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Friday, 19 August 2016

Topaze (1933)

Don't confuse this film with Hitchcock's 1969 movie of more or less the same name, which in my opinion is undoubtedly the worst of his amazing output. What we have here is a little-known and completely charming outing from my great fave John Barrymore. Written by Ben Hecht and based on a Marcel Pagnol play which ran on Broadway for over 200 performances in 1930, this is not the grand-standing, self-loving Barrymore of so many of his roles, but cast against type as a self-effacing and naïve schoolmaster trying to drum moralistic platitudes into his surly charges. When he fails Jackie Searl's Charlemagne, spoiled bratty son of Baron and Baroness de la Tour-la-Tour, he is summarily dismissed from his post.

As luck would have it, he is immediately taken up by the Baron as a suitable scientific stooge to promote the health-giving properties of his bottled water. Professor Topaze really believes that his research has produced a pure and beneficial beverage and is thrilled to see 'Sparkling Topaze' promoted to the public. When he eventually learns that the Baron has been marketing adulterated tap-water, the worm begins to turn. Rather than inform the authorities, many of whom are actually on the Baron's payroll (and they have just awarded him the 'medal of merit' that he long coveted as a teacher), he begins to realise that nice guys finish last in this dog-eat-dog world. His conversion is beautifully played as he enlists the aid of the Baron's mistress (Myrna Loy, sparkling as ever) and employs the Baron's own blackmailing methods to secure his future.

Apart from Barrymore and Loy the film does not boast an A-list cast but they all do beautifully, especially Reginald Mason as the Baron, the toy-dog-toting Jobyna Howland as his formidable wife, and Luis Alberni as the Baron's previous pseudo-scientist. The movie was directed by the marvellously-named Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast. The story is that he met an American director while they were both recuperating in an army hospital during World War I, who urged him to come to Hollywood. He did, starting as a researcher and assistant-director before moving into the director's chair in 1927, helming little of note other than "Laughter" (1930). He directed his last film in 1935 before moving back to Europe where he made his living off the roulette tables. On the strength of the sophisticated direction shown in "Topaze", one can but wonder whether his move was our loss.

As a pre-code movie, no shame is placed on Loy and Mason's illicit relationship and we even see him sharing a double bed (unheard of subsequently for years) with the Baroness and her yapping pooch. When they tried to re-release the film in the mid-thirties, the Hays Office refused a certificate on moral grounds. It ends with a lovely sight-gag as Barrymore and his new friend Loy enter a movie-house whose marquee reads "Men, Women, and Sin -- Twice Daily".  The phony water may have been marketed as 'Sparkling Topaze' but that is an apt description for the film as well.

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A bit of housekeeping: here's advance warning that I will not be blogging next Friday. No, it's not the FrightFest marathon again which starts on Thursday as we have finally decided enough is enough, especially since the organizers have moved the venue to a hard-to-reach shopping centre in West London. In addition the programme seems a little less scintillating than usual. However, to keep our hand in, we have booked tickets to a trio of the more interesting-sounding offerings and my report will follow in due course. 'Til then....

Friday, 12 August 2016

He Ain't Heavy...

...He's my brother. I actually saw a film some years ago whose title has faded from memory, but the denouement had one young man carrying his brother in his arms with the words from the well-known song. I may have forgotten the movie, but I remember the scene.

There have been dozens -- nay hundreds -- of movies about the rivalry between brothers and the complexities of their relationship. Come to think of it, there have been plenty of films about sisters as well, but we're looking at brothers today. The topic rose its head when I finally got around to clearing two films that have been lurking on my hard disc "Blood Ties" and "Out of the Furnace", both from 2013. However not only are both movies about pairs of brothers (Clive Owen and Billy Crudup in the first and Christian Bale and Casey Affleck in the second) but they have an eerie number of points in common. Both feature ridiculously starry casts for what turns out to be fairly generic film-making, both families have long-dead mothers and on-their-deathbed fathers, amusingly both feature Zoe Saldana as a love interest, and both have scary baddies to deal with (Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts as Saldana's jailed ex and Woody Harrelson in all-out psycho-mode, a far cry from the Woody of "Cheers".)

"Blood Ties" directed by Guillame Canet is a remake of a French flick and is set in the 1970s, although it could just as easily have been contemporary, while the setting for "Furnace" is a dying Pennsylvania steel town where Bale accepts his fate of working at the mill for as long as the mill manages to keep operating. Affleck has just returned from four tours of duty in Afghanistan and wants more from life. It's "Deer Hunter" country and were Affleck a Vietnam vet this film too could be a nod to the 70s.

The two storylines however are decidedly different. "Blood Ties" deals with the old cliché of a career criminal brother (Owen) having a career cop for a brother. Crudup is trying to make a go of it with Saldana -- the jailed Schoenaerts' Ex. He wants to help the just-released con make a fresh start, especially since his own temerity as a youngster caused big brother's first arrest; but Owen can't hack it in the straight world. He's soon involved in contract killing, drugs, and prostitution. Brotherly love continues to exist between the pair, but it's repressed, and it only surfaces at the film's denouement, when this relatively slow-going movie suddenly becomes rather more dramatic. James Caan, Noah Emmerich, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, and Lili Taylor round out this all-star production. 

As for Bale and Affleck, supported by Sam Shepard, Willem Defoe, Forest Whitaker, and the aforementioned Harrelson and Saldana, their deep feelings for each other are never put in doubt. However when Bale is briefly jailed for driving under the influence, Affleck decides that he can make more money with outlawed bare-knuckle fighting than trudging to the mill each day. He bullies local crook Dafoe into introducing him to hillbilly bad guy Harrelson in the wilds of New Jersey (?) with his gang of Appalachian outlaws and they both end up dead dead dead. Bale despairs that the local police won't take their finger out to help him find the initially just missing Affleck. When he learns that his brother is dead, revenge becomes his mission, through to the somewhat confusing final scene. This film is from director Scott Cooper, four years after directing Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in "Crazy Heart", and he gets good value from his A-list cast. It was possibly the tighter and better-made film of the two, although neither is likely to linger long in my memory.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Minions (2015)

I must be going soft in the head. After giving a thumbs-up review to "Scouts Guide..." (below), I now find myself enchanted by the little yellow minions movie -- much to my own amazement. A prequel to the two "Despicable Me" movies, we learn from Geoffrey Rush's narrator that the creatures, from prehistoric times, have strived to serve the most evil master they can find. I understand that this was all divulged in the film's trailer, which fortunately I have not seen, so it was amusing to see them chumming up to a fearsome dinosaur, an angry caveman, and even Count Dracula, only for them to be instrumental in killing off each new master. After a series of historical mishaps, the minions isolated themselves in a frozen waste with only the odd yeti as a potential boss.

When their leader Kevin, together with sidekicks Stuart and Bob, decides to venture forth into the 20th century in the search for a truly evil monster to serve, we join them on their frantic quest. Finally they arrive in New York, where they are greeted by a huge billboard promoting Richard Nixon: 'A man you can trust!'  They learn of a hush-hush convention in Orlando of the most wicked criminals in the world and hitch a ride with the all-American, all-larcenous Nelson family. In Orlando they are taken up by the infamous Scarlet Overkill, who whisks they off to England, tasking them to steal the Queen's crown -- seems that Scarlet has coveted this from girlhood -- and her new servants are delighted to do her bidding. Naturally complications ensue with Bob inadvertently being crowned King after idly plucking a sword from a stone; television news describes the new monarch as a jaundiced yellow child. He then abdicates in favour of Scarlet putting the crown within her grasp and she can now safely consign her minions to the torture chamber in the cellars. Fortunately they escape and are able to stop her coronation; however she is not so easily thwarted and a massive battle ensues, ending with the arrival of Despicable's Gru, the ultimate baddie for them to serve. And that's where we came in...

