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Friday, 27 February 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 February 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Circus (1928)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 January 2015

Classe tous risques (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 January 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 January 2015

Birdman (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Post-Christmas Appraisal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 December 2014

Movies on TV This Christmas - bah humbug!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2014

Wake in Fright (1971)

Some movies gain almost mythic status when one considers their fate over the years and the above film is an interesting case in point. The original novel published in 1961 by the Australian writer Kenneth Cook was first optioned by a British television producer to be adapted for the box. This TV drama was meant to be directed by Joseph Losey and to star Dirk Bogarde, with Robert Helpmann (and subsequently James Mason or Donald Pleasence) in the main supporting role.

Those plans obviously crashed and the next one knew the novel was being made into a film in Australia with the Canadian director Ted Kotcheff at the helm. The main role of John Grant was filled by the Aussie actor Gary Bond (a cross between a young Peter O'Toole and a young Richard Chamberlain) with Pleasence -- always a creepy presence -- still in the frame and with the addition of Australian old-time movie star Chips Rafferty also in support. The final picture was sufficiently well thought of to be selected by Cannes to be the official Australian entry in 1971, but the country's National Film Board refused to endorse this because of the unfavourable light in which the country was depicted. Still the film remained in competition and was subsequently a long-running hit in France. In contrast, it was something of a financial flop elsewhere, appearing in chopped up versions under the title "Outback", until only distressed and incomplete negatives were available.

The movie's mythic reputation continued to grow, since this film and "Walkabout" released at about the same time, were credited by local film-makers as spurring the Renaissance of Australian movie-making in the early 70s and beyond. However the master negative had disappeared and after years of searching it was located finally in a Pittsburgh company's dump bin marked "for destruction".  It was eventually restored and re-mastered and in 2009 it became only the second film to be invited to Cannes for a second showing.

The movie centers on Bond's Grant, an impoverished yet relatively cultured university graduate, indentured to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Tiboonda in the back of beyond, a desolate settlement in the endless vast hot, dry terrain. For his Christmas break he takes the one-carriage train, ignoring his boisterous and drunken fellow travellers, to the nearest big town, Bundanyabba - The Yabba for short - where he plans on getting the next day's flight to Sydney and civilization. That evening when most of the locals have gathered in the illegal, after hours pub, he witnesses their simple pastime, a gambling game totally without finesse where they bet on whether two tossed coins will land heads or tails. While unable to understand the idiocy of this game, he is tempted to try his luck and proceeds to win a goodly sum. However, thinking that further winnings could free him from his teaching contract, he returns to the floor and manages to lose everything -- stranding him in this frontier mining town. He wakes naked the next morning -- a man without prospects.

The film would have it that Aussies are imperialistic drinkers so there is no shortage of punters offering to buy him a few jars. He is invited to 'lunch' by one of the locals, who is soon joined by three of his friends including 'Doc' (Pleasence), and an afternoon of heavy drinking. He tries to become friendly with the daughter of the house (and none of the others can fathom why he might prefer talking to drinking) but only can vomit when the encounter threatens to become sexual. He fends off an actual sexual approach from 'Doc' with whom he spends the night, and by the next afternoon he willingly joins the four of them for a bloody and vicious kangaroo hunt. Effectively Bond is rapidly becoming a man who is having the veneer of civilization stripped from him piece by piece and he finds himself in a no-win situation. With no funds, he attempts to hitch his way to Sydney, but unwittingly finds himself back at The Yabba and ultimately back in the dead-end world that is Tiboonda.

No one can claim that 'no kangaroos were injured in the making of this film' as Kotcheff includes footage of actual licensed kangaroo hunters who went out nightly to stalk their prey by blinding them with bright spotlights. This graphic and gory footage managed to get both the government and the environmentalists up in arms. The Australian Tourist Board could hardly be pleased with the negative imagery of their would-be tourist attractions. The director claims that he himself would never injure an animal and that kangaroos are the most anthropomorphic of beasts. He adds that the footage was included to illustrate the depths of Bond's degeneration -- and apparently the bloodiest footage never made the final cut. As is, it is all pretty horrific.

I wondered about the film's title as there is nothing explanatory in the movie. It is explained by a one-line foreword in the novel itself and reads: "may you dream of the devil and wake in fright".

