Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Christmas Crackers

In previous years I have tried to give some guidance as to whether there were any movies worth watching in the terrestrial Christmas schedules, but I have become so disillusioned by the very boring listings where most of the "Big" Xmas films have already been seen by all the world and his sister either at the cinema or on DVD and where the few "classic" films that they deign to show are more or less the same ones that appear year after year. (If it were up to me, I could produce a list of classic gems that have not seen the light of a TV screen for yonks). However, by careful scouring of the schedules, I did manage to find two recent movies which I had not viewed previously -- and these became my Christmas Crackers!

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005): This was my most pleasant surprise since I was previously completely unaware of this British film's existence. The lead is taken by elderly, widowed Joan Plowright, who moves into the residential hotel of the title in an effort to maintain some independence from her indifferent family. The place is populated with a collection of elderly eccentrics, all winningly played, and foremost amongst these is practical spinster Anna Massey. When Mrs. Palfrey falls on the pavement outside the basement flat of impoverished busker and would-be writer Rupert Friend, he becomes her surrogate grandson and the darling of the hotel's denizens. This was a touching, involving tale which grew warmer as it progressed and which, yes, left me with teary eyes by its close.

Starter for 10 (2006): I could recall the reviews for this second British film when it was released, but it seemed too slight a tale to interest me. Yet, come the day, it was pleasant enough viewing as provincial brainbox, James McAvoy (looking suitably young) wins a place at Bristol University and fulfils his dream of representing his college on the quiz programme University Challenge -- with, it turns out, disastrous results. Torn between a sexpot who enchants him and a left-wing social protester, his would-be lovelife is similarly disappointing. All in all this was a reasonable diversion, but not one that I would seek out again.

So what else was I doing? Well, I borrowed a copy of "Mamma Mia - The Movie" which I resisted seeing at the cinema, despite its mighty success. Initially I was alienated by the determinedly good-natured efforts from all of the players and was beginning to feel sligthly queasy, but by the end credits -- with all of the main actors resplendent in their spangly rock-star gear, I could understand the tremendous "feel-good" appeal of the movie, especially for Abba fans. In contrast, I decided to have yet another go at a really "feel-bad" movie, Todd Solondz's Happiness from 1998. This film is well-thought of and possibly on its way to cult status, but it is all just a wee bit too unpleasant for my taste, what with its paedophile therapist drugging and raping friends of his young son whom he is teaching how to masturbate, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a pervert who gets his kicks from dirty phonecalls, a murderous overweight needy neighbour who lusts after him, and three damaged sisters who are involved with these characters, together with their on-the-verge-of-divorcing parents. Well acted indeed, but ultimately an unhappy and way-out slice of life that proves indigestible.

Wishing all of you a healthy and successful 2009, with hopefully lots of fine cinema viewing to come-PPP.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Herostratus (1967)

I am always tempted when I hear about the showing of some rare film oddity, so we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts to see this one which was promoted as an experimental flick from someone called Don Levy featuring Helen Mirren in her first film role. I was further tempted by its very high rating on IMDb, but what a pretentious disappointment it turned out to be -- all 142 minutes of it!

The story, such as it is, concerns a young man who approaches an advertising tycoon to promote his forthcoming suicide. The film takes its title from a legendary "hero" who burnt down the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven Wonders of the World, in a bid for immortality. I assume this was meant to be some sort of satire or protest against commericalism and other evils of the modern world, since this slim story was intercut with archive news footage, fashion shoots, and bloody butchery from an abattoir -- along with some artsy-craftsy fast-motion footage. There were effectively only three main characters, the young man, the ad-man, and the latter's receptionist-cum-mistress -- none of whom were the least bit interesting or likeable. In the end it becomes apparent that no one gives a damn if the suicide occurs on schedule -- and while there is a death, there is virtually nobody there to note it.

This film was so full of itself that it didn't even run to front or back credits. Oh, and Helen Mirren did appear in it -- for about five minutes -- as a scantily clad model promoting kitchen gloves. Can I have those 142 minutes back please.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Woods are Wet (1973)

Well, if I thought the second film in the "Wild Japan" season at the National Film Theatre was going to be an improvement on the truly awful first, I was sadly mistaken. At least that one had some very artistic shibari (Japanese rope bondage) in its favour; this one has absolutely nothing to recommend it. The director, Tatsumi Kamashiro, was one of the stawlarts of the Roman Porno cycle and made some twenty films all with the Japanese word for 'wet' in their titles. Take that as you will!

What we have here is a virginal maiden on the run after being falsely accused of murdering her mistress and being befriended by an elegant lady in a chauffeur-driven limo. The latter encourages her to return as her companion to the remote inn where she lives with her "cruel" husband. Little does she realise that it is all a wicked plot to drag her into the corrupt household as a sex slave and to assist the perverted couple in preying on their occasional guests. We are then presented with a totally boringly filmed succession of rape, buggery, flagellation, and murder. Apparently there were some censorship trials at the time, so the director -- as a protest -- recut his film with big black blobs blocking either half the scene or bouncing around the various sexual quarters. This attempt by the director to bowdlerise the action as a means of pointing out the hypocrisy of censorship just comes across as incredibly stooopid and annoying.

Where's the wretched ping - please!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Inkheart (2008)

Sometimes it is an advantage not to be familiar with the novel on which a film is based, since one is inclined to complain about what has been omitted. At other times some familiarity might be helpful in order to comprehend what seems a somewhat sketchy tale that doesn't quite hang together -- and that is the case here with this adaptation of German author Cornelia Funke's fantasy.

Brendan Fraser, the author's insistant choice for the lead, plays a "book'doctor" and "silvertongue" -- someone who literally can make a book come alive when reading aloud. Some years before while reading 'Inkheart' to his young daughter, he allowed Paul Bettany's fire-juggler and Andy Serkis' dastardly villain to escape from its pages, but lost his beloved wife into the book as some sort of literary quid pro quo. Some eleven years on he drags his now teenaged daughter around the world looking for another copy of the volume so that he can read his wife back out, pursued by Bettany who wants to be read back in, and Serkis who wants to use Fraser's skills to acquire more riches in the human world that he has come to love. En route they meet up with an eccentric aunt played by Helen Mirren, usually the epitome of older-woman chic, but here made up as an eccentric old hag, although ultimately quite jolly with it, Jim Broadbent's absent-minded author, and a potential love-interest for the daughter when a handsome, young thief is read out of The Arabian Nights. Then it turns out that the daughter has inherited her father's skill when she is able to conjure up Toto from the Wizard of Oz, causing Serkis and his ink-stained minions (read out by a stutterer!) to capture her to serve their evil plans. That everything ends up more or less hunky-dory is down to movie-making skills rather than logic of any discernible kind.