Now I found the first two movies reasonably droll without exactly being enraptured by them and I did not expect this film to be as entertaining as it is. Perhaps the fact that we get to know three of the little creatures (rather than the hundreds that normally swarm about) helps one to get emotionally involved in their fate and to root for their success. In addition, their unique language -- a mixture of English, Spanish, Yiddish, and Rubbish --creates an amusing gibberish which is just about understandable. I particularly loved the fact that little Bob acquires a pet rat in the sewers whom he addresses affectionately as 'putsi'. I also liked the recognizable animation of the London scene and Jennifer Saunders' voicing of the young Queen Elizabeth who uses her enforced break from ruling for a jolly knees-up with her erstwhile subjects.

However I must admit my continued puzzlement at the perceived necessity of using A-list actors to voice the main characters. I just don't see why having Sandra Bullock voicing Scarlet or Jon Hamm as her consort Herb or Michael Keaton and Allison Janney credited as Mr and Mrs Nelson helps the marketability of the flick. The movie is intended for children with some visual and verbal sops for the adults, and I very much doubt that the kids really care who's talking -- and none of the above achieve anything particularly memorable here. The joy is purely in the reasonably well-rounded animated characters themselves and not in their unrecognizable voices. The best vocal performance apart from Saunders is given by co-director Pierre Coffin who voiced all (repeat all) of the minions in the two earlier films and all of them here as well. I understand that he will now be directing "Despicable Me 3" soon to hit your multiplex. If he carries on doing such an amusing job, I shall be sure to see it, or as Kevin would exclaim 'Kumbaya!

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As a footnote to "Scouts Guide...", a number of the reviewers on IMDb comment that the movie is nowhere near as funny as "Cooties" (2014). Since I had not heard of this movie I got hold of a copy....and it is terrible! Watching a bunch of uncharismatic teachers murder their virus-infected kiddies is not exactly my idea of fun.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

I blame George Romero for the fact that zombie movies have been done to the death (pun intended!)  However it is still possible to churn out a crowd-pleaser that tickles the old funny bone. I came to this movie with absolutely no expectations of it being anything but a reworking of the old clichés, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it both fresh and entertaining. Mind you, it was a box office failure and the main reviewers whose word we should accept as Gospel dismissed it as feeble juvenilia.

Now I am some generations away from my teens and do consider myself a serious film buff, but there is nothing wrong with welcoming a good laugh. This movie has great visual humour along with its over-the-top gore, (I admit I do love to see a messy exploding head!), and I found myself laughing out loud throughout. If an old fogey like me is able to appreciate the critics' accused bad taste, then the movie is well on its way to acquiring cult status.

Briefly the film follows three teen-aged boy scouts, high school sophomores, over the course of one night. While they are camping in the woods, their town becomes contaminated with rampant zombie-ism and only they, with their multi-badge skills, can save the day. The storyline is somewhat more complicated insofar as two of the three (who secretly are ashamed to still be scouts) want to sneak off to attend a senior class rave, hoping to return to their tents before their third friend realises they are gone -- fat chance, he's soon on their tail. Their scout-master also seems to have gone AWOL, but of course he's been infected, along with the rest of the town, its animals -- in fact just about everyone but one of the strippers at the local titty-bar. Can the four of them locate the isolated senior party (they've been given a phony address) before their schoolmates succumb to the zombie horde?

The main players are all relatively unknown. Rising teen talent Tye Sheridan is Ben the most sensible of the three and probably the eldest since I didn't think sophomores would be able to drive at night. He made a mark as a child actor in "The Tree of Life" (2011) and "Mud" (2012) and can be forgiven for 'slumming' in this comedic horror rather than pursuing more serious career choices. His horny friend Carter is played by Logan Miller who has been around for a while, but not noticeably. The third scout Augie, played by Joey Morgan in his debut role, was probably selected because he's chubby and comes across as childish. (He's the only one of the three who still takes scouting seriously). The fourth member of the zombie-fighting mob is the stripper Denise, played by Sarah Dumont, who has nothing outstanding in her filmography, but who is a likeable ally here for the three teenagers. In fact the only 'name' in the cast is an unrecognizable 90-year old Cloris Leachman who has thrown herself into the silly spirit of the movie. As a point of interest, a very minor role is taken by one Patrick Schwarzenegger -- yes, son of Arnie. 

The film may be gory but the violence is cartoony rather than scary, and the laughs keep coming. Who would have thought that you could giggle at Ben's escaping from an upper window onto a trampoline by swinging on a stretchy zombie penis or by Carter's copping a feel of a topless busty zombie pole-dancer. Yes, that's the level of some of the humour, but it's all so fast-paced that one chuckle merges into the next, from fighting off Leachman's zombified cats to David Koechner's never-say-die scoutmaster with his floppy toupee. In addition, one can only admire how the boys' scout skills enable them to improvise some ingenious Rube Goldberg weapons to fight off the menacing mob.

Maybe I should be ashamed of myself, but I found the film a blast. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

Men & Chicken (2015)

Denmark is a relatively small country with a subsequently limited number of A-list actors, all the more recognizable nowadays through the popularity of 'Scandi-noir' television series. However even the most dedicated viewer might have trouble recognising the leads in this very black and very peculiar film from prolific screenwriter but only occasional director Anders Thomas Jensen. Jensen is responsible for the screenplays for such recent international hits as "In a Better World", "Love is all you Need", "Salvation" and many more thoughtful and prestige features. However when he dons his director's hat -- and this is his first movie for ten years -- he favours offbeat comic, absurdist scenarios.

I've seen his 2003 feature "The Green Butchers" which celebrates small-town cannibalism, but not his second film, 2005's "Adams Apples" which pits neo-Nazis against the established church. However in the above film he pushes the boundaries of 'good taste' even further by creating a film that can best be described as a slapstick "Island of Dr Moreau". Estranged brothers Elias (superstar Mads Mikkelson) and Gabriel (David Dencik) learn from their father on his deathbed that they are not only adopted but the children of different mothers. Their real father is apparently an ancient and mad geneticist, the wonderfully named Evelio Thanatos, living in an abandoned sanatorium on a remote island. Gabriel, the more rational of the two -- although both come across as societal misfits and both bear the scars of surgery to correct birth defects --is determined to find their birth father and to discover the fates of their respective mothers. Reluctantly he allows Elias to join him on this road trip, despite the latter's need for frequent pit-stops to deal with his rampant masturbatory urges. Mikkelsen has a ball playing against type. 

When they eventually reach the derelict building which is over-run inside and out with sheep, goats, pigs, and hundreds of chickens, they discover that they have three hare-lipped half-brothers, played by TV stalwarts (The Killing, Borgen, 1864, Dicte...) fat, cheese-loving Nicolas Bro's Josef, childish Nikolaj Lie Kaas' Gregor, and nearly unrecognizable in his physical deformity disciplinarian Soren Malling's Franz. However rather than greeting Elias and Gabriel with open arms, their new siblings attack them savagely with stuffed animals, planks of wood, and any other makeshift weapons which come to hand and force their retreat. They suspect that they have been sent by the hospital authorities to cart the trio away.