Friday, 28 November 2014

Body and Soul (1925)

Apart from the standard popular tune, there have been a surprising number of films, TV series, and mini-series with the above title -- each unrelated to the next, but none of such potentially great interest to the movie buff as the above Poverty Row movie.

Looking at niche interests, one must note that it was directed by Oscar Micheaux, one of very few black directors to accumulate a substantial body of work in the bad old days, and that it showcases the first film role (and his only silent role) of the majestic Paul Robeson. Both of these men were giants with landmark footnotes in film history. Micheaux is credited as the first African-American to produce a feature-length movie ("The Homesteader" - 1919) and also the first to produce a feature-length sound movie. Not many of his movies survive and since they were intended primarily for black audiences, few are known today. The fact that they were all made on the proverbial shoestring did not help them to linger in the collective memory.

As for Robeson, he was one of the first black actors to cross over into 'white' films, most noticeably in the original 1936 version of "Showboat". Tall, handsome, with a beautiful bass voice, he was the son of a minister, graduated from college in 1919, and attended Columbia Law School -- so he was hardly any kind of stereotype. He performed on stage and in concert from the early twenties, and made a series of wonderfully conceived films (several of them in England) in the thirties. His last film performance was in "Tales of Manhattan" (1942) when he took offence at the portrayal of Negroes in Hollywood movies. Always a radical and a fighter for justice, he was suspected of Communist sympathies (he famously performed in Moscow), and had his passport confiscated for his beliefs. He was effectively blacklisted and his career destroyed. A sad, sad story.

In the above film he takes a dual role as the respectable, poor would-be inventor Sylvester and his ex-convict brother who poses as a man of the cloth. His fire and brimstone sermons become so popular with the local community, that no one sees his true colours (a drinker and a gambler) through the façade. He entices Sylvester's girlfriend or rather rapes her, manages to get her to steal the money that her poor old mother has been saving in the family bible, and drives her in disgrace from her home. When the mother eventually traces the girl, she is starving and sickly --soon to die. The mother is played by the large and imposing fair-skinned Mercedes Gilbert, who was a well-known stage actress, and the girl by Micheaux's sister-in-law in her only film appearance.

While censorship was not as formal in the twenties as it became after the Hays Code, the director was broadly criticised by his fellow blacks for portraying a minister as a thief, rapist, and murderer. Without the funds to reshoot the movie, Micheaux tacked on a new ending -- an early instance of 'it was all a dream, the nightmare of a tortured soul' cop-out. Despite this being the only time Robeson played what could be considered a villain, his performance is mesmerising. The film is worth seeing for him alone, but the Criterion disc is blessed with a great jazz score by Wycliffe Gordon and Courtney Pike. And while I usually object to voices on the sound-track of a silent movie, I could just about swear that at times I could hear Robeson himself singing.

I am away for a short break at the end of next week, so I shall reappear in a fortnight's time. 'Til then....

Friday, 21 November 2014

There's a whole world out there...

It never ceases to amaze me how many interesting movies are waiting to be discovered by the open-minded viewer. I could happily ignore most new releases -- although to be fair I try to make the effort to see them all in due course -- in the hope of finding my entertainment further afield. This week has been a good case in point, since after watching the film that I intended to be the centrepiece of this entry, I saw two others that merit if only the briefest of mentions.

The first of these was a German experimental film from 1925 titled "Das Blumenwunder", which I assume means 'the wonder of flowers'. No point trying to verify this on IMDb since the film isn't even included in their remarkable database. Effectively it was a very, very early entry in what I think is called time-lapse photography, watching various flowers bloom, blossom, and sometimes fade. I have certainly seen modern-era nature programmes using the same technique, but never morphing the flowers into flowingly-robed dancers as this one did! On one level its 65 minutes running time verged on the boring, but I kept telling myself that the movie was probably of great historic merit and certainly of great curiosity value.

