Friday, 8 August 2014

The Spooky Bunch (1980)

I really got suckered into buying tickets for this film. The BFI's programme guide described it as "virtually unclassifiable", a horror comedy with "kooky dances and gruesome murders", melding the traditions of Cantonese opera with contemporary sensibilities. Before booking I checked out some specialist reviews and they all seemed to agree that this was a fresh fusion of historical traditions and a charming modern approach by London-trained director Ann Hui in her sophomore outing. Well, folks, let me tell you that this was one of the worst Hong Kong movies I have ever seen -- and I've seen some pretty awful ones!

The gist of the tale is that a third-rate opera company is invited by a rich old man, Mr Ma, to perform on a remote island on the condition that the lead role is taken by bit-player Ah Chi (Josephine Siao -- a popular actress who appeared in local films from the age of seven and who continued in supporting roles for some years to come). He wants his nephew and only surviving relative Dick to marry her to remove a curse placed by her grandfather that has plagued the family for years. Dick, played by pop star du jour Kenny Bee, is something of a lothario and is not ready to make a match with the very childish Ah Chi. However, not only is she something of a dimwit, but she also has (to my western ears) no talent for Cantonese opera whatsoever. The caterwauling performance is all but unwatchable and seems to go on forever.

It seems that Grandpa Ah and Mr Ma were responsible in the distant past for poisoning a whole platoon of soldiers with some tainted drugs and they, together with a long dead femme fatale, want their revenge. The first indication of the presence of vengeful ghosts occurs when the lead opera hero is possessed by another screechy female, one Cat Shit (modestly translated in the subtitles as Cat Poo!). This Bowdlerism was about the only vaguely amusing feature of the excruciating 93 minutes. Unfortunately every time some promising comic action seems imminent, one of the characters drops down dead. In the end the local audience is replaced by the spirits of dead soldiers, until a local priest exorcises them, leaving Ah Chi and Dick to face a wonderful future together -- or not, since the 'kicker' is that one evil spirit still lurks in the body of a local child.

This movie was released the same year as Sammo Hung's "Encounters of a Spooky Kind" which began the trend in Hong Kong for a whole run of supernatural, highly amusing, and beautifully realised ghost stories. I was conned into thinking that the above film would be equally entertaining, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

This may be my last blog until late August, despite the fact that I will be seeing "Guardians of the Galaxy" early next week and would normally write about it. I shall be away for a while, visiting family, and when I get back its the annual FrightFest blow-out over the Bank Holiday weekend. I know I wrote that last year's marathon would be our last and indeed we did NOT buy the weekend pass this year. As a compromise to our gradual weaning, we have chosen tickets for a selection of the films being showcased -- no early starts, no late evenings -- and we are hoping for the best. No doubt a full report will follow...

Friday, 1 August 2014

Friends with Kids (2011)

Before I get too involved with my reactions to the above trifle, I must report that I have finally got hold of a DVD of "The Dybbuk" (1937) -- struck in my memory from a viewing many moons ago. It's an important work insofar as it is one of very few surviving Yiddish films made in pre-war Poland. It's more a musical than a drama with a heavy emphasis on liturgical and folk music, and not overly interesting cinematically. The tale of star-crossed lovers unknowingly betrothed before their births, can only end in tragedy. He woos Satan to win her, and dies for his sins; she willingly accepts his departed soul into her body (the dybbuk of the title). All the rabbinical tribunals in the world can not separate these two. My copy, produced by the Bel Canto Society of New York was a little sparing with the subtitles, but it's an easy story to follow albeit rather strange, different, and, yes, memorable.

Getting back to the film above, I actually sort of enjoyed it while watching it. It was only afterwards when I began to think about it, that I decided that I'd had the wool pulled over my eyes and that it was probably a load of rubbish. Written, directed, and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, in retrospect I feel that the movie was a vanity piece of the first water. She plays Julie, a high-flying career gal pushing forty who fancies motherhood, but not marriage. She's seen how having kids has wrecked the lifestyles of her two best friends, to say nothing of their marriages, and decides that having a wanted child outside of wedlock is the obvious answer. Her best (platonic) mate Jason played by Adam Scott (not an actor I know but pretty likeable) also fancies having a kiddie and obligingly impregnates her. They decide that they will share the expenses and the nurturing of their son Cole and that they will be able to remain good mates, since of course they don't fancy each other. Ha, ha, ha.

So there you have the bare Hollywood bones for what any idiot can predict will be the movie's denouement. However, the dialogue is generally smart and the other two couples -- hot off the success of "Bridesmaids" are Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm. These charmers, combined with would-be new paramours for Julie and Jason played by Edward Burns and sexpot Megan Fox keep the film starry and pretty watchable, as long as one doesn't look too closely at the many clichés sprinkled along the way. I understand that Westfeldt has been in a relationship with 'Mad-Man' Hamm since the late 90s and no doubt he helped secure the attractive cast.

The film starts off well, but becomes more and more predictable, and it is hardly the feminist tract that some would suggest. Unfortunately, Westfeldt devotes far too much screen time to her appearance and her chatter, and uncharitably one becomes only too aware that her rather frozen face is the result of an overabundance of botox and/or surgery. Ironically, the money men decided to feature the popular Wiig (who actually looks more attractive than usual here) on the film's promotional poster, rather than she. More known for her stage and television work, Westfeldt does possess a quirky talent which first came to the fore in her script for "Kissing Jessica Stein" back in 2001. As an actress, she was fine in that movie, but I can't help but wish that she'd given the lead role in this film to another actress, one not quite so full of herself and her 'charm'.   

Friday, 25 July 2014

Blue Jasmine (2013)

If you suspect that I am about to give this Woody Allen film a rave review, you couldn't be more wrong. I have, over the years, written about how much I usually enjoy his movies, even when he is going through one of his frequent unfashionable periods. I admit that there have been one or two films in the last maybe twenty years that have proved the exception to the rule, but Allen can usually be relied upon to furnish a good time (at least for me).

Had I not been incapacitated last autumn when this movie was released, you can bet that I would have been off to the cinema to see it at the earliest opportunity -- but that was not to be. Subsequently the film has been so hyped, especially for Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning lead, that I was hoping for something really special when I finally caught up with it this week. There is no denying that she gives a barn-storming performance as the psychologically fragile spoiled wife who is forced to come down in the world when her husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for financial fraud. As others have pointed out, the movie is a case of 'Woody does Streetcar Named Desire', as Blanchett's Jasmine (nee Jeanette) moves from her high-flown New York life-style to her non-biological sister's seedy San Francisco apartment. Sister Ginger is played gormlessly by Sally Hawkins -- an actress who usually manages to irritate me -- and her new boyfriend is the abrasive Bobby Cannavale. Ginger's ex (they both lost all of a lottery win care of Baldwin's devious tactics) is played, surprisingly straight, by ex-potty mouth comedian Andrew Dice Clay.

Allen adopts a flash-forward, flash-back structure to contrast Jasmine's previously spoiled life style with her penniless current position, but this becomes a little disconcerting after a while, since it is abundantly clear from the moment her first-class (!) flight lands in San Francisco, that we are dealing with a damaged, erratic, and irrational personality, one who is unable to adapt to the realities of her new life. We get the message, without the unnecessary rubbing in, that her way of life in the good old days in New York was supremely shallow and materialistic. She nourishes pipedreams about her potential future as a stylish interior decorator or fashion designer, without any firm game-plan or the necessary finance to achieve these goals. She thinks she has struck the mother-lode when she meets wealthy Peter Sarsgaard, who harbours political ambitions and who is looking for a trophy wife (which she appears on the surface); however the shallowness of his supposed 'love' is evident when he becomes aware of the many lies she has proffered to protect her false image. and drops her like the proverbial hot potato.

