Friday, 11 December 2009

An American Tragedy (1931)

And another one bites the dust! Yes, I've managed to track down another of my 'must see' movies and, sorry to say, it was another disappointment. In fact the background story to this film's genesis is rather more interesting than the movie itself.

Theodore Dreiser's weighty novel, based on an actual 1906 murder and trial, was long considered 'the great American novel' (trademark) and is still thought of as one of the landmarks in American fiction. The acclaimed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was invited by the studio (Paramount) to transfer this sacred cow to the screen, but his treatment was firmly rejected as incomprehensible, heavy as it was on political and sociological argument. So Paramount turned to Josef von Sternberg who had produced some popular hits for them and it is his version that we now have. Dreiser was so enraged by all of this that he attempted to prevent the studio from releasing the film -- and lost his case!

So what is wrong with the movie? Well nearly everything! It is competently filmed with a heavy emphasis on water symbolism which features meaningfully in the plot, but it is appallingly and stiltedly acted. I have seen sufficient early 30s movies to know that this is not the result of early sound techniques, since there are plenty of wonderful movies from this period, including those that von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. The handsome but weak-willed lead is played by Phillips Holmes who preens and wimpers on the long road to self-knowledge. He never graduated from B movies before his early death in 1942. Sylvia Sidney in an early role is relatively appealing as the poor farm girl who stands between him and social status, but her playing is not as layered as it might be. Frances Dee as the society girl who captures his fickle affections is attractive, but any actress could have taken the part. As for the final courtroom scenes, I have seldom seen such over-the-top barnstorming by a group of actors. It all felt like a performance by some third-rate provincial theatrical troupe.

Of course the story was remade in 1951 as "A Place in the Sun" which is a definite example of the remake being better thought of than the original. This is down to its charismatic casting of Montgomery Cliff, Shelley Winters, and a beefed-up role for Elizabeth Taylor as the rich girl. It's the more watchable movie, even if its basic elements are simplified and romanticized. I think Dreiser would have hated that version as well.

* * * * * * * *

Hi there folks. I have had something of an accident which prevents my typing easily, so there will be an unavoidable hiatus until these old bones get themselves together again. Hoping to be back soon to avert a second American Tragedy.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Last Week's Miscellany

It's been a while since I posted a multiple review -- well, not that long actually come to think about it. Apart from festival summaries, I tend to do this when there is not much amongst my recent viewings which I really want to discuss at length. This is a selection of what I've been up to over the last seven days, bunched into suitable categories:

Disappointments: I actually managed to delete three items from my famous list of movies that I have never seen and really want to view, but unfortunately none of them lived up to their hype. "Song at Midnight" (1937) is one of the few films still extant from the legendary Chinese director Ma-Xu Weibang (who directed some 500 or so), but apart from some interesting camera work, this Chinese version of 'The Phantom of the Opera' was a plodding affair. "Ascent to Heaven" (1951) is one of Luis Bunuel's lesser efforts during his long Mexican sojourn; the slight story has occasional touches of the director's surreal style to come, but it stops too abruptly, as if the producers had run out of dosh. Finally I managed to trace a copy of "Forbidden Zone" (1980/82) a cult item from composer Danny Elfman's brother which is a series of surreal musical sketches performed by a large weird cast including the two brothers and their Oingo Boingo Band, all of whom seemed to be performing under the influence.

Visiting the past: Every week in this cinematic household there are some re-visits to previously viewed movies. It's been quite a while since I last saw "Seventh Heaven" (1927), director Frank Borzage's classic silent romance, and I wish I could report that this Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell pairing remains as charming as my recollection of it. My memory is also to blame for the re-viewing of "Silent Hill" (2006) since I could remember almost nothing of this movie based on a video game, most of which involves Radha Mitchell running around in the dark; a good ending however. Still holding its appeal is "Dreamboat" (1952) with college professor Clifton Webb's past as a silent movie swashbuckler coming back to haunt him; the patische movies remain amusing and Webb is always more than watchable.

Worthy but heavy-going: Too many films that I watch seem to fall into this category, but I guess that is preferable to juvenile gross-outs which account for much of the current offerings. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" (2008) is a German film dealing with the left-wing terrorist group of the title, whose protests only proved to underline the fact that all fanatics have a very blinkered view of right and wrong. "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" (2005) was written and directed by Rebecca Miller and stars her husband, Daniel Day Lewis, as the last holdout of a hippy commune, still fighting progress; the best turn is from Camilla Belle as his teenaged daughter, but it was hard to like the remainder of the relatively starry cast. "Tokyo Sonata" (2008) is a Japanese movie about a salaryman who loses his job but who can't bring himself to tell his dysfunctional family; while it is reasonably well done with interesting characters, one has seen the basic premise too many times previously for it to totally satisfy.

That's not everything that has fluttered across my eyeballs last week. I can tell you the very worst of the lot: another miserable offering from the Sci-Fi Channel entitled "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" (2009) which was only redeeemed by one shot of a low-flying passenger plane being devoured in a mouthful by the said shark. Where do they manufacture this rubbish? The best by far was a first viewing of "True Heart Susie" (1919), a sentimental D.W. Griffiths' offering starring the enchanting young Lillian Gish. It portrays a rural world which was fast-disappearing even then, as Gish sacrifices all for her childhood sweetheart, who rewards her devotion by marrying a jazz-age floozy, before the necessary eventual happy ending.

Bring on the next week! And the clowns...

Friday, 4 December 2009

Anna M. (2007)

To my amazement, this is the third time this year that I find myself writing about the French actress Isabelle Carre whom I honestly had never heard of previously, probably because she confines her efforts to her quite extensive filmography of French-language movies rather than seeking international exposure. To put it mildly, I am impressed by her talent -- she is one hell of an actress!

This movie adds another string to her bow of characterizations as she believably becomes a mentally-deranged young woman. The film's title suggests a classic study, something out of Freud's casebook. She plays a book restorer who lives with her mother and absolutely no background is given for her sudden suicide attempt, throwing herself in front of a car on a busy highway. But she survives, and as her damaged leg is tended by surgeon Gilbert Melki (one of the recurring characters in Lucas Belvaux's 2003 Trilogy which my friend Michael has recently reviewed), she develops an obsessive crush on the married doctor, convincing herself that he is also madly in love with her. Her behaviour spirals out of control as she imagines receiving coded messages from him to meet him at a rendezvous hotel, moves in as a menacing nanny in the flat above his, contemplates pushing his wife into an oncoming metro train, tricks her way into and damages their flat, and generally morphs into a nightmare stalker.

This is one scary scenario. The film it most reminded me of was Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) where Catherine Deneuve goes bonkers in London. Anna may not yet be a murderess, but her slide into obsession and madness is frightening. Even a stay in an asylum where she manages to convince the doctors that she is now a responsible, rational being does not alter her behaviour on her release. The strange coda which shows her some years later out in the countryside with the child she has conceived at the lovenest hotel (not with Melki let it be said) and in the company of a faithful female friend -- a loyalty never explained -- suggest that she is far from cured as the doctor and his wife walk into view. But being a French film, of course things stop there!

I didn't really like the movie, but it was compulsively watchable, anchored by another great performance from Carre.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Women (2008)

I admit that I am prejudiced and that I will always prefer a classic film, especially from the landmark year of 1939, to a modern remake or "update". Unfortunately my normal net reaction to these is: 'Why did they bother'? I think it is safe to write that this feeling surfaces in spades for the above movie. The strange thing is that there has been talk for years of re-making the story, with a shifting roster of potential actresses, especially since it offers the prospect of juicy roles for actresses who might be considered slightly over the hill.

The final rendering here focuses on a group of four best friends (unlikely since they span a 13-year age gap) with the two main leads going to Meg Ryan playing a cheated-upon society wife and Annette Bening playing a childless and frantic-to-keep-her-job glossy magazine editor. The other two roles are taken by Debra Messing -- the most amusing of the bunch -- playing a serial baby machine in the hope of producing a son to add to her collection of daughters and Jada Pinkett Smith playing (for some unknown reason) a lesbian. Certainly neither Ryan nor Bening are shown to their best advantage, but at least none of the culprits are among the movie's producers. While they may be getting more desperate for roles, at least one can not accuse them of starring in a vanity piece, which is just as well considering the critical reception to the film.