The second movie was a modern Indian one from Channel Four's annual late-night Indian season. I've given up watching every one of these movies as a matter of course, but do set those that sound of potential interest. I picked a real winner with "Lootera" (2013).  Set in 1953, shortly after the country's independence, it seems at first a run-of-the-mill love story as the sickly daughter of a rich landowner (whose property is largely being nationalised) falls for the handsome 'archaeologist' who is excavating on their land. He loves her too, but his 'brother' tells him that their 'uncle' would never sanction the proposed marriage. Their engagement is announced but when her father visits their temple to prepare for the ceremony, he discovers his gold statues have been looted and the handsome lover has done a bunk. The so-called uncle has meanwhile purchased the treasures of the house and paid for them with a wad of counterfeit cash! Hence, I assume, the title of the movie.

Seeing his daughter's suffering kills the father and the story resumes with her living (and dying from TB) elsewhere in genteel poverty. Hunted by the police since many others were similarly deceived, the impostor comes back into her life while on the run -- and a different sort of love story follows, largely inspired by the O. Henry story of 'The Last Leaf' -- not that any happy ending was feasible.' This was an unusual and gripping tale and the film blessedly didn't suffer from the characters bursting into song and dance at every opportunity. Yes, there was music and singing, but this was as a background to the action and the film was all the better for its restraint.

So finally to the movie intended as this week's topic: "The New Gulliver" (1935). This film from Aleksandr Ptuschko (1900-1973), often referred to as 'the Russian Disney' was both very much of its period and a total delight despite that. What I'm getting at is that almost all Russian movies from the 30s featured smiling, happy, collective workers, going about their tasks for the glory of Mother Russia. (I doubt the films would have been sanctioned had this not been the case). Ptuschko takes the classic tale and rewrites it as a Communist text. The live-action actor, a big, brawny, cheerful yet gormless fellow, is shipwrecked in Lilliput, where he is captured by a host of impressively fashioned stop-motion miniature figures. (Again this must be one of the earliest major examples of the technique.) However these Lilliputians are a decadent bunch of aristos, while toiling beneath the kingdom are crude Claymation figures forced to manufacture munitions and awaiting their chance to rebel and to rise to the surface. I guess you get the message!

The Lilliputians decide that Gulliver should join their army as a man-mountain defence, and prepare a sumptuous banquet for him. They bring on the entertainments including a troupe of tinier midgets ('You have midgets?" he asks in amazement). However Gulliver wonders why they 'beat' their workers and he refuses to toast their king; he says they should change their motto from 'God save the throne' to 'God save Labour'. Rather than defending the kingdom from foreign enemies as in the book, Gulliver supports the workers as they storm the palace, forcing the king and his queen to hang precariously from the clock-tower. 'At last' enthuses our hero as he awakes from his dream.

You can watch this gem on the treasure-house that is You Tube. There is a copy available with English subtitles, even if these are occasionally difficult to read with their white on white. There is also a slightly longer version posted, but without the necessary titles that definitely add spice to this fantasy. Well recommended!

 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Korean movies

Korean movies have gone from strength to strength over the last fifteen or so years and I can think of dozens that have enchanted me, from period epics through quirky policiers, from fantasy sci-fi through effective horror. Therefore when we noticed that a Korean Film Festival was scheduled for London this month (incidentally the 9th and the largest and most ambitious of all the Korean Festivals staged around the globe), we thought 'let's book some tickets'. After studying the very diverse programme which featured the 102nd(!) film from director Im Kwontaek and a retrospective of the movies of talented 'outsider' Kim Ki-duk, we settled on two films from a short-list of seven or eight. They were, as it turned out, not necessarily the best choices we could have made and short reviews follow below.

Coincidentally -- or perhaps in support of the Festival -- Film Four also scheduled five television premieres for recent Korean movies five nights in a row. I thought 'super-duper' and set the hard-disc for the very late night showings of "In Another Country" (2012), "Like You Know it All" (2009), "The Day He Arrives" (2011), "Oki's Movie" (2010), and "Hahaha" (2010). However, I had to literally force myself to sit through these five which were largely very slow and tedious and occasionally confusing.. Ironically each of them had a main character who was either a film director or critic (or in some cases both).