Hawkins, meanwhile, always subservient to Jasmine has been convinced to try to 'better' her prospects and starts an affair with a married liar, before realising that Cannavale is the 'one'. In the end, Jasmine packs up her designer suitcases and leaves for an uncertain future. There is no implied resolution to her problems -- in fact there is no ending whatsoever. The film just stops. The irony of course is that Jasmine is the author of her own sad situation, since it was she who shopped Baldwin to the FBI in a fit of pique over his infidelities, despite always claiming that she knew absolutely nothing at all about his business activities.

The problem with this film is, that despite Blanchett's bravura performance, there are no likeable characters, not even the hint of a Woody chuckle, and a drama that is both downbeat and depressing. This is not the kind of good time that I count on Allen to provide.      

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Sadist (1963)

A few weeks back I wrote about the book "Bad Movies We Love" which made me to watch films which I might otherwise have ignored. Another book which has encouraged me to seek out oddities is the beautifully named "Slimetime" which sells itself as 'a guide to sleazy, mindless, movie entertainment'. It started life as a 27-issue fanzine in the late '80s by its author Steven Puchalski, a self-confessed lover of bizarre and generally unheralded flicks, and his lovingly researched movies were collected into book form in 1996.

It would be both wrong and unfair to lump all of his collected films as B-movies or Trash , since a number of them are true genre classics and cult favourites, such as "El Topo" "White of the Eye", "Wings of Desire", "The Abominable Dr Phibes", and many more. However the collection also includes some pretty dire bottom-of-the-barrel titles that you would never want to see more than once (if at all), and I must admit to having sat through most of these. However some of his choices were unfamiliar to me, piquing my curiosity and earning a place on my fabled 'must see' list. The above title was one of these.

Anyone who knows anything about the provenance of this movie -- to say nothing about its exploitation title -- would approach it with doubts and caution, but come away completely convinced that it is something of a near-classic. Inspired by the success of Hitchcock's "Psycho", the hack actor/producer/director Arch Hall Sr, continued his hopeless attempt to make a film-star of his supremely untalented son, Arch Hall Jr. Junior was thrust into the limelight originally in Dad's 'masterpiece' "Eegah!", where he and his girlfriend discover a caveman who has managed to survive all these years in California living in his cardboard cave. (As one interesting footnote to movie history, the giant barbarian was played by Richard Kiel, latterly Jaws in the Bond movies). Junior also had the opportunity to display his non-existent vocal talents in this film and his next "Wild Guitar". Do yourself a favour and don't try to find this pair of time-wasters.

It is therefore amazing what novice director James Landis has managed to achieve here. The 90-minute film is set in real time and concerns three school-teachers en route to Los Angeles to watch a baseball game when their car breaks down. They pull into an apparently unattended wrecking yard to attempt repairs, puzzled by the unfinished plates of warm pie in the office. Suddenly they are set upon by lumbering. simpering hulk Hall Jr, one of cinema's all-time unredeemable pyscho-killers. Inspired again by the true story of Charlie Starkweather and his teen-aged girlfriend, whose killing spree was immortalised in "Badlands", Hall plays one Charlie Tibbs on the run after his own mini-reign of terror. He is accompanied by his very childish, giggling girlfriend, played by his previous co-star Marilyn Manning, who has no dialogue but who spends most of the film wrapped around him, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, and encouraging his excesses. 

The three teachers are older, bespectacled bloke Don Russell (quickly tortured and killed), would-be action hero Richard Alden (the only one of the cast with any sort of subsequent film career), and the uptight but dishy female lead, Helen Hovey, who Hall enjoys pushing around and casually molesting. She is in fact the heroine of the movie (spoiler: the only survivor) and does a reasonable job. Pity she never made another picture -- I gather she was a Hall cousin roped into the enterprise. With its single set and minimal plot it is staggering that the suspense successfully builds. No relief appears when two motorcycle cops stop by for some cold cokes from the fridge (apparently played by off-duty policemen with their own machines); Hall blithely mows them down to the 'music' of the police radio in the background telling them to be on the look-out for the fugitives. One just doesn't know when the next bit of random violence will raise its head, right through the scary and horrifying final scenes -- guaranteed to provide nightmares for days to come!

The film also benefits from its magnificent photography, the first American job of work for Hungarian refugee Vilmos Zsigmond, subsequently one of the most lauded cinematographers of the 20th Century. He successfully captures the heat, agony, and hopelessness in this wasteland of wrecked cars. Despite itself, the film is something very special.  

Friday, 11 July 2014

A Disappointment and a Surprise

I'm afraid it's been another one of those weeks where my film-viewing has been largely uninvolving, especially when you think that I sat through two longish documentaries on cycling-cheat Lance Armstrong. Ours is a keen cycle-race household -- well really Michael far more than me, so the two movies aired to coincide with the start of the Tour de France were required viewing for us. However one would have been more than enough, since although we are probably more familiar than most with the cast of characters and the historic footage, the two films were overwhelmingly repetitive. Armstrong does comes across in the end as the nasty do-anything-to win villain that we always suspected was lurking there under the surface, rather than the holier-than-thou cancer-survivor-becomes-Superman image he sought.

Anyhow back to the two films headlined above. From this week's selection of Sky premieres, we first watched the so called pick of the bunch "We're the Millers" which was a box-office hit -- and then, somewhat reluctantly, "Sunshine on Leith", a Scottish 'musical' which sounded potentially dire. The 'Millers' movie should have been cast-iron entertainment, especially since Jennifer Aniston films are usually guaranteed hits because of the goodwill the actress manages to retain. In this one she plays a stripper (woo-hoo! and is given the opportunity to display her well-toned 44-year old body), who needs money, and is recruited by her drug-dealing neighbour, Jason Sudeikis, to pose as his wife. The idea is to play 'Happy Families' for the border guards as they attempt to bring back a huge stash of drugs from Mexico -- something Sudeikis has agreed to do for local drug kingpin Ed Helms to get himself out of a financial hole. For the balance of the family group Sudeikis recruits another neighbour, dorky teenager Will Poulter (the British lad is having a surprisingly buoyant career in American flicks) and street-punk Emma Roberts.

This mismatched bunch set off on their naughty adventure and are forced to deal with nasty Mexican villains, a double-crossing Helms, and another RV-travelling family comprised of a jaded treasury agent, his uptight teenaged daughter, and his horny wife. Take it from me, very little in the way of jolly japes ensue. But of course our four main protagonists, despite their obvious differences, do end up as the happy family they have been pretending to be. Overall one big disappointment.

As for 'Sunshine', a low-budget movie from sophomore director Dexter Fletcher (better known here as an actor), this really turned out to be the proverbial ray of sunshine. Based on a 2007 stage production by a local Scottish repertory company and featuring the music of The Proclaimers (a pop-folk groups headed by the twin brothers Reid), the story concerns a pair of soldiers/friends returning to Edinburgh after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  Davy and Ally are played by George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie, both totally unknown to me as was most of the remaining cast. The only 'big' names are Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullen, playing one set of parents, and it is just as well that there was a subtitle option since I never can understand a word that Mullen says and could well have had the same problem with the rest of the performers.