The gimmick here as in the original stage play and the 1939 movie is that all of the roles are taken by women with nary a man in sight, even where you might expect to find them like on the street or as waiters. Men are reduced to unheard voices at the end of a telephone line, but ironically they still seem to be the ones who wield the economic power. Where the original film had something like 130 speaking parts for women, this movie focuses too heavily on the above four with the only other major (but thankless) role for Eva Mendes as the perfume salesgirl turned homewrecker -- and she is no match for the icy Joan Crawford from the original film. There are brief words of wisdom from Bette Midler and Candice Bergman as the 'older' generation, a neat turn from Cloris Leachman as Ryan's housekeeper, and a brief cameo from Carrie Fisher. The reworking has kept the action too firmly based in the New York City area, whereas the original moved out to Reno, and we soon tire of the needy leads. Even a fashion show, included in the original as indicative of the women's life style, is here turned into a vehicle for Ryan's empowerment. And the bit after the end credits -- if people hang around that long -- is embarrassing as the four leads philosophise on the joys of womanhood.

The film is not without a few pleasures. Messing's birth scene at the movie's end is fairly amusing and the script has a number of very sharp lines, although these are undone by the focus on the preening leads. Unfortunately the original closing bon mot about certain women being best described by a term normally only used in dog kennels is thrown away here in the opening minutes.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Life is forever full of pleasant surprises. This Japanese flim has been languishing on my hard disc for a few weeks now, begging to be viewed. Knowing nothing about it (for once I hadn't done my research), I was put off by its downbeat description as a film chronicling a woman's tragic life. What I was more than pleased to discover is that the tragic tale in question was told as a brightly-coloured fairy-tale, a flamboyant fantasia, full of invention, infectious music, and even uplifting pathos.

Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima who was also responsible for the very jolly "Kamikaze Girls" (2004), it stars Miki Nakatani as one of life's natural victims from her childhood, through her years as a naive teacher, and later, as her circumstances spiral downward, as the mistress of two would-be poets, a whore, a prisoner inside for murder, a yakuza moll, and finally a mentally disturbed baglady. The actress inhabits the role from the character's early twenties until her murder at age 53, taking on the necessary makeup, costume, hairstyles, and demeanour to show the passage of time and the changes in her life. Her history is gradually revealed by a young nephew, who never knowingly knew her, when his father reveals that he had an older sister who was disowned by the family and instructs his son to clear the mess in the filthy tenement where she ended her days. Bit by bit a picture emerges of a woman who was everybody's punching bag but who optimistically kept looking for love and companionship.

As a young girl she tried hard to capture her father's affections which appeared to be reserved for her bedridden, younger sister. Since he seemed so depressed, she took it upon herself to make a certain funny face which always made him smile, and that grimace became her first defense when faced with any pending disaster. Her initial downfall occurs during a school trip when she tries to protect one of her teenaged students who has stolen some money, but she ends up both sexually abused by a fellow-teacher and shamefully fired. It's all downhill from there, 'though she views the world through rose-coloured glasses, as the director skillfully reveals through the amazing set decoration. Even when the student comes back into her life much later professing love, she eagerly embraces him, despite his having been the initial cause of her degradation.

While this may seem both melodramatic and depressing, it is really nothing of the sort; the stylish verve with which her story unravels in a series of flashbacks leaves one feeling hopeful. Even after her death there is an imaginative coda which is guaranteed to bring tears to the most cynical viewer. This is definitely a film which deserves to be better known and which almost certainly will find its place as a cult favourite.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The White Ribbon (2009)

A few weeks ago The Times published a list of the 100 best films since 2000 -- without any criteria let it be said as to how their film writers reached their final selection (which contained some rather dubious choices from my point of view.) Very surprisingly number one on the list was director Michael Haneke's "Hidden" (Cache) from 2005. Now, I know a lot of people think highly of that movie but I found it very unsatisfying in a number of ways, especially in its lack of resolution.

The above film won the Palme d'or at this year's Cannes Festival and I think this win was well deserved. This film is a far more accomplished one than "Hidden", but I should add that it is a very, very nasty one that leaves a definite aftertaste of disgust. It is set in a small, secluded German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I and is narrated, apparently many years later, by the young schoolmaster of the village -- just one of a number of local characters to whom we are introduced: the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the Baron and Baroness, their Steward, a local farmer, and their many children. The film's German title is subtitled 'A German Children's Story' and the blank-faced youngsters here immediately bring to mind the scary kids from "The Village of the Damned".

A series of unexplained and cruel events take place starting with a tripwire knocking the doctor from his horse and running through a Down's syndrome child being physically abused. There is a strong suggestion that the local children are inherently malicious and responsible for the various outrages, this being a template for the Nazis they will become in later years, but there is much more to Haneke's thesis. There is cunning and evil in the hearts of most of the characters. The doctor who has been having an affair with the midwife casts her away in the ugliest of fashions and is almost certainly sexually abusing his teenaged daughter. The pastor who maintains a holier-than-thou demeanour is a sadistic tyrant with his own family. The son of the farmer blames the baron for his mother's accidental death, destroying a cabbage patch, and his father is almost certainly responsible for a barn-burning before hanging himself. The director seems to be saying that the potential for wrong-doing exists in all of us -- a very black view of the human condition.

What makes this film memorable is the black and white lovingly photgraphed local setting, whose bucolic beauty contrasts strikingly with the evils of the story. One comes away hating the director's strong and negative moral message, while still admiring the skill with which it is told.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)

I'm not sure why I keep approaching films from French director Claude Chabrol with great anticipation, since while they continue to be well-mounted and well-acted, his psychological thrillers are no longer exactly thrilling. "Bellamy" which I reviewed below at the recent London Film Festival is a case in point, and this one from two years earlier was equally unrewarding. One sits there wondering where in the world the story is headed and even after it reaches its peak, one thinks 'was that really worth the journey?'

Our heroine here is Ludivine Sagnier, one of the less good-looking in a long line of stunning French ingenues -- although she has been glammed up here -- playing a rather naive, yet charming, TV weather girl, Gabrielle. It is something of a stretch to understand why she seems to be so irresistible to all of the men she encounters, from her station manager to aging local celebrity author (Francois Berleand) to a somewhat unstable young playboy (Benoit Magimel) who falls head over heels at his first glimpse of her. Both Magimel's Paul and Berleand's Saint-Denis pursue her ruthlessly, but she only has eyes for the married author and is soon a frequent visitor to his little lovenest for regular sex sessions. On her birthday, as a special treat, he takes her to his club where his old lascivious cronies foam at the mouth at her attractiveness. He then takes her upstairs; while nothing is shown, there is the suggestion, later confirmed, that he has invited them to share a piece of the birthday cake so to speak.

The next day he tells her that he is going to London for a few days, having told his saintly wife that he is likely to be away for some time, and when Gabrielle goes to his flat, she finds the locks have been changed. She takes to bed at this rejection and only her mother's intervention, asking the persistent Paul to take her away, eventually brings her back to life. They go to Portugal where he showers her with gifts and affection, which she receives greedily but for which she gives nothing in return. When he threatens to leave, saying he has had enough of her pining, she offers to marry him per his frequent pleas. It is quite clear that she does not love him but that she can't stand the thought of being alone. In addition, there has been the implication throughout that Paul probably is AC/DC, swinging both ways. After their marriage, he is apparently horrified at some of the sexual practices that she has undoubtedly learned from St. Denis and she rather stupidly has also told him about the club visit. This leads to a final showdown between her two lovers and effectively the end of both relationships.

