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Friday, 13 January 2017

Venus in Fur (2013)

There have been numerous films titled "Venus in Furs" (plural) based on the infamous novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to both S-M and masochism...an interesting legacy. However most of these have used just the title for their own spin on sexual perversions. You can find this title as part of a 1967 triple bill from Something Weird Video. Then there are two 1969 versions -- the slightly more polite Italian version starring Laura Antonelli known as "Devil in the Flesh" and the garishly coloured soft-ish porn version from schlockmeister Jess (Jesus) Franco released as "Paroxismus". To be honest I can't recall much about this movie from the cheapy Spanish auteur, (and for my sins I have seen most of his trashy output). His version has a young musician finding the corpse of a woman on a beach, who returns from the dead to take revenge on the sadists who abused her. With a supporting cast that includes Klaus Kinski and Dennis Price, I should really remember it. There's also a 1994 Dutch flick that remains obscure.

However the above French film from director Roman Polanski is a class act, based not on the novel but on a stage play by David Iver. It's a two-hander on a single set, but it is 100% absorbing thanks to the superlative acting from Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. The success of this movie is its cast rather than its story. Seigner's would-be actress arrives late at the theatre where writer-director Amalric is holding auditions for his new play. He is about to leave but she bullies him into letting her read and he reluctantly agrees. As she morphs from know-it-all tart to consummate stage diva his own reading of the lines moves from rote responses to heart-felt emotions as he succumbs to the power of her acting and her sensuality. The audition continues despite the occasional telephone calls from his impatient fiancée until the roles become reversed with his becoming the dominatrix and her becoming the obedient servant. He dons the high heels and 'fur' and even a smear of lipstick, so reminiscent of Polanski's own turn in "The Tenant" (1976), a study in humiliation. Amazingly, Amalric begins to resemble the director physically more and more as the film progresses.

I've always known that Almaric is a fine and prolific actor appearing in dozens of movies since his debut in 1984, including English-speaking roles in recent years, like the villain in "Quantum of Silence". However I have surprised myself by discovering how remarkable Seigner is in this movie. I was first aware of her opposite Harrison Ford in 1988's "Frantic" and have seen her in various roles since, most recently in "In the House". Yet none of her turns have captured my fancy, even her previous pairing with "Amalric" in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" where he alone took centre stage. Married to Polanski since 1989, she has previously appeared in only two of his films "The Ninth Gate" (1991) and "Bitter Moon" (1992) and I have but the vaguest recollection of her acing chops in either. However in this movie Polanski has worked his magic, as he has often done for his leading ladies, and she is magnetically superb. 

As an unrelated but fascinating aside, Almaric's mother is from a Polish-Jewish family and was born in the very village where the Polanski family lived prior to World War II.  

Friday, 6 January 2017

Last Year's Top Ten

According to my film diary -- yes, I actually keep a list of the movies I view each day -- I watched 832 films in 2016. Wow! Obviously not all of these were recent releases or new to me; the list is liberally sprinkled with ancient rarities that I have finally caught up with plus a good lashing of old favourites re-visited. Sad to say, however, reading the titles of all 832 pictures, I really do not remember what many of them were about nor my reaction to them. Perhaps I should annotate that diary in future with some notes that might jog my fading memory. Or maybe I really do watch a lot of dross in my efforts to see every new film on offer.

Anyhow in deciding to feature the ten films I most enjoyed last year as opposed to the 'best' films, I shall limit myself to movies either made or released within the last few years which I viewed for the first time in 2016. One that will not be among them is "La La Land" which I saw at the London Film Festival back in October, but which has just been released in time for Oscar consideration. It is being broadly hyped as the shoo-in winner for best picture, but I found it patchy and ultimately downbeat. Parenthetically I finally watched last year's favourite "Revenant" recently, and will not be including that in my top ten either --  gruelling, nicely done, but not a film to enjoy -- a 'feel-bad' movie.

Before revealing my idiosyncratic choices, a few comments about some of the premieres over the recent holiday period. I was terribly disappointed with "The Lady in the Van" which left a sour after-taste, and was similarly let down by "Zootropolis" ("Zootopia" Stateside) which I found a little too twee and preachy and by "Deadpool", amusing but trying just a little bit too hard. "The Dallas Buyers Club" was well-done but worthy, although both lead actors certainly deserved their Oscars. I was smitten by the French animation "Long Way North" with its hand-painted slightly abstract design -- so unlike most other animation nowadays -- and I thought that "Ethel & Ernest" (whether or not the BBC consider it a movie) was movingly worthwhile. Finally I was surprised how much I liked Jon Favreau's new "Jungle Book"; Bill Murray gives great Baloo! 

So the time has come to list out my favourites from last year -- the one's I would be more than happy to re-view time and again. In no particular order of merit these are:

"Florence Foster Jenkins" -- I hope it gets a slew of Oscar nods.

"The Forbidden Room" -- a maddening tour de force from Guy Maddin.

"Tale of Tales" -- a feast for the eyes married to quirky storytelling.

"Anomalisa" -- stop-motion for adults.

"Wishin' and Hopin" - a great contender to join the ranks of the best Christmas flicks.

"Paddington" -- the tale of a loveable bear told with great British charm and affection (although I am getting fed up with Nicole Kidman trying to be a villainess -- it doesn't quite ring true).

"Call Me Jeeg Robot" -- the only movie from our FrightFest attendance worth watching, although this Italian quirk-fest is unlikely to achieve widespread release.

"Populaire" -- A French movie from 2012 which I had actually seen before about a typewriter whizz -- colourful and unusual.

"The Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" -- possibly a terrible movie but I enjoyed every minute of it.

"Hail Caesar" -- not the Coen Brothers' best but a lively look at old Hollywood.

There you have it. Let's find out what joys are in store for 20l7...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Christmas on the Box 2016

I know I said I would be blogging yesterday, but it was just one of those days when I didn't get anywhere near my computer -- although nowadays people in general seem surgically linked to one or other of their devices. So belatedly here are my rather dismal recommendations for the Christmas fortnight on UK terrestrial television starting today.

Without double-checking previous Christmas blogs, it really does seem that terrestrial TV in Britain is disappointingly more malnourished than ever this year. There are all of four -- count them four --  studio movies premiering that I have not already seen and only two of these are producing even a frisson of anticipation: "The Lady in the Van" on Christmas Eve and "Dallas Buyers Club" on Boxing Day (courtesy of Channel Five no less). The other two "Hercules" this evening and "Love Punch" also on Boxing Day I could take or leave, although knowing me I will almost certainly watch them on principle. The only other new 'goody' and it's not even listed as a movie, is the animation of "Ethel and Ernest" on BBC1 on the 28th which sounds, promising, along with the new short animation of "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" -- memories of reading this over and over to young Harri.