When they return and manage to join the dysfunctional household -- greasy, asocial, and disgusting Elias fits in the more readily -- they find a world of madness with the patriarch long dead upstairs on the ancestral bed and a locked and forbidden cellar laboratory below. They live on the proceeds of a prize bull's sperm which is collected twice a year and Gregor explains the ubiquitous chickens. They are for 'practice' until they get to meet 'real girls' and are eminently suitable for the purpose since they regularly produce large eggs! The original Danish title of the movie translates as 'Men & Hens', which is perhaps rather more apt in its sexual connotation. Nosy Gabriel manages to break into the cellar and finds the evidence of his father's nightmare experimentation and the mummified remains of the five mothers. All the brothers are the products of spliced human and animal DNA and like all hybrids they are naturally sterile. One is part owl, one part bull, and so on with Franz being the most part-animal of them all: part chicken! Chickens apparently made the best test subjects and some of them now strut about on cow hooves. (Wait to discover what became of the island's resident stork who disappeared years before). 

Rather than the plot spinning completely out of control as one might assume when Gabriel briefly accepts that his 'brothers' can only continue to exist under custodial care, he begins to understand that they can all live together and enjoy a relatively 'normal' life (complete with numerous offspring), thanks to their Dad's warped experiments. For these mental and physical misfits there can be a happy and joyful future.

A cross between a comic horror flick and a backwoods nightmare, this film is certainly not for everyone. However it's a wondrous and grimly imaginative creation from a writer whose next project is the script for a mainstream Stephen King movie.   

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Saxon Charm (1948)

And so another one bites the dust! I've have a long way to go before I manage to clear my lengthy 'would like to see' list (and frankly I doubt that I ever will), but I am always delighted when I manage to track down a previously-elusive title. Incidentally I've just found a new source of rarities, but I'm keeping shtum for the moment.

The above film hardly qualifies as an important one and I wasn't tempted to take a copy, but I certainly enjoyed watching it. Based on a novel by Frederic Wakeman who also wrote "The Hucksters", John Payne (never a major presence) and feisty Susan Heywood play happily married couple Eric and Janet Busch. He's a well-received published novelist who has just written his first play and he is keen for legendary impresario Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery) to produce it on Broadway. He bypasses the crowd of sycophants waiting to see Saxon (in his hospital bed -- his apartment is being decorated and he can't stand the smell of fresh paint!) Saxon gives him a warm welcome but begins the lengthy process that nearly destroys both Eric's creative confidence and his marriage.

Saxon may have had a run of successes in the past, but is currently in a dry patch. However his massive ego does not tolerate any talent existing outside his influence and interference. He not only bullies Eric into a series of urgent but unnecessary rewrites, but also has him (and initially Janet) at his beck and call to meet him at restaurants or nightclubs at any ungodly hour. Things come to a head when Saxon pulls Eric from an overdue carefree vacation with his wife and demands that he join him forthwith in Mexico where he is trying to get his wealthy ex-wife to finance his next production. When he learns that she is flat broke, he leaves her sitting in a club waiting for his return and begins borrowing cash from Eric. In short he is an unreliable and totally nasty bastard.

Montgomery began his long acting career with MGM in 1929 and was usually cast as a society playboy, but he never enjoyed himself more than when he had the opportunity to play a villain, starting with his sinister turn in "Night Must Fall" (1937). After war service, his return to Hollywood was marked by a desire to direct as well. He is the uncredited co-director on John Ford's "They Were Expendable" (1945) in which he starred and he took over the reins when Ford fell ill; he could not have had a better mentor. He went on to direct and star in 1947's "Lady in the Lake" ('though only seen in mirrors since the film was told from the camera's point of view) and "Ride the Pink Horse" -- both accomplished features. He made only two further movies as an actor of which this is one before retiring from the screen in favour of his role as a director and producer. He went on to produce 321 television episodes of 'Robert Montgomery Presents' between 1950 and 1957.  But for a still handsome and suave figure, he is a totally unlikeable scoundrel in this film -- it's a brilliant turn.

I should mention Saxon's girlfriend in this movie, Alma Wragg (an awful name for a would-be star says Saxon) played by Audrey Totter. Alma has ambitions as both a club singer and a would-be movie star, but Saxon manages to put the kibosh on her big opportunity by spreading a pack of lies about her. He just can't accept the notion that she could possibly be successful without his input. Totter spent her long career play the 'bad' girl in a string of B-features, but in terms of talent, she was an A-list actress and deserved far better. Credit too to Saxon's faithful sidekick played by Harry Morgan (Col. Potter in MASH) who is willing to carry on as his dogsbody were Saxon not too proud to admit that he needs him.

As the film ends well for Eric and Janet having pried themselves away from Saxon's control, the 'legendary impresario' has a new fish in his sights -- an up and coming playwright who has approached him previously. He phones the guy and blames his tardiness in contacting him on his late wife's 'sad' death (she committed suicide after the Mexico incident) and claims to be feeling 'so terribly alone'. Can't the fellow come to his apartment that instant to discuss his wonderful unproduced play, previously promised elsewhere. Saxon tells him that they would 'mutilate your material' -- just as he himself did for Eric -- and another patsy is caught in his net!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Premiere (1938)

Nearly everything about the background of this film is fascinating. It's a shame therefore that the movie itself is a fairly feeble potboiler featuring a cast, with one exception, of solid wood. We only chose its rare showing at the National Film Theatre because of a very misleading programme blurb which suggested that it was the love child of Agatha Christie and Busby Berkeley -- murder mystery meets extravagant 30s' musical.

For once the introduction by one of the BFI archivists was enlightening and well-presented. It seems there was a very successful 1937 Austrian film of the same name starring the notorious Zarah Leander. A star of Swedish operetta, it was her first German-speaking role and led to her becoming the highest paid film star of World War II German cinema, although she never became a German citizen much to Dr Goebbels' chagrin. She was the 'Nazi Garbo' if you will, and starred in a string of worthy dramas. She never regained her popularity in her homeland after the war, being considered a collaborator. But back to the movie under discussion...

The director of this English film, Joseph Summers, had a copy of the original Austrian movie and cut the extravagant German musical numbers into his pedestrian remake. You know the drill: hundreds of dancers, reflecting mirrors, and a theatrical stage that seems to go on to infinity.  However, he needed to find an actress who could pass for star Leander in the close-ups, especially when clothed in the same gowns, and chose B-player Judy Kelly for the important lead. Naturally the German lyrics needed to be translated into English, but unfortunately Kelly was no singer, so she was dubbed a la Marnie Nixon. Think about it: a flashy German musical production translated into English with a look-alike lead actress who can not do her own vocals. Bizarre! The original cinematographer, costume designer, musical director, choreographer, and writers are not credited.

However the weirdness does not end there. Like the original, Summers' film is set in Paris for no discernible reason and the cast share more or less the same names as their Austrian counterparts, although leading man Hugh Williams has his name changed from the original Fred to Rene!! The plot concerns the murder of an impresario in his box during the premiere of his latest revue, and inspector Bonnard (who just happens to be in the audience) solves the mystery before the final curtain. Bonnard is played by the American actor John Lodge, a scion of the old Boston family and subsequently Governor of Connecticut, as a stolid Scotland Yard type. He and his bowler-hatted minions are supported by a bevy of unlikely-costumed gendarmes. One change to the script was to give him a 'silly ass' sidekick who adds absolutely nothing to the plot, but the character was thought to be a staple in mystery movies of the time, much like Charlie Butterworth in Hollywood films of the period.

The one exception to the feeble casting was the role given to the Hungarian-born actor Steve Geray as the excitable stage manager, who managed to out-act the rest of the cast. Geray went on to a long Hollywood career, generally in notable support in movies like "The Mask of Dimitrios" (1944) and "Spellbound (1945), and he even had a rare starring role in "How Dark the Night" (1946). He continued until 1966 with his ignominious cinema swan-song in "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter".