There is a juicy (that's the relevant word) role for Matilda May playing St. Denis' agent and sexual conspirator, still hugely attractive now in her forties, and the balance of the cast are also very able, especially the actress playing Paul's icy socialite mother. However, what annoyed me most were all of the unanswered questions which may have served to produce a more well-rounded scenario, but which were frustratingly left unexplained. Why, for example, did Paul have such a deep-seated hatred of St. Denis? Why did one of Paul's two younger and uptight sisters appear to have such a roving eye for anything in pants? And what real relevance did Paul's mother's telling Gabrielle of a tragic incident from his childhood have in explaining his somewhat warped behaviour?

The film ends with Gabrielle's taking part in her uncle's magic act, where she lies on a table smiling, ready to produce the illusion that she is being sawn in two. I would guess that Chabrol saw this as a nifty illustration of her emotional history with Paul and St. Denis, but it was a somewhat trite and obvious metaphor for what had transpired during the previous two hours.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009)

We thought about going to see this oddity at the London Film Festival, but since we knew that there would be an extended series of showings at both the National Film Theatre and the ICA this month, we decided to wait for a less hectic time. Having now viewed it, I think I could have easily waited forever.

OK, that's being more than a little unfair, but it is the sort of viewing experience that is probably meant to be of intense interest to a dyed-in-the-wool film buff, but which is actually a little on the tedioso side. Back in 1964 Clouzot, the director responsible for such classics as "Wages of Fear" and "Les Diabolique" wrote a script about jealousy and obsession -- L'Enfer. He contracted stars de jour Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani for the leads and, blessed with an 'unlimited' budget from Columbia, he set about creating what he hoped to be his finest work. It would seem that there was a touch of the Kubricks about his perfectionism, shooting and reshooting many of the scenes. The net result is that Reggiani walked off the set never to return, and before Clouzot could draft in a new leading man, he succumbed to a heart attack.

An unlikely hero, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, who has single-handedly been responsible for preserving thousands of endangered films, found that Clouzot's widow was sitting on some 185 cans of film, roughly 15 hours worth, and permission was given for him to create this documentary on the masterpiece that might have been, as "The Epic that Never Was" did for 'I Claudius'. Unfortunately the sound track is gone and he could only work with the silent footage with its loving closeups of Schneider and several scenes with modern actors reading lines from the shooting script. For all of the director's experimentation with distorted images inspired by op art and colour inversion for psychedelic images of his heroine, these self-indulgent distractions did not help the film to remotely near completion. It was not until 1994 that a version of "L'Enfer" made from Clouzot's original script and starring the delectable Emmanuelle Beart reached the screen.

However, it would seem to me that with 185 cans of raw material available, someone, some day might actually piece together a reasonable facsimile of the director's original vision -- and that might just be rather more interesting viewing.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

This is Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar's 17th film and the fourth to feature his latest muse Penelope Cruz, an actress who is always better in her Spanish-speaking roles, despite her recent Oscar win for the Woody Allen film. Almodovar claims that she is the only woman who might just tempt him away from his own sexual predilections. I must concur that she is indeed a lust-object in this movie with a gorgeous body and some not-so-discreet nudity. However, I personally find her looks rather weird, especially when she is made up to evoke Audrey Hepburn, as she is here.

None of this is really relevant to reviewing the film which has not yet opened Stateside, despite the director's growing popularity there. In his canon of very individualistic movies, I would not put this in the top drawer, although he brings to the table his usual combination of vibrant colours, strong roles for women, and full-blown melodrama. The major difference here is that the main role belongs to a full-blooded male, actor Lluis Homar, playing a previously famous movie director named Mateo Blanco, who has lost his sight in a car accident and who now only responds to the name of Harry Caine, his screenwriting nom de plume. Moving between the present and the early 90s, we follow both his story and that of Ms. Cruz. She plays a failed actress, part-time call girl, and secretary to a wealthy magnate, Martel, becoming his mistress after he provides medical treatment for her dying father. They live a life of opulence, with he more enamoured of her charms than she is of his. She yearns to give acting another go and auditions for Homar who immediately succumbs to her beauty and offers her the lead role in his next production 'Girls and Suitcases'. Martel takes on the producer's role and keeps his own spies on the set, together with his awkward gay young son who is technically shooting a documentary on the making of the film.

Cruz and Homar can not resist each other and are soon involved in a passionate affair, which is reported back to Martel by his straight-faced, lip-reading private detective, together with verbatim reports of Cruz' aversion to Martel's love-making. However when Cruz threatens to leave him, he pushes her down the stairs, and the script must now be adapted for a lead actress with her leg in a cast. She agrees to stay with Martel until the film is finished in exchange for his not pulling the finance. However when she and her lover take off together for a break on a volcanic island in the Canaries, Martel gets the film re-edited with the worst takes and premieres it to disastrous reviews.

Back in the present with the blind Homar (Cruz is long since dead) still in demand as a screenwriter, the news of Martel's death triggers a series of revelations from his longstanding female agent, her 18-year old son, and the grownup son of the dead magnate, including the true history of the film's failure. Given the opportunity to re-cut the movie and put it back together in his own director's cut, Caine becomes Blanco once more. One can take this as Almodovar's saying that a film must express the director's personal vision and that only this gives his life meaning. The film abounds with references to other movies including Almodovar's own and it is fun to recognise these. This film is in the end a movie about movies and their creation. However, the pace here is far too leisurely and self-indulgent to provide Almodovar's regular themes of love, sex, and death with the clear focus that they deserve.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Four Minutes/Vier Minuten (2006)

It was a toss-up whether to write about the above German film or Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (2008) which I have finally seen. Like all of Eastwood's films of the last decade or so, this film is impeccably staged, shot, and scored, and Angelina Jolie -- the only star name in the cast apart from John Malkovich -- gives an intense performance. Based on a true case of a missing child in 1920's California, a police cover-up, the distraught mother's sectioning in an insane asylum, and her subsequent vindication, the story can best be described as harrowing.

While the above film was also harrowing and in many ways equally depressing, it was on balance both uplifting and finally moving. Made by a director unknown to me (Chris Kraus) and starring two actresses equally unknown to me (Monica Bleibtreu and Hannah Herzprung), this film proved the more complete experience. While one could admire the fortitude of Jolie's character and Eastwood's directorial skills, their movie left me shattered but unmoved. The success of Kraus' film is that he is able to create a believable connection between Bleibtraub's elderly piano teacher, Frau Krueger, and Herzsprung's punk prisoner, Jenny, and for the viewer to accept the frosty interaction between these two very damaged women. Krueger still suffers from her distant past when her lesbian lover was murdered by the Nazis and tries to find some release by giving music lessons at a female penitentiary. There she notices Jenny who was once a child prodigy, but who suffered abuse from her father as a teenager, and who is inside for murder. Her greatest wish is to tame the youngster and to enter her in a forthcoming piano competition for the under-21s. But Jenny is damaged both by her past and by her violent surroundings, and prefers what Krueger calls "Negro" music to her teacher's choice of Schumann. What follows is a war of wills with neither side prepared to flex or to accept and understand the needs of the other.

When the prison authorities decide that troublemaker Jenny is not worth their bother and seek to prevent her taking part in the competition, Frau Krueger manages to break her out of prison, building up to the four minutes of the title, the four minutes that Jenny is given to show her talents to a highbrow audience. How she does this and how there is a final acceptance and reconciliation between the two women is the film's high point. Both actresses are mesmerising in their portrayal of traditional values vs. modern rebellion; while both of them play flawed characters, we hope that they will somehow find a common redemption.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Having writtten about "Company of Wolves" recently, I thought it might be about time to revisit director Neil Jordan's later flirtation with the horror genre, although this was a flick that left me strangely vacant after my first and only previous viewing. Not that this movie is a horror film in any real sense of the word; its history of a vampire's long and endless life is really more the story of the ennui of immortality, rather than its bloody trappings.

With a screenplay by Anne Rice and adapted from her own novel which finally reached the screen after years of abortive attempts, the author was originally violently opposed to the casting of Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Lestat. She later ate humble pie and praised his casting. I am less convinced that a Cruise with long blonde hair is completely successful as the cruel and decadent vampire of the book. He tries hard to overcome his normal screen persona but never seems quite at home in the role. Possibly because I have never been a fan, I welcomed his character's being "killed off" at about the halfway mark. However, no such luck, and he reappears subsequently, most annoyingly at the hastily tacked on and disappointing end to the film.