If I'm counting correctly, there are only seven other terrestrial premieres which are not animations: "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas" (silly), "Saving Mr Banks" on the 23rd (worthy), "Captain Phillips" on Boxing Day (predictable) along with "Pride" (unusual and not too bad), followed by "The Amazing Spider Man 2" (more of the same stuff), "Captain America - Winter Soldier" (superheroes, yawn), and "Muppets Most Wanted" (OK-ish). Otherwise all of the premieres are animations of which only "Frozen" on Christmas Day is noteworthy -- and tell me please which youngster hasn't seen that one a quadrillion times! In fact the schedules are littered with wall-to-wall animations most of each day. When were sentient adults barred from watching movies over the holiday period??? And obviously there's not a single foreign-language film to be found nor much in the way of documentaries.

Among the myriad repeats there are of course several old family favourites and if you have a tradition of watching the same old chestnut every Christmas you can probably unearth suitable candidates like "It's a Wonderful Life" (one of my own all-time greats) sparkling in the schedules. Otherwise watch Sky or read a book or (like me) catch up on the backlog. Sky, with their daily premieres (many of which are extremely iffy) have held back their 'big guns' for 24 to 28 December with new showings for "Zootropolis", the "Jungle Book" remake, "Deadpool", "Kung Fu Panda 3", and "A Long Way North" (a highly rated French animation). FilmFour by contrast seems to have gone to sleep with virtually nothing new over the fortnight. I also found a goody for my own pleasure buried in the late night schedules for Sky Arts: "Everything is Copy", a documentary on Nora Ephron on the 20th.

I can only see one new film-related programme, yet another tribute to Judi Dench, plus part two of a skimpy Walt Disney biography which started last Saturday. Non-film-wise the schedules are also strangely culturally barren with only one opera and no new programmes featuring classical music or art. I am mildly tempted by the two-part dramatization of "Witness for the Prosecution" on the 26th and 27th, but however well-done it promises to be, I doubt it can hope to hold a candle to the classic Billy Wilder film which starred three of my all-time favourites: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich.

Unlike previous issues of The Radio Times, the Christmas edition doesn't run through New Year's Day, so being the eternal optimist, I do hope that the next issue starting on 31 December is packed to the brim with all those movies I really want to see which have fallen through the proverbial cracks. Fat chance! However let me close on a more upbeat note with my best wishes to all for the holidays...see you again in 2017. 


Friday, 9 December 2016

Mr Turner (2014)

This biopic of the renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner is a labour of love from writer-director Mike Leigh and his lead actor of choice, Timothy Spall. Widely hyped as their joint masterpiece, it did not prove popular, largely because it is far from a conventional biography. Focussing on the last quarter of the artist's life before his death in 1851, its 150-minute running time alienated movie-goers who prefer films that tell a story. What Leigh provides instead is a series of vignettes illustrating different facets of Turner's life, with little linear connection between the various parts. However, like Gestalt theory, these do indeed create a rounded portrait of a talented but eccentric man.

The film was Oscar-nominated for cinematography, costume, original score, and production design, winning none of these. It did not receive any acting nominations, although one might have hoped that Spall would be recognised after a long and remarkable career and who even learned to paint for this role. His bulky physique morphs readily into the gruff, matter-of-fact genius who travelled widely with his sketchpad and painted some of the most romantic landscapes ever. Turner was an accomplished Impressionist before his time. The cinematography is in fact brilliantly done and the outdoor scenes can accurately be described as 'Turner-esque' in their beauty. As his purported last words would have it "The sun is God" and we revel in the light.

However in the large and well-cast ensemble, my top kudos would go to Dorothy Atkinson, who plays his drab, devoted, and obviously love-struck housekeeper Hannah, whom Turner takes for granted, barely notices or communicates with, and whom he uses for rough sex when the urge arises. For my money, she steals every scene in which she appears with her expressive face counterpointing the action. The artist was, it would seem, something of a lecher, denying his estranged and bitter wife and daughters -- claiming blithely that he never had any children. He eventually takes up with his occasional Margate landlady Sophia Booth (well-played by Marion Bailey) to whom he introduces himself initially as Mr Mallard (she subsequently remembers him as Mr Duckworth) and who has little idea of his fame before he is recognised by a local doctor. They live together on and off through his death and her devotion does manage to partially soften his prickly demeanour; as far as his Chelsea Embankment neighbours are concerned he is the devoted Mr. Booth.

In between there are telling tableaux of his interaction with other artists of the period at the Royal Academy, his championing by the effete art critic Ruskin (a nice turn from Joshua McGuire), his having his portrait taken by one of the new-fangled cameras (and returning to have another taken with the reluctant Sophia), attending a theatrical performance where both he and Ruskin are satirised, and the sickly Hannah's heartbreak on discovering that he is shacked up with another doting woman. I found the movie largely satisfying, since the whole certainly does add up to far more than the sum of its parts.

Next week my annual picks for British television viewing over the Christmas period...

Friday, 2 December 2016

Wishin' and Hopin' (2014)

I had every intention of making this week's blog another of those 'that was the week that was' summaries, since my viewing since last Friday included a number of A-list films which I have only just caught up with. These included "A Royal Night Out" (unbelievable but sweet), "Sicario" (a nasty drug wars flick), "Revenant" (long and gruelling, but hardly my cup of tea even if it did win DiCaprio his Oscar), "Hitman Agent 47" (a far-fetched live video game), Jackie Chan's historical bore "Dragon Blade", "The Battle for Sevastopol" (a worthy Russian biopic), "Strangerland" (a minor Nicole Kidman Aussie drama, not particularly good), and "Horns" (Harry Potter grows a pair -- interesting, but what it was all meant to mean is beyond me).

Now I could have written about any of these or I could have wondered aloud how Sky Movies manages to source so many obscurities in their weekly selection, but one film -- and a made-for-cable one no less -- stood out as the most entertaining of the bunch. It's that time of the year when a number of channels dredge up their dreary backlog of Christmas-themed movies, most of which are silly rom-coms of a high-powered female executive returning to her home town to sell a Christmas tree farm or a cookie factory or a diner and falling for a local hunk and simple down-home values. Yawn.  However the above film soars above that sort of dross threatening to become a new Christmas cult classic, much in the vein of l983's "A Christmas Story".

Based on a New York Times best-selling novel by Wally Lamb, the movie takes a nostalgic look back at l960s Connecticut and the Catholic Funicello family, whose main claim to fame is that they are distant cousins of pop-star Annette. Ma and Pa are Annabella Sciorra (nice to see her back if only in a small part) and Danny Nucci; there are two teenaged sisters, and little Felix, beautifully-played by Wyatt Raiff, a wee ten-year old charmer. At his parochial school we meet terrifying nun Conchata Ferrell and the creepy Monsignor Muldoon, played by Meatloaf. Felix's class has a temporary lay teacher, the Canadian Madame Frechette, essayed by ex-teenage queen Molly Ringwald with her best French accent, who must take over the class' portion of the annual Christmas pageant and who decides upon a series of living tableaux. All of this is narrated by the adult Felix, voiced by Chevy Chase.