By and large this was pretty enjoyable, and if it serves to lead youngsters to read more (a la Harry Potter), so much the better. However I couldn't help but feel that something was missing from the mix to make this the magical experience it might have been.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Shirley Temple

As an antidote to the last reviewed Japanese flick and some other truly dreadful recent films, I turned in this hour of need to the remarkable child who saved 20th Century Fox's hide back in the 1930s. Hard as it may be for today's seen-it-all cynic to believe and/or stomach, Shirley Temple was once the most popular film star in the world and appeared in a classic collection of movies before her teenaged years. Her later roles -- and she retired at the ripe-old age of 21 -- are not unwatchable, but lack the charm of the young moppet. However, in the movies made in that decade, there is always something to enchant the open-minded viewer -- normally her musical numbers -- and the cheeky, self-confident child becomes irresistible.

The pair that I treated myself to this week "The Littlest Rebel" and "The Little Colonel", both released in 1935, have much in common. Both are set in the Deep South, the first during the Civil War and the second some years afterwards, both allot her a mother and a father played by minor stars of the period (having two parents is something of an anomaly in her films, although her mother does die in the former), both have her winning over crusty older men (a Northern general and then Abraham Lincoln -- believe it or not -- in the first and cantankerous Lionel Barrymore as her estranged grandfather in the second), and both co-star her with Bill Robinson, the legendary Bojangles.

Being the 1930s, blacks in mainstream US movies were always in subservient roles, many of which are hard for today's modern mentality to allow (the ever-dumb Stepin Fetchit is the prototype), but some actors transcended this handicap to remain screen icons. Hattie MacDaniel who appears in the second of these two, is a case in point, memorably appearing in minor roles in dozens of big-budget films of the period and of course winning an Oscar for "Gone with the Wind". Robinson may be playing a slave in 'Rebel' and a butler in 'Colonel', but he does so with incredible dignity, sympathy, and a small degree of cheekiness as well, and we never think of him as any sort of inferior. However when he moves into dance and especially with his step-dancing routines with his young co-star, we are presented with never-to-be-diminished movie magic. An antidote indeed!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Wife to be Sacrificed (1974)

I mentioned that I would be viewing some films in the NFT's 'Wild Japan' season and this was the first. While the previous season tended to feature horror films of sorts, this one's emphasis seems to be on erotic films from classics like "Ai No Corrida" through 'pinku' movies, which as I have mentioned previously are nothing to do with gay cinema, but are generally soft porn. It takes a great deal to shock me -- at my age I think I have seen it all! -- but I was frankly taken aback that this particular and apparently very successful film of the 'Roman Porno' subgenre received a showing at such a generally serious and 'proper' venue. What surprised me even further is that there was little artistic value to justify its inclusion.

The story concerns the very lush-figured actress Naomi Tani (who became one of the leading queens of Japanese S & M) playing the estranged wife of an escaped convict -- known for his sexual battery AND paedophilia -- who is kidnapped by him and taken to a remote cabin. There she is trussed up in incredibly complicated ropes -- bondage remains a popular subject in Japanese photography -- and subjected to various tortures including dripping wax (forget about Madonna!) and sexual subjugation. Eventually she comes to enjoy this torment and the fiend adds a suicidal couple to the sexual menage. This is probably the first time I have seen a graphic portrayal of an enema featured as suitable screen viewing. I don't honestly think I am being much of a prude, but I am still searching for some way of justifying the film's excesses. They were, frankly, neither a turn-on nor entertainment of any description.

OK, it's all part of my ongoing education, but I do hope the next film we are seeing in this short season is less of a disappointment.

And where's the ping?

Monday, 8 December 2008

Love and Honour (2006)

I'll be having something of a Japanese fling over the next couple of weeks, since the National Film Theatre is having a second 'Wild Japan' season (and we viewed some real weirdies during the previous one a few years back).To kick things off we went to the ICA for the premiere of the above movie (not a 'wild' one) from director Yoji Yamada.

This is the third of three beautifully-done Samurai-themed films from this director, the first two being "Twilight Samurai" (2002) and "The Hidden Blade" (2004). Although they are all period pieces, set towards the end of the samurai system, none of them -- despite an obligatory action sequence -- are action films as such, but rather character studies of a certain mentality and caste system at the time. Our hero here spends his days at the local castle, as one of five food tasters for the Lord; happily married to a beautiful wife, he dreams of leaving this honourable but boring position to found a dojo where he can teach children from all walks of life. However a bit of tainted shellfish ends his hopes as he recovers from its serious effects to find that he is now blind.

His faithful wife is egged on by his relatives to approach a local ambitious Steward who has offered to help to ensure that the samurai continues to receive some stipend from the castle. Believing that the Steward's intentions are genuine and it does seem indeed that he has influence, she quickly finds out that his help comes at a price -- her virtue. Prepared to do anything for her husband, she gives herself, thinking it will be only once, but the lecherous fellow has longterm plans. When word gets back to her husband from his blabby aunt that the wife has been seen with a man, he has his servant follow her, learns the truth from her when she confesses to him, promptly annouces that he is now divorced from her, and drives her from the house in the pouring rain.

In due course when he learns that his stipend had nothing to do with the Steward, but came direct from the Lord who realised that our hero had saved his life, he gets even angrier, likening his wife's treatment to rape and determines to extract retribution. He may be blind, but Japan has a long historic tradition of blind swordsman (remember all the Zatoichi films), so he practices with his former master until he is ready to challenge the cad. It's probably best to stop here without too many spoilers, but use your imagination to guess how this story reaches its satisfactory, moving, and happy end.

Friday, 5 December 2008

An assortment of goodies (of sorts)

Although I'm now down to updating this blog every two to three days (it was more or less daily when I first started and I was keen as mustard), I still maintain my annual average of viewing two or three films a day and occasionally I feel the need to comment briefly on some of the flicks which have recently rolled across my appreciative eyeballs. Like these:

Vatel (2000): Although this French-produced film opened Cannes in the year it was made and although it offers a mighty performance by Gerard Depardieu, it was booed on its premiere showing and was a financial disaster -- largely because it was shot in English, the French script adapted by Tom Stoddard. This is something of a shame since it is a sumptuous production and it is gorgeous to look at with a magnificent Morricone score. Based on historical fact where Chief Steward Vatel lays on lavish hospitality for King Louis XIV visiting his impoverished master, the attention to detail is brilliantly handled. Apart from Depardieu, the rest of the leads are English-speaking by birth, but this doesn't necessarily add to the film's appeal. Uma Thurman is unremarkable as a woman of the court who befriends Vatel and Tim Roth always looks frighteningly weird in period togs and wigs. However, on balance, the movie deserves a kinder fate.