The generalisations I can tell you by distilling the five movies are that Korean film-makers all look like late teenagers (presumably not the bloke who has just shot his 102nd film), drink to excess, are always unfaithful to their wives, and are given to sprouting would-be profound but actually idiotic inanities at the drop of a hat. The weather is either freezing cold, rainy, or boiling hot -- and umbrellas are essential accessories. The films were all surprisingly well-rated on IMDb, but I couldn't tell you why. The first actually starred French super-star actress Isabel Huppert rabbiting away in English to the otherwise Korean cast who were forced to reply in occasionally pigeon English. How peculiar! The classic 'groundhog day' scenario seems to have been adapted by the screenwriters of these movies and all of them featured repetitious scenes, dialogue, and characters. Something of a big yawn and not super-duper at all. 

To return to the Festival itself, our first selection was Kim Ki-duk's latest "One on One". I referred to him as an outsider above since while he is well-revered overseas, he is not particularly popular in his home market; his films which have won major prizes at the top international film festivals have received scant praise among Koreans themselves. They tend to focus on society's own outsiders and on the cruelty meted out by man to his fellow man; his main themes are isolation, death, suffering in silence, and the need for revenge. None of this holds instant appeal for the average Korean movie-goer, whereas we foreigners treasure his movies as so-called 'art-house gems'.  His latest film is somewhat more conventionally constructed than many of his others. We follow a mismatched vigilante group, who dress up in varying costumes and uniforms, who seek to avenge the murder of a high school girl by the minions of some branch of the government. As is often the excuse for evil-doing, the perpetrators who are picked up and tortured one by one into signing confessions, claim that they were only following orders. Some of them begin to regret their actions -- others can't understand the fuss. The director seems to be asking where does responsibility stop? Can we ever satisfactorily correct society's wrongs? He does not provide us with any simple answers.

Our second choice "Cold Eyes", based on a 2007 Hong Kong thriller, was in contrast a huge hit in Korea. It is something of a rather atypical police procedural and I personally found it a little on the mechanical side. The lead actress Ha Yoon-ju plays a rookie policewoman with uncanny observational skills assigned to Hwang Sang-jun's surveillance unit; their job is to trace and pin down high-profile criminals rather than actively engaging with them. Their main target here is a ruthless criminal and bank-robber played by pretty-boy actor Jung Woo-sung (the 'Good' in 'The Good, the Bad, and the Weird'). The latter is apparently something of a major heart-throb back home and his appearance for a Q and A at the cinema yesterday attracted a throng of cooing, lovesick Korean ladies both in the audience and outside. I had no idea there were so many young Koreans living in London.

While the above reviews may come off as a little dismissive -- particularly of Film Four's selections -- I have not been put off seeking more Korean movies to view in the future. On balance the good ones I have seen in the past more than compensate for the seven seen this week, and certainly the two Festival choices were both of some minor interest.   

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Babadook (2014)

By and large I avoid most Australian films, since I find the accent both grating and often difficult to understand. In fact we could have selected the above movie as one of our choices at the recent FrightFest, but did not include it for that reason. However the generally amazing reviews it has garnered on its cinema release caused an immediate reappraisal for this fan of all things 'horror-able'. Having now seen it, let me state categorically that it provides truly creepy viewing and is destined to become a cult classic.

A freshman effort from writer-director Jennifer Kent, this low-budget but big-impact film focuses on conflicted mother Amelia, brilliantly embodied by Essie Davis, who is desperately trying to raise her genuinely disturbed and annoying son. Widowed when her husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to hospital to give birth to young Sam (a fact which the boy cheerfully advises to all and sundry), she is easily aggravated, sleep-deprived, and struggling to cope with her son's night terrors and disruptive behaviour at school and in public. A picture-book titled 'Mister Babadook' mysteriously appears on his bed-time reading shelf and it takes but one reading of the terrifying tale, which predicts death and disaster, for the boy to become convinced that this threat is real and that the Babadook does indeed inhabit every shadowy nook. Child actor Noah Wiseman gives a scary performance that could leave any child well and truly traumatised. 