The supporting programme shown with the above movie fortunately had its own charms. There was a brief clip of the Norah Jackson dancers from 1932 and the 21-minute "Teddy Bergman's International Broadcast" (1937) which featured some weird musical-hall turns of exotic singers, contortionists, and jugglers, as well as the singularly unfunny Mr Bergman himself. For good measure there were some additional brief clips of unknown origin featuring a girl-group of the period a la the Andrews Sisters and a pair of remarkable sub-teen xylophonists. I'd love to be able to trace these unknown charmers.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Railway Man (2013)

As I'm sure I have written previously, I have a deep-rooted dislike of war movies, especially those in which one is introduced to a diverse group of men (including the usual racial stereotypes) in order to sit back and watch them dispatched one by one. However I have no such antipathy to prisoner of war films from the comedic, such as "Stalag 17", to the tragic, such as "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence".

While it visits the same location and deals with the same appalling treatment meted out to the brave, suffering soldiers by their Japanese captors in the classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai", this film is not an action flick. Rather it is concerned with lingering trauma and reconciliation. Based on the autobiographical book by Eric Lomax, the film begins in 1980, some thirty-five years after the liberation of the POWs forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Colin Firth plays the 60-ish year old Eric, a long-time railroad buff, who 'meets cute' with somewhat younger nurse Patty (Nicole Kidman) while sharing a train carriage. A scruffy and solitary man, he finds himself falling in love much to his own surprise, and they soon marry. However it is not a case of 'happy ever after', as she soon becomes aware that he has recurrent nightmares and is suffering post-traumatic stress. The film cuts back and forth between the strained present and the horrific past, where actor Jeremy Irvine movingly portrays the young Eric.

He and his mates steal materials to build a primitive radio receiver in order to learn how the outside war is developing. When the device is discovered by the Japs, he bravely takes the brunt of the blame. His interrogators are convinced that he was transmitting classified data to their enemies -- but 'where is the speaker?' he protests -- and led by interpreter Takeshi Nagase he is ruthlessly tortured for many weeks. His only 'confession' is to blurt out that the war is going badly for his captors, who have been brainwashed into believing that victory is inevitable. When the camp is liberated, the Japanese officers are tried for war crimes, but Nagase bluffs that he was 'only an interpreter' (and not a member of the secret police) and escapes punishment.

Stellan Skarsgard, a fellow POW and life-long friend, reveals many of the above details to Patty who desperately wants to help her Eric fight his demons. When Skarsgard finds a newspaper report of how Nagase is not only still alive but still profiting from the past by working as a guide at the war camp site -- now a tourist attraction! -- he urges Eric to ease his anger and seek the revenge that has been eating him alive. Eric is unwilling to revisit the scene of his despair until a horrific and selfless act by Skarsgard spurs him to action. When he goes back to the source of his nightmares, he finds the mature Nagase a thoughtful and greatly changed man, who has made 57 'pilgrimages' to the site in the intervening years. Eric's initial fury and murderous intentions gradually give way to forgiveness.

A few words on the main cast: Firth and Skargard are both excellent and it is no great stretch for Firth to be believably playing a slightly older man. Kidman -- very much for a change -- has drabbed down her usual 'glam' and gives her best recent performance. Apparently the role was intended for Rachel Weisz who was unable to take it because of scheduling conflicts, but I do believe that she would not have done as fine a job as Kidman has managed here. Finally, both Japanese actors embodying the erstwhile fiend Nagase were fine, but Hiroyuki Sanada playing the older character was remarkable. He apparently started his career as an action star, but then became the first Japanese actor to play with the Royal Shakespeare Company (as the fool in "Lear"). He has subsequently appeared in a number of English-speaking roles, most recently in "Mr. Holmes". Apparently Nagase and Eric eventually became fast friends until their respective deaths this century. Concerned and loving wife Patty was still alive for the movie's premiere a few years ago. 

It's a powerful and moving tale of love and redemption and I'm surprised at how much I liked it!     

Friday, 24 June 2016

Tale of Tales (2015)

I can't recommend this film highly enough, especially if you are a sentient viewer fed up with superhero flicks and jejune fart jokes, and more especially if you relish the idea of a pitch black fantasy laced with surreal humour and horror. Here are some fairy tales strictly for adults.

Directed in English by the Italian director Matteo Garrone who wowed the film world with his mafia epic "Gomorrah", he draws on a selection of tales gathered by the Neapolitan scholar Giambattista Basile and published posthumously by his sister in 1634. The full work known as Il Pentamerone for its collection of tales told over a five-day period (rather less than 1001 nights) is the earliest collection of folk stories, later liberally raided by both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Basile subtitled his opus 'Entertainment for Little Ones' but Garrone's movie is anything but suitable for the kiddies.

In its three overlapping and intertwining stories, we are introduced to the rulers of three kingdoms: an unsmiling Salma Hayak who yearns for a child of her own, Toby Young who neglects his once-beloved daughter for his obsession with a giant flea that he has nurtured, and randy Vincent Cassel who beds all the young flesh that crosses his path but who falls for the sweet and heavenly singing of two old crones. Add to this mix, a dancing bear, fire-eaters, tightrope walkers, albino twins born to two different mothers, and a fiendish ogre and you begin to get an inkling of Garrone's brilliant mix. On top of the many curiosities on display, the film is a visual treat in its costuming, cinematography and location-sourcing. Rather than depending on CGI, the action takes place at real fairy-tale palaces such as the Castel del Monte in Apulia, Roccascalenga Castle in Abruzzo, and Donnafugata Castle in Sicily. It seems a fantasy world such as we have never seen before.

All three actors have their moments of bizarre glory but foremost among these is Jones, who woos his fearsome pet with the same "scootchie, scootchie coo" that he once reserved for his infant daughter. When the fearsome galumphing flea eventually dies, he promises to betroth Princess Violet (a feisty but not exactly gorgeous  Bebe Cave in her first feature film lead) to whichever suitor correctly identifies its giant preserved hide, fully expecting all of them to fail and thereby keeping his daughter to himself. Instead a giant Neolithic monster played by 6' 9" French actor Guillame Delanay sniffs the leather and announces 'flea'! Delaunay is actually a pretty gruesome looking fellow in the mould of dear old Rondo Hatton and probably didn't need too much makeup to achieve his monstrous appearance. Of course a King's word is the King's word and Young is obliged to dispatch Violet to the fiend's cave where she is promptly raped. Now in an ordinary fairy tale you might expect the ogre to morph into a handsome prince, but that is not the story being related here and the outcome is far bloodier.

Hollywood star John C Reilly is also in the cast playing Hayak's spouse, ordered to slay a sea monster so that his wife can eat its bloody heart (cooked of course by a virgin!) and thereby become pregnant. His role is really a cameo, ending with his death only minutes into the movie, which makes me wonder why he needed the two assistants named in the end credits. Otherwise the cast (largely Italian) is superb. Special mention needs go to Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael playing the elderly singing sisters. When horny Cassel insists on one of them sharing his bed, Carmichael's Dora agrees if he promises to keep the room in darkness and proceeds to glue down her saggy flesh; when Cassel breaks his word and discovers her ruse, he has his guards toss her out of the window. It's that sort of a story... But a kindly necromancer alters the hag into a naked vision of delight played by Stacy Martin. (Parenthetically I recently sat through all five hours plus of Lars von Trier's self-indulgent director's cut of "Nymphomaniac" which features that largely unclothed actress as the younger and definitely more attractive version of Charlotte Gainsbourg.) When the smitten Cassel makes her his queen, Henderson hopes for a cushy life courtesy of her sister's good fortune, but is reduced to bribing a tanner to flay her skin in the hope of attaining her own renewed beauty. Yuck.