Operation Petticoat (1959) and Father Goose (1964): These are the only two of Cary Grant's late films (post-North by Northwest) which have never held a particularly high place in my affections and which I have not added to my collection. I therefore felt they were worth a reappraisal, especially since the former is considered 'hilarious' in certain quarters. I can't quite agree with that although Grant and Tony Curtis play well off each other. What I can state unequivocably is that Grant is never less than wonderfully watchable, even when given a thankless role as a crusty loner faced with a cloying Leslie Caron and a bunch of schoolgirls in the latter movie. The other thought that struck me as I rewatched this pair is how much George Clooney has begun to affect Grant's mannerisms when playing comedy.

We Own the Night (2007): I found this policier starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as estranged brothers far more involving that expected. The first film in seven years from writer-director James Grey whose "Yards" also paired these two actors, it was a good, solid action movie which effectively used its Brooklyn Russian-mafia background.

Hold That Co-ed (1938): Of course this would be the movie that I most enjoyed revisiting over the last few days since it stars my great fave John Barrymore. Like most of his late movies when he was permanently in his cups, he still manages to be more than amusing as a Huey-Longish type state governor seeking to run for the Senate and who depends upon building the fortunes of a down-at-the-heel local college and football team as the cornerstone of his would-be popularity. Of course this is all absolute nonsense, but the movie is so good-spirited with cheery performances from George Murphy, Jack Haley, Joan Davis (as an unbelievable football genius), and another of my favourites, Donald Meek, that I enjoyed every minute of this diversion.

What I tend to avoid when doing these occasional multiple reviews is any dwelling on the dross that I have also seen recently, since they seldom bear even thinking about a second time. Foremost amongst these in recent days is the Molly Shannon vehicle Year of the Dog (2007) which was promoted as a black comedy, but rather was something that belonged in a black hole!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Absurdistan (2008)

There is currently a German Film Festival on in London (an annual event which I have never previously attended) and I noted in the prospectus that the above film was made by the director of "Tuvalu" (1999), an absolutely enchanting, nearly silent fantasy (my review is in the archives at The director is Veit Helmer and to be honest I am totally unfamiliar with the remainder of his output, but after finding myself equally beguiled with his latest flick, I am obliged to check out the others.

What I was not expecting at a German film festival was a movie filmed in Azerbaijan with Russian dialogue. The director introduced the film and said that he searched widely for an idyllic village in which to set his tale and that it is sheer happenstance that the setting ended up as it did. Inspired by a small item he noted in a newspaper some years ago about the town of Surd where the women went on sexual strike to protest the fact that their menfolk had not maintained the water pipe to the village (reminiscent indeed of the Greek play "Lysistrata"), he renamed this scenario Ab-surd-istan and fantasised the bare bones of the tale. Two children born on the same day have been soulmates ever since, going through a wonderful engagement at age four and a mock marriage ceremony at age eight. As teenagers they can not wait to consummate their feelings for each other, but the girl's grandmother, who reads the stars, forecasts an auspicious date for them some four years in the future! The lad is sent away for training and returns before the due date, only for his betrothed to refuse him if he is unable to restore water to the village -- and there are only six days for their stars to be in the ideal conjunction. The further backstory is that the women of the town are the real workers and the men are a bunch of layabouts who only fancy their macho sexual prowess -- and this is told with great humour and a terrific assortment of expressive characters. Inspired by the girl's determination, they too withhold their favours until everything is put right. This outline doesn't half do justice to the charm of the story nor to the fantastical efforts of the young swain to win his beloved. This, like "Tuvalu" before it, is a film that deserves a wide audience, but one which it is regretfully unlikely to find outside the arthouse circuit. And more's the pity says PPP!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Good Luck Chuck (2007)

My previous entry said that I prefer to write about older or lesser-known films and this movie proves that some modern flicks are so dim-witted that the only fun a reviewer can have with them is to be rude about them. The fact that the mercifully short running time did provide a few chortles is insufficient reason for foisting this juvenile rom-com on the unsuspecting public.

Dane Clark seems to be a likeable enough comedian, although he is not known outside the U.S., but this vehicle gave him scant opportunity to shine. He plays a dentist who never seems to get the girl, while an urban myth springs up about him that one-off sex with the chump will lead to a woman finding the man of her dreams in the next man she meets. This allows the viewer to be entertained by a montage of enthusiastic sex scenes which I suppose are meant to be comic; however including encounters with his chubby, black technician and a grossly obese, pimple-covered hideosity go beyond good taste. When he meets a gal that he thinks might be the right one for him, as personified by Jessica Alba, he is afraid to consummate the relationship and risk losing her. While an attractive enough actress, she lacks any sort of comic timing and the writers therefore present her as something of a klutz and have her working with penguins (which are meant to be funny I guess; personally, I find them scary!). His sidekick from childhood is a fat loser who has become a cosmetic surgeon, takes out his lust on grapefruit (!), and ends up with a woman with three breasts (don't ask!). I understand that the previous demographic of 15-22 year olds for whom this film might have proved appealing are deserting movie-going for video games and the internet, which leaves me wondering who is left to appreciate these jejune shenanigans.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Somehow it is a lot more fun to write about older films or modern oddities than current releases where my brain feels saturated with other critics' reactions. That these films that I choose remain relatively unknown and/or hard to come by is a definite part of their appeal. I viewed this one originally on television some years back and took a copy or it would join so many other worthwhile films which were never widely available on video and which certainly haven't surfaced on DVD. I should like to add here that certain DVD producers, especially those with studio affiliations, would do better to look to their back catalogues rather than to some of the modern dreck that they churn out!

This movie, like "Night Must Fall" before it, is based on a stage play and shares the same creepy sensibility and sense of Gothic dread. Ida Lupino takes on the role played on stage by Flora Robson as the housekeeper to a vain old actress (Isabel Elsom) living in an isolated cottage on the English moors. When she receives word that her two looney-tunes sisters, played by Elsa Lancester and Edith Barrett, are to be thrown out of their London digs, she convinces Elsom to let them stay for a few days. When a few days turns into six weeks, Elsom is up to her ears with their nuttiness and issues her ultimatum to Lupino, who promptly murders her boss rather than lose control of her siblings. To this mix one must add Lupino's ne'er-do-well nephew Louis Hayward (who has previously "touched" Elsom for a loan to cover his bank clerk misappropriations) who arrives on the scene wanted by the police and who quite soon becomes suspicious about Elsom's disappearance, and Evelyn Keyes as the maidservant who succumbs to his swarmy charms.