Anyhow we follow the lads as they attempt to adjust to civilian life, physically unscarred by their military duty unlike their badly-disabled buddy in the local rehab unit. They look for work and love, all of this punctuated with The Proclaimers' catchy tunes. I confess I knew nothing of their music prior to watching this film, but it is joyful and infectious -- and the group's hits such as 'Let's Get Married', 'Letter from America', and 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' are slotted into the action without too much contrivance. Unlike recent big budget musicals like the over-hyped "Les Mis" and the over-the-top "Mamma Mia", this film is small, unbloated, and nearly perfectly formed. The final scene at the rail station is reminiscent of the happy conclusion to "Slumdog Millionaire", but writ large with what seems to be half the population of Edinburgh in attendance singing. Even if true love doesn't work out for one of the pair, it's a really feel-good movie. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Pleasure Seekers (1964)

Once upon a time there was a really nifty film magazine called Movieline. It tread a fine line between those artsy-fartsy dry highbrow film journals and the more populist fare favoured by teenagers and fan-boys. I recall with fondness that their letters page said that they welcomed correspondence from readers who could spell! It was a hip joy to read and had some really literate and amusing writers on its staff, like the irrepressible Joe Queenan. Needless to say it has been out of business for years, failing to move successfully from print to the internet.

One of the magazine's best features was a regular column called 'Bad Movies we Love' and in 1993 these were collected in a paperback edited by Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello, with a forward by Sharon Stone (many of whose own movies were featured). The columns continued after the book's publication and together they formed the basis of one of my many lists -- 'bad' films that I had yet to view, knowing that most of these would fall into the category of 'so bad, they're good'.

The above title is one of their featured movies although rating only one star out of four, their top rating being 'so wretched and so lovable that you should get your hands on it right now'; this one was more in the make your own mind up category. Directed by Romanian-born Jean Negulesco, his is not a name that one immediately associates with top-flight movie-making, although he had a long and busy career and can boast some pretty good pictures in his filmography -- movies like "The Mask of Dimitrios", "Johnny Belinda", the l953 "Titanic", and "Daddy Long Legs".

He then had a run of successes as a 'trio of starlets' specialist with hits like "How to Marry a Millionaire", "Three Coins in the Fountain", and "The Best of Everything". Some bright studio ideas man had the brilliant thought of updating 'Three Coins' by moving the action from Rome to Madrid and "The Pleasure Seekers" is the hilariously bad result. The trio in this instance are Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin, and Ann-Margaret. The movie is largely a showcase of sorts for the latter, who at least has maintained a reasonable career over the years. Lynley is unbelievably still working but has done nothing particularly memorable in these 50 (!) intervening years. Tiffin, so perfectly-cast in the 196l romp "1, 2, 3", gracefully retired in the l970s.

Anyhow, we are now largely in Madrid although the film plays like a promotional travelogue for Spain with side-trips to Toledo and Malaga and lovingly photographed close-ups of Velazquez' "Las Meninas" and various El Greco paintings, actually filmed in the Prado. We are invited to follow the ups and downs in their love lives, Ann-Margaret with a handsome young doctor who has nearly run her down with his motorcycle, Tiffin with rich playboy Tony Franciosa, and Lynley torn between a young reporter and her aging boss, Brian Keith, in the publishing office where she supposedly works. Her work seems to consist of pouring coffee for Keith each morning.

Still the three seem well enough off to share a sprawling flat, where they spend most of their time prancing around in bath-towels, baby-doll nighties, sexy undies, or long sweatshirts, always with high heels and full make-up, even when they have just woken up. Ann-Margaret is  the most worldly and sexually experienced of the three, with Lynley and Tiffin coming off as professional virgins. A-M is given a selection of soppy songs to belt out including one appearance at a high-class party where she comes on stage after a professional flamenco dancer has 'entertained' us for what feels like hours; she's in flamenco gear too but her dancing is far more bump and grind. She's a curvy minx but the wide-screen cinemascope ratio makes her look rather chubby, and part of her so-called 'character development' is stuffing her face at every meal.

Naturally the course of love does not run smooth and all three are ready to pack up and go home before the obvious happy endings. Lynley is particularly upset when Keith's wife, an ill-used Gene Tierney, has the nerve to call her a little tramp. Tiffin's beau suggests that they should become intimate to decide whether they are compatible (the nerve of some people) and the worthy doctor 'can't afford me' moans Ann-Margaret.

It's not the trashiest of movies nor is it worthy of a higher accolade in Margulies and Rebello's wonderful book, but it's sufficiently silly that you could have a good time watching its various excesses, giggling to yourself merrily. 

Friday, 27 June 2014

Not a lot to write home about...

I did not watch any films yesterday or the day before, which is not exactly headline news, but a little unusual for PPP, when I haven't been away in exotic climes like New York or Newcastle. However checking my list for the week since I wrote last Friday, I find that I have in fact seen sixteen films or compilations; so there should be something that makes me want to put pen to paper as it were. They were of variable quality, ranging in age from 1923 to 2014, and a few I can even admit to having enjoyed, but none of them have worked their way to the top of the pile to be raved about.. So, let's have a look at the selection of what is actually a very typical week's mix:

First there were the not so golden oldies: a dreary Norma Shearer (unrecognizable) silent from 1923 called "A Clouded Name"; a Ronald Coleman rarity from 1933 "The Unholy Garden" with his being about the only good thing in it as a roguish gentleman thief; from my list of things to see I was able to delete "Dillinger" from 1945, with gorgeous Gene Tierney's considerably less handsome brother Lawrence making his screen debut in the title role (a pretty blah version of the tale); the best of the four was the pre-code "Jewel Robbery" from 1932, with William Powell playing an even more roguish and appealing gentleman thief, with a rather more able supporting cast. I've seen that one before and it remains good fun.

Next we shall quickly dismiss Sky's weekly premieres (only three since I had seen the fourth at last year's FrightFest -- and thought it pretty feeble). The big 'treat' for Sky subscribers was "Wolverine", Hugh Jackman's second spin-off flick from the X-Men series, which was slam-bam enough entertainment as the muscle-bound hero devastated half of the baddies in Japan, but nothing that I would care to see again. I had to double-check what "Cold Comes the Night" was actually about since I drew a blank trying to remember it; it's comely Alice Eve running a sleazy motel when she is taken hostage by flavour of the year Bryan Cranston, searching for a missing stash of money. (I probably won't remember it next week either). Finally for completeness sake, I sat through "Reef 2 - High Tide" a fishy animation with absolutely nothing special about it.

I shall quickly dismiss the two television movies I watched, although "The Right to Remain Silent" from 1996 was actually a superior one with a surprisingly starry cast; the more recent "The Girl He met Online" was the usual dismissible fare as boy meets psycho.

Then there were the three foreign-language movies, all OK in their way, but nothing that I can honestly recommend. The foremost of these was the Russian version of Don Quixote from 1957, strongly acted by one of the Russian 'greats' and winningly photographed; but the Hallmark version with John Lithgow is actually more entertaining! "The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh" (1971) is an Italian giallo from my DVD backlog, starring sexy Edwige Fenech as a blood fetishist with some bad boyfriend choices, an overly complicated and in the end totally unbelievable thriller of sorts. Finally there was the French horror "Livid" from 2011 which was, yes, French and horrible.

Two documentaries: "The Legend of Billy Jean King - Battle of the Sexes", the oft-told tale of when 'Billy beat Bobby', with the focus on how this was a feminist triumph. "Corman's World" also came from the DVD stockpile, a winning examination of the charming Roger, King of the B Movies, 'who made a 100 movies' (actually many more) and 'never lost a penny' (not quite true). He gave many actors and directors their first crack at stardom, so there were lots of talking heads singing his praises, including Jack Nicholson who was actually reduced to tears.