The film is a leisurely 134 minutes but I found it totally absorbing and inventive. Of course it may not be to everyone's taste -- especially if superheroes and CGI make your day, but it is an amazing and ravishing few hours for anyone who relishes something truly different.      

Friday, 17 June 2016

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)

I have long been a devoted fan of the wild, wonderful, and wacky world of the Italian writer-director Federico Fellini. I've seen all of his entertaining films from his earliest "Lights of Variety" (1950) through his last in 1990, and I do try to re-watch them from time to time. I have certainly seen the above short feature made for Italian television previously, but had forgotten how bizarre and poignant it is.

Like it says on the box, the movie concerns a small orchestra, gathering for their morning rehearsal, in an ancient chapel, now a recital hall with perfect acoustics. We watch as the room is set up and the musicians gradually appear, awaiting the arrival of their conductor, a somewhat Teutonic type in the mould of von Karajan. They quibble, joke, feud, flirt, and even snog amongst themselves, while possessively claiming their own space. Today is a little different since a television crew has arrived to document the proceedings and to interview the various musicians. Also present are various union officials, since this is a mini-portrait of Italy in the 70s (and beyond?); their role is to 'protect' their occasionally reluctant members and to ensure that 'the workers' rights' come first, even if this involves lumbering the orchestra with some superfluous union members who can't even play an instrument but who are due work. 

However the orchestra members themselves from the straight-laced old-timers through the young hipsters seem to be in love with their various instruments. As each is interviewed in turn they make wild claims for the importance and contribution of their particular instrument -- the violin, the cello, the trombone, the bassoon, the harp, and so on -- to the harmony and success of any performance. They each express an almost mystical relationship with their own instrument to the detriment of all the other less significant ones. Even the tuba player boasts that he didn't chance upon the instrument, but that the lugubrious sounding creature found him.

When the actual rehearsal begins, the conductor carps and criticises the players, until the union busybody calls a twenty-minute break. The maestro retreats to his room to freshen up and bemoans how the god-like role of the conductor has been undermined. Long gone are the days when his word was law and he could physically punish any musician who dared to play a duff note. When he returns to the hall he finds chaos. The musicians have become hysterical children, fighting amongst themselves, denigrating the role of the conductor, and defacing the walls with scurrilous graffiti. They decide that the conductor can easily be replaced with a giant metronome, but even that is soon kicked aside in their hatred. The next thing that happens is that a giant wrecking ball begins to knock down the ancient walls, resulting in at least one death. Duly chastened, the musicians resume their seats and begin to play the sweetest of sounds; music does indeed calm the savage beast. But even as the film fades to black, we begin to hear the maestro registering his nit-picking complaints.

One can't help but note and be moved by the simple beauty of the music, composed especially for this film, by Fellini's distinguished collaborator Nino Rota. Rota scored many of the director's movies, dating back to "I Vitelloni" in 1953, and this was their last collaboration before the composer's death the following year. The beauty of the sound contrasts with the parable of how simple it is to spread dissent and anarchy, a sentiment that fits neatly into the Fellini canon.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Finishing School (1934)

If I believed all film reviews as gospel, especially for older movies where I occasionally wonder if the reviewer has actually seen the film in question, I would possibly miss out on watching some very interesting movies. For example, the late Leslie Halliwell whose word I am more prepared to trust then most, described the above movie as "modest pap for the teenage audience". This is grossly unfair, although other reviewers are equally dismissive, and the film certainly bombed on its initial release.

The movie has been on my 'would like to see' list for a rather long time since Danny Peary listed it as 'a sleeper' in his "Guide for the Film Fanatic" (1986). (My goodness, doesn't time fly by when you're having fun?) It was briefly available on You Tube but rapidly deleted by them before I had a chance to watch it. So a fortuitous showing on BBC2 last weekend -- and believe it or not it was a UK television premiere -- finally saved the day.

Produced at the very end of the pre-Code period, it's a fascinating look at morals and class hypocrisy. Frances Dee plays Virginia, the spoiled but naïve daughter of tycoon John Halliday and flighty socialite Billie Burke, who is enrolled in (or perhaps dumped at) her mother's old school Crockett Hall which is actually billed as 'the villain' in the front credits. There she meets room-mate Ginger Rogers, known to all as 'Pony' and not just for her fondness for horses! Pony and her cronies are game for a laugh and think nothing of breaking all of headmistress Beulah Bondi's many rules -- no drinking, no smoking, no lipstick, no anything that it likely to ruin your or the precious school's reputation. Their mantra is that you can do what you like -- as long as nobody finds out and you're not caught. Besides she says such indiscretions are nothing compared to the school's 'genteel racketeering' in over-charged uniforms and outings. The schools's annual fee incidentally is $6000.00 -- and remember this is 1934! Lessons focus on such important things as knowing how many calling cards to leave if the family in question is not at home.

The girls escape to New York for the weekend purportedly to stay with Pony's dear 'aunt' -- a washed up old actress who is paid to meet the school's chaperone on arrival at Penn Station and again on departure; "one step lower and I'll be in the movies", she chortles. Instead the girls check into a seedy hotel ready for a high old time, where the current boyfriends and their pals and quantities of booze are waiting. Dee admits that she has always wondered how it would feel to get tight and they're soon chanting "Ginny gonna get fried" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell". When a sozzled Dee subsequently tries to escape from the amorous groping of her blind date, she is saved by heroic hotel waiter Bruce Cabot (Fay Wray's macho saviour in "King Kong"), a medical intern who is moonlighting to pay his way through his studies. When a romantic attraction develops, Bondi and of course Burke wish to end it since they can only see him as a lowly waiter and not as a noble would-be doctor -- to the extent that Virginia is not allowed to spend weekends away and his letters are intercepted and destroyed, even after it becomes self-evident that the young lady is now pregnant. This takes place off-screen in a nicely handled scene where one sees her footprints in the snow after she has escaped for a clandestine meeting gradually fill in with the falling snow as the night progresses. She is led to believe that she was just a cheap fling for this no-goodnik 'waiter' and she contemplates suicide, since nothing must interfere with the demands of 'proper' society.

Of course all of the players are a little too old for their roles, but this is nothing new when one looks at teenage/young adult movies today. Despite this, Dee acquits herself well and one wonders where her career might have taken her had she not placed her l933 marriage to Joel McCrea above screen ambitions. She continued to appear in films through the early 50s, but these were gradually diminishing supporting roles. Incidentally her marriage to McCrea which lasted through his death in 1990 was one of Hollywood's longest and presumably most solid.

It is interesting to note that the film was written and co-directed by a woman, Wanda Tuchock, a rarity at the time. Tuchock never directed another feature but did churn out some notable screenplays from the silent "Show People" and "Hallelujah" through classics like "The Foxes of Harrow" and "Sunday Dinner for a Soldier". There's some lovely dialogue as well, such as when Pony describes the 'suitable' young beaux dragged in for Crockett Hall tea parties as 'If you took the hair off their combined chests you wouldn't have enough to make a wig for a grape". There's also the ditty that Pony sings in the shower: "Never hit your Grandma with a shovel". This was apparently later recorded by Spike Jones in 1942 but it has been suggested that Rogers composed it herself.

OK, perhaps it's not a great film, but it is a progressive and engrossing look at another era -- and a heck of a lot better that some reviews imply.   



