Friday, 21 October 2016

The Last Three (and a half)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 October 2016

Four from the Fest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 October 2016

Miss Peregrine and French Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 30 September 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 September 2016

Pedro's Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Cafe Society (2016)

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 September 2016

Julieta (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 September 2016

FrightFest 2016

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 August 2016

Topaze (1933)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 August 2016

He Ain't Heavy...

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 August 2016

Minions (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 July 2016

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 July 2016

Men & Chicken (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Saxon Charm (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 July 2016

Premiere (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Railway Man (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 June 2016

Tale of Tales (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 June 2016

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)

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

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

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

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

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


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