More successful, I think, was Brad Pitt as Louis in a relatively early role, where his pretty-boy looks marry well with those of a pale and world-weary vampire. Much has been made of the homoerotic relationship of the two male leads, but this is overstated and only their feeding has any erotic resonance. More interesting are the differences between them as Lestat's rampant and amoral bloodlust is contrasted with Louis' shreds of humanity and reluctant acceptance of his fate. When he does use his power to create a new companion in his endless eternity, he chooses a young girl, played remarkably maturely by the then 12-year old Kirsten Dunst. She becomes a 'daughter' to the two reluctant companions but begins to rue her fate more and more as she realises that she is becoming a woman forever trapped in the body of a child.

With Cruise temporarily out of the picture, Pitt and Dunst travel the world looking unsuccessfully for more of their kind and for answers to the questions of their existence. They find no kindred spirits until they discover a nest of vampires in Paris, led by a charismatic Antonio Banderas and his mischievous sidekick (Jordan regular Stephen Rea). The setting of their catacombs is one of the more memorable examples of set decoration in cinema, but it becomes the stage for Dunst's destruction and Pitt's wild fury.

The film is bookended by Pitt telling his sad odyssey to reporter Christian Slater, who took over the role from the recently deceased River Phoenix. It felt good to see Slater at a point in his career when he still retained his acting skills and charm, rather than the faded has-been of later roles.

In conclusion, I think I warmed to this movie more readily this time around. I found the acting more or less acceptable, the literary quality of the story absorbing if just a little draggy at times, the costuming and staging artfully conceived, and the music just about right for the action. I may still have some trouble with Cruise, but the film's good qualities overcome even that.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Exiled (2006)

I won't pretend to be any great expert on Hong Kong cinema, although I have seen probably several hundred Hong Kong movies over the years, sufficient to know who I like and what I like. It seems to me that it is no longer the hotbed of innovation that it was before 1997 and the reunification with China. Despite some international successes like "Infernal Affairs", the source for Scorsese's "The Departed", and the comedies of Stephen Chow, too many of its recent movies have been draggy affairs. Part of the problem is that so many of the Hong Kong stars of the 80s and early 90s have found work on the international scene, both in the U.S. and in China. I'm thinking here of Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, the always-cool Chow Yun Fat, and of course the megastar of the bunch, Jackie Chan. Only the latter has retained some nostalgic connection to the birthplace of his fame and still occasionally produces or stars in locally-made flicks. And I must say I miss the kung-fu extravaganzas with their wonderful wirework, the colourful fantasies, and the ghost stories with their hopping vampires.

However, Hong Kong can still produce some engrossing cinema and director Johnnie To is responsible for a good share of it. This film was produced after his two popular "Election" movies, but is a far more cinematic outing than those semi-political films. Set in Macao shortly before the Chinese takeover, a triad boss played by the ever-so-slimy Simon Yam (who's been a Hong Kong star for yonks) wants to establish himself in this territory. He dispatches two of his assassins to murder a former gang member, Nick Cheung, who has exiled himself there and who is trying to find a new life with his wife, Josie Ho, and his infant son. Two other assassins take it upon themselves to protect him, but when the blazing shootout comes in Cheung's cramped apartment, the five men who share a past history finally put down their guns and share a meal in the spirit of friendship and common values. This is just the first in a series of increasingly fierce gunfights which form the focus of the film with their balletic violence; the meandering storyline comes a distinct second. Think of a latter-day John Woo movie without the poetry. The theme here is loyalty and brotherhood.

The ensemble cast does not feature any big names, but brings together a group of character actors who have been gracing Hong Kong cinema for years and most of whom also appeared in To's earlier movie "The Mission" (1999). The standout performance is from the group's leader Anthony Wong, who is ably supported by Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Suet Lam (an absolutely perfect monicker for a rather fat actor). In the course of helping their old friend with one last job to provide for his soon-to-be widow, they manage to antagonise the slightly comic Yam, interrupt a gold hijacking, and face the final shootout as one man. The strong action sequences are interlaced with humourous hi-jinks, heavy drinking, and would-be womanizing. In the end we really do care for these firm friends who live by their own code of honour.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Catching up with the New Stuff

In between Festival screenings and believe it or not a couple of other cinema visits (which I'll skip for the time being -- interesting as they were), I have been using my downtime to catch up on the latest premiere showings on satellite TV. Leaving aside some primitive animations and those films that I had already seen elsewhere, the following "new" (to me) movies all from 2008 have begun to fuse into a gigantic mess of 'thank goodness, that's now gone from the backlog'. Still a few choice words on each of them might be in order, if only to refresh my own fading memory:

Ghost Town: Ricky Gervais may have cracked the U.S. market, although I gather his most recent outing has been something of a box office disaster, but he has never cracked it with me. Still, his first film in a lead role here created a few small smiles with its story of a dentist who nearly died on the operating table and who can now see dead people (as it were), all of whom want him to perform some post mortem favours for them. Cute concept, but possibly better with a different actor.

High School Musical 3: Being the completist that I am, I had seen the first two made for Disney Channel outings on the box and recall writing about the first of these inexplicable phenomena some time ago. The third one made for cinema release did massive business, but despite having slightly better production values, was actually more of the same. Enough already! But I fear we can now look forward to "College Musical" to keep milking the same old cow.

Nights in Rodanthe: By my calculation this is the third pairing of Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and although both of them are getting on, they still make a handsome couple. This romance of two 'lost' souls finding brief happiness together and then tragically losing it was, in the end, something of a downer. I prefer my viewing to leave me feeling good about there!

Taken: This film did quite well at the box office I believe and it was certainly a departure for Liam Neeson to play quite such an in-your-face action hero. Here he is a retired special-ops agent, trying to re-connect with his 17-year old daughter, who lives with her remarried mother and her very rich new husband. When she is abducted in Paris by a gang of white-slavers, Neeson springs into action and seemingly kills most of the local thugs and destroys acres of property in his attempts to rescue her. I didn't keep track of the body count before the requisite happy ending, but it was staggering.

City of Ember: I barely managed to keep my eyes open during this futuristic film set in an underground city to which the population has been committed for 200 years in the attempt to save them from the impending perils above ground and how a few brave youngsters manage to find the daylight again. With roles for Bill Murray, Toby Jones, and Tim Robbins amongst a largely British cast, this was possibly a better movie than it seemed at the time. That's the trouble with 'just resting my eyes'.

Get Smart: I had a similar problem with this movie and I shall avoid the obvious review of 'get smart and watch something else'. It seemed a heck of a lot more watchable than the silly TV series on which it was based and Anne Hathaway makes a fetching secret agent. I can't quite say the same about Steve Carell, but I could suggest far worse casting. (Like maybe Ricky Gervais, ha-ha).

The Express: This was one of those uplifting sports biopics of a 1950's-1960's black footballer who brought glory to his team at Syracuse University and to his coach, Dennis Quaid, while generally helping the cause of his race -- and who then tragically died young of leukaemia. Bummer! However, it was reasonably engaging and well put together, but overly stretched out for its two-hour plus slot.

Can I go back to sleep now?

Thursday, 29 October 2009

London Film Festival - the final days

Well, that's that for another year. On balance, a mixed bag but one with its share of goodies, and I'll be back for more next year, as always with great anticipation:

Underground (1928) and J'Accuse (1919): We viewed these two silents on consecutive nights which was probably overgilding the lily. Both were of great interest but not without definite flaws. Never before has a restored silent been given its own gala evening and "Underground" certainly received the lion's share of pre-screening publicity. Directed by Anthony Asquith and filmed on location on parts of the tube system and at Lots Road Power station, it presents a fascinating picture of 1920's working-class London, including the answer to the mystery of why it is proper to stand on the right on underground escalators. It tells its story of love, hate, and revenge through two young couples, Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi (both of whom progressed to minor careers in Hollywood during the 1930s) and villain Cyril McLaglen (younger brother of John Ford stalwart Victor) and his hard-done-by girl friend Norah Baring (whose only other major role was the recently restored "A Cottage on Dartmoor"). The acting was frankly indifferent, verging on the hammy, but the backgrounds and ingenuity of the filming were memorable. Unfortunately we found the delayed showing (while everyone concerned patted themselves on the back beforehand) marred by the overpowering musical accompaniment of Neil Brand's five-piece combo.