Lupino was probably too young for this role but plays it with great conviction. The daughter of an English music-hall star, she went to Hollywood in her early twenties and surfaced in a number of memorable parts which never got quite the critical attention they deserved. Later on she turned her hand to directing and turned out several better-than-B movies, which again remain largely overlooked. Lanchester and Barrett (in her first film role) are engagingly dotty as the two sisters; mind you, did Lancester ever play anything other than eccentrics? The director, Charles Vidor (no relation to King Vidor) keeps a tight rein on the production and even manages to retain our interest without opening out the tale from its cottage setting; the film was sufficiently well-made to garner two Academy Awards for art direction and music. Some film trivia information for those who care about this sort of thing: Vidor was married to Lupino at the time and Hayward and the much-married Keyes subsequently wed.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

Occasionally, when opportunity allows, I choose to rewatch a well-thought of film that has not lingered in my thoughts nor formed part of my vast list of well-loved movies, in the hope that time and distance might lend new enchantment. Such was the case here since this film has (on paper) much going for it: the ever-watchable Ingrid Bergman playing a real-life heroine Gladys Aylward, the ever-likeable Robert Donat in his last film role, and a generally heartwarming, life-affirming story. However my final reaction after more than two and a half hours' running time -- during which several many pots could have boiled -- is that this earnest tale of a missionary in China during the build-up to the Japanese invasion of the late 30s outstays its welcome.

It is something of a problem that we have a Swede playing English (Bergman never really bothered with accents and by and large these did not distract from her performances), an Englishman playing a mandarin (more of a problem), and a German (Curt Jurgens) playing a half-Dutch/half-Chinese soldier. Further one can't help associating Burt Kwouk with the comic Pink Panther franchise and seeing him playing a self-sacrificing peasant feels unreal. However based on fact this rendering may have been, it all went on in too much detail and far too long. The hills of North Wales filled in rather well for not being able to shoot on location in China and the film-makers seem to have recruited an amazing number of British toddlers of oriental descent to illustrate the trek across the mountains to safety. That the Aylward charcter was then planning to return to the war zone in search of her love Jurgens ended the film on an overly romantic and not quite believable note -- too Hollywood by half.

I'm still thinking about saying more about the latest "Hellboy" flick, but whether this translates into action remains to be seen...

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

I had every intention of my next review being "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" which I actually saw at a cinema a few days ago and which I found pretty spiffy. Despite the relative lack of box office for the first Hellboy film, I am so pleased that Guillermo del Toro was able to raise the funding for a second one, which was probably even better than the original and a wonderful testatment to his amazing visual imagination. So perhaps I will return to that movie in due course...

However, for today I felt the need to remind everyone about the above signature film from Orson Welles, as I myself was reminded after viewing it again after many a year. The real tragedy of course is that we will never know just how he intended this film to play, since RKO hacked it about in his absence after some disastrous test screenings, whilst he had been dispatched to South America to make a long-forgotten multi-movie meant to cement the Good Neighbor policy in the middle of World War II. Unlike the reworking of his later "Touch of Evil", we have no notes as to his intentions and the lengthy missing footage had never been found. So unlike many later movies, we will never be graced with a 'director's cut' and can only guess at how much even greater this film might have been without its unbelievable happy ending.

Even with the studio mutilation, it remains one of the great classic American films. Welles both directed it and wrote the screenplay from the novel by Booth Tarkington; he does not appear himself, but his mellifluous voice as the narrator guides us along into a more gracious age and an involving family saga, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Sidney Cortez. Many of Welles' stock company are employed with major roles for Joseph Cotten as a lovelorn inventor and an Oscar-nominated Agnes Moorehead as a needy spinster. Cotten's lost love is played by silent star Dolores Costello (once Mrs. John Barrymore), but the pivotal role is taken by Tim Holt as Costello's spoiled son who is so hateful that he makes the viewer's blood boil. Son of Western player Jack Holt, this is definitely young Holt's best role ever, as the bulk of his career both before and after was relegated to minor Western parts in his dad's footsteps. A young Anne Baxter (later to go down in movie history in "All About Eve") plays a feisty daughter to Cotten and a would-be lover to Holt.

Rumour has it that the relative failure of both this film and (believe it or not) "Citizen Kane" are what ended Welles' Hollywood career, but the truth of the matter is that his next starring role -- again with most of his stock company -- in another director's "Journey into Fear" (1943) also proved to be a money loser for the studio who promptly washed their hands of him. And so we were left with the tragedy of Orson Welles, who spent the rest of the days trying to raise the cash for his pet projects, very much against all odds. Just imagine what might have been...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Paris je t'aime (2006)

It may seem obvious to remark that portmanteau films can only be as good as their component parts and that they seldom add up to a greater whole. This confection made up of 7 to 8 minute vignettes by 18 different directors, each set in a different district of Paris, does give a feel for the diversity and romance of the city, especially as each is linked with wonderful aeriel shots across the Parisian landscape. However, I feel obliged to say that some of these very short films contribute more to the whole than others -- which occasionally verge on the "I wonder what that was all about" reaction.

Employing some very well-known directors in French, English, Arabic, Spanish, and Mandarin with an international cast to die for, although both of these categories are top-heavy with American talent, it becomes something of a game to name-check the various actors as they appear. One of the more amusing segments filmed by the Coen Brothers is set in an underground station as a wordless Steve Buscemi displays the paranoia of a foreign tourist. A non-horror segment, albeit set in a cemetery, by genre specialist Wes Craven features the friendly ghost of Oscar Wilde. Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant play a mismatched pair of married theatrical types working out their hang-ups at a peep show. Horror of sorts can be found where Elijah Wood offers himself to vampire Olga Kuryenko to find eternal love. Gerard Depardieu in a sector which he co-directed appears as a bar owner in a minor role versus divorcing couple Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. The most poignant film showed the death of knifed African musician as he is tended by the paramedic that he has worshiped from afar. Add to all of this appearances by Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Juliet Binoche, Willem Dafoe (in the smallest of cameos as a cowboy representing the death of a child), and a wealth of other stars. However, the last film is the one which worked best for me; it featured Margo Martindale -- a familiar face, but an unknown name -- as a visitor describing her love for the city in fairly fractured French. This segment which ends in a park overlooking the city proves that even a lonely tourist from Denver can find beauty and warmth in this city of dreams

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Topaz (1969)

It is a sad fact of life that even one's favourite directors can produce one or two films that fall outside the expectations of their faithful followers. I have banged on often enough about John Ford's "Gideon's Day" for example. With Hitchcock, despite the light-weight quality of some of his other movies, it is this one that continues to disappoint. I think I try re-viewing it every 10 years or so in the hope that I will find some redeeming qualities, but alas, these still elude me.

