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!