In contrast the one-man accompanist for "J'Accuse" was a marvel of innovation and improvisation, as he combined his piano with flute passages. This film by French director Abel Gance is less well-known than his mammoth "Napoleon", but shares the same artistic visual flare. He remade this anti-war diatribe again in 1938, but it is this beautifully-restored copy that deserves its place in cinema history. It tells of a bucolic community where a pacifist poet longs for his lost love now married to an insensitive brute, and how their lives are changed by the coming of war. It is interesting to note that World War I had only just ended when this film was made and the loss of friends and the futility of fighting was fresh in Gance's mind. Looking at the story from our modern perspective some 90 years on, much of the melodrama comes across as a load of old tosh, especially the side-story of the love interest being abducted and raped by German soldiers and coming home with an unacceptable bastard daughter. However Gance's images of battlescenes -- complete with dancing skeletons -- and the dead marching home to evaluate whether their sacrifice was worthwhile are brilliantly handled, if, I thought at times, just a little repetitive. At nearly three hours, this film took a lot of watching, but it was well worth it.

Kamui (2009): This Japanese movie was described in the programme as probably the best ninja movie ever -- but I ask you, how many good ninja flicks can you name? Nevermind, this lengthy addition based on a legendary, multi-volume manga was good fun with great action scenes enhanced by wirework and CGI. The story unfolds like a folk tale as we follow our hero from his wretched beginnings through his ninja training and finally his futile attempts to escape his ninja vows and find happiness of a kind amongst simple village folk, only to endanger all of their lives. The film ends on a note which obviously invites a sequel, which no doubt will be advertised some time in the future as 'the best ninja movie ever'!

What Do You Know About Me (2009): You'd think we might have learned our lesson after "Double Take" that films about film are often disastrous, but this Italian documentary about the country's cinema past and present sounded as if it might be a treat in the vein on Scorsese's three-parter on Italian movies made for cinema's centenary year. Well it was nothing of the kind; clips from a few films of the past were overpowered by the minging of a bunch of modern directors going on and on about the difficulty of funding native cinema when the whole shooting match is controlled throughout the world by the almighty American distribution system. While there may be a modicum of truth in this slander, I do not buy it for a minute and wonderful non-American movies continue to emerge worldwide (even from Italy let it be said) -- thank goodness. The argument was muddled, poorly put together, and once again something of a waste of time.

A Serious Man (2009): We ended the fest on a 'commercial' note with this Coen Brothers movie which had its UK premiere at a gala the previous evening, not that the brothers have really ever strived to make popular, commercial films. This one was certainly interesting and in many ways possibly the most personal of their films, but it is unlikely to become one of their quirky cult favourites. While it is almost not certainly autobiographical, it is set in the 1960s in a mainly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, similar to the one where they were raised, and looks at the troubled life of one Larry Gopnik, a university professor (like their father) who is seeking tenure and trying to deal with his dysfunctional family. His wife wants a divorce to be with their pompous recently-widowed family friend, his about-to-be bar-mitzvahed son is more concerned with pop music,TV, and dope, his noisy teenaged daughter wants to save up for a nose job, and his troublesome brother has moved in to sleep on the sofa. Then there's the nude-sunbathing minx on one side of their tract house and the deer-hunting 'goy' on the other. With further troubles from a bribing Korean student whom he has failed and the possibility of more bad news from his doctor, Gopnik seeks advice from the three local rabbis, receiving only platitudes, unhelpful 'wisdom', and indifference.

The main story is prefaced by a seemingly unrelated scene filmed in Yiddish and involving a dybbuk, set in a 19th Century shtetl. However this sets the stage for Gopnik's modern story as he searches for answers to impossible questions and wonders whether there is any sense to his religious beliefs. After all, he is a serious man, but life is full of temptations and trials. The largely unknown cast rise to the occasion -- it's an unusual mainstream undertaking where Adam Arkin is the best-known of the actors and the movie does not feature any of the Coen regulars, although John Turturro's wife has a very small role. However the film is all the better for that as the viewer is forced to focus on the scenario rather than any baggage-carrying cast member. It's a mature piece of film-making and the Coens do not set out to give us any easy answers. The movie just ends abruptly with an impending natural disaster, and the camera moves back into the heavens leaving us to contemplate our existence.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Yes, I know, I'm supposed to be continuing my London Film Festival reviews, but I had a long-standing appointment for this date. Joe Valdez of This Distracted Globe (see link to the right) decided to organise a blogathon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of "The Terminator" and asked other movie-bloggers to choose another film from that landmark year of 1984. Despite considering myself mainly partial to the classic screen, I was surprised to find over sixty movies from 1984 amongst my collection, many of which are themselves influential classics of that decade. I was tempted to opt for some quirky lesser-known one like "Night of the Comet" or the late Katharine Hepburn farrago "Grace Quigley", but one title stood out. The above film is one of those movies that remains fresh, viewing after viewing, and seldom has the magical world of wonder and cruelty been so perfectly brought to life on the screen.

It is the second film from Irish director Neil Jordan who went on to direct "Interview with the Vampire". Co-written by him with fantasy novelist Angela Carter, it opens with a modern family where an impatient teenaged girl is sent by her parents to wake her younger sister. The pubescent rouge-lipped girl lies abed in a feverish dream refusing to be stirred from her reverie, whilst around her are the artefacts of childhood, a collection of ever-so-sinister looking toys. The movie then segues into the timeless Gothic landscape of fairy tales, where the same family are mourning the elder daughter who has been killed by wolves. The surviving daughter, Rosaleen, is taken to stay overnight with her grandmother, Angela Lansbury (one of the very few star names in the cast), who has three lessons to teach the youngster: Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet. She also cautions that the worst sort of wolves are those which are only hairy on the inside, i.e. beware of male sexuality.

A series of tales follows, some related by Lansbury and some by Rosaleen herself. The first concerns the girl who married 'a traveling man' (Jordan regular Stephen Rea) who found his inner wolf on their wedding night and disappears; he returns years later when she has remarried and has three puling youngsters to tear off his face and reveal his true nature. The most elaborate story is told by the youngster of the wronged village girl who confronts her seducer at his opulent wedding feast and shows the effete revelers in their true colours as they morph into ravenous and destructive wild animals. We also watch Rosaleen as she is wooed by a seemingly gormless village lad who has already met with the devil -- a very brief and wonderful uncredited cameo by Terence Stamp -- as he offers to walk her through the woods. Needless to say after an attempted kiss, she runs off the path into a terrifying landscape of giant toadstools and threatening frogs. Safe once more back home the granny-warnings continue; for example, she cautions never to trust a priest ('He's not called Father for nothing'), especially one whose sermons preach that 'the wolf shall lie with the lamb'.

The story eventually moves into full Little Red Riding Hood mode as she goes though those dangerous woods to Grandmother's house, meets an older and charming well-dressed man with heavy eyebrows, and is tempted to leave the path for an impromptu picnic. He bets her a kiss that he can reach Granny's house before her where he despatches the old biddy and shows Rosaleen his true colours, despite her saying that she knows about 'your kind'. In the distance we hear the braying of the wolf pack whom he describes as his companions, adding that he loves the company of wolves. Rosaleen has never met a creature that can move between two worlds and is in the end enchanted by his sad and forbidden realm. Meanwhile, our sleeping modern dreamer begins to wake as the wolves come crashing into her home, streaking up the staircase, smashing the windows and toys, and finally signifying the end of childish innocence.