Off terrestrial television there was the multi-story "What to Expect when You're Expecting" which was available some while back on Sky's pay-per-view Box Office, but which they never chose to show later on to us hard-done subscribers. No big loss however with lots of soppy tales from the all-star cast.

My final contribution to the week's entertainment was another DVD which I imported from the States, "Labyrinth of Darkness" a selection of shortish films from Czech master animator Jiri Barta. I hadn't seen any of his films previously and still prefer those of Jan Svankmajer, but they were pretty dark and disturbing. His so-called masterpiece is a 55-minute version of the Pied Piper fairy-tale, but in his telling the piper doesn't lead the children from the town when the greedy burghers refuse to pay him, but rather turns them all into rats to jump to their watery deaths. Glad to have seen this disc...

OK, it probably was a more attractive week than I made out when I started writing today, and given a different frame of mind, I probably could have gone into a great deal more detail on many of the above films. But there you go -- I didn't want to. So there!  

Friday, 20 June 2014

Any Day Now (2012)

You may have noticed that I frequently have a little moan about the dwindling number of premiers on the Sky Movie Channels each week and more particularly about the quality of the now usually four titles that are offered. I often wonder where on earth they have located some of the dreary 'straight-to-video' (as they used to be called) movies they present, together with their sprinkling of useless television movies. I have concluded that they acquire these in bulk from distributors as their penance for trying to book their weekly 'blockbuster'.

However, every so often, a gem appears amongst the dross, as is the case with the above title. On paper the film seemed to have absolutely nothing going for it, since who would go out of their way to view a movie about a camp drag queen getting his uncloseted lawyer boyfriend to help gain custody of a teenaged Down's syndrome boy who has been abandoned by his druggie mother? The on-paper lack of appeal for this offering was compounded by it being something of a vanity piece for its lead, Alan Cumming, an actor so affected and fey, that he is usually a hard watch. I first noticed him in the Ireland-set drama "Circle of Friends" in 1995 and he has been 'Annoying-for-Britain' ever since. However, he is absolutely terrific in this film.

He plays Rudy, part of a trio of lip-synching drag artists, in a gay pub in West Los Angeles back in 1979. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, always behind in the rent for his sleazy apartment, with dreams of becoming a proper vocal artist. Next door lives 14-year old Marco, with his feckless mother who probably does love her handicapped son, but who loves her drugs more. When she's arrested for possession, Rudy bonds with the lad (a wonderful first performance from young Isaac Leyva) and seeks advice from his new lover -- a yuppie lawyer in the DA's Office. He's told that Child Services are responsible for the boy, and they do indeed take away poor Marco; however he wanders off from his new foster home and back to Rudy. Moving into his boyfriend's more salubrious flat, they get a signature from the boy's mother now sentenced to a three-year stretch, and apply for temporary custody from the court, using the fiction that they are cousins.

Under their loving care as they both warm to the boy, Marco begins to blossom, although still severely limited by his condition. They get him glasses to correct his faulty eyesight and find a suitable school for him. However tongues begin to waggle and soon the busybodies of this world are out to expose the shame of two homosexuals raising a susceptible child. Remember this was 1979! They end up back in court with a fiery black attorney -- more respectable white lawyers have refused to represent them, but find themselves with an uphill battle. Despite a child psychologist testifying that the boy would be best off with the pair and despite the judge recognising their sincere love for the boy -- the law is the law and they perjured themselves at the first hearing. They continue to appeal until their main nemesis -- the lawyer's former boss (he has of course been sacked in the meantime) does a deal to get the mother released from prison and to resume Marco's custody.

Parenthetically the DA is played by the little-known actor Chris Mulkey who first registered on my radar with "Patti Rocks" in 1988 and the great TV series "Twin Peaks" in 1990. He's been a busy fellow over the years and I noticed him within the last fortnight when he turned up playing Monroe's father in "Grimm" (one of several serials I follow on television nowadays) and as a cop in 1982's "First Blood" which I decided to re-watch a few days ago. Other than him the cast is generally made up of unknowns to me, including one dishy Garret Dillahunt as the lawyer-lover, with the exception of Frances Fisher as the first judge and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Michael Nouri.

Never mind, Cumming and Leyva are the whole show here, and Cumming even manages to showcase his formidable vocal talent with a moving rendition of "Love Don't Live Here Anymore". It's the sort of movie where you think the ending will be 100% predictable, but where you couldn't be more off-track. In the closing minutes, we hear extracts of a letter that Dillahunt has written to many of the characters encountered along the way. He describes Marco as sweet, smart, and funny, with a smile that could light up the room, and the world's greatest disco dancer. He says that the kid loved junk food and that chocolate doughnuts were his drug of choice. He adds that Marco enjoyed a bedtime story each night, but insisted that it have a happy ending. Marco loved a happy ending! But that's not what happened here....

The film did receive a brief release to a selected few cinemas, but then dropped out of sight, which is why no doubt it ended up on Sky's list of orphan-films, dumped on them as part of a package. However in this instance I was delighted to find it in their schedules and would recommend seeking it out, if you can. Just take a big box of tissues!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Shoot (1976)

And so another one bites the dust! I always experience a frisson of pleasure when I succeed in removing yet another film from my 'must see one of these days' list. Again I have YouTube to thank for providing the copy I watched, since it seems to be something of a moot point as to whether the film has ever been released for rental or sale. Not surprising that its availability has been limited, since this Canadian movie was generally slammed by the critics on its release and shunned by the public.

It gained its place on my little list from its inclusion in Danny Peary's invaluable "Guide for the Film Fanatic" published in 1986 -- and my copy of that paperback is now literally falling apart. 'Bite the dust' is actually a good intro for this film insofar as it was intended to be a controversial anti-gun movie, a kick in the pants to National Rifle Association die-hards. Starring the likeable actor Cliff Robertson, with some able support from Ernest Borgnine and Henry Silva, they play weekend hunting buddies, ex-combat soldiers who are bored with the weekday routine of work, family, and civilian respectability. They only begin to feel 'alive' again with a rifle clutched in their clammy little hands.

One day with nary an animal to kill in sight, they stand bored in the snowy landscape on one side of a frozen river. Across the river stand another group of hunters, apparently equally bored, until one of them decides to take a pot-shot at Robertson's crew. The shot only grazes one of his buddies, but Silva immediately returns fire killing one of the other hunting party. They have managed to create an instant Enemy (with a capital E) and now need to prepare for what they perceive as the inevitable next encounter. No one reports the incident to the police, but Robertson immediately begins recruiting and training other townsfolk, who thrill to running about in the woods dressed as soldiers.

This central portion of the movie is frankly as dull as ditch-water or proverbially watching paint dry, since we have no way of knowing whether the desired combat and confrontation will ever occur, and the training seems to go on endlessly. However, one day during their manoeuvres, they discover to their horror that their 'enemy' is even better prepared than they. It's a massacre in the making! The moral, if there is one, is how can some supposedly intelligent men be so stupid that they can not curb their own madness in time to prevent disaster.

Had the film been rather better made or scripted, it might have become something of a cult classic, a timely warning against the availability and enjoyment of guns. As it is, it remains something of an obscurity to 'bite the dust' for pppatty's pleasure...