Sam is determined to protect his mother from this fearsome creature and before long Amelia too begins to believe that something truly disturbing is looming in the darkness. She soon begins to lose her grip on reality, experiencing phantom phone calls and the reappearance of the mended book after she has carefully torn it to shreds and burned it. It does not displace one's rational belief in the nonexistence of monsters, that we too see her fears take shape in the form of the terrifying Babadook. The film's horror is far more psychological than the gleeful frissons we experience in viewing a bunch of typical teens being picked off one by one. Amelia finds that her long-standing resentment of the son who caused her husband's death begins to morph into physical hatred of the youngster. She is finally unable to cope. The child who begins the film as the bratty object of our disgust, causing us to sympathise with his harassed mum, turns into the object of our pity as we fear for his physical safety.

Without wishing to spoil the film's logic, one begins to suspect that Amelia was herself the author of the fiendish book, a way of making concrete her own worries and disappointments. In the end (spoiler here) the status quo can only be resumed by locking away the terror (real or otherwise) in the cellar that also houses all of her dead husband's chattels. The final images, however, suggest that the Babadook that any of us might create is alive and well and looking for his re-release.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Way (2010)

I really am turning into some sort of soppy sausage! I often find my tears welling up when I watch certain movies which manage to tug at the old heartstrings, but I wasn't expecting this to happen watching a movie about a traditional Catholic pilgrimage. The above film caught me unawares...

Starring Martin Sheen and directed by his non-Charlie son Emilio Estevez, who also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Jack Hitt, this was obviously a project close to their respective religious hearts. Sheen plays widowed and relatively carefree California ophthalmologist Tom, whose biggest disappointment is that his only son Daniel (Estevez) prefers a footloose and feckless quest for adventure rather than a more settled way of life. On the golf course with his cronies, Sheen takes a call advising that Daniel has been killed by a freak mountain storm one day out on a pilgrimage journey -- the fabled El Camino route from St. Jean Pied de Port in France across the Pyrenees to Santiago de Campostela in Spain. Off he flies to bring home the body of his beloved son.

On arrival he has a change of heart and, having had Daniel's remains cremated, decides to undertake the 500 mile journey himself as an homage and in honour of his lost son. He has all the necessary gear if not the necessary fitness, but resolves to make the journey -- however long it takes. His plan is to sprinkle some of the ashes at graves and shrines along the way, before leaving the remainder at the journey's end cathedral; he is determined to complete the pilgrimage that his son died trying to complete. Estevez made the journey himself filming the action amongst real pilgrims and real hostels en route, shooting only in natural light. However to fill out the Sheen storyline,  Doctor Tom acquires some regular travelling companions: Yorick van Wageningen (the jolly 'I'm Joost from Amsterdam') who is doing the trek to lose weight but who takes every opportunity to liberally sample the food and booze on the way; Deborah Kara Unger as the jaded and cynical Canadian Sarah who sees the journey as her last chance to finally give up ciggies for good on arrival in Santiago; and James Nesbitt as blocked Irish writer Jack, who may or who may not be based on the book's author.

Sheen is initially locked into his own grief and dismissive of the friendly overtures from his fellow pilgrims, but shared efforts and hardships, including having his backpack with its holy box of ashes stolen by a gypsy boy, bring them closer. The backpack is returned by the stern father of the chastened lad and he convinces Sheen that he must continue his pilgrimage past the cathedral to the wild northern coast before spreading the last of the ashes -- not that I really understood why. Sheen's companions have every intention of ending their journey at the cathedral -- their missions accomplished or otherwise -- but in the end their new-found fellow-feeling keeps them with Sheen through the final tribute to his son. The doctor's quest is so heart-felt that at various stages of the journey, he (and we) see the late Daniel happily mingling with the crowd.

This is far too spiritual an endeavor to be lumped as another road movie and it doesn't really have the echoes of "The Wizard of Oz" that some have suggested. The movie honours a 1000-year old pilgrimage and it is clear that both Sheen and Estevez found it a moving and highly religious exercise. The standard greeting to pilgrims on The Way is 'buen camino';  indeed, father and son here have furnished the viewer with a very moving and very 'good road' for our own journey. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Three more foreign language films...

