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.