   
 

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Considering the fact that writer/director Preston Sturges is one of my great favourites, it's odd that I have never written about him or his films on this blog. Going back to my archives, I find that he was only mentioned as a screenwriter in reviews of "The Good Fairy" (1935) and "Easy Living" (1937). So we shall put that to rights today and look at his meteoric rise and fall.

Sturges (1898-1959) was born into wealth and after a spell in the services during World War I, briefly worked for his mother's cosmetic empire (where he invented the first 'kiss-proof' lipstick). He then pottered with other genius-like but commercially unviable inventions. He did not take up writing -- initially plays and short stories -- until he was 30. He eventually migrated to Hollywood in the hope of earning big bucks for his screenplays, where he scripted a number of 30s classics including "The Power and the Glory" plus the two above and was uncredited on others such as "Twentieth Century". However he soon became disgusted by directors tampering with his scripts and yearned to exercise full control by directing them himself.

He sold his script for "The Great McGinty" (1940) to the studio for one dollar in exchange for the director's chair (and the film went on to win the Oscar for best screenplay). Then in a four year period Sturges churned out some of the most anarchic and successful slapstick comedies of the period: "The Lady Eve", "Sullivan's Travels", "The Palm Beach Story", "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek", and "Hail the Conquering Hero". He was a master of madcap plots, the exquisitely-turned phrase and the pratfall, and he made sneaky inroads into the Breen Office's production codes with his politically incorrect scenarios. At a time when the combination of writer and director was unknown and simply perceived as two separate talents, he briefly became one of the highest paid people not just in Hollywood but in the United States, and he paved the way for other multi-talents like Billy Wilder. He was also the forerunner for today's iconoclastic writer-directors like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. His legacy is enormous.

However when his next film "The Great Moment" flopped -- the studio was not ready for a movie (albeit a very good one) about a dentist inventing laughing gas -- the moneymen washed their hands of him. There was then a three-year gap before he directed three more Hollywood movies (including the one above). All were failures at the box office and he retired to France, where he made his last film in 1955 "The Diary of Major Thompson" (also known as "The French they Are a Funny Race") which frankly is not particularly good.

What occasioned today's topic was reading that "Diddlebock" has just re-emerged on disc. When this movie -- financed by Howard Hughes no less -- flopped, Hughes took control of the film, let it sit on a shelf for three years, re-editing it and re-releasing it in 1950 as "Mad Wednesday". I suddenly realised that I had only seen this re-edit (which I recall as being hilarious on my first viewing), but I had never seen the original movie as Sturges meant it to be seen -- some fourteen minutes longer. That situation has now been rectified although I would have to re-view the 1950 edit to tell you definitively how they differ. (I've not done that yet but shall.)

Anyhow the movie is still a treat. Sturges coaxed Harold Lloyd out of retirement to star in his first feature for many years. The film opens with the first reel of Lloyd's 1925 hit "The Freshman" and then considers what has become of the inadvertent college football hero some 22 years on. Offered a job by an erstwhile enthusiastic football fan, he has languished in a dead-end post all these years, before being summarily dismissed. On that day in question where he seems to have no viable prospects, he falls in with Jimmy Conlin (one of Sturges' many stock company actors). He then has his first ever drink (a new bartender concoction christened 'The Diddlebock'). After a number of these drinks and some surprise gambling wins, he awakens the next day to find himself the owner of a garish new suit, a horse, carriage and coachman, and a failing circus with a large number of very hungry animals. There is one lion in particular who has taken a shine to the man and the mayhem ensues. Some humour never dates and we have a replay of Lloyd's famous roof-ledge antics over a city's streets, but this time with a lion in tow.

Bless Preston Sturges for giving us so many memorable movie moments.  For more information, seek out the 1990 American Masters documentary "The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer". As Sturges said of himself, 'The most remarkable thing about my career is that I had one'.      

Friday, 27 May 2016

We Still Kill the Old Way (2014)

This British gangster flick has been lurking on my hard disc for some weeks now, since I was in absolutely no rush to view yet another samey East End baddies film; the blame for the recent popularity of these is down to Guy Ritchie and his many imitators. I reckoned there must be an upper limit to variations on an increasingly boring theme, but I finally watched the movie as a matter of principle. (I have this weird conviction that it is incumbent upon this self-proclaimed buff to at least try any film that I've not seen previously -- although an increasing number do get wiped halfway through.)

Boy was I pleasantly surprised!  Nothing to do with the 1967 Italian film of the same title, actor/writer/director Sacha Bennett has fashioned a crowd-pleaser of a movie, as long as that crowd is made up of older viewers who are fed up with the insouciant smugness of the young. (I guess I have to lump myself with such dinosaurs). Ian Ogilvy -- remember the handsome actor from "The Witchfinder General" (1968) and television's The Saint? -- may have put on some weight and added a few jowls but he's still a commanding presence. He plays an ex-hard man who has evaded the law and retired to a sybaritic life in Spain. He receives word that his happy-go-lucky brother (a brief appearance by Steven Berkoff) has been murdered back in London. So he returns to his old stamping ground and the welcoming arms of his cronies (veteran actors Christopher Ellison, Tony Denton, Nicky Henson, and James Cosmo) to unearth the culprits and exact vengeance.

We the viewers know from the start that Berkoff was stamped to death by a gang of local youths led by the thoroughly nasty and reprehensible Aaron, played by a young actor with the unlikely name of Danny-Boy Hatchard, when he intervened in a proposed gang-bang of Aaron's most recent bit of skirt. She's played by one Dani Dyer -- would you believe it? -- the daughter of the boorish actor Danny Dyer, who has appeared in most of the above-mentioned rash of Cockney gangster flicks, but who thankfully does not appear in this one. Aaron and his gang are of the generation who think it smart to post their violence on the web in the attempt to be famous for fifteen minutes or so. The whole mob of them, with the exception of his bookish brother who befriends Dyer's Lauren, are so unlikeable that one is left rooting for the oldsters and it doesn't take them long to unearth the reason for Berkoff's death and the likely culprits.

Add to the mix actresses Alison Doody as the local detective who can't quite clean up the streets and Lysette Anthony as the chirpy sparrow who has long had a crush on Ogilvy. Both actresses have been around for yonks, with Doody's first appearance being in the 1985 Bond movie "A View to Kill" back in the Roger Moore days. At first glance she seems rather well preserved until the excessive face 'work' becomes obvious. Anthony on the contrary plays her age and is eager to assist Ogilvie and his mates in restoring the erstwhile 'charms' of the fabled East End. What follows is pretty graphic torture, bloodshed, and shoot-outs between the old fellows and the consistently cocky youngsters (who are soon metaphorically crying for their mommies). The saving grace is that our heroes' mayhem is carried out with a smattering of  black humour, particularly from Cosmo, leaving the viewer firmly on their side. It is very satisfying to see these older actors back in action as a kind of geriatric "Get Carter", and there is a lovely throwaway line referring to the Italian job back in '69.

The film ends with the aging mates itching for more challenges and considering taking on the big bad bankers. And indeed a sequel is currently being filmed entitled "We Still Steal the Old Way". I do hope that movie proves as jolly as the one reviewed here.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Green Room (2015) vs Der Bunker (2015)

Normally if I go to the cinema during the week, the film I choose would form the centrepiece of my weekly ramblings. Not this week! Having been conned by a run of super-positive reviews, a 7.7 rating on IMDb, and my general fondness for the horror genre, I went to see "Green Room" which was flaunted as art-house gore. What a crock and what a incredibly awful film!