Based on a Leon Uris novel set during the Cuban missile crisis, it is a prestige production with various location footage as the plot moves from Moscow to Copenhagen to Washington to New York to Cuba to Paris without particularly involving the viewer in its convoluted intrigue. Part of the problem is the international cast, all of whom speak English with "funny" accents, even when English is their native tongue, such as Canadian-born John Vernon playing an extremely unlikely Castro-ite revolutionary. The leading man, Frederick Stafford, despite his name is Austrian-born and playing French here in what was meant to be a break-out role after appearing as a variety of Bond-light heroes in continental films. However he is as wooden as can be. Superior French actors Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are more or less wasted when the action moves to Paris and the female leads, French-born Dany Robin and German-born Karin Dor only add their good looks to the mix. The one American in the cast is John Forsythe who can not turn this strange combination of actors into an appealing star production. Still it is always fun to see Roscoe Lee Browne, here playing a Caribbean florist.

The plot stems from a Russian analyst defecting with his family to the U.S. and the repercussions of Forsythe's trying to get him to divulge his secrets. For a defector, he is as "bolshie" as they come and the plot evolves ever so slowly. The term "pot-boiler" may be over-used in film criticism, but it is the relevant one here; there is little of the style or humour that one expects from Hitchcock.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Some Interesting films...

Since I watch far more movies than I actually write about, it is occasionally difficult to decide which to feature since I have neither the time nor the inclination to do justice to all of the interesting ones. So occasionally, like today, I shall touch on several recently viewed films without necessarily saying all that might or should be said about them:

The Great Gatsby (1949): Watching this film for perhaps the third time, it occurred to me what can be lost when classic movies are remade. With the appearance of the well-known Redford/Farrow version back in the 70s, the studio did its best to suppress this earlier (and I think better) movie which is no longer shown on the box nor available on DVD. Granted it is not in glorious technicolor nor as lavishly appointed, but it is a wonderful and now nearly forgotten film which gave Alan Ladd one of his very best roles. He is so very believable as the boy who came from nowhere to great riches, something that one has trouble believing of the rather suave Redford, and there are numerous flashbacks tracing his earlier history. Shelly Winters in her thinner days makes a fine tramp from the filling station and the rest of the supporting cast is top-notch. I will however concede that Betty Field in the role of Daisy is just that little bit too old and insufficiently good-looking for the part.

Burn After Reading (2008): I seldom go to the cinema to see recent releases, but as a big Coen Brothers fan, I was keen to see their most recent effort. Working once more to their own script, the film has much in common with their earlier movies, without necessarily being quite as good as some. As respected film-makers they are blessed with a super A-list cast of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, and Richard Jenkins, to say nothing of many recognizable supporting players, but this cast is sacrificed somewhat in the name of silliness. The contrived plot is on many levels irrelevant, since the main focus is on the unpleasantness, paranoia, and idiocy (Pitt in particular in an amusing dum-dum turn) of the various players. It did have a fair sprinkling of amusing lines and situations, although perhaps it is somewhat telling that the funniest of these involved a sex machine which Clooney builds.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003): The Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin is very much an acquired taste, but it is always worthwhile viewing his films, if only to comment yet again at how very weird they are. This one is set in a brewery-cum-bar in 1933, ruled over by Isabella Rossellini, whose legs were amputated -- at least one of them erroneously -- some years before. She comes up with the idea of holding a contest open to musicians from around the world to find the saddest music of all which brings together, among others, her former lover, his father who drunkenly carried out the surgery, and his estranged brother who has moved to Serbia where he mourns his dead son and missing wife -- played by Maria de Medeiros. In an attempt to atone for his earlier deed, the father creates a pair of false glass legs -- filled with beer! -- for Rossellini. The film is shot on scratchy black and white stock reminiscent of very early silents and even the colour sections screech primitive techniques. Despite all of this the movie is so unusual and on many levels funny, with a clever use of musical standards, that the viewer is left applauding this very strange effort and wondering how on earth Maddin manages to eke out a living with his determinedly unpopular approach.

Monday, 10 November 2008

There Will be Blood (2007)

If I am being perfect honest, I must confess that I found this film something of a disappointment. Some movies arrive dragging their baggage behind them, thereby creating overly grand expectations. I would not argue for a minute that Paul Thomas Anderson isn't a fine director with several excellent films on his CV nor that Daniel Day-Lewis isn't a consummate actor. My goodness, he has two best actor Oscars to support this. However for all his role preparation and acting chops, Day-Lewis remains an actor to be admired rather than liked.

In this film as in "Gangs of New York" he plays an anti-hero, a man driven by greed, hatred, and a complete lack of humanity. Struggling oil prospector Daniel Plainview adopts an orphaned child, not for any humane purpose but as a smiling prop to diddle simple landowners out of their oil rights. When an accident leads to the boy's deafness, he is no longer of any use to him. His antagonist throughout is Paul Dano, ably playing two parts -- one of which is a holier-than-thou preacher -- and their final confrontation is really about all that justifies this film's R rating Stateside. However the real problem I have with this movie is its lack of any sort of involving storyline. We see Plainview rise from his scruffy beginnings to a megalomaniac tycoon, but there is little to make us care about his success or his fate. Yes, the cinematography is pretty cool, but this and occasional bravura acting are insufficient to make this film the classic that it might have been

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Chocolate (2008)

There have been a number of films with this title, but the latest is an appetizing confection from Thailand. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, the powerhouse director behind the amazing "Ong Bak" and "Warrior King", this one is even more unusual insofar as the martial arts mayhem on display is in the hands of a fifteen-year old autistic girl. The actress in the lead JeeJa Yanin is actually in her twenties, but she plays a very believable teenager.

The backstory, as in so many of these films, is a little incomprehensible to the Western mindset and seems riddled with huge logical holes. For instance it is completely unclear why our heroine's mother (then just pregnant) insists that the Japanese father return home and what hold the local gang boss has over her. However, that becomes completely irrelevant as the damaged girl learns her kung fu moves by watching television, imitating and absorbing the movements she sees, and how she sets out to collect the money owed to her mother (who is now desperately ill in hospital). To see this little waif of a girl with her very limited verbal facility take on gangs of muscular thugs and to defeat them one by one with her agility is little short of astonishing. Granted it does become a ridiculously one-sided contest after a while, but then she executes a different series of amazing moves that take one's breath away. In one word: awesome!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Bloody Aria (2006)

I have no game plan to concentrate on Korean movies, although they seem to have figured heavily in my recent viewing. We went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts to see the above film -- which was quite poorly reviewed in the press here, but which sounded of interest.