However it is the child cast that stands out and provides most of the smiles and laughs. These include the Miss-know-it-all young lady who is Felix's nemesis, his 'dumb' bestie who has been left back twice, Zhenya a l7-year old new and sexually precocious Russian arrival, and a token black who knows all the sympathy-evoking ploys. The rivalries and jealousies all come to a head at the disastrous pageant where poor little Felix ends up playing the Baby Jesus when the Jesus doll is trashed. An earlier attempt to make his mark as a talented Funicello occurred when he appeared on television as part of a special audience for the 'Ranger Andy Show' (a real local TV show of the period). All the family and friends are merrily gathered watching the box when he is invited to tell a joke. He repeats one that he has heard recently from a helper at his father's diner without realising that it is filthy, not understanding what the words imply. His innocence is shattered, but only temporarily. He has the good-natured love of his family (and famous Cousin Annette) to see him through. It's delightful! It's a winner!

Friday, 25 November 2016

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

No more Korean movies for the time being; today a relatively obscure -- but quite remarkable -- Spanish film from writer-director David Trueba. I am not familiar with any of his earlier work but should note that he is the younger brother of Fernando Trueba who has directed a number of notable films going back to the Oscar winner "Belle Epoque" (1992). Mind you little brother David did very well with the above film at the 28th Goya Awards, winning six gongs including best picture and best director.

Inspired by actual events in 1966, veteran actor Javier Camara (a familiar face from Almodovar's "I'm so Excited") plays Antonio, a Beatles-obsessed English teacher, who uses their lyrics to inspire his teenaged students. When he learns that John Lennon is filming "How I Won the War" in Almeira, he sets off on a road trip to meet his hero. Driving a rattletrap old banger, he picks up two teenaged hitchers: Belen, a feisty three-month pregnant young lady who has absconded from a home for unwed mothers, and 16-year old Juanjo, who has run away from home and the dictatorial Dad who wants to cut his shaggy mop. Antonio may be a shy and somewhat repressed bachelor, but the one thing he understands is how to relate to youngsters. He is far more comfortable advising them than he is in interacting with adults.

Eventually they reach a local hostelry where Antonio books two rooms for himself and Belen and finds a temporary job for Juanjo at the nearby bar run by the kind Ramon, who lives with his disabled son Bruno. After several unsuccessful attempts to 'crash' the film-set and the house where John is staying, Antonio manages to arrange to meet the 'shy' Lennon to discuss the many topics that he has re-and re-rehearsed; he manages to convince the Beatle to subsequently include the lyrics to all the songs on future albums, so that they can be used as a teaching aid.

Meanwhile some rednecks at the bar have taken it upon themselves to chop off Juanjo's unruly hairdo, totally devastating the lad. Antonio seeks out the ringleader of the bullies and gets soundly slapped for his trouble. Parenthetically I have never seen a movie where so many of the characters get slapped for one reason or another. However the bully finally gets his comeuppance when Antonio ploughs his car through the baddie's tomato fields on the way out of town.

Antonio does offer to marry Belen, an offer which is never accepted nor refused, but she does provide Juanjo with some gentle sexual favours before his father arrives to cart him back to Madrid, allowing her to travel with them as well. I've barely touched on the many themes in this bittersweet film, but kindness, friendship, loyalty, and trust all figure brightly. The title of the film comes from a line in "Strawberry Fields" which Lennon actually wrote while working in Almeira.

During their journey Antonio invites his new teenaged pals to guess the nickname his students have given him. They guess 'baldy' or 'fatty' or 'four-eyes' all of which he accepts with good humour. But these are all wrong; in the end we discover that his pupils have dubbed him 'the fifth Beatle'! He is the kind of inspiring teacher we all wish we could have had. 

               *               *               *               *

Just a footnote to say that I have finally viewed "Still Alice" (2014) for which Julianne Moore won her long overdue Academy Award; it is indeed a bravura performance in a totally depressing movie. I would far rather she'd been rewarded for her barn-storming role in "Map to the Stars", released the same year.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Fish (2011) is Alone (2015)

Today will be the last of Korean film reviews for the time being, unless something remarkable comes my way over the next months. I wish I could say that our festival attendance ended on a high note, but unfortunately the reverse is true -- two nearly incomprehensible movies.

I was intrigued by the description of "A Fish" in the festival programme: 'Superbly shot in home-made 3-D, delivering more frissons-per-minute than most Hollywood thrillers'. Well this turned out to be brochure hyperbole. In his indie debut the director created his own version of 3-D lensing, at times effective and at other times headache-inducing, and I understand that most of the film's screenings have been the 2-D version. It starts with the hand of an unseen body knocking on a car window to question the driver and continues in much the same vein with, for example, the back of our protagonist in the foreground listening in to the telephone conversation of another character. Even when a whole landscape is shot in clear prospective, this expertise only makes the story being told even more obscure.

Our 'hero', a university lecturer, has hired a seedy detective to trace his runaway wife who has apparently become a shaman on Jindo Island -- and they journey there to drag her home. Meanwhile we have two anonymous fisherman on a platform in a foggy river wondering whether fish can dream, catching a talking fish which they proceed to cut up for sashimi, and subsequently forgetting each other's identity. Characters disappear at random and there is an over-reliance of mystifying mirror shots. I have not the foggiest idea what the film was meant to convey; perhaps we are all something of a hunter suddenly morphing into the hunted. Don't ask me to explain this any further.

I didn't twig when booking that "Alone" was the sophomore feature of the same writer-director Park Hong-Min (and of course I'd not yet viewed the elusive "Fish"), but had I known, I might have saved myself another interminable and largely unintelligible movie. This one started OK as a photographer witnesses a murder (maybe) from his rooftop, and is then chased by thugs who corner him in his studio. The next thing we know is that he is wandering totally naked and nearly amnesiac through the labyrinthine alleyways built on hillsides in the old districts of Seoul, apparently due for demolition and redevelopment. He winds his way back to his workshop where he finds a headless corpse and is next seen still wandering, but now clothed, through the same twisty streets. Here he encounters a sobbing young boy (who may or may not be him as a child) dragged off by his abusive father. He also sees his now dead mother and his on-off girlfriend (who probably isn't the same actress as his ma, but might well be) and these characters keep re-appearing and disappearing as he struggles along, up and down.

The movie is reasonably well-shot in the night-time byways of the city, and the lead, a stage actor Lee Juwon, won the award for best new actor at last year's Busan International Film Festival, but the film remains a puzzle. I guess one could hypothesize that the nightmare alleyways represent the nightmare confusion in the character's mind, a maze from which he is unable to escape. However I am only second-guessing what Park may or may not have been attempting to convey. Not an uninteresting scenario, but a far from comprehensible one. Maybe I should have been guided by the two films' IMDb ratings, 4.9 and 5.7 respectively which I would normally interpret as 'proceed with caution'.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Last Princess (2016)

More Korean cinema today and almost certainly next week as well, as the London Korean Film Festival gets under way. To be quite honest I wasn't particularly looking forward to the above historical movie, since I was expecting some sort of beautiful but quaint costume drama of ancient times. Instead this true story begins in 1925 and is therefore a 'modern' telling of the fate of the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Deok-hye, a now largely forgotten historical figure.