Here I was expecting to report on our last two choices for the London Film Festival and I find myself having to review a third foreign film as well.  First things first:

3 Hearts (2013) - Our penultimate Festival movie was this French one (again with Catherine Deneuve -- though not in the lead) and I'm not 100% certain why we chose it. Quite possibly the fact that I have a certain fondness for the Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde, ever since I first saw him in "Man Bites Dog" (1992) all those years ago, guided its selection. I certainly have no burning interest in the movie's two female leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Marcello and indeed Deneuve), although both are able actresses. Poelvoorde -- an unlikely romantic heart-throb -- has a chance meeting with Gainsbourg and love blossoms. However arrangements for a return meeting fizzle out and, broken-hearted, off she goes to the States with her second-best boyfriend. Soon Poelvoorde has another chance meeting, this time with her sister Mastroianni, and ends up marrying her, not initially twigging that he has wooed a pair of sisters, although the penny soon drops. How can he avoid the showdown, since he is too much of a coward to tell the truth to his new wife, especially since he still fancies Gainsbourg.

This is the sort of quandary that only occurs as a dramatic device in movies and the untenable contrivances soon begin to pall for the viewer. The film is well-acted by all four (Deneuve plays the girls' mother and she soon has her own suspicions), but there was nowhere for the action to go satisfactorily, to the extent that the ending becomes a 'what-if' device of its own.  In short something of a potboiler with the distracting thought throughout of how much Mastroianni really, really looks like her dad!

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014) - This Chinese movie was the Gala Performance in the 'Cult' strand of the Festival, but we booked to see it on its second showing the next afternoon; I was hoping for something of a gem, but was disappointed. It's based on the same classic novel that gave rise to the lovely Hong Kong movies "The Bride with White Hair" and its sequel in 1993, where Brigette Lin and the late Leslie Cheung created their own brand of magic. However director Jacob Cheung (no relation) has fallen prey to the 're-imagining' bug, rewriting the story on such a big scale with a myriad use of CGI that the doomed lovers are swallowed up by the grandeur of the design and the overly convoluted storyline. Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing has relatively little chemistry with her male lead and despite the credited 'artistic guidance' from Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark, the movie is not a patch on the earlier ones. If one is unfamiliar with these, it's a pleasant enough romp with some spectacular action sequences, but it's really a completely different ballgame -- and not for the better.

You would think that we would have had our fill of foreign-language flicks during the course of the Festival, but a rather positive review for a new Japanese movie tempted us back out to the cinema to see "Black Butler" (2014). Since it was only showing once a day at a single movie-house in a one-week window, we didn't exactly have a great deal of choice as to when we might see this film. I suspect it will now disappear from the scene until its inevitable DVD release. So, you may ask, was it worth the outing? Yes and no...

It's apparently based on a popular manga and has previously been released as an anime. This live action version is probably more accessible to the Western viewer, despite I gather the various liberties that the directors have taken with the original story. Briefly, our 'hero' Ayame Goriki, has witnessed 'his' parents' murder and vows revenge by selling 'his' soul to a demon in exchange for some supernatural help. The various parentheses are not really a spoiler, since the lead role is supposedly a boy but the actress playing the part is decidedly female in appearance. The demon is played with some cheeky devilish flair by the un-Japanesey-looking Hiro Mizushima. Together they must battle a fiendish drug cartel who are unleashing 'The Demon's Curse', a drug which causes its victims to die suddenly and horribly and to become mummified. Goriki must also get to the root of the original crime, before her own demon claims his due.

Again the action sequences are very well done and the two leads are appealing and likeable, although the possibly blossoming romance is both unlikely and probably out of keeping with the original manga. Nevertheless it's relatively good fun -- not a brilliant movie, but a cheerful enough one if ever it comes your way.

I won't promise, but I'll try to review an English-language movie next time!

Friday, 17 October 2014

More London Film Festival

As I'm sure I've said before, when choosing festival films to book, we usually go for those most unlikely to secure a cinema release -- which doesn't really mean worthy movies about Bulgarian tractor drivers, starving Scottish crofters, or the like, but usually interesting-sounding films not in the English language. So it will come as no surprise that three of the four pics seen since I last wrote are foreign-language films; and while the fourth may indeed be an American production, it is a recently rediscovered and restored semi-silent, and therefore unlikely to hit the local multiplex:

French Riviera (2014) - The French title of this intelligent film from director Andre Techine translates as 'The Man who was Loved Too Much' which tells you rather more about the movie than the wishy-washy English title. Based on real events in the 1970s, the story follows the fortunes of wealthy casino owner Catherine Deneuve, her ambitious young lawyer (Guillaume Canet), and her recently divorced daughter Agnes -- a brave performance from Adele Haenel. When Canet fails to manipulate the widow Deneuve into making him the casino manager, he focuses his charms on Agnes. While initially ignoring the married masher's attentions, she is gradually sucked into his manipulative grasp, especially since she has not been able to obtain her full inheritance from her cash-strapped mother; he brokers a deal with a local Mafioso which effectively destroys the mother-daughter relationship and Deneuve's control of the business. Once Canet has feathered his own nest, his interest in Agnes wanes as she in turn becomes more and more dependent and demanding.

Then Agnes disappears and Deneuve spends the next 30 years and all of her fortune trying to establish her daughter's fate -- which is unknown to this day. She suspects murder and eventually brings Canet to trial. Her performance from the aging glamourpuss of the 70's to a bitter and impoverished old woman in the final scenes is without any conceit for an actress who was once one of the screen's great beauties. This long film stays watchable albeit more than a little leisurely and the end titles bringing the viewer up to date seem tacked on in haste.

Cub (2014) - This Belgian film was a late addition to our original selection since it sounded like something that we might have chosen at FrightFest had it been showing there. It concerns a Cub Scout pack's camping expedition in a dark forest, led by two overbearing, bumptious pack leaders. Our attention immediately focuses on young Sam who seems something of an outcast and ill at ease with all of the others. Folktales speak of a werewolf who roams the woods, but the scout leaders dismiss this as little more than campfire chills; Sam thinks differently. However, there are far worse threats lurking in the shadows, as the expedition members discover to their misfortune. In truth the story was more than a little muddled and the action difficult to follow (or rationalise) with the dark cinematography. (I shudder to think how unwatchable this movie would be on the small screen). I'm glad we saw it but it was far from the best horror/slasher movie ever.

The World of Kanako (2014) - The Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima was responsible for such excellent films as "Confessions" and "Memories of Matsuko", so it was a no-brainer to select his first film in four years. The elderly Tetsuya was amazingly on his first visit to London and jokily introduced the movie via an interpreter, inviting comments at a Q & A to follow -- not that we stayed for this. I can just imagine the questions the audience might have had for him, since this stunning film was full of complex twists. The hero, a recently fired police detective, gives good psycho as he rampages through the film at the behest of his estranged and divorced wife, to discover what has become of their darling daughter Kanako who has gone missing. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that she might not have been the little angel that her parents remember and that she may well have been more of a devil to her schoolmates, teachers, and besotted boyfriends. Tetsuya keeps the action and cartoony violence flowing, possibly a little too long (I was beginning to think that the movie would never find its ending), with some brilliant cinematography and use of pop music, combined with lashings of mind-blowing and eye-blinding flashing images. It is all quite a tour de force with some strange characters -- in particular a lolly-sucking, fresh-faced policeman -- who counterpoint the increasingly bloodied anti-hero in his obsessive quest for Kanako.

Why Be Good? (1929) - Finally we have this curio which should have been a whole lot better and more entertaining than it was. In 1929's Hollywood, all of the studios were getting on the sound bandwagon, so it seems more than a little strange that this newly re-discovered movie is in fact devoid of dialogue. It boasts a Vitaphone 16-inch disc music track and sound effects. which don't really sit well with the silent era large-gestures acting style and copious inter-titles. It's the sort of combination one expects in the early 30's from the backwaters of China or India (or from Charlie Chaplin!).

Apart from the hype in the programme, we were curious to view this movie to see a leading role for the little-known Colleen Moore, a popular flapper of the period, who retired from the movies in 1934. She plays a shop-girl and would be swinger, an energetic dance contest entrant, who is really a good girl under her sexy, knowing façade. She's madly in love with a millionaire's son (after one short encounter!), but his Daddy tries to warn him off 'that sort of girl'. It's all rather predictable and stilted, and Moore comes off as the poor man's Louise Brooks. She's certainly not as good looking and even lacks the "it-ness" that makes Clara Bow's films so appealing. I'm all for discovering lost movies, but this really is little more than a strange and mildly diverting curio.
 

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