The story concerns an opera-singing Professor who is driving one of his pet students home from an audition in his spiffy new Mercedes, having managed to antagonise a traffic cop en route. He takes a lonely detour as a prelude to trying to have his way with her, but she runs off into the woods. Meanwhile the car is soon surrounded by a brain-damaged thug and two fairly dim punks, who have a high school student that they have been torturing in a sack. The girl thinks she has found a ride to the nearest bus stop but her Good Samaritan turns out to be the amoral leader of the pack, leading to not-so-good-natured humiliation of both the professor and the girl. Then the traffic cop returns to the action and the sorry links between the various characters fall into place.

Reviews here linked the film to the "torture porn" genre, but it was not overly bloody and it was really more of a condemnation of the bullying endemic in Korean society (or so one is told). None of the characters apart from the girl were even remotely likeable, but the tale was a well-told character study with a surprising, if not overly satisfying, denouement.

Monday, 3 November 2008

OSS116 - Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

This French spoof resurrects a popular character from the novels of Jean Bruce who first appeared in films in 1956, played by Ivan Desny, and then in a series of popular films of the 60s, where the lead was taken by a succession of minor American actors. Now embodied in the form of Jean Dujardin, at first glance he appears to be the French James Bond, but as one astute commentator on IMDb remarks, he is actually a cross between Inspector Clouseau and 007. (The fact that he is only number 116 underlines his ineptness).

Sent to Cairo to unravel the mysterious death of another agent, whose front was a chicken factory -- cue some great chicken-abuse gags, he is a fish out of water in this exotic environment, totally out of touch with the local religion and mores. Even with his dishy Arab sidekick, Berenice Bejo, he is unable to understand that his behaviour offends. His duffing up a Muezzin, whose calling the faithful to prayer from a nearby minaret interrupted our hero's sleep, nearly ignites a revolution. Yet he is not completely hopeless -- he is great at escaping from bonds, is able to land an effective punch or two, and manages to solve the local mystery despite himself. But he is really just about as thick as two short planks! All in all, the film is great fun with its retro look and underlying humour. A sequel is apparently in the works, so that's something to anticipate.

Friday, 31 October 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)

This was our last selection from the London Film Festival and a rip-roaring treat it proved to be. If you can stretch your mind to imagine a Korean spaghetti Western a la Sergio Leone mixed with Indiana Jones derring-do and stunts, all set in the Manchurian desert during the 1930s, you will begin to get an idea of what this film was like.

Starring three of Korea's leading actors -- and despite the credits shown at IMDb it is not possible to make them equal the good, the bad and the weird of the title, since they all came across as each of these adjectives in the course of the action -- it is an unashamed romp. I recognized two of the three from "The Host" (Song Kang-Ho) and "Bittersweet Life " (Korea's Alain Delon I call Lee Byung-Hun); the third certainly looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. The plot encompassed a stolen map leading to hidden treasure sought by all three protagonists, hostile Japanese soldiers, untrustworthy Chinese, and would-be Korean nationalists. Beautifully photographed and with some unbelievable action sequences, the film is a hoot -- perhaps a wee bit talky in parts, but overall good fun.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Living Corpse (1928-29)

One of the best things about the London Film Festival is their "Treasures from the Archives" section where one has the opportunity to view both rarities and restored prints. This silent was the very first Soviet-German co-production, a prestige endeavour that received little exposure or popularity on release with the imminent attraction of "talkies". The two-hour print shown at the Festival was put together some 20 years ago in Berlin by the Deutsche Kinamathek from various film archives and the original score was found in the Library of Congress. It was little-known in the sixty years before its restoration and has probably been little-seen since, but I am positively delighted to have had the opportunity of viewing it.

Despite its title and the well-known fact that I have more than a passing interest in the horror genre, this was actually a domestic drama based on a Tolstoy play. The lead actor was Vsevolod Pudovkin, best known as one of the greatest Russian directors and film-writers, which in itself makes this movie a fascinating watch. He plays a man who wishes to dissolve his marriage for the noblest of reasons -- he believes his wife loves another and would be happier without him; he is forced into the subterfuge of faking his own death when neither the Church nor the Law offers any easy solutions. He is not prepared to fabricate make-believe adultery and he does not really wish to commit suicide. The story itself was actually something of a potboiler and greatly overextended, but the film itself was so beautifully shot, with dozens of Russian classic montage sequences and so many memorable faces, that it was a rare visual feast. It was also a pleasure hearing the original orchestral score (recorded, not live) rather than the usual tinkly piano accompaniment. This was definitely this year's Festival highlight.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

A couple from Korea...

My film festival festivities continue apace. On Thursday we had planned to watch some free open-air silent screenings celebrating London as imagined from the past. However after a droll short, "The Fugitive Futurist" from 1924, the heavens opened. Discretion proved the better part of valour and I therefore did not stay to see "High Treason" from 1929. Neither a cold bottom from sitting on stone steps in Trafalgar Square nor soggy clothing mix well with moviegoing appeal!

Hansel and Gretel (2007): It was back to a great cinema treat with this Korean fairy-cum-horror tale. A distracted young man wrecks his car and lies dazed until he is found by a strange girl. She takes him back to a handsome house deep in the woods where she lives with her older brother, younger sister, and superficially cheerful parents amidst a riot of colourful toys and succulent cakes. Not only do the telephones not work, but when our hero tries to find his way back to the main road, all paths lead back to the enchanted house. Then the parents disappear and other adults arrive to fill out the family or so it would seem. The movie plays with the power of wish fulfillment and the fractured dreams of childhood in strange, mysterious, and occasionally bloody ways. This is not a film where logic can be used, but if one gives oneself to the fantasy, it is both moving and surprising.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK (2006): As luck would have it, I found this film in my needs-to-be-watched backlog and decided to make it a thoroughly Korean day. It was director Park Chan-Wook's follow-up movie to his fantastic vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), but it could not be more different. Our heroine here, who comes from a long line of neurotic females, is committed to an institution after slashing her wrist and connecting herself to the electric supply in the factory where she works. She is convinced she is a cyborg and her only source of nourishment is licking battery acid, while a roly-poly fellow inmate wolfs down her meals. She is surrounded by other colourful "loonies" (I use this word advisedly since this seems to be what the director intended), one of whom befriends her and finds a way for her to take in nourishment. The one thing this movie does share with the previous three films is that she yearns for her new friend (a consummate thief) to steal her sympathy so that she can gun down all of the "men in white" -- a recurring fantasy throughout the picture. The movie is wildly imaginative and colourfully rendered; however I did feel that Park was trying just that little bit too hard to give us this fey story.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Film Festival update

I seem to be running out of time to get my London Film Festival screenings into some semblance of coherence. Note to self: Viewing movies after 9 p.m. and after a drink or two and a half bottle of wine is not a good idea!