I really don't want to waste too much time on this over-hyped flick, but will just say that the whole premise of a rock-punk band being held captive by a bunch of neo-Nazis led by Patrick Stewart was marred by an illogical plot, terrible dialogue, and a cast of interchangeable actors that one didn't give two hoots about. Leads Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots were super-bland and I bet Stewart would love to delete this movie from his filmography. The only bit I liked was when one of the wounded killer-dogs (yes, people were ripped to pieces by dogs) traipsed off to find his dead master to rest his weary head. Ahhh....

Now you may think that a film titled "Der Bunker" would also be about neo-Nazis or at least some kind of war movie, but no. This German movie by first-time feature director Nikias Chryssos was more of a horror flick than the Stewart fiasco -- without any gore let it be said, but full of quirky action. For lovers of the truly off-beat, amongst whom I would number myself, this film is something very different indeed. There are only four characters; Pit Bukowski, credited merely as 'The Student' ploughs through a snowy and barren landscape to reach the underground bunker-like residence of 'The Father' and 'The Mother', who have advertised a delightful room to rent, where he hopes to continue his unspecified research in pleasant peace and calm. He is shown into a dimly-lit, low-ceilinged, sparsely furnished space with no windows ('if the light can't get in, neither can it get out' says Father). 

At dinner that night Father keeps a record of each dumpling consumed and each serviette used to charge the impoverished student accordingly. He suggests that Bukowski might work off his debt by helping with the chores and in particular taking over the home-schooling of their son Klaus, who they feel is remarkably stupid and unable to learn the important facts (like all the capitals of every country)  that will one day allow him to become President (weirdly of the United States!). I guess Klaus is meant to be a teenager, but he's a great lump dressed like a very young boy a la Little Lord Fauntleroy, and he is played by Daniel Fripan, a 5'3" actor who is 31 years old.

The weirdness doesn't end there. When Klaus is a good boy he is rewarded by being able to feed at his mother's bare breast and merrily slurps away. The family's idea of fun is the occasional 'joke evening' where Mother and Klaus cuddle on the sofa while Father reads out the corniest of old chestnuts. Mother also seems to be in some sort of spiritual connection with a former lodger, with whom she communicates through a cupboard and who manifests himself as a growing, throbbing gash on her leg. Klaus eventually memorises all the capitals after suggesting that the capital of France is Mama-chusetts, but only after the Student has thrashed and bloodied his hands. He also teaches Klaus how to 'play', the concept of which is completely foreign to the lunkhead, and they gallivant about in their classroom playing catch and horsey. After a disastrous birthday celebration, Klaus wants to leave home much to Mother and Father's dismay...but the student is fated to remain in the bunker to carry on his domestic duties.

I've only touched on the inherent strangeness of this unusual film, which becomes even more outlandish as it progresses. I'd recommend your seeking it out, but I suspect that it will never feature amongst Amazon's best-sellers or be readily available to view, unlike the miserable "Green Room".

Friday, 13 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

I have admitted previously that once upon a time I really didn't like Meryl Streep with her funny accents and barnstorming performances. But that was then! For years now I have joined the club that fetes her many talents and I am constantly amazed not just by her versatility but by her likeability as well.

The above film, loosely based on the real-life Madam Florence, is hysterically funny in parts; at the same time it is sweetly heart-breaking. An aging heiress and a fixture on the New York social and cultural scene in the l940s, her passion was music. She loved to sing and took endless voice lessons. The only problem was that she was a hopeless singer -- and no one had the heart or courage to tell her this. To her own ears, she was a nightingale. The same story (but without the true biographical detail) is also the subject of the recent French film "Marguerite" (2015), with the talented Catherine Frot in the Streep role.

Florence is protected and cosseted by her devoted younger husband, one St Clair Bayfield, a failed English actor and purportedly wrong-side-of the-blanket aristocrat. In truth the pair were never married, but he did indeed become her agent, comforter, and faithful companion -- theirs being a platonic relationship since Florence was syphilitic thanks to her first disastrous marriage. He maintains a love-nest for mistress Kathleen to fulfil his more basic needs, but his foremost loyalty is to the aging diva. This part is played by Hugh Grant with greater gravitas than his most famous roles would suggest possible. He's made relatively few cinema appearances of late and determinedly turned down reprising his role in the latest Bridget Jones movie. I've had the impression that he's more or less fed up with the whole silly business, so the grace and depth that he displays here came as a pleasant surprise. And he can still dance up a storm.

In fact he is so good that there is talk of a potential Oscar nomination, but it's early days yet and movies with spring release dates tend to be forgotten by the end of the qualifying season. Mind you if any of the cast deserves special recognition (apart from Streep whose nomination seems a shoo-in), I would single out Simon Helberg playing Florence's accompanist, the marvellously named Cosme McMoon. Helberg is apparently best known for his recurring role in the long-running TV series "The Big Bang Theory" which I have never seen, so his endearing turn here as the talented pianist struggling to keep a straight face while Madame Florence howls through her arias was an unexpected treat and nothing short of brilliant. 

However without Streep's inspired performance there would be no movie or a far less entertaining one. We all know that she famously studied opera as a young lady and that she can certainly still sing beautifully ("Mamma Mia" being a case in point). As luck would have it I also viewed her previous movie this week, "Ricki and the Flash" (2015), in which she plays a rock-chick who has forsaken her family for the pop career that never quite materialised, and her vocalising is the highpoint of that so-so film. She therefore required special coaching to portray the awfulness of Florence's operatic ambitions and it is impossible not to laugh heartily at her enthusiastic squawks and yowls. Yet we can not help rooting for the poor benighted lady and she is more a figure of pity than a figure of fun. When the truth finally hits home after her Carnegie Hall debut, despite Bayfield's urgent machinations to protect her from the most hurtful of reviews, she says 'Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing'. It's a bittersweet moment.     

Friday, 6 May 2016

Locke (2013)

It didn't even occur to me to book tickets for this film when it was featured at the London Film Festival, since the premise sounded a little iffy, and I usually assume that I will catch up with any worthwhile British flicks in due course. Much to everyone's amazement it was the surprise breakout hit of the fest.

Tom Hardy is Ivan Locke, heading a cast which includes Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and other noted thesps, and he is the whole show. Why? Because he is the only actor on screen as he drives down the motorway at night. Everyone else is just a voice on his car-phone. Although Hardy is associated with action roles in movies like "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises", the only actions in this film are the whirling emotions and problems in Ivan's brain as he ploughs towards London, dealing with a constant stream of calls and callers.

The second directorial effort from writer-producer Steven Knight after the Jason Statham vehicle "Hummingbird" (also 2013), Knight was responsible for the screenplays for a number of winning films such as "Eastern Promises" and "Dirty Pretty Things". Hardy may bear the success of the movie on his very sturdy shoulders -- much like the singleton heroes of "127 Hours" and "Buried", but Knight has provided him with a variety of problems to occupy his mind and ours and the 90 minute running time never flags.

Locke lives and breathes concrete in his engineering job and Europe's biggest 'pour' is scheduled for the morrow. However he can't be there to supervise things since an urgent phone call from a one-night stand informs him that she is about to give birth prematurely and is depending on his moral support. Seems he somehow never got around to telling his wife and sons about this; while he has no affectionate feelings towards the hospitalised woman, he does have strong feelings of duty and obligation. Meanwhile there are problems with the preparations for the 'pour' and his somewhat inebriated second-in-command is not quite coping. Poor old Ivan finds himself having to juggle the demands of the needy mother-to-be (and there are birth complications as well), having to hope for some kind of understanding and forgiveness from his family, and having to justify his actions at work to his unsympathetic superiors. 