Beginning when she was a youngster in her father's court, she witnesses his death by poisoning by pro-Japanese agents working for Korea's annexation by Japan (a historical fact). At the age of thirteen she is reluctantly forced to go to Japan to 'study' like her elder brother, the heir to the throne, who has never returned. In Japan she is treated with some respect but used as a political pawn to further the enslavement of her countrymen. She yearns to go home, especially when she learns that her beloved mother is ill, but promise after promise is broken, her loyal servant is dragged away, and she is told that she will never again set foot in Korea. Her childhood friend Kim Jang-han to whom she was meant to be betrothed, but now an officer in the Japanese army, hatches a plan to help her and her brother escape. However his careful planning and their fraught flight ends in tragedy and her recapture.

Forced into a loveless marriage, she again attempts to return to her country when Korea regains its independence after World War II, but is crushed to learn that her name is on a forbidden list, the new government fearing that the Dynasty might be re-established through popular support. Years pass, but Jang-han has never given up the hope of finding her again and eventually traces her to a mental asylum where she has been imprisoned, gradually losing her beauty and her wits. He eventually manages to shame the political leaders in Korea to permit the return of this broken woman.

The outlines of the plot are delineated above but these bare bones don't begin to suggest how the film plays out like a gripping thriller. We want to root for the feisty princess and we feel let down each time she is thwarted; we sense her heartbreak. When she eventually is allowed to return, we wonder whether she is 'all there' but are moved to tears (or at least choked up) when she visits the former Imperial Palace, now a museum, and has a vision of past times featuring her beaming father and mother and herself as the young, mischievous, and innocent child she once was. I didn't recognise radiant lead actress Son Ye-jin from previous movies, but she gives a restrained yet moving performance as she ages, forcing us to remember this now forgotten Princess.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Karaoke Crazies (2016)

For a festival called the 'London East Asia Film Festival' it is a little ironic that we ended up choosing only Korean movies, especially since the Korean Film Festival (for which we also have tickets) starts this week. However there is a very good reason for our choosing the above title, since it is one of the movies that we could have viewed (but didn't) at this year's FrightFest -- and their blurb certainly sounded appealing as did the LEAFF's own. Unfortunately both were very misleading and the movie was a disappointment.

In fact I am beginning to think that the FrightFest organisers probably did not pre-view the movie at all and merely chose it on the basis of its hype; they describe it in their brochure as a "madcap brilliant ride that deftly mixes humour, horror, and more". It is nothing of the sort and is completely out of place in a fantasy/horror festival -- no imagination, no gore, no suspense -- in fact very little of anything. The LEAFF brochure is even more effusive...

This is not to say that the film had no redeeming qualities -- it's just not a horror movie. We are introduced us to Sung-wook, the proprietor of a run-down karaoke joint (just a couple of private rooms) in a small town. He can barely meet expenses, is haunted by past tragedies, and spends his days watching porn and contemplating suicide. He posts a hand-written notice for a 'singing helper' in exchange for room and board and takes on an asocial, tracksuit-wearing, and tone-deaf loner, who spends her hours gaming on her computer. She does however manage to satisfy some of the paying customers by offering a particular sexual act. Is it strange that her Korean name is Ha-Suck?

This mismatched pair are joined by the dishy Na-ju who has her own reasons for working at such a dead-beat venue and tries to satisfy the punters in more traditional ways. The fourth member of the household is the fat and deaf 'Big Mole' who is found squatting in the basement and who has also suffered family bereavements; he washes the floors and joins in Sung-wook's porny pastimes. A rather comic cop appears periodically to advise that a serial killer has been targeting women working in the entertainment industry, but we are not shown any of this fiend's kills. Eventually he does appear at our featured karaoke, where his motives become clear, ending in an off-screen (and therefore bloodless) murder. The denouement is that this killing turns things around for the three remaining misfits and they find a new lease of life running a 'family' karaoke.

The movie is the sophomore feature and his first in nine years for director Kim Sang-chan. Since his previous film "Highway Star" (2007), which I've not seen, is about a would-be rocker who is taken on as a reluctant 'country' singer (that's Korean country songs!), I seriously doubt that we have lost out on a potentially-wasted great directing talent in the intervening nine years. Or perhaps I'm being a little unfair.  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Curtain Call (2016) for The Goldwyn Follies (1938)

Family commitments kept me away from my computer all day yesterday, hence my regular Friday blog appearing on a Saturday:

I wish I could give you more details about the first film above, our first selection from the LEAFF programme (and yet another Korean movie), but it's not yet listed on IMDb. I certainly recognised some of the cast from earlier Korean films, but can't put names to the faces.  What I can do is endorse this flick from director Ryu Hoon as an entirely pleasant and inventive 99 minutes. The storyline concerns a third-rate group of actors (all of whom are proud of their craft), who are reduced to performing mildly erotic and innuendo-laden farces, directed by a man who was once destined for Shakespearian stardom. Their chance to improve their standing and to rescue their theatre, threatened with closure, is to partake in a competition celebrating Shakespeare's 400th anniversary and offering a prize for the best performance of "Hamlet".

This is quite a challenge for the ragtag ensemble but one that they take seriously, drafting in a great Shakespearian actor, now on the verge of Alzheimer's, to play Claudius and giving the lead to a young man in their troupe with pretensions of grandeur. They are further lumbered by the theatre-owner insisting that his squeeze 'Cutie' be given the role of Ophelia, even if the condition is that she will only speak her learned lines (to save her voice!) and all other communication must pass through her assistant. When the actor playing Hamlet is tripped up on his entrance and lies there unconscious, the players improvise that he is dead. We are therefore left with a production of "Hamlet" with no Hamlet! By the interval, half of the audience has walked out, appalled by the remaining cast's faffing about.

Backstage the theatre-owner bursts in, flabbergasted that the troupe is not playing their regular soft porn, and tries to stop the second half. This even upsets his mistress, who by now is revelling in the thrill of performance, so they lock him in a closet, and proceed with the play, having worked out a way of announcing that Hamlet is actually alive. The only trouble is that the actor, who has stormed out in a huff, is now halfway across the city. They rope in the director to play the final scene -- which is largely the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy out of sequence -- silently mouthed in part by the veteran Shakespearian whose aged mother is in the audience, never before having seen him on stage.

They succeed in charming the remaining audience and indeed the viewer with what has developed into a jolly romp. I certainly recommend this movie unconditionally.