The Warlords (2007): This joint China-Hong Kong production set during the late 19th Century Taiping Rebellion in China features three charistmatic leads in Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as "blood brothers" who rise through the ranks to leadership glory. However Li fans should not come expecting martial arts mayhem since this is a prestige production, filled with busy battlescenes and somewhat sombre acting. Like so many films striving for historical accuracy, this one is far too long, goes somewhat soggy in the middle, and spends too much time on the red herring of Li lusting after Lau's mistress. Still it has sufficient "wow" moments and enough bravura turns to make it on balance a winner on screen.

Louise-Michel (2008): The less said about this film the better. I love absurdist humour and off-beat Belgian movies as much as the next guy, but this one fell flat on its surrealist face. Had I realised that it was by the same team as "Aaltra" (a somewhat missable movie about two crippled farmers who hate each other but who end up on a wheelchair roadtrip!), I probably would have thought twice about watching a movie featuring a woman (who might have been a man) hiring an assassin (a man who might be a woman) to kill the factory boss who put her and her co-workers out of employment. Still there were noticable hoots emanating from some audience members which either proves that I have suffered a humour-bypass or that there really are different strokes for different folks.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008): I was a little afraid that the latest movie from one of my cinematic heroes, Takeshi Kitano, might be another self-indulgent effort after his previous two: "Takeshis" and "Glory to the Filmmaker", but although it forms the third part of a very loose trilogy, it had much to commend it. Takeshi, who is a keen and very able artist himself, here gives his satirical take on what it is to be an artist and how the art world can be a very phony place. Divided into three parts, the story follows the son of a rich industrialist and art patron who is encouraged by his Dad to become a great artist at the expense of both schooling and social behaviour. When Dad goes bankrupt and hangs himself and his mother dumps him with uncaring relations, the boy's obsession is given little room to grow. The next section visits him as a young man still determined to be an artist as he attends an art school which can teach him nothing and as he experiments with finding his style with his bohemian friends. However outlandish experimentation just makes his art more derivative and his every desperate effort is refused by his favoured gallery. Takeshi himself takes over the role of the still unsuccessful and unfulfilled middle-aged man who becomes more and more desperate and more and more misled to achieve artistic greatness. The fact that all of the many paintings featured in this movie -- both the "great" ones supposedly by other artists and the awful, duff ones -- are by the director himself is proof of his amazing skill. Again the film is possibly a little too long and not completely of a piece, but Takeshi's humourous observation kept me contentedly watching.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Dean Spanley (2008)

The one thing that is guaranteed to annoy us time and again -- and to some extent undermining the pleasure of the film about to be viewed -- is the incredibly awful time-keeping at the London Film Festival. If a film is scheduled for say 6 p.m., it is reasonable to expect it to start within a few minutes of that time and to not have to wait until the many latecomers are seated. This showing was particularly delayed, not only for the aforementioned reason, but also because the Festival director had a huge posse of special guests to wheel up on the stage and for some of them to speak a few unnecessary words. There were so many on this occasion that half of them were left standing on the side aisle while others including the very frail Peter O'Toole were placed on display (to rapturous applause) but not asked to say anything; he looked as bemused as I felt.

Eventually we were permitted to watch the movie! It is an extremely odd and extremely lightweight confection which might have been dismissable were it not for the sparkling turns from O'Toole and Sam Neill. Set in Edwardian England, O'Toole is an old duffer living in a huge house with only his housekeeper for company after the deaths of his younger son and wife. Dutiful elder son Jeremy Northam visits once a week, but finds it heavy-going and on one fateful Thursday -- for want of anything better to do -- he takes his father to a very boring lecture on the transmigration of souls. There he first sees Neill's eponymous clerical gent whom he subsequently encounters with some frequency. Fascinated by his strange demeanour and his apparent love for tokay, he invites him to dinner. In his cups -- after a few glasses of the syrupy brew -- Neill tends to regress to what he believes to be a previous existence as a faithful dog. As luck would have it, O'Toole often goes on about a wonderful dog that he lost in his youth (one of the "seven great dogs" in the world), and when these two characters are finally brought together, O'Toole becomes able to locate the heart which he has refused to acknowledge all these years.

Strange? Very! The layered acting from these two leads are what make the film memorable. Northam and Bryan Brown as a colonial enabler (he is the one who manages to keep finding the increasingly expensive bottles of tokay) are OK, but not irreplaceable. The same could not be said of the exquisite turns from O'Toole and Neill.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

In-Flight Movies once more

This will almost certainly be the last in-flight report of the year -- thank goodness! All of the following are 2008 releases which I more or less watched under the suitability of the smallest of screens and the variability of the sound quality -- to say nothing of altered viewing ratios. But at least I know which of them might bear watching again under improved conditions.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: This is not a film that is likely to break any box office records, or even to have mass appeal, but it is a charming and unusual examination of an aging spinster's embracing life. Set in late 30s' London, Frances McDormand plays a poor but well-brought up vicar's daughter who is unable to hold any of the nanny jobs in which her agency has placed her and faces jobless penury. She "steals" the address of a potential employer and rather than finding a difficult child to look after, she finds a naked lover in the bed of aspiring American actress-singer Amy Adams. Proving herself invaluable to the flaky Adams, she is semi-glammed up by her new friend and may even find a love she has never known in the arms of Ciaran Hinds. Both actresses are terrific, the period setting and music are top-rate, and the feel-good factor is uplifting.

The Incredible Hulk: This is not to be confused with Ang Lee's box office flop "The Hulk" from 2003, but for my money it is not much of an improvement, not even with the surprising casting of Edward Norton in the lead. This time he must cope not only with the military who wish to exploit him as a weapon, but also with mad adversary Tim Roth who has exposed himself to the same formula. Cue a lot of over the top CGI fights between the two giants -- one of whom is meant to be truly evil. Yawn. You can tell that the Marvel folk really hope to extend this franchise and there is even a cameo for Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man at the end, but I for one am hulked out.

Hancock: This Will Smith starrer as a drunken and anti-social superhero starts off as great fun, but by the second half has degenerated into an unholy and unbelievable mess. Unsuccessful PR guru Jason Bateman wants to polish up Smith's image after he is saved from death by the destructive Smith, who manages to rack up expensive mayhem each time he uses his powers. Smith is prepared to give it a go, even accepting a jail sentence, until he lays eyes on Bateman's luscious wife, Charlize Theron. It seems that he is not really one of a kind since she has fantastic powers too and from that point things just get sillier and sillier.

