thought-provoking...but a hard movie to actually like. It's the first feature from the Dutch-born director since 2006's "Black Book", with only a 2012 short "Tricked" surfacing during this ten-year hiatus. Few would argue that Verhoeven is not an accomplished film-maker with a number of amazing movies dating back to the late 70s/early 80s, but I would guess that his controversial approach to his subject matter and the many (largely unfounded) accusations of misogyny make finding finance for his projects an uphill battle.

I understand that this movie was originally intended as a U.S. production, but a series of A-list actresses including Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, and Diane Lane took one look at the script and rapidly turned away. So eventually the project moved to Europe where a further selection of mature actresses didn't want to know. Enter Isabelle Huppert, long noted for her challenging and often sex-obsessed roles, working with directors such as Haneke and Chabrol, who had read the book on which the film is based and who actually sought out Verhoeven as the most suitable director. It is a match made in Heaven -- or possibly Hell.

She plays a middle-aged divorcee with a highly successful video games company, run jointly with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and a bottomless sexual appetite. We are introduced to her character in the movie's opening seconds when she is attacked at home by a masked intruder and brutally beaten and raped. The only witness is her smug cat, who silently watches as she tidies the mess of broken crockery, bathes, and calmly orders in some sushi. Reporting the atrocity to the police is not even a consideration and one begins to wonder whether she somehow perversely enjoyed this home invasion.

We soon learn that she is not a very pleasant person, disliked by most of her young techy staff, casually fornicating with Anna's husband, masturbating as she watches a dishy neighbour through spyglasses, losing patience with her dim-bulb son whose bossy girlfriend has just given birth to a baby that can't possibly be his (it's more than several shades too dark), and berating her botox-obsessed mother (veteran actress Judith Magre born 1926) who is planning to marry her sexy toyboy. Huppert's is a brave and bravura performance sprinkled with occasional nudity, hard to believe that the actress is 63. She's a very flawed heroine, but you can't take your eyes off of her nor stop wondering how the story will develop.

Halfway through we discover the gruesome facts of her family background, which might partially explain her own tightly-controlled behaviour. We also learn the identity of the masked intruder, but revenge is not what this film is about. She continues to plough her own path, albeit with the implication that a more rational and thoughtful persona is fighting to emerge, after a series of traumatic developments.

Some critics are saying that this movie is Verhoeven's masterpiece, his best-ever film, but I would not agree. I have a lot of time for "Black Book" which was actually in 2008 voted the best Dutch movie of all time by his countrymen and I am also fond of some of his very accomplished early films like "Soldier of Orange" and "The Fourth Man". No longer much of a Hollywood player despite a successful run of 90s movies, this is his first French production (a language in which he was not even previously fluent). The movie premiered at Cannes, not let it be said to universal acclaim, but it is brilliantly conceived, constructed, and acted. 

When I wrote about this year's Oscars I said that it was a shame that the nominated Huppert didn't win over the predictably likeable performance of Emma Stone in "La La Land". Having now seen "Elle", I can't say that I'm really surprised. With her no-holds barred performance Huppert does indeed out-act virtually any other actress, it's just that the character she plays is so very difficult to like and by association to honour.