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

"Vile! The most lurid and horrible details of the book have been put into the picture. It is filthy and nauseating in its intent, horrible in its characterisations" - Harrison's Reports (May 1933)

"A sordid tale...dubious fodder for Hollywood in the first place. No amount of seasoning to camouflage the basic rancidness of the theme can square it" - Variety (May 1933)

These are but two of the flood of criticism that greeted this pre-code version of William Faulkner's notorious 1931 novel "Sanctuary". Even the New York Times who tried to give a more objective review of the film labelled it as "grim and sordid", despite complimenting the production on its intelligence. Needless to say I was dead keen to see it, since it has never been released on video or DVD and has never been shown on television -- such is its notoriety. It took a 'Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies before the Censor' at the British Film Institute to provide the opportunity.

Now that I have managed to cross the title off my little list, I must confess that like so many film rarities, it falls into the category of 'happy to have seen it, but why all the fuss?' Granted we have moved on as to what we regard as suitable subject matter for films and are far less readily offended by what is depicted on the screen nowadays. However, casting one's imagination back to the mind of the 30's moviegoer, I fail to see just what was so very shocking at the time. If one compares this film with the actual details of Faulkner's novel, it is something of a Sunday School parable and very little of the book's salacious content is actually shown on the screen.

Miriam Hopkins plays the title character, a flighty Southern belle, a bit wild in her ways -- drinking and cock-teasing, but no more immoral than most of her peers, not ready to commit to her faithful boyfriend, lawyer William Gargan. Spoiled by her grandfather, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing), she finds herself one rainy night stranded with a different drunken beau at the remote farm of a bunch of bootleggers. There she is stripped of her wet clothes by the tawdry housekeeper (Florence Eldridge -- later the elegant Mrs Frederic March), leered at by the male assembly, and given purportedly safe refuge in the barn. It is here that she is raped by big baddie Jack La Rue, who also shoots the feeble-minded chap who has been 'protecting' her. It is all implied and the viewer sees absolutely nothing distasteful -- it is left to one's imagination.

It's rather tasteful in its way when one considers that the La Rue character in the book is actually impotent, normally getting his kicks by watching, and in fact assaulted Miss Drake with a corncob. Now that is distasteful! Anyhow with her reputation in tatters, Hopkins can not risk going home and takes refuge in the local bawdy house (as one would - NOT). Gargan finds her, but she rebuffs him by actually kissing the sleazy La Rue. However when the latter knocks her about and refuses to let her leave, she shoots the scoundrel. The whole sordid saga finally comes out in court, but despite the disgrace, Hopkins is not tried for murder and goes on to be reconciled with grandpapa. Perhaps that is what really offended the moral sensibilities of the Hays Office.

The fact remains that Faulkner's book, branded as "probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country", was a bestseller, not just for its content, but because of the author's lofty literary reputation. One can understand the studios wanting to cash in on its popularity, but the film they created has been so cleaned up that it really doesn't warrant its own reputation for sordidness. The fact that it is not actually particularly good, well-acted, or well-made are more cogent reasons why it is not really worth seeking out.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Dixiana (1930)

I'm back to obscurities again after last week's attempt to go with the flow with a modern populist film. The reason for this is that the satellite SkyArts Channel (a very good thing in principle even if they repeat most of their programmes ad infinitum) is currently doing a 13-part series titled "Hollywood Singing and Dancing". It's based on a 2008 set of DVDs covering the various decades, so it's obviously being chopped and re-assembled to cover the same material over thirteen weeks.  So far I've viewed one programme devoted to the 1920s and a two-parter covering the l930s (which came out significantly shorter than the l930-themed disc).

Since one tends to think of the l920s as the culmination of the silent era, one wouldn't have thought that there would be enough material to broadcast an hour on musicals made between 1928 and 1930, but there was a wealth of films covered. With the coming of sound at the end of that decade, audiences couldn't get enough of staged sound spectaculars, even if they tended to be filmed as if one was sitting in the audience watching the stage from one's seat. There was often no attempt at telling a story, and importing Broadway stars who could sing and dance but not act was often a formula for disaster. All of the studios tried to get in on the musical film's new popularity, but the public was soon sated with these early attempts at mass entertainment. By 1930 this first surge of musical films was dead in the water and would not be revived until the mid-30s by the likes of Astaire and Rogers, Busby Berkeley, and yes, Shirley Temple.

I have over the years seen a selection of these early sound musicals and apart from their historical oddity value, there is little to commend them, and in fact many of them are now 'lost'.
One that is still available and which on paper seemed to have a lot going for it was the above title, which can be viewed on good old YouTube. Various factors appeared promising: popular singing star and silent film actress Bebe Daniels in the lead, supposedly solid support from the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (madly popular in the early 30s for their innuendo-laden humour before the Hays Office kicked in), the first film appearance of dancing legend Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and the final reel in early two-strip Technicolor.

Despite the lavish production where money seemed no object, I did find it something of a disappointment. Daniels as the eponymous Dixiana was OK, but her co-star Everett Marshall, imported for the role from the Metropolitan Opera in New York was solid mahogany, and the music was singularly unmemorable. Wheeler and Woolsey, whom I have only occasionally seen before were to my taste spectacularly unfunny; their main shtick was to challenge all-comers to a bet that they could not pick up three cigars from the floor, one at a time, without saying 'ouch'. They would then kick their helpless victim up the backside! What jolly japes. Bojangles was as always wonderful -- all three-minutes of his screen time! Black performers in 'white' movies were always only given small bits so that their performances could be cut out to avoid 'offending' audiences in the Southern states. The Technicolor was pretty nifty 'though and probably gave those early viewers their nickel's worth. 

The story, such as it was, concerned Marshall falling in love with New Orleans circus-performer Daniels, who appears in a speciality number with Wheeler and Woolsey dressed as dancing ostriches (!). He takes them to meet his parents on their vast plantation (with its happy Negro workers), but snobby mummy kicks out her beloved son's fiancée when she learns of her circus past, and Daniels is far too noble to let her beloved alienate himself from his family. When she tries to re-join the circus, her act is no longer wanted so the three of them go to work for slimy gambling-house owner Ralf Harolde. He plans to make Dixiana Queen of the Mardi Gras (cue the colour sequence) and his bedroom queen as well, but trusty Marshall and his down-to-earth Daddy save the lady and the day.

It's another instance of my being glad to have seen this film but of my being equally hard-pressed to recommend it as anything other than a curiosity.

Friday, 23 May 2014

21 Jump Street (2012)

Since you ask, I have in fact now watched a second Pakistani film -- "Josh" (2013) aka "Against the Grain". However, I did promise to lighten up for today's blog, so I won't tell you that it was yet another indictment against negative forces and repression in a third world country, focussing on an entire community in feudal servitude, rather than just one family suffering religious intolerance. I also won't tell you that it was inspired by true events which led to the founding of communal soup kitchens in poor areas. You'll have to watch the movie if you want to know any more and somehow I don't think I've made it sound too enticing... Very worthy nonetheless.

So today's cheerful review will examine the above incredibly popular yet incredibly dumb movie, so successful that the sequel is now available in your local picture palace! Based on a 1980's sitcom which is best remembered for bringing one Johnny Depp to the world's attention, it's a tale of undercover rookie cops going back to high school to unearth whatever naughty things were going on, in this instance a new designer drug-racket. The mismatched pair in this 're-imagining' are Tatum Channing and Jonah Hill, ex-High School classmates where Channing's Jenko was the popular jock who bullied Hill's nerdish brainbox, Schmidt.
Why they should both choose to join the police force and how they unbelievably became close buddies is probably neither here or there. The fact that they are both pretty incompetent new officers and the fact that they 'look young' (yeah, yeah, yeah) is sufficient motivation for their tough desk sergeant, Ice Cube -- a throwback to another 80's  cliché, to assign them to the high school gig.