As for the oldie above, a chance e-mail took us to the Regent Street Cinema to see this film. What we did not know in advance is that Wednesday afternoons there are devoted to viewings for senior citizens at a knock-down cost (£1.75) and the cinema was jammed. I had certainly seen the film previously long, long ago, but I had forgotten how truly awful it is. In what seems a nearly interminable two hours Goldwyn puts together a miscellany of diverse 'talents' (and I use the word loosely) to pad out the clichéd story of producer Adolphe Menjou striving to reach a renewed audience with movies they can relate to. He drafts in 'hick' Andrea Leeds whom he names 'Miss Humanity' to advise what will and what won't appeal to the mass audience. For example, her advice causes a ballet (!) of "Romeo and Juliet" to forego its regular tragic ending for a happier one.

The featured 'talent' includes German ballerina Vera Zorina pretending to be Russian, Metropolitan Opera star Helen Jepsen giving us endless arias from "La Traviata", a very unfunny Phil Baker (a radio personality of the day), tenor Kenny Baker (the poor man's Dick Powell), ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wise-cracking dummy Charlie McCarthy -- Bergen was a popular radio performer but his lips move on screen, and the Ritz Brothers with some largely unfunny routines (apart from their rendition of 'Here Pussy Pussy' which I had extracted to my 'bits' collection those many moons ago) . 

It's really a hodge-podge despite Goldwyn's apparently spending a fortune to obtain some quality. The ballets are by Balanchine and the music is by George Gershwin, who was working on the score when he died aged 38. It includes such classics as "Love Walked In" and "Our Love is Here to Stay", largely massacred by Baker's out-of-date (even then) singing style. It's not surprising that the film was a flop on release and it has not grown is stature, despite its eye-watering Technicolor -- one of the first musicals to sport this new invention. It truly is a 'Goldwyn Folly'.


Friday, 21 October 2016

The Last Three (and a half)

And so another London Film Festival winds to a close -- and I was a little more enthusiastic about our final three choices.

First up was "Lost in Paris" from the unmistakeably eccentric duo of Dominique Abel and the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, who wrote, directed, and starred in this eccentric tale. I first discovered them at the Festival five years ago when I was charmed by their film "The Fairy" and I made a point of searching out their earlier and equally delightful collaborations. Here Fiona plays a gawky Canadian tripper who manages on her first day in Paris to lose her backpack, money, and passport; these are found by the homeless Dom who dresses in one of her sweaters and takes himself to the fanciest restaurant he can find. Their paths cross and situations develop enabling them to demonstrate their elastic-jointed flexibility and quirky child-like chemistry. The addition of rather more dialogue than before does not distract from their visual comedy so reminiscent of silent cinema. The big surprise here, however, is their co-star, the 89-year old Emmanuelle Riva, playing Fiona's dotty aunt. Who would have believed that the star of "Hiroshima mon Amour" (1959) and more recently the tear-jerker "Amour" (2012) could have such a ball playing farce.

We're always game to view silent movies which we've not seen previously, so we booked tickets for "A Woman of the World" (1925), a showcase for the great silent diva Pola Negri. The showing was preceded by a recently restored 1926 short "What's the World Coming to?" which is the 'half' of this week's title. It's set 100 years in the future from that date, i.e. ten years from now when women and men have reversed their roles with the former being fierce and fearless adventurers and the latter helpless, blushing grooms. Michael thought it stupid, but I found this role-reversal comedy pleasing enough and mercifully sufficiently brief. Mind you, today's feminists would have a stroke to think that men might morph into a gender that they refuse to accept for themselves -- weak, silly, fashion-conscious, and vain.

As for the main feature, Negri plays a countess who discovers her lover (she has just had his family crest tattooed onto her arm) is unfaithful and she moves from the sophistication of the Riviera to her cousin's home in Maple Valley, Iowa. Said cousin is played by the silent clown Chester Conklin, whose goofy antics are a little out of place in this vaguely serious drama. The countess's worldliness (to say nothing of her tattoo) both awe and flabbergast the small-town busybodies, who think nothing of paying 25 cents each at the local fund-raiser to 'talk to a countess'! She is romantically pursued by an infatuated youngster Charles Emmett Mack (who tragically died in 1927) and the town's moral guardian Holmes Herbert, an actor with a long but relatively undistinguished career from 1915 to 1952. Despite resisting temptation he fails to drive her from Maple Valley and falls hopelessly for her charms. I stress the word 'charms' since despite her ability to fill the screen, Negri was never one of the great silent beauties. I'm glad I saw this programme, but neither of the two films were that wonderful.

Our last choice was "On the Milky Road" from the Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica, who not only wrote this epic three-part story, but also directs it and takes the lead role. Starting during the region's civil wars when his character Kosta rides his donkey to deliver milk across enemy lines, it moves to the period after the armistice when he falls in love with an outlaw, the still-gorgeous Monica Bellucci. Their love is doomed since the couple are relentlessly pursued by remorseless mercenaries who do not hesitate to slay all and sundry in their search. In the final section Kosta has become a monk constructing a never-ending monumental pattern of rocks in his great love's memory. The movie is a consummate mix of the realistic horrors of war together with more magical realism, elements of folk myths, and enchanting animal imagery -- a faithful falcon, a milk-loving snake, and a bear. In other words it's all very typical and satisfying Kusturican cinema. 

Next up over the next few weeks, a pair of movies from the first London East Asia Film Festival and our regular Korean Film Festival selections.      

Friday, 14 October 2016

Four from the Fest

We've now seen four more of our London Film Festival selections, leaving the remaining three to be viewed over the coming weekend. I must confess that I am a little disappointed so far, so let's have a look at this week's festival movies.

First up last Saturday morning at 10.30 am was the Venice Film Festival hit "La La Land", a modern musical from director Damien Chazelle -- a long-cherished project made possible by the success of his first feature "Whiplash" (2014). It just happened to be my birthday as well and I thought, 'Great! The perfect start to the day'. The film has been hyped to the skies and was even introduced by the Festival director as 'the best 10.30 am of your lives', or words to that effect, so I was expecting something truly remarkable.

Well the rest of the audience seemed very happy with the movie and it is receiving rave reviews on IMDb; I found it jolly enough viewing but not a great film. It struck me as being very derivative in part from so many other musicals and the original score from Justin Hurwitz is by definition an unknown quantity and not terribly catchy. In a way Chazelle might have done better with more familiar classic tunes a la Woody Allen. The personable leads, Emma Stone as a wannabe actress and Ryan Gosling as a wannabe jazz pianist are pleasant enough and have reasonable chemistry, but neither are strong singers nor graceful hoofers. They do try hard and the end result is not without some charm, but it hardly leaves one 'breathless' as promised.

The story starts as the usual boy hates girl, boy comes to love girl, boy loses girl, but not the expected happy-ever-after of boy gets girl. Towards the end we are presented with a scenario of what might have been, but this is not how the movie actually finishes. Realism is fine, but fantasy happy endings are what we've come to expect from most musicals, unless you're looking at Shakespearian tragedies morphed into the musical genre like "West Side Story". This is not the feel-good movie that one might have wished or as it is being promoted.