The Ruins: I've read this sub-Stephen King horror novel and could see where someone might think it would make a good and gory movie. Well they've simplified the plot, cast a bunch of minor actors (the one exception is the very able Jena Malone), and were too chicken to give the film the same very bleak ending as the book. The plot concerns some college-grad holidaymakers in Mexico who visit a Mayan ruin with a new German friend only to be stranded at the top, prevented from coming down by hostile natives, and at the mercy of flesh- eating plants. The high point of thisso-called horror is watching one of the actor's legs being amputated. Horrible yes, horror not really.

The Wackness: This was apparently a big hit with the audience at Sundance earlier this year and is certainly a quirky tale. Recent high school grad Josh Peck earns his money for college by pushing an ancient ice cream wagon around the city as a cover for the drugs he sells. One of his best customers (and his confidant) is a shrink played by Ben Kingsley, who is in a strained relationship with his new wife and whose stepdaughter is the object of Peck's lust. As stories of adolescents "growing up" go, this is a watchable one and the main actors are fine, although I must confess that I found Kingsley rather annoying. However, like life there are no guaranteed happy endings here.

It's London Film Festival time and I saw the first of my selection last night. More to come here in due course...

Friday, 10 October 2008

Devil Doll (1964)

This film forms part of a very small sub-genre of movies about possessed ventriloquists' dummies which includes the classic "Dead of Night" from 1945 and Tony Hopkins' "Magic" (1978); it is not to be confused with the Lionel Barrymore starrer of the same name from 1936 which is scary in its own right but which has nothing to do with ventriloquism.

I must confess to a soft spot for this low-budget British flick despite its relatively low production values and its pretty awful cast, which consists of two American actors Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli and William Sylvester as a visiting journalist, the rather wooden Yvonne Romaine as his wealthy British girlfriend, and Sandra Dorne, an ex sex-bomb from the 50s and now well past her peak as Vorelli's assistant. The real star of the film is Vorelli's dummy Hugo, who not only can talk on his own but who can also walk on his own! He's a pretty threatening wooden doll who's kept caged up at night, and the obvious hatred between him and his "master" is palpable. It seems he's powered by the captured soul of a former assistant and Vorelli fancies Romaine with her money as the next inhabitant of a wooden body.

I hadn't seen this movie for some years when I found it was available on DVD together with a "hot" (and I am quoting the case) Continental version of the same film. With my curiosity piqued I had to see the differences which consist of Vorelli hypnotising a staid music student into doing a "sexy" striptease before his audience (ending with a topless shot), a few brief shots of Dorne's breasts before she is murdered, and a scene set in Berlin where Sylvester's colleague's girlfriend appears topless rather than in a negligee. I was aware that movies were often shot in different cuts for different markets back then, but frankly these very tame scenes from our modern perspective add absolutely nothing to the film, and if anything detract from the spooky subject matter and the logic of Dorne's death.

The movie has something of a cult following and one or two real frissons of fear, but they are lost to some extent in the rather plodding action.

Guess what? Yes, I'm off to New York again for hopefully the last time this year. I should be back in time for the London Film Festival, so more reviews then -- plus of course my latest scintillating selection of in-flight movies.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

The director John Ford is one of my cinema gods and at some point during most of his films I find myself moved to tears. However amongst his large output there were some definite duds. In particular "Mogambo", despite its starry cast, has always struck me as but a pale shadow of the original "Red Dust" and the English-set "Gideon's Day" has very little to offer. The above movie is possibly another of his lesser films, but by its casting alone, it deserves out attention. Ford himself is said to have stated that he considered this shoot just a job of work, but it is still -- despite the outlandish story -- a well-mounted and generally involving tale.

Army officer C. Aubrey Smith (the foremost figure of English authority from the 30s) cables his four sons that he has been court-martialed and dishonoured; it seems that he was getting in the way of a ruthless international arms syndicate. The sons played by George Sanders, David Niven, Richard Greene (nominally the lead), and the little-known William Henry set out to prove his innocence after he is found murdered (a crime that was meant to be taken as suicide). They travel to India and South America to track down the names their father has mentioned before his sudden demise. This is where the film is graced with its galaxy of wonderful character actors: Alan Hale, John Carradine, Reginald Denny, J. Edward Bromberg, Barry Fitzgerald,, who all play their part in solving the mystery and restoring the family name.

The weakest link is love interest Loretta Young who is involved with Greene, but who is happy indeed to flirt with the other brothers. This normally charming actress is just a flighty spoiled rich girl here, unexpectedly turning up in various parts of the world in a succession of designer outfits, and relatively flippant even after witnessing a local massacre.

So, yes, it's minor Ford and well down the list of his "must-see" movies, but from my point of view, even minor Ford beats out much of the competition.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Getting started

Just to get into the swing of things, here are a few random thoughts about some of the movies I've viewed in the last week -- and all I can say is that I hope things will look up:

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007): One of the last entries on my former journal reinforced my feelings about Adam Sandler and his puzzling popularity. OK, the man does take chances and can raise the occasional smile, but this farrago of two hetero chaps pretending to be married for insurance benefits was doomed from the start. Like his latest "Zohan", this ends in a plea for tolerance which is all very worthy, but funny (not).

Black Snake Moan (2006): While it has been an interesting exercise watching Christina Ricci grow up (and change shape!), her recent role choices leave much to be desired -- although I suspect she is not the easiest actress in the world to cast. Here she plays a nymphomaniac of sorts whom bible-thumper Samuel L. Jackson chains to his radiator in order to reform. Hmmm.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007): Not having been overly enthused by Cate Blanchett's first outing as Queen Elizabeth, I was hardly looking forward to more of the same in this second chapter. Admittedly the production is sumptuous and lovingly put together, but it was also ponderous and heavy going.

Close to Home (2005): I held out some hope for this Israeli film of two mismatched young female recruits in the army serving out their conscription, but was left wondering whether the movie had any real purpose, other than to drive home the authoritarian nature of army life and the hounding (or so it seemed) of Arab Israelis trying to go about their daily business.

Mr. Woodcock (2007): While I will admit that Billy Bob Thornton has some talent as both an actor and a writer, I find his onscreen persona more and more irritating. Here he plays a bullying physical education teacher who is about to wed the mother (Susan Sarandon) of a grownup victim of his venom, Sean William Scott, playing a now successful self-help author who is unable to help himself in the circumstances. Embarrassing and unpleasant all round.

I know, things can only get better...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Moving along

Now that AOL (bless their little cotton socks) have announced the demise of three and a half years' of heartfelt blogging, it's time to move my journal.

Since I am still shooting across the Atlantic like a demented bat out of hell, it will take a while to settle in, but I promise to continue with my capsule reactions to my recent film viewing which will of course reflect my very eclectic taste.

Watch this space...