I can just see the writers slapping their thighs with the conceit that dishy Jenko will be taken up by the class nerds and that in the new politically correct environment Schmidt will be thought of as the 'cool' one and will find the kind of popularity he never experienced before. I've read that Channing is something of a revelation here, being given the opportunity to exercise his comic skills -- but my reaction is 'what comic skills?' since I found the whole shooting match a pretty mirth-free exercise. In the past Hill has shown rather more range in his roles, but he makes Schmidt a pretty boorish fellow. That's not to say that the movie was unwatchable, it was sweet in parts, but hardly any sort of laugh riot. Maybe if I had been an aficionado of the original TV program, I might have been amused by the various cameo nods to the original cast.

Obviously there is one major cameo role -- hardly a surprise or as unexpected as it is meant to be -- by an uncredited actor; no prizes for guessing who. He plays a heavily disguised member of a criminal biker gang with whom our heroes tangle in the misplaced shoot-em-up finale that finally proves their mettle. Anyhow, there was nothing here to encourage me to gallop off this evening to see the sequel with Jenko and Schmidt undercover in college. I think I can wait for that 'pleasure'.      

Friday, 16 May 2014

With You, Without You (2013)

Further to my review below of the Pakistani film "Bol", I recently watched Mira Nair's 2013 American movie "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" (almost interesting enough for its own review). In the opening scenes set in Lahore, a couple are seen leaving a cinema and the fellow is complaining that he prefers entertaining movies; his date retorts that "Bol" was a very brave movie to make and that 'all the students are talking about it'. So it must have been as ground-breaking and controversial a film locally as it was engaging and eye-opening to me. I'm glad I saw it!

As a not tremendous change of pace, today's film hails from Sri Lanka -- and yes, I know as little about the film industry in that country as I do about Pakistan's. Written and directed by Prasanna Vithanage, it is a much smaller tale -- much shorter as well -- but in the end equally heart-wrenching. Set in the aftermath of the country's long civil war, it deals with the difficult reconciliation between the Tamil minority and the rest of the country.

This theme is embodied in two characters, Sarathsiri , a middle-aged pawnbroker in a backwater town and Selvi, a young and beautiful Tamil refugee. He leads a lonely existence watching wrestling on TV in his sparse flat over the shop. She has lost all of her family during the conflict and is living with two old aunts and their families, who begrudge her presence and her poverty. When she pawns her few precious bits and bobs, Sarathsiri is struck by her beauty and wants to be more generous than his thrifty principals allow. Hearing that she is to be married off to an old man, he works up the courage to tell her that he likes her and asks her to marry him -- and surprisingly enough she accepts.

Initially she is ecstatic with her new life and relative comfort (she even goes to a proper cinema for the first time); she wants to get close to her new husband, trying to find out more about his past and surprised at his evasiveness and disinterest in hers. We hear their thoughts as each hopes to find true love with the other, but he for one can not express any of this. When she inadvertently learns that he had served in the army, a soldier like those who killed her two young brothers, who raped and stole, she says she would never have married him had she known; he responds with undue and cruel sarcasm. She becomes withdrawn, stops eating, and begins to waste away.

He is desperate to win her back, wanting her to understand how deeply he loves and needs her, even admitting the shameful actions which caused him to resign from the army. He tells her he will sell his business and take her to India for the visit of which she has always dreamed and they seem to be on the verge of their own reconciliation. However a little worm starts eating away at the viewer and one just knows that there will be no happy ending. As he drives away on his motorbike to collect the wonderful airline tickets (neither of them has ever been on a plane) I had a horrible premonition that he would crash on the road. I was wrong, but the final denouement was far worse....

Maybe next time I will find some happy mindless film to write about without burdening you with my explorations into the esoterica of the Cambodian or Indonesian cinema scenes.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Bol (2011)

As far as I know there is not much of a film industry in Pakistan nowadays, and although I have seen numerous Indian movies over the years, I can't think of another Pakistani one besides the one under review today -- the third film from writer-director Shoaib Mansoor. And contrary to expectations, the film is terrific -- very, very long, but powerful, moving, and devastating.

The title translates as "Speak up" and that is what our heroine Zainub, an emotional performance from actress Humaima Sehbai does. Sentenced to be hanged after murdering her father, she made no attempt to defend herself during her trial. Her petition for a stay of execution has been rejected by the President, but her request to record a statement for the press is allowed. It is in this brief period before her 4 a.m. execution that we learn her story. It is her last chance to 'speak up'.

With the partition of India her family only moved as far as Lucknow where her grandfather established a herbal medicine shop, eventually taken over by her father (Manzai Sehbai). With the rise of more accessible medical care by trained doctors, he barely ekes out a living and his very large family is close to starvation. He believes that Allah will provide, but his religious faith includes no mercy or compassion. His poor wife has given birth regularly and he has seven surviving daughters -- Zainub being the eldest. From his point of view, women are completely useless, except to prepare his meals and to provide sons who can look after him in his old age. When his worn-out wife finally produces a male-child, the midwife promptly tells him that the infant will never mature into a man. (How she can tell a new-born's sexual make-up is a mystery to me). His first reaction is to kill the baby, but he accepts his wife's pleas and agrees that the boy will be kept indoors away from the world and raised as yet another hated daughter!

Zainub is married off to another poor family, but is thrown out when she refuses to follow her mother's fate with a series of unwanted pregnancies. She returns to the family home where her outspoken words and modern ideas make her as objectionable in her father's eyes as her very effeminate younger brother. She even arranges for her mother to be sterilized. Her father screams that she is the cause of all their troubles and that her husband should have killed her rather than dumping her back on him. You get the gist -- a really nice fellow and loving Dad! In his own opinion, he is a righteous man who goes to the mosque daily and who has been asked to act as treasurer for the imam, but his outlook is so bigoted that he would rather everyone in his family suffered than to betray his high-flown 'religious' ideals. It is even his daughters' fault when Pakistan loses at cricket since they have not prayed sufficiently well for the team.

He is full of his own self-importance and makes life a misery for everyone in the household. When one of his loyal customers learns of his financial woes, he is offered good money for teaching the Koran to the children of that household; however he refuses this opportunity when he learns that the man is a pimp in a notorious red-light district. He decides that he must get the local matchmaker to marry off his other daughters, but has no money for dowries. When told that he should be grateful if she can find anyone 'with their own teeth' to marry them, he protests that they should line up to marry his stock since "my ancestors owned an elephant in Delhi". The man is a monster!

The crunch comes when Zainub asks their close neighbour Mustafa (who is in love with one of her sisters) to take the naive boy, a talented artist, to work each day at a nearby artists' commune. It seems that he may have found a way to make a living, but several of his licentious co-workers view him as easy young flesh and he is soon gagged, raped, and left in a field. When a eunuch finds him and brings him home, his mother and sisters fawn over him, but his father is so consumed with visions of his becoming a dancing freak, he promptly suffocates him to save the family's so-called honour.

He would like to see the matter hushed up but the local police chief suspects the worse and says that it is not an 'honour killing' and the only way out would be for a bribe to be paid to his station ("not for me of course"). There goes the mosque's building fund! When he is asked to account for the missing money, nobody wants to help, and in desperation he goes to the pimp. The latter is happy to provide the funds in exchange for our 'holy' man impregnating his courtesan grand-daughter, since he is so good at producing girl children -- an important commodity in that particular community. He insists on marrying her first (still of course wed to his long-suffering wife) and when a baby girl is duly born, the pimp offers him increasingly large sums of money for more female babies. Ashamed he returns to his impoverished family, but when the courtesan dumps the new-born on his doorstep, his initial reaction is to bash in the baby's brains. That is when Zainub murders Daddy. When the pimp and his minions come to fetch the child, he's told that it was killed and dumped by its dead father -- having been spirited away to safety by one of the daughters.