In this inter-linked series of 'Once Upon a Times' there is little point looking for a logical storyline unless you think for a moment that dreams proceed logically. The viewer who willingly gives himself up to this imaginative rendering will be rewarded with one of the most innovative, sumptuous, and intelligent "horror" films of all time.

Just a few final footnotes: the very talented Sarah Patterson who debuted as Rosaleen was only twelve at the time of filming and never made another noteworthy feature. The wonderful imagination of author Angela Carter was only brought to life in one further (and obscure) film "The Magic Toyshop" in 1987 and she died in 1992 at a relatively young age. What a shame that neither of these two were able to captivate us on screen again. However, if my contribution here to Joe's carnival of blogging brings new viewers to this amazing movie, my mission is accomplished.

Back on Thursday with the remaining LFF story including two silents from 1919 and 1928. See you then!

Friday, 23 October 2009

London Film Festival (Continued)

So what is there to say about the five Festival films I have viewed since last writing? Well, it probably says a lot about me that four of these could be classified as fantasies and it is true that I have a soft spot for fairy tales, flights of the imagination, and unreal worlds. So it is best to deal with the exception first:

Bellamy (2009): We chose this film from the "French Hitchcock" director Claude Chabrol largely because it was a new cinema outing for megastar Gerard Depardieu -- and my goodness he is getting more mega all the time, especially about the waist! He plays a renowned Paris police detective on holiday in Nimes, who gets involved in the investigation of a local crime in the most leisurely way. If I hadn't have known otherwise I would have assumed that it was yet another psychological study from a novel by Simenon, long on character and short on action. Still Depardieu was as always more than watchable and there were good turns from Clovis Cornillac as his wastrel younger step-brother and particularly from Jacques Gamblin in three major roles. However, Chabrol while still accomplished, is nowhere near the exciting filmmaker that he once was.

Micmacs (2009): This was the definite pick of the bunch and is another wonderful creation from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, most of whose films (we must ignore his mis-step entry into the Aliens' franchise) have been wonders of imagination: Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amelie in particular. This film may well be his masterpiece and is an unbridled joy, filled with accomplished comic actors and eccentric machinery, as it tells the tale of the revenge on a pair of amoral armaments manufacturers responsible in turn for the landmine that killed lead actor Dany Boon's father and the bullet that is lodged in his brain. The cast includes Jeunet regular Dominque Pinon alongside a number of unfamiliar character actors, including an amazing female contortionist, essential to the plot. A true fantasy feast!

Bluebeard (2009): This was made for a French television Arts channel, but is receiving a cinema release elsewhere on the strength of its director's repuation -- Catherine Breillat. However unlike her earlier works, this is not an erotic drama, but rather a charming riff on the classic fairytale, beautfully filmed and richly costumed. It mixes the story of two impoverished sisters, the younger of whom becomes the new bride of the notorious ladykiller (literally), with an afternoon's exploits of two contemporary sisters as the younger one taunts the elder with the gory details of the fable. That Bluebeard's bride here is quite literally still a child might suggest some sort of no-no to a contemporary audience, especially as she is dwarfed by his bulk (Depardieu could have played the part!), but there is no sexual hanky-panky implied, and there is no real recidivism in the telling.

Metropia (2009): I guess I chose this Swedish-Danish-Norwegian entry, directed by one Tarik Saleh -- not the most Scandinavian of names -- for the strange look of its animation and the fact that its storyline was rooted firmly in adult Sci-fi. Indeed the largely monochrome animation is fascinating, as the characters with their realistic-looking hair and eyes totter about on puppet-like bodies, as is the storyline set in a Europe of the future, where the continent is connected by one large, rapid metro system. With the main characters voiced here by Vincent Gallo, Juliette Lewis, and Udo Kier, the movie and its unique artwork has definite crossover potential; however, the muddled plot and sporadic action may well work against it.

Who's Afraid of the Wolf (2008): That leaves this Czech movie about which I have little to say and which failed to hold my attention. It was a very slight story which seemed more appealing in its blurb, which suggested that it was some sort of modern Little Red Riding Hood. Unfortunately it was nothing of the sort and was the not overly absorbing tale of a young girl who suspects that her mother might be an alien, and the two men in her mother's life -- the one who acts like a father and the one who actually is the father. Either way it was hard to care.

That leaves another five Festival films to review, so watch this space.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Too Many Husbands (1940)

One of the great pleasures of the London Film Festival is their 'Treasures from the Archives' section which generally features either little-seen or recently-restored films (or both). There is no reason why this 'screwball' comedy from Columbia Studios should have fallen into obscurity -- it is one I have heard of but certainly had never seen previously -- but it loitered firmly in the attic. It was apparently rediscovered in the studio's vaults whilst re-issuing their wonderful pre-code talkies and the restorers have given us a sparkling black-and-white beauty.

Similar in theme to Cary Grant's "My Favorite Wife" (later remade as "Something's Got to Give"), where a newly-wed groom discovers on his wedding day that his first wife -- long thought dead -- has re-appeared from the desert island where she was marooned, this film switches the genders. Jean Arthur has been married for six months to Melvyn Douglas, waiting only six months (!) after her first husband, Fred MacMurray, was lost at sea. He was so thoughtful and comforting, you know. Whereas the husband in the first scenario is in a mild panic with his impossible circumstances, Arthur, a fine comedienne, positively revels in the joy of having two attentive men and dithers helplessly at trying to choose one of them, much to the disgust of her father, the ever-amusing Harry Davenport. Douglas and MacMurray were both equally adept comic players and their rivalry for their joint wife sparkles. Even after the threat of bigamy procedings and a firm ruling from a judge, the implications of the final scene, set amusingly on a frantic dance floor, is that the current menage a trois might just well continue.

Directed by Wesley Ruggles from a play by W. Somerset Maugham (him again!), the costume design and photography are impeccable. Maybe it would have been no great loss if this movie continued to languish in the vaults, but how lucky we are that it has found the light of day.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Charmer and a Bummer

This is my first report from the London Film Festival having viewed two movies yesterday. There's a viewing gap today and tomorrow, but I have at least one film a day scheduled from Sunday forward, so further revelations will follow. The hit and miss procedure of choosing which films to book from the largely effusive blurbs in the Festival programe is highlighted by yesterday's selection which resulted in a gem and a stinker:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): While I generally avoid mainstream offerings which will surface at the local cineplex shortly, I do occasionally seek out an early outing for some promising features. This film was the opening night gala and we went to see it on its second showing; it was really good fun. A two-year labour of love by a London East End studio, this stop-motion animation of some very realistic and hairy puppets from director Wes Anderson, expanded by him and co-writer Noah Baumbach from a popular short story by Roald Dahl, is a complete joy --possibly more so for an adult audience than for kiddiewinkies who might not appreciate its subversive family messages. Mr Fox, voiced by an ever-so debonair George Clooney can not resist the opportunity to steal more chickens, despite his pledge to the loving Mrs. Fox voiced by Meryl Streep. The voice cast includes Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. It also ropes in the distinctive British tones of Michael Gambon as one of the evil farmers -- Boggis, Bunce, and Bean -- who are out to catch and put an end to Mr. Fox's rampages, leading to a denouement featuring a rabid dog with foaming bubbles at the mouth and an attempt to retrieve Mr. Fox's brush which Bean has taken for a necktie. The story has the upbeat message of family loyalties and worth (as Mr. Fox's awkward son attempts to prove his fortitude like his formidible cousin) and as the various species of the woodland learn that cooperation pays. In short, the movie has more in common with Anderson's other family sagas than it does with any animation aimed primarily at the younger set. I'm sure kids will warm to this bright and cheery film, but quite possibly less so than the cineliterate adult.

Double Take (2009): This film falls squarely into the category that I reserve for pretentious twaddle. The programme notes made this Dutch/Belgian/German documentary sound like a fun tribute to Alfred Hitchcock combined with subversive archive footage from the 50s and 60s. The end result however was a poorly filmed -- lots of really blurry images, badly put together, and a repetitive mess. Some of the clips of Hitchcock from his vintage TV series were mildly amusing, if not unfamiliar, but these were combined with crappy ads for Folger coffee, black and white news footage of Nixon and Krushchev, and some stupid storyline of Hitchcock meeting his doppelganger in the shape of a latter-day impersonator. In short: a complete waste of time!