What the movie teaches us is that one's life can change drastically and dramatically in a matter of a few hours (and in a confined space as well), as Ivan risks ruining his career and his marriage by doing what he believes to be the honourable thing. The film finishes fairly abruptly and we are left to guess whether he will manage to salvage anything from the ruins of his unexpected journey -- and the omens are not promising.

Hardy does a sterling job of keeping us rooting for his hero, despite the calamities that seem to be awaiting at every turn. My only problem with his character was the use of an inconsistent Welsh accent which was completely inexplicable and unnecessary. He would have done even better if he kept his own quite acceptable voice for the beleaguered Ivan Locke.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Like last week none of the films I watched this week really grabbed me, but unlike last week there weren't many that deserved even a few kind words. The above coming-of-age flick (a latter-day John Hughes type film) was probably the best of the bunch, although I was tempted to focus on "Bad Words" (also 2013) directed by and starring the usually amiable Jason Bateman. He plays a 40-something slacker who, for his own reasons, has finagled the rules to take part in a national spelling bee aimed at eighth-graders and under. It's a mean-spirited affair with Bateman at his least likeable bullying the kiddies and the officials, although he does eventually find some sort of redemption through his relationship with a friendless Indian child prodigy, winningly played by Rohan Chand.

Back to the subject at hand, based on a young-adult novel with a screenplay by the "500 Days of Summer" scribes, the film was a Sundance hit with best actor awards for its leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Both are now rising young stars. I first noticed Woodley as Clooney's snippy daughter in "The Descendants" and she has made a name for herself in soppy teen sagas and the Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant series which also features Teller. His breakout role was the young drummer in "Whiplash". While both display fine acting chops, and theirs are the stand-out roles in this movie's large cast, both of them are really too old now to be playing high school seniors, however young-looking they may appear. Mind you, Teller's sprinkling of teenaged acne does help the illusion.

He plays Sutter, a good-time Charlie, the life-of-the party popular jock who has just broken up with dishy girlfriend Tiffany, Brie Larsen (also too old for the role) -- just before her Oscar-winning role in "Room".  To make her jealous he takes up with Woodley's Aimee, a studious, naïve, and vulnerable girl who has never had a boyfriend; not a beauty at the best of times, despite starting her career as a child model, Woodley is drabbed down for the role. Against all expectations it develops into a full-blooded (and shyly sexual) relationship. They meet when he wakes up after a drunken evening sprawled asleep on her front lawn with a 'Dude, Where's my Car' vibe. He's failing geometry, she agrees to tutor him, and things develop from there. They both come from single-parent families and have difficult relationships with their mothers, one workaholic and one feckless (hers brings in extra cash by having a newspaper delivery route, which most days she gets Aimee to service). His is played by the currently ubiquitous Jennifer Jason Leigh, a far cry from her own iconic teenaged role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". 

The one disturbing feature of this tale is the amount of alcohol Sutter consumes each day just to bolster his confidence and his 'front' and the consequent amount of driving under the influence that takes place. Aimee begins their relationship as someone who has never had a drink, but she soon becomes quite dependent on the mini-flask that Sutter has gifted. He has been pestering his mother to let him contact his absent father and Leigh has resisted. He discovers his whereabouts from a married sister and off the pair go to find what turns out to be a happy-go-lucky but deadbeat Dad. Sutter now believes that his mother didn't want him to meet the man because she believes he is turning out just like him, shiftless and hopeless. He rationalises his drinking as a crutch  -- he is afraid of the pressure of other people's expectations. When Aimee is preparing to go off to college and hoping he will join her, he lets her broken-heartedly go alone because he genuinely believes he is no good for her. The film finishes with a will-they or won't-they sop to the viewer (which was not in the original novel).

While it's a more intelligent than most scenario, graced with complex characters, much of the action doesn't ring quite true. It's as if we are watching an adult's conception of what it is to be a teenager. In this context, I do wonder how much longer Woodley in particular will be stuck in teen roles. She is only one year younger than Jennifer Lawrence who has broadened her range from the teenager in "Winter's Bone" and the 'Hunger Games' series to a variety of very different adult leading roles. So far the talented Woodley is not another Lawrence.     

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Potpourri of Pictures

It's been another of those weeks where no one film jumps out screaming to be reviewed, but unlike previous similar weeks I watched a number of movies worth mentioning (among the usual dross of course) -- so here goes:

"Little Fugitive" (1953): This one has been on my want-to-see list for ages. One of the first indies -- non-studio, black and white, low budget -- it was the dream project of professional married photographers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, and went on to win a Silver Lion in Venice and to be Oscar-nominated for best story. Non-professional child actors (neither of whom ever appeared in another film) play brothers -- the elder Lennie forced to look after kid-brother Joey while their mother is away. As a gag to get shot of the youngster, Lennie and his mates pretend that Joey has accidentally killed his big brother and the frightened child steals some cash and hops a subway to Coney Island. He mooches about stuffing his face with junk food and collecting bottles for the deposits to fund his passion for pony rides. Lennie meanwhile is terrified that he has 'lost' Joey and goes off in search.

With a minimum of dialogue and acres of Cinema Verite on the crowded Coney beach and the adjacent Steeplechase Amusement Park, this is a wonderful evocation of a time and place long gone. The adventures of young 'fugitive' Joey are sweet, endearing, and just a little scary.

"Rubber" (2010): I confess: exploding heads in movies are one of my guilty pleasures and this weird outing has three super ones, along with a final exploding body! It's a very silly movie which seems to covet cult status -- but it really isn't quite good enough, not unless you are prepared to buy into having an abandoned rubber tire as a serial killer. Yes, said tire goes on a murderous rampage in a desolate desert environment destroying flora, fauna, and all else that gets in its way, before recuperating by watching TV and going for a swimming pool dip. Yes, very silly indeed, but occasionally funny too in a very juvenile way.

"Standoff" (2015): Basically a two-hander, one-location thriller with Thomas Jane's suicidal ex-soldier bluffing professional assassin Laurence Fishburne that he has more than a single shell left in his gun. Yes there are other characters, particularly a young girl called Bird who can identify Fishburne and whom Jane feels obliged to protect. It's remarkably well-acted for what is really a B-Movie -- and tense with it.

"Elsa and Fred" (2014): Surprisingly the most enjoyable of the week's offerings, with wrinklies Christopher Plummer and Shirley Maclaine falling in geriatric love. Plummer plays an ornery old fart moved into a small apartment by his bossy daughter Marcia Gay Harden and Maclaine is the free-spirited, kooky next door neighbour -- actually a little too self-consciously kooky for my taste. She's obsessed with "La Dolce Vita" and sees herself as a latter-day Anita Ekberg ready to cavort in the Trevi Fountain. Apparently based on a 2005 Argentinian film which I don't know, the project was intended for Maclaine and Michael Caine until he dropped out. His replacement Plummer  does a lovely job, however, and there are useful roles for George Segal, James Brolin, and Scott Bakula as well.

"Age of Uprising, the Legend of Michael Kohlhaas" (20l3) is a French film starring the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in a revenge story very similar to his in "Salvation" which I recently reviewed. However this is much longer and rather less involving. Our hero eventually manages to satisfy all of his perceived grievances -- in exchange for being beheaded. Not a great deal of fun that...

Finally "Filth" (2013) and probably the less said the better. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, James McAvoy is the whole show as a dysfunctional, dissolute, and despicable Scottish cop using friend and foe alike to secure an undeserved promotion. At once surreal, sex-driven, and very nasty, this is a movie to vaguely admire but not to enjoy.
 

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