During the course of her statement to the flabbergasted crowd of journalists and photographers, one female reporter is convinced that a miscarriage of justice is about to take place and tries to reach the President for a stay of execution, however his aides refuse to wake him up. The President's sleep is more important than justice, she concludes. Zainub finishes her statement with the sentiment that had her father lived, she would have died every day. She wonders how a man could love God yet hate his creations. Then she is hanged....

There were many other strands to this sorry tale which space and time force me to omit, but the film was a searing indictment against religious fanaticism. In the end, there was something of a happy ending, but this only helped to ease the pain of the events that preceded it. One comment that I should add is that unlike neighbouring India's films, the music here was embedded in the plot and was not used as a break in the action for some over-the-top singing and dancing. I understand that Mustafa was played by one Atif Aslam, a Pakistani pop star, and the modern outlook of his character and that of his family shed some light of hope in what otherwise would have been a very dismal world. The moral is that a man can have religious faith without losing his humanity.  

Friday, 2 May 2014

Love 'em and Leave 'em (1926)

I occasionally treat myself to a mini Louise Brooks movie retrospective when I come across one of her previously unseen film roles. A charismatic screen icon from the 1920s with her trademark dark bob, she has left more of a cinematic legacy than her acting talent warrants.

She came to New York from Kansas to further her career as a dancer with George White's Scandals and the Ziegfield Follies, before drifting into a series of obscure films in 1926 and 1927, most of which are largely unavailable or forgettable, although "The Old Army Game" -- a W C Fields vehicle is of some interest. She was treated as mainly attractive totty before breaking through as a screen force to be reckoned with in the closing third of 1928's "A Girl in Every Port" and the road movie "Beggars of Life". In the latter her luminous beauty could not be dismissed, even if she did spend most of the film disguised as a boy. After an important role in "The Canary Murder Case", she left for Europe and her iconic Lulu in Pabst's "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl" (both 1929).

'Canary' was originally shot as a silent, the first of four Philo Vance whodunnits starring the urbane William Powell. With the coming of sound, it was decided to reshoot it as a 'talkie' but Brooks refused to return from Europe. Her voice was disastrously dubbed by a very nasal Margaret Livingston and Brooks' Hollywood career was dead in the water. After making "Miss Europe" in France in 1930, she found herself persona non grata on her return to Tinseltown and only managed the occasional roles in Z-grade oaters before retiring from films.

The above movie, while not a Brooks vehicle by any means, would probably not be available today were it not for her presence. It was intended as a starring vehicle for Evelyn Brent, the elder of two sisters living in a boarding house and working in a department store. Brent had promised their late mother to look after younger sister Brooks and soon discovers that the amoral and feckless lass needs a lot of looking after. Brent is in love with workmate Lawrence Gray (a totally uncharismatic chancer), but Brooks soon moves in on the young Romeo when Brent goes on vacation. She has also squandered the firm's annual dance fund on bad horses and manages to cast the blame on big sister, who has until 11 pm that evening to find the money or go to jail. Brooks' Jane is a complete nightmare but 100% irresistible with it. She tells her sister that yes, she will go to the dance but certainly won't enjoy herself. One minute later the film cuts to her in her short-skirted circus outfit (think Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel"), energetically Charlestoning her little heart out.

Gray, who really doesn't deserve her, manages finally to reconcile with Brent, but Brooks in the meantime -- having cozied up to one of the store's managers -- is last heard of having driven off with the big boss in his Rolls Royce. Gold-diggers of the world unite! 

A sidebar of interest in this film is that the sleazy, rat-faced resident of the house and would-be lothario, who acts as Brooks' bookie and who has cheated her out of the winnings that would have saved the day, is played by one Osgood Perkins. Perkins was in fact a well-respected Broadway star of the day, who died at the very young age of 45 and who is best known to us today as the father of Psycho's Anthony. 


Friday, 25 April 2014

Another week....

I wish I knew why some week's viewing leaves me bereft of enthusiasm. I've seen at least fifteen films in the last seven days (it's actually higher but my attention waned sufficiently during some lesser television movies to omit them from the count). It wasn't a bad selection, although hardly a vintage one, but none of them inspired me to put pen to paper metaphorically speaking. So let's examine a few of them, just for the heck of it:

We'll start with the 'scintillating' four new movies on Sky Premier -- don't get me started on when they had a minimum of five new films each week. It's beginning to annoy me no end that a ridiculous proportion of movies that they offer on a pay-per-view basis never make it to the free Premier channel and that some of them, including some fairly A-list films, just seem to disappear forever. Instead we are usually fobbed off with one 'big-deal' movie, one suitable for five-year olds, and two films which never received any kind of broad release -- to the extent that one thinks, 'where did they dredge those up from?'.

The 'big' premiere this week was Zack Snyder's Superman re-interpretation "Man of Steel" starring some who-is-he? called Henry Cavill. What a drag! Virtually the entire nearly plot-less movie focussed on our hero fending off the evil General Zod who has pursued him from his doomed home planet, whilst taking advice from the apparition of his dead father Jor-El in the shape of Russell Crowe (who kept cropping up every few minutes). Ironically Marlon Brando was paid a fortune in the 1978 movie for a brief appearance as Jor-El; here Crowe didn't even have the good grace to stay dead. Lois Lane (the always lovely Amy Adams) knows from square one that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, yet the film's finale has him arriving for the first time at the Daily Planet with his trademark glasses-in-disguise -- presumably setting us up for further CGI-enhanced adventures to come from Snyder and Cavill. Goody!

As for the other three films, there was an adequate animation called "Epic" which had our teenaged heroine shrunk in size to join the 'leaf-men' and other eco-denizens of the forest to keep us all green. Yawn! The remaining two were moderately interesting but very minor. In the Australian flick "Adore" middle-aged best friends Naomi Watts and Robin Wright begin affairs with each other's teenaged sons with ultimately unsatisfactory results all round. In a British movie from a few years back "Ashes", Jim Sturgess busts out Ray Winstone from the institution where he has been hospitalized with a violent form of Alzheimer's, by pretending to be his long lost son, having been sent on this errand by a vicious gangster who wants revenge. OK, reasonably well-done and something of an acting stretch for Winstone, but hardly a special treat for us faithful Sky subscribers. If I came across this movie in a late-night slot on another channel, I might have been impressed, but not for prime-time fun and games.

My YouTube viewing for the week was an equally mixed bag. This included the 1934 oddity "Crime without Passion", with its remarkable montage intro and other nifty camerawork throughout, as hot-shot lawyer Claude Rains tries to get away with killing his mistress. "Give out Sisters" from 1942 had the ever-tuneful Andrews Sisters dressing up and pretending to be three old stuffy biddies who didn't want their ward to become a nightclub entertainer. (I know, they couldn't make them like this any more.) 1959's "The Devil Disciple", based on a Shaw play and filmed in England with the frequent pairing of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Colonial rebels was  pretty mundane, but I did want to see them mix it up again with Laurence Olivier's General Burgoyne. Finally I tried Costa-Gavras's highly rated "Stage of Siege" from 1972, set in an unnamed South American country and exposing evil-doing on all sides of the fence; worthy, worthy, worthy but ultimately so depressing that I gave up on it. Just what sort of a film critic are you, PPP?