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Despite its come-on title, this British film is, I think, totally unsuitable viewing for young children. Rather it is a devastating addition to those films that deal with the Holocaust, personalised here through the eyes of an eight-year old boy. Based on a novel by John Boyne, writer-director Mark Herman who has some wonderful 'small' films to his credit such as "Brassed Off" and "Little Voice" here marries the loss of childish innocence with the evil that men do, in a way that leaves the viewer in no doubt concerning the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The main protagonist, Bruno, is the son of a career army officer, played by David Thewlis. Bruno must move from his beloved home in Berlin and away from his playmates, when his father is placed in charge of a concentration camp in an isolated country setting. Thewlis considers this a tremendous career opportunity and revels in his new-found powers, while attempting to keep the details of his actual brief from his sensitive wife (American actress Vera Farmiga finding a perfect British accent) and his children. From his bedroom window, Bruno can see what he takes to be a farm, where strangely all of the farmers wear striped pyjamas, as does the family's kitchen help who was once a doctor, and where he hopes to find new friends. Although he is forbidden to 'explore' this area, his childish curiosity takes him to the perimeter with its electrified fence and -- on the other side -- eight-year old Shmuel, shaven-headed and scrawny. As a friendship develops between the two boys, Bruno struggles to understand why his friend is always ravenously hungry and why he can not come out to play. That a young boy would probably not have lasted in the camps for any length of time is irrelevant to the fable that is being played out here.

The story of Bruno's new life is multilayered and we recoil in horror as his new tutor tries to indoctrinate the boy and his older sister into the Nazi version of history, which is reinforced by their father's and his staff's venomous outbursts against all Jews. His sister is won over by the new ideals and puts away her childish pursuits, especially when she develops a crush on one of her father's aides. However the pile of naked dolls that Bruno discovers in their cellar are too numerous to be hers alone. There is also a side-strand concerning Thewlis' parents, played by Richard Johnson and, in a very brief cameo, Sheila Hancock. The father is ever so proud of his son's authority, but the mother wants no part of it. Gradually Farmiga begins to understand why there is always a strange odour in the air from the distant chimneys and in disgust begs Thewlis to let her take the children away. I have never been terribly fond of him as an actor, but his is perfect casting here of the weakling who relishes the chance to abuse his power.

Both of the young actors, Asa Butterfield as Bruno and particularly Jack Scanlon as Shmuel are superb. Bruno is all childish wonder as opposed to Shmuel's resigned composure. When Bruno decides to dig under the wire to enter the 'farm' to prove his friendship by helping Shmuel look for his father who has 'gone missing', the stage is set for the chilling denouement. Powerful stuff, but ever so hard to take, resulting in a movie that would be even more painful to watch a second time.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Persepolis (2007)

I really should have put a footnote at the end of my last entry to say that I was going away for a few days. That would have explained my brief silence to those who take an interest in my cinematic lovelife. Anyhow I'm now back from France, truly walked-out, nearly art-satiated, and definitely overstuffed with rich food and drink -- and I have not seen a single film in the past four days. Quel dommage!

I actually caught up with the above prize-laden animation a few weeks ago, but had not got around to reflecting further upon its unique look and eye-opening content. Co-directed (with artist Vincent Peronnaud) from the safety of her current base in Paris by Iranian emigree Marjane Satrapi and based on her own graphic novel, it is her autobiographical riff on events in Iran from the late 70s to the early 90s, told with a modicum of black humour mixed with love and regrets. We first meet tomboyish schoolgirl Marjane in the days before the overthrow of the despised Shah. She lives in Teheran (ancient Greek name Persepolis) with her cultured and modern parents and is vaguely aware of the political turmoil around her, especially after the arrest and death of a beloved uncle. She soon finds that things have moved from bad to worse with the Cultural Revolution enforced by the mullahs and her cheeky behaviour is courting trouble. Her parents arrange for her to continue her schooling in Vienna where she falls in with a dissolute crowd of "rich kids" at the local lycee, and is forced to lie to her family about her lifestyle and well-being. Missing her family and her homeland, she returns to find an even more oppressive country than the one she left and, after a brief marriage, leaves her beloved Persepolis for good.

This animation for adults won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was Oscar-nominated, but the largely black and white simple style of the artwork was no match for the feel-good colour of "Ratatouille". The film is available in two versions with Chiara Mastroianni voicing Marjane and her mother Catherine Deneuve voicing the mother in both the original French and the English-dubbed versions; Danielle Darrieux' grandmother becomes Gena Rowlands in the latter and Sean Penn and Iggy Pop also join the celebrity voice cast. As is my usual wont I would plump for the subtitled version.

It is probably best to keep in mind that this film is not intended as a straight history lesson and little is made of the roles of US and British interests in the area. Rather it is a personal reflection on very real events as viewed by an intelligent and outspoken spirit who has learned her grandmother's lessons on never compromising. She is able to poke fun at herself while still presenting the viewer with a scary insight into repression and the loss of personal freedom.

This will probably be my penultimate posting before the annual film-orgy that is the London Film Festival, beginning next week. I have chosen thirteen largely offbeat attractions so all sorts of goodies will follow here as time and energy allow.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Duchess (2008)

I would not like to pinpoint what it is about Keira Knightley which has given her the starry career that she enjoys today. She is certainly no raving beauty and her acting is often little more than adequate. Still she looks good in period frocks and is, at worst, pleasantly inoffensive. She gets the chance to strut her stuff in a series of elaborate outfits and wigs in this 18th Century tale based on the biography by Amanda Foreman of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a distant relation of the late Princess of Wales.

Pimped by her mother Charlotte Rampling into a marriage with the older but more than eligible Duke of Devonshire portrayed by the ever-icy Ralph Fiennes, she is chosen primarily as a brood mare to produce the necessary male heir. When she fails in her duty by giving birth to two daughters to add to the bastard daughter that Fiennes has brought into their family, he takes up with Knightley's previous best friend (Hayley Atwell) who aready has three sons and who becomes a permanent fixture in the household. It's not that Fiennes is particularly evil (albeit rather dislikeable here), but rather that he is personifying the expected approach of a powerful and determined man of his era. After eventually producing a son (the result of a "rape" by her husband), Knightley becomes a figurehead for political causes of the period, begins an affair with the rather callow Dominic Cooper, playing Charles Grey (who eventually did become Prime Minister), and has a daughter out of wedlock by him. Fiennes manages to hush this up but does not permit his wife to openly continue any relationship with her lover, despite the menage a trois at home.

Frankly I found this pretty-to-watch but fairly stodgy historical drama. The producers and publicists appear to be milking the Princess Di connection by emphasizing the parallels in the two relationships, going so far as to have the Duchess comment that 'there are three people in this marriage' or words to that effect. My favourite bit of dialogue however came from a scene where the fairly tipsy Duchess bumps into a candelabra and sets her wig afire. Cool as a cucumber Fiennes' Duke says 'Please put out Her Grace's hair'. Yup, that was the highpoint!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Lady Chatterley (2006)

Like most people here I know that D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel of Lady C and her lover was banned in Britain until 1960, following a lengthy obscenity trial -- more to do with the book's language than its sexual theme. Interestingly, for a very English story, most of the film versions have come from Europe starting with a venerable French one in 1955 and largely degenerating subsequently into a lurid sideshow. I have seen both the 1981 version starring Sylvia Kristel, the original Emmanuelle, directed by Just Jaeckin and the 1993 unbelievably tame and tony BBC TV version from normally outlandish director Ken Russell, starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean, but I remember little about either of these. What I did not know previously was that Lawrence actually wrote three versions of the story and this French film, directed by the female director Pascale Ferran, is based on the second tale originally entitled "John Thomas and Lady Jane" with its theme of 'sexual healing'.