Well, I have spent far too long on the above film, so I will rush through the remaining three. Christopher Guest can always be relied upon to provide amusing tongue-in-cheek mockumentaries and his latest "Mascots" is no exception, even if it is not quite in the same league as his very best. Here he looks at those costumed animals and whatevers who prance about during major (and minor) sports fixtures. We're privy to a competition where the best of them are vying for the bronze, silver, and gold Fluffy. Most of Guest's regular stock company are present and correct, although I do miss Catherine O'Hara, but few of them are given much to do apart from the ever-fragrant Parker Posey. He fills in the movie with a number of new faces from American and British TV, most of whom I don't know, but they all manage amusing turns with the possible exception of Chris O'Dowd. Still it's always lovely to see Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, Bob Balaban, and the rest of Guest's crazy gang. However this movie is unlikely to reach your local multiplex as it has been made for Netflix and has now debuted on their service. How the world changes!

The remaining two movies will get even shorter reviews. "Interchange" hails from Malaysia and is an exotic tale of how an ancient curse from Borneo 100-odd years ago came to create a series of vampirish killings today. Very stylishly photographed with a foreboding atmosphere and great special effects of a man morphing into a bird, it probably would help if one was more familiar with the anthropological background to the story, but the intriguing film does not outstay its welcome. The same can't be said for the Korean film "The Wailing" which starts off as a straightforward policier but rapidly becomes a supernatural horror with the cop's daughter's possession by an evil spirit, an orgiastic shaman, a strange Jap who may be the devil, and a lurking woman in white. However at 156 minutes the movie manages to lose its way and become a muddled mess of occult mysticism. I'm none the wiser.   

Friday, 7 October 2016

Miss Peregrine and French Cinema

I did say I would begin reviewing London Film Festival movies today (of which I've only seen one so far), but I would be derelict in my duty if I did not comment on "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" (2016), the new release from that very individual director Tim Burton. Even with eight sets of tickets for the LFF in hand, I was still tempted to view Burton's latest treat earlier this week.

Now as luck would have it, I have actually read the 'young adult' novel (the first of a trilogy) by Ransom Riggs on which the movie is based. In a way I wish I hadn't, as the film departs wildly from the book, especially in its last third and denouement. Despite being full of Burton's trademark visual niceties, the screenplay by Brit Jane Goldman has been over-Hollywoodised to provide a slam-bang finale. The action remains in Britain, largely on an island off the Welsh coast, and the cast is also mainly non-American apart from a smallish part for Alison Janney and the film's arch-villain Samuel L Jackson, whose role has been overly beefed up to provide him with an opportunity for over-the-top make-up and histrionics.

After the death of his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), troubled young Jake (Asa Butterfield) yearns to visit the children's home in Wales where Abe spent his youth, tales of which have haunted Jake's childhood, together with a series of weird old photos. His psychiatrist encourages Dad Chris O'Dowd (thankfully more restrained than usual) to travel to the island with Jake, only for them to discover that the home was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943 and that all of its inhabitants perished. This is where the magic of the narrative kicks in, since all of them, led by their governess Eva Green, have entered a time loop, enabling them to relive that day over and over. And a weird collection they are: from the bird-like Miss Peregrine (a strong turn from Green) through the lass with the lead shoes to prevent her floating away, the super-strong toddler, the girl with a mouth and another set of teeth at the back of her head, the masked twins, and many more, straight out of the sepia photographs. Jake begins to wonder what peculiarities his grandpa and he himself might have to fit in with this unusual bunch, but we learn this as the tale unfolds. Rupert Everett and Judi Dench (as Miss Avocet) also make brief appearances.

Burton provides us with many visual wonders throughout and with magical images that will long remain with the viewer, however I do wish the ending had been a little more faithful to the novel. Those who come new to the material may well appreciate all of the movie's CGI fireworks, but I do feel that a little less would have provided a more memorable and less confusing storyline. Butterfield, now a gangly teenager after his memorable turn in Scorsese's "Hugo", suggests a young Tim Burton avid to understand the wonders of this strange world, but the character in the film who is probably most Burton-like is the mutant lad who can fix a jeweller's loupe in his eye and project his vivid dreams. That's the director in a nutshell.

Back to the Film Festival and the 190-minute (!) "A Journey through French Cinema" from the respected director Bertrand Tavernier. This was a fascinating voyage across French films from the l930s to the early 1970s, with the emphasis on those directors, composers, and actors who had the most impact on Tavernier himself. It does not set out to be a detailed history of the period, but rather an idiosyncratic look at his personal favourites, both the famous and the little-known, with a great selection of clips and a straight-to-the-camera narrative; he does not try to play down his dislikes while extolling his heroes, nor does he try to whitewash reputations (Renoir at the start of the Occupation being an interesting case in point).

Tavernier concentrates on the period before he started directing films himself and provides many insights into the work and thinking of directors Becker, Melville, Sautet, and Chabrol, actors Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Eddie Constantine, and Belmondo, and many more stalwarts of French cinema history, with an interesting sidebar on composers. The film successfully encouraged this viewer to want to re-watch  some of the movies that I know but have not seen for a long time and to search out those rarities which remain unknown. I just wish Tavernier could have accomplished this feat in well under three-hour mark -- it's a long time to sit in what are unfortunately the very uncomfortable seats at the National Film Theatre!

Friday, 30 September 2016

Housekeeping

No new film review(s) today as I want to touch on an 'improvement' to my viewing opportunities that I have been meaning to write about for some weeks now. Back in July Sky Movies (or Sky Cinema as they now style themselves) announced that they would be premiering a new film every day, as opposed to the maximum of four a week that we had been receiving. Great, I thought to myself, perhaps now they will be showing more of the top-quality movies included on their pay-to-view Sky Box Office, many of which manage to fall through the cracks, never making it to the regular subscribers' Premiere Channel. In addition they promised a foreign language movie every Wednesday, another big plus for this viewer.

My verdict? I'm afraid it has been something of a disappointment. I do try to watch -- or in some cases begin watching -- each new movie, but there have been a sad number where I have been forced to give up well before their end. In this category I would place some very inferior European and Asian animations -- and I do count myself an avid fan of the best animated movies. Among the 'unwatchable' I would dump "Dragon Ball Z - Battle of the Gods" and its sequel "Resurrection F", "A Warrior's Tale", "Animal Kingdom - Let's Go Ape", and "Frog Games". Never heard of any of these? Nor me.