As for the rest of the week's films, only two bear mentioning. First there was Stifler, i.e. Seann William Scott playing a slightly dim but definitely loyal hockey team member in "Goon". The ex-bouncer has only been given a contract because of his skill in beating up the opposition -- mainly in the unlikely form of Liev Schreiber. I actually found this movie remarkably sweet-natured, despite the violence, as Scott falls in love with 'slut' Alison Pill (who I just didn't recognize at first with short dark hair). And talking about violence -- non-stop in this instance, I watched the DVD of 2011's "The Raid", an unlikely popular hit from expatriate Welshman Gareth Evans who turned out this Indonesian (!) bash-'em-up. With its sequel now in cinemas, I was curious to see the original and its martial arts hero Iwo Uwais in action. Not much of a story admittedly, but bloody fisticuffs galore if that floats your boat.

Let's see what next week brings...

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

I have a kind of love/hate reaction to the writer-director Peter Greenaway, whose movies are very definitely not for everyone. By and large I have found his films beautiful to behold and usually quirkily involving, but too often a little too 'precious' for words, too self-consciously arty for my taste. I was not terribly taken with the above movie when I first saw it many years ago, but had promised Sian a copy should it ever be shown on television. (Shamefacedly I must admit that I put a copy on my hard disc last Christmas and then proceeded to delete it in error.) Fortunately FilmFour scheduled it again in the recent wee hours. I needed to re-watch it to edit out the ads and was hoping that I would be sufficiently taken with it this time around to keep a copy for myself as well -- but more of that later.

The basic story is of three women of three generations, all named Cissie Colpitts, who decide to do away with their unsatisfactory husbands by drowning them -- in a bathtub, in the ocean, and in a swimming pool respectively. Drowning of course is the classic way of disposing of rats! The three are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. I have seen them described as grandmother, mother, and daughter (which seems a little unlikely), as mother and two daughters, and as mother, daughter, and niece -- but frankly it matters not. What matters is that they stick together in their personal allegiances and criminal pursuits. They are able to get away with their 'crimes' with the connivance of Bernard Hill's coroner who rules on natural causes of death in exchange for possible, but never realised, offers of sexual favours. He and his son Smut (now there's a name) are the main characters in this grotesque fable of life on the Suffolk coast.

While this is meant to be the most accessible of all of Greenaway's films, I would argue otherwise, since the film is loaded (nearly to the point of sinking) with esoteric touches, symbolism, and strange behaviour. It was not released in the US until 1991 and was only released then on the strength of his 'scandalous' next film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover". In contrast to ' Drowning', that movie as well as "The Baby of Macon" and "The Belly of an Architect" seem almost straightforward. In all of his films, Greenaway manages to combine a painterly, pictorial eye (enhanced here by Sacha Vierney's impeccable cinematography) with a bizarre story-telling sensibility. This movie opens with a young girl, dressed like a fugitive from Velazquez' Las Meninas, skip-roping up to 100 as she counts off the names of heavenly stars. Then the set is progressively numbered up to 100 with the numbers appearing in various and unexpected places -- on posts, on pictures, on paper-chase runners, and even on dead cows. In fact one could play a game of spotting all of the sequential numbers, although some are only spoken rather than pictured.

As Plowright's character says, 'why care about other people, life is just a game', and indeed the characters partake of their own made-up games with names like 'The Great Death Game' and 'Hangman's Cricket'. Smut, who is obsessed with creepy-crawlies and who at one stage attempts to circumcise himself with scissors, celebrates each death with a fireworks display. In the end he plays his own hanging game, the object of which is to punish those who have caused unhappiness by their own selfishness. He says this is the best game of all because the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final.

So did I warm to this movie the second time around? The answer is still 'no'. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it is impossible to empathise with its totally unsympathetic and amoral characters. It's all an intellectual exercise beautifully presented, but with a complete absence of humanity or heart.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sarah's Key (2010)

Were it not for BBC4 (hopefully not doomed like its lively younger sister BBC3), there would be hardly any foreign language films shown on British television. They have also gifted us with an amazing run of subtitled European television serials in their regular Saturday night slot. Yes, there is the very occasional title on Sky Premier (but only in the ratio of about l to 50 crappy television movies or animations) and the equally rare showing of one of the 'classics' on Film Four. CineMoi while it lasted was brilliant, at least initially, but most often I must seek out films that I would like to see in repertory showings or on disc. Meanwhile I can fondly recall the days when there would be whole seasons of foreign films on the now populist BBC2. More's the pity!

The above French movie actually premiered on Film Four along with a dreary policier starring Daniel Auteuil, and was something of a corker. Directed and co-written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and based on a popular novel ("Elle s'appelait Sarah") by Tatiana DeRosnay, it joins a number of recent films in movingly discussing the Holocaust by telling a small story on a very human level. Sarah Strazynski is a self-possessed and buoyant 10-year old, who, when the police come to round up her family in a notorious Jewish purge, cheerfully locks her younger brother in a bedroom wall cupboard, enjoining him to remain quiet during what she tells him is a "game"She believes that she is saving him and that she will soon be back to release him. Instead she and her parents are crowded into the Vel' d'Hiv cycling stadium along with 10000 other Paris Jews in this infamous 1942 round-up, kept in inhuman conditions for several days, before being sent off to various death camps.

This was a little known atrocity in the history of other atrocities of the period, although if memory serves it was also the staging point for the demise of Alain Delon in the scathing 1976 film "Mr Klein". The main point of contention is that the hazing, persecuting, and confiscation of property was carried out not by Germans, but by the French themselves against their fellow citizens. Separated from her mother and father and still in possession of the fatal key, Sarah manages to escape from a French camp with another girl, furiously driven by her determination to return to Paris and release young Michel. They end up at the farm of the Dufaure family where her companion dies, but where the initially unwilling-to-get-involved elderly couple conceal Sarah and ultimately raise her as their own. The patriarch is played by the imposing actor Niels Arestrup who has graced a number of French hits in the past few years (I saw him recently as the bull-headed vintner in "You Will be my Son"), and he is always a majestic force of nature. Eventually they manage to get Sarah back to the flat in Paris where another French family are now living (despite the horrible smell!!!), but of course it is too late. Sarah knows in her heart that she has killed her brother. The fact that he almost certainly would have died anyhow is very much by the by in her mind.

These events from the past are mixed in with her researches for an article by the American-born, but French-domiciled journalist Julia (played by the majestic Kristin Scott Thomas). She and her husband have a son and had hoped for a second child after a series of miscarriages. He wants the three of them to move into a renovated apartment owned by his aging parents, but Julia becomes convinced that it is the scene of Sarah's fatal if well-intended action. . She is also at long last pregnant, but her husband no longer wants a late-in-life child. Increasingly estranged from her husband and determined to discover what has become of Sarah, she traces the Dufaure descendants to discover that the girl left the family at the earliest opportunity, but sent them a marriage announcement from America. She journeys to the States and then to Florence to find Sarah's son, played by a horrified Aidan Quinn. When asked if he recognizes the photo of the young girl wearing her yellow star, he recoils and protests that his mother wasn't Jewish. It later emerges that she hauled him off to the nearest church after his birth to be baptized, convinced that being Jewish meant death. Julia also learns that Sarah's own death at a relatively early age was not really an unfortunate road accident but an act of suicide from a troubled woman who could no longer live with her own guilt.

Apart from the named actors above, I did not recognize most of the cast, but singular praise must go to Melusine Mayance who played the young Sarah with a mixture of pig-headed bravery and stoic pathos. The film definitely has its share of teary-eyed moments to engage the viewer, but these are done with only minimal fanfare and are never milked for sentiment. The movie is a fine testimony to some truly horrible history.   

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