There are still one or two A-list productions each week as previously, but mixed in with these are some little-known and probably straight-to-DVD bummers with an average IMDb rating of well under 5/. I don't know how Sky sources these movies which are filling out their one-a-day promise, but there have been some real obscurities and an unfortunate few with no redeeming qualities. Some have proved strangely watchable like the South African trilogy of "Spud" movies about the growing pains of a teenaged boy in boarding school (each with a minor role for the usually annoying John Cleese, but quite likeable here)) and a few ambitious horrors like the American remake of "Martyrs" and the largely incomprehensible "Don't Blink". However looking back at the list of movies that I have attempted to watch these last few months -- and I did persevere through most of them, I'm ashamed to admit I have little or no recollection of many -- or even worse a negative recollection of some.

The same is unfortunately true for the weekly foreign language flicks, again largely little-known or only marginally-released films including several South African ones in tribal languages. There have been a few decent Danish ones -- although even these have left little impression, and the only two films which I can recall with any enthusiasm are "Tokyo Tribe" (a Japanese hip-hop musical live manga!) and "Welcome to New York" with the ever-watchable and enormous Gerard Depardieu recreating the sex scandals of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Not that either of these were particularly 'classic' movies, but I'm happy to have seen them; however there have been numerous other foreign releases over the last few years which I have not yet seem and which I would love to be made available.

So what of the future? Ever the optimist I do hope that Sky will keep up the good work of bringing more and more movies to my attention, although I can but hope that the overall quality will improve. However their current television ad promoting all these premieres talks about September and October only, with no assurance that this will be an ongoing phenomenon. Despite all the bitching above, I do hope they will continue this increase in my potential viewing and never return to the past. With all their new potential competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like, who are grabbing up some of the better new films, they do need to keep on top of their game to satisfy their own viewers -- especially since the subscription price has rocketed over the years.

Next subject: It's London Film Festival time again and it's always a challenge to try to select the right balance of films to book over its 1l-day span. We have honed in on eight showings which I'll be reviewing over the next few weeks. These are a three-hour "Journey through French Cinema"; two American films which will undoubtedly be released soon-ish but which I am keen to see: the Cannes hit "La La Land" and the new Christopher Guest "Mascots"; "Interchange" a Malaysian-Indonesian horror (I think); "The Wailing" a Korean foray into the occult; "Lost in Paris", the latest concoction from the offbeat team of Dominque Abel and the unforgettable Fiona Gordon; "A Woman of the World" -- a silent from 1925; and finally "On the Milky Road" from the quirky Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica. This selection probably tells you a lot about me and my rather rarefied (some would say peculiar) tastes; I only hope these choices prove wise ones. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Pedro's Picks

In conjunction with their showcasing Almodovar's latest "Julieta", reviewed below, the British Film Institute asked the director to curate a selection of Spanish-made films that he most admires. Of his seven choices I had only seen two ("Jamon, Jamon" and "Thesis" -- both excellent), so promptly booked seats for another two that sounded most promising. My selections provided interesting viewing, if not quite the entertaining prospect I had envisioned.

First up was "It Happened in Broad Daylight" (1958), a true Euro-pudding of its day. Directed by the Hungarian Ladislao Vayda who was living in Spain, written by Swiss Fredrich Durrenmatt, shot in Switzerland with a German-speaking cast and three of the continent's leading actors of the day -- the French star character actor Michel Simon, Gert Frobe (six years before "Goldfinger"), and the stalwart of German cinema Heinz Ruhmann. That's a lot of talent but not necessarily put to the best use.

It's yet another story of a child-killer on the loose, a la "M", but is really more of a policier, as retired cop Ruhmann strives to find the real culprit after Simon hangs himself when falsely accused of the crimes. Simon's wandering peddler is in fact the movie's most watchable character, so his early demise was unfortunate. Frobe of course makes a suitably creepy pedarest, but the whole business of catching him in the act -- including putting a sweet little girl in real danger as bait, is all somewhat pedestrian, with the pastoral scenery overwhelming the action, as Ruhmann plods through his paces in this overlong film.

I was curious to see "El Sur"/"The South" (1983), since it is the second of only three full-length features in director Victor Erice's highly considered career. His first movie "Spirit of the Beehive" (1973) is esteemed as a brilliant look at impressionable childhood (although I have never quite been able to warm to it) and his last film, the documentary "The Quince Tree Sun" (1992), I found an interminable bore. Otherwise he has only directed shorts and segments of longer films. And interestingly, "El Sur", now a feature, is actually only a segment of the full movie he meant to shoot.

He budgeted for an 81-day shoot for a two and a half hour movie, but the rug was pulled from under him after 48 days, when the footage was edited into this 95 minute film invited into competition in Cannes. Set in 1957, like 'Beehive' this begins as another tale of childhood with the 8-year old Estella living in the snowy north of Spain with her sickly mother and adored father, who was forced (by mysterious reasons to her) to relocate from his exotic and mysterious South. We subsequently learn that Franco's politics played their part in his exile. He is an enigmatic and charismatic figure, a doctor at the local hospital, who also water-divines with his magic pendulum, but who spends his spare time locked in the off-limits attic of their home.

The story continues with the 15-year old Estella still trying to come to terms with her beloved but distant Dad, especially after she learns that he has been besotted with a B-movie actress called Irene Rios. After a final lunch together, we discover that this was to be their last meeting, and that he has put an end to his yearnings and misery. A voice-over throughout by the now adult Estrella, narrating this sad story, tells us that she will be sent to the Utopian South to live with her Grandmother and her father's former nanny Milagros, whom we have met only once at the young Estrella's first communion, but the film ends there. What Erice intended or what may have transpired subsequently is something that we will never know.

This isn't quite in the category of other open-ended films where the viewer must decide for himself, but rather a case of an uncompleted project. What we are left with is a quite watchable yet unsatisfying narrative. 

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Cafe Society (2016)

Time just seemed to run away with me yesterday which is why my regular Friday blog has managed to emerge on a Saturday morning and also why this review may well be shorter than usual -- since there are other things I usually try to do on a Saturday morning. That's the problem with being a creature of habit or wantonly seeking an orderly life.

However I could not let the opportunity pass without reviewing the latest Woody Allen movie. I've said it before and I'll say it again that despite his mounting chorus of critics, each new release manages to deepen my affection for this filmmaker. His 50th film is on the horizon and that will be an occasion well worth celebrating. The reviews for this movie have been lukewarm at best and no this is not another instance of an Allen clone attracting a much younger love interest -- thank you very much Mrs Muir. Set firmly in the l930s, the action is split between the Hollywood scene (with its many allusions to enchant any movie buff) and New York's would-be glittering night life, both beautifully designed, costumed, and photographed. The Allen film it most reminded me of is "Radio Days" (1987) but without its joy.

On so many levels this is an old man's movie full of regrets: lost love, the superficiality of existence, and the numbering of our days. Allen is now 81 years old and is allowed to wallow in rose-tinted nostalgia. as far as I'm concerned. For the second time in recent years Jesse Eisenberg is given the 'young Woody' role, but there is no attempt to mimic any mannerisms; his performance is nearly likeable and restrained. The revelation is Kristen Stewart -- miles away from her goth-y Twilight days -- playing his first love who opts for the glamour and security of her older lover, Steve Carell, a hot-shot Tinseltown agent and Eisenberg's uncle. Her performance is simple and unforced and she looks a dream in her little bobby-sox. As usual Allen rounds out his cast with a starry but well-considered ensemble: Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Eisenberg's parents (but do tell me how a Scots character actor came to portray a Yiddishe failure), Carey Stoll as his gangster brother (one is so used to seeing him totally bald, so why in the world was he given the world's worst wig to wear?), Sari Lennick out of "A Serious Man" as his sister, the ever-reliable Parker Posey as a mentor, and Blake Lively as his eventual gorgeous but not deeply-loved wife.

Allen's own scene-setting voiceover is perhaps unnecessary and at times its shakiness makes him sound less like the Woody of days long past, however as always his selection of music channelling the hits of the period is spot-on and a real pleasure. I for one look forward to his next movie and the one after and so on, 'til death do us part.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Julieta (2016)

The latest film from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is a return to the female-centric focus of his best films, certainly after the silliness of his last movie "I'm so Excited". However there was more to enjoy in that flick than in this subdued and rather downbeat melodrama. If this film is an indication of a new mature phase of dramatic restraint on the part of the director, it's not altogether an enticing prospect for die-hard fans such as myself.

Don't get me wrong the film is well-made, well designed and photographed, and certainly well-acted. It is also not uninvolving, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. So what is missing? The storytelling is elegant but restrained, with a total absence of Almodovar's usual playfulness, and therefore it is rather cold. The open ending is not the problem, since the probable outcome remains obvious, but we are left without much in the way of explanation or insight.

There is really only one main character Julieta -- played by two different actresses, Emma Suarez as the present-day woman who becomes the film's narrator and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self. Based on three consecutive short stories by the Canadian Nobel prize-winning author Alice Munro in her 2004 collection 'Runaway', Almodovar originally intended this as his first English-speaking film. However he backed down and has transposed the action to various parts of Spain. We learn that Julieta is long estranged from her beloved daughter Antia. A chance meeting with Bea, an old friend of Antia's, causes her to cancel plans to move to Portugal with her new lover and to return to the building where they once lived, in the hope that that Antia will somehow find her and make contact. She starts to write a long letter beginning with how she met Antia's fisherman father on an eventful train journey, how she sought him out after realising she was pregnant, and their early years together with their daughter before his untimely death while the child was away at summer camp (where she met her supposedly BFF Bea). The film is a tale of love and loss, but never totally grabs the viewer in its fierce drama or satisfactorily explains Antia's complete withdrawal from both Bea and her mother. We can but guess at part of her motivation from the odd hint carelessly dropped in the narrative.

We never actually see the adult Antia so the film's poster presents a conundrum. The young Julieta has a bush of short blonde hair while the young-teen Antia is brunette. The poster recreates a scene from the movie where the daughter helps her distraught young mother from her bath. On the poster, but not in the movie as far as I can recall, she somehow morphs into the careworn older Julieta, falling into the arms of her dark-haired daughter with the young Julieta's face. Now that would have been a sweet Almodovarian touch had it happened!

The only holdover from the director's usual stock company is the memorable Rossy de Palma, playing the fisherman's housekeeper. It was good to see her again, but her Picasso-like features have now softened with age, reminding me how much time has passed since I first started watching Almodovar's amazing filmography. I can but hope that this latest movie is but a blip amongst his more distinctive output.

Friday, 2 September 2016

FrightFest 2016

As I wrote last time, we finally decided to give up on the FrightFest marathon after all these years, but did book for a small selection of films -- to show willing. I guess we're not too good at making cold choices, since the three movies we watched last weekend ran the gamut from bloody brilliant to bloody awful. Our choices were based on a combination of the programme blurbs, the actors on offer, and IMDb ratings (where they existed). Being mainly very recent movies, the majority had not yet been rated, while a few seemed to attract ridiculously high scores -- based let it be said on quite low numbers. You can just about guarantee if a recently released film gets 8+ or 9+ rankings these were generated by the director's mother, aunties, and girlfriends.

Anyhow, let's start with the best first: "They Call me Jeeg Robot". This Italian flick from director Gabriele Mainetti is a low-budget labour of love and was a real winner at its native box office -- not really a horror movie at all, but a terrific fantasy piece. Two-bit crook Enzo hiding from his pursuers emerges from the contaminated waters of the Tiber with incredible super-strength -- a spaghetti toxic avenger. When a partner-in-crime is killed during a heist-gone-wrong, while he miraculously survives the fall from the high-rise building, he is so amazed at his escape that he rips a cash machine from its wall. The dead man's daughter Alessia soon latches on to him, convinced that he is the embodiment of her anime hero Jeeg Robot. She urges him to use his new-found powers for the greater good, which seems less attractive to him than petty crime, until local gangster Gypsy -- an egocentric nutter -- also falls into the life-changing river; the stage is set for the battle between potential good and real evil. It's a bittersweet love story, and Enzo reluctantly accepts that he is now a folk legend, destined to be the superhero of the mad, dead Alessia's fancies. It's a real charmer.

I wish I could say as much for "The Master Cleanse". We were attracted by its starry cast of Johnny Galecki (from 'The Big Bang Theory'), Anna Friel, Angelica Houston, and Oliver Platt. Galecki and Friel are among other life-losers who attend a seminar aimed at turning forlorn lives around and are chosen to attend a mountain retreat where their dark problems will be cleansed. By swilling some specially-prescribed vile concoctions, these 'problems' are soon excreted in the form of little hobgoblins, initially cute but potentially growing in size and ferocity, which the participants are then urged to kill (which they can't quite bring themselves to do). It all gets rather confusing and not just a little weird when Galecki and Friel escape with their sweet little goblins wrapped in a sack. And then it just gets stupid! Houston and Platt might as well have phoned in their pathetic performances and there is almost nothing to recommend this one to horror fans or any one else.

Before going to view our final choice "The Director's Cut", we said to ourselves that it couldn't be worse than the film above; boy were we wrong. Hyped in the programme as 'the cleverest, funniest, sharpest' treat for the genre movie buff from director Adam Rifkin, it was none of these. The wheeze is that a high-contributing crowd-funder (and from the never-ending end-credits I gather that the movie itself was so funded) gets his hands on the original movie "Knocked Off" (which we never actually see) and 'improves' it by his own re-editing and voice-over, focussing on its kidnapped star (Missi Pyle) whom he fetishes. Written and produced by Penn Jillette (who also stars), with a brief appearance from the normally silent Teller, this was little more than a complete embarrassment. Penn and Teller are well, well past their sell-by date and I was ashamed for Ms Missi for all the f...ing dialogue she is required to mouth. I promptly rated the movie a "1" on IMDb to counteract the mystifying "10s" and would urge you to do the same without actually having to sit through this shambles.   

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.
 

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