Ferran's film which won a Cesar for best film and best actress for its star, Marina Hands, along with several more gongs is a beautifully filmed love story, rather than the saga of raw sex that previous versions have emphasised. Hands plays the somewhat frail and listless wife of a supposedly charming landowner who is now paraplegic as a result of his war wounds. They lead a moneyed and comfortable life, but there is no passion or even real warmth between them. During one of her many excursions through the estate's woods and fields, she happens upon her husband's gamekeeper (Parkin, not Mellors in this version whom she has previously observed washing his manly torso) and she becomes a frequent visitor to his workshed. As their meetings increase, he makes the first clumsy sexual overture and their coupling on the rough floor of the shed is finished within a minute. Yet something has been awakened in her and she feels the need to continue this grappling until eventually she too achieves satisfaction.

Lest you think that this very long (168 minute) film is nothing but a series of sexual scenes -- and there are indeed a number of quite explicit ones -- let me quickly add that sex here is only the key for unlocking two very repressed souls from two very different backgrounds. Hands is magnificent as the previously inhibited wife who begins to glow with newfound health and worth. Parkin is played by a little-known actor called Jean-Louis Coullo'ch and I could not at first see his potential animal magnetism, as he seemed a little too old and not terribly attractive. However he does grow on one as the film progresses and the fact that he is not just some beautifully put together Hollywod hunk but a real-looking human being who manages to gradually reveal his soft side works well here. The scene where they run naked in the rain and he then garlands her body with wildflowers could have been corny, but instead is unbearably touching. Unlike previous versions, the film ends on a potential high note as the unlikely couple are forced to move apart, but whether or not they have any future relationship is left more than open

Although this is a very leisurely movie given its running time, it does not drag in any way and one appreciates how the lovelingly-filmed scenes of nature's grandeur reinforces the intimacy the protagonists have discovered. Apparently there is an even longer (220 minutes) French television version and I can not begin to imagine what could have be added to pad out the cinema version.

One last comment which has little to do with this lovely rendering of the tale. The obscenity trial hinged largely on the coy names that the lovers used for referring to their private parts. If one considers the title of the short story on which this version is based, 'John Thomas' is slightly old-fashioned British slang for the male member. I have no idea whether 'Lady Jane' has any similar female connation, but would mention that the character's name is Constance in all three versions of the story.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Donkey Skin/Peau d'ane (1970)

Over the years there have been many, many screen actresses that one could describe as attractive or cute or glamorous or sexy or even beautiful, but very few that you would call absolutely gorgeous. Grace Kelly was one and the young Catherine Deneuve was another -- not that she is any slouch in the looks stakes now in her sixties.

This is one of four films that she made with the innovative director Jacques Demy and it forms a loose trilogy with his other movies with her and a musical score from Michel Legrand: "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (1964) and "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" (1967). All three are brightly-coloured confections where all or much of the dialogue is sung. This one is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, although one that is marginally more suitable for adults than children. She plays a princess whose father, Jean Marais, has promised his dead queen that he would only remarry if he could find a princess more beautiful than she was. He looks in vain until he spots his ignored daughter and decides to marry her! The princess knows that this would be wrong and consults with her fairy godmother, Delphine Seyrig, how to avoid this. First she requests increasingly more beautiful and seemingly impossible-to-create gowns, and when this fails she asks for the skin of the king's prize donkey who literally craps gold coins and jewels ("My banker").

Finally she escapes from the palace wearing the donkey's skin over her shoulders, smears some dirt on her face (making her unrecognizable a la Clark Kent), and becomes a scullion in a far-flung village where everyone thinks she is hideous! One day she is spotted by the local prince, Jacques Perrin (the grown-up Toto from "Cinema Paradiso") who falls lovesick. He refuses to eat and finally asks for a cake baked by the so-called Donkey Skin in which she secretes her ring. There then follows a Cinderella-style scenario where only the lady whose finger fits the ring can become the prince's bride -- a somewhat less difficult task than fitting a shoe. None of the great ladies in his realm can wear the ring nor the lowest of servants, until of course Deneuve appears. So they marry and live happily for the next 100 years. But what of King Marais you ask? Well he arrives by helicopter (a totally anachronistic touch) with her fairy godmother whom he plans to wed.

I had seen this film once before and do not recall feeling one way or the other about it. This second viewing, however, was a totally joyous experience. I think I must be getting a little soppy in my dotage!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Mahal (1949)

I am still on something of a Bollywood kick, since Channel Four is running a brief season of classic movies, fortunately only two per week since they are all long and take some watching. I was actually quite charmed by this entry, the title of which translates as 'The Palace' or 'The Mansion'.

A young lawyer overnights at a deserted mansion which his father has recently purchased and learns the legends of its haunted history from the resident gardener, who tells him that it was built for a mysterious man and his forbidden lover, both of whom died before they could live there together. He is puzzled to find a portrait from some forty years previous which is self-evidently a representation of his own face and he decides that he has been reincarnated solely to revisit the scene of his previous love. This is compounded when he views a beautiful woman through the screens and shadows, who seems to come and go like a ghost. Despite being betrothed to another, he is smitten with this vision and it begins to obsess him. An attempt by a close friend to lure him away by employing some sultry dancing sirens fails and ultimately his father must drag him away to fulfill his marriage contract. However, even some years of wedlock (during which he has not once viewed his wife's face) and distancing himself to a remote cabin can not protect him from the siren's lure. His spurned wife eventually learns the cause of his disdain, poisons herself, and frames him for her murder.

The ghostlike beauty is played by Madhubala who is called "The Venus of the Indian Screen" and who is considered the most beautiful of all Indian actresses. She died aged only 36 and left some 70 films. She was certainly a lovely presence in this movie, but last week I saw her in one made some six years later, "Mr. and Mrs. '55" in which I found her heavily pock-marked skin distracting. Never mind, in this film she made a strong impression and the atmospheric photography as she appeared amongst the elaborate architecture and ornate gardens was enthralling. Her would-be lover was played by Ashok Kumar, one of the most famous of Indian screen actors with a long and distinguished career. The shock revelations set in the court where he is being tried for murder show that everything had a non-mystical explanation after all, but this does not detract from the overall appeal of this film.

The only problem I had was my failure to have an educated ear for the long love dirges which took up such a proportion of the film's running time. To call the sound caterwauling is I know both unfair and ignorant on my part, but I do admit to fast-forwarding through one or two of the neverending numbers. Shame on me!

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Accidental Husband (2008)

This American movie which is one of this week's premieres on Sky Movies does not appear to have been released cinematically in the States -- at least I can find no U.S. press reviews of it -- and I am slightly wondering why it has been inflicted on the rest of the world. That's not to say that it wasn't a vaguely pleasant 90 minutes -- which is more than I can say about a number of movies -- but it was in the end totally dismissable.

Uma Thurman (question: is she not getting a little too old now for ditzy rom-coms?) plays a radio "love doctor", dispensing her somewhat jaded advice to the New York area audience. She is engaged to her publisher (another useless and disposable role for good-old Colin Firth). When, as a result of her phone-in advice, a Queens fireman's fiancee calls off their wedding at short notice, he wants his revenge. The fireman in question is played by an actor called Jeffrey Dean Morgan who was a total unknown to me since most of his past roles have been in American TV series which don't travel and I have not yet seen his contribution to two high-profile 2009 flicks: "Watchmen" and "Taking Woodstock". He boards with an extended family of Indians (not the Native American variety) and the young computer hacker of that family fiddles about on line and creates the paperwork to prove that Thurman is now married to Morgan, so that when she and Firth go to get their license, the records show that she is already married. Ho ho ho!

This is the sort of idiotic and flimsy plot device that can only exist in poorly conceived movies and it does not take a cinematic genius to predict the ultimate outcome. Directed by Griffin Dunne, who is a far more interesting actor than director, we viewers watch helplessly as Thurman seeks to get the relevant paperwork signed to annul this phony marriage (which any competent lawyer could have handled) whilst beginning to fall for the slobbish fireman. Poor old civilized Firth! About the only good thing in this film was the casting of Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams as Thurman's divorced parents and Isabella Rossellini and Keir Dullea as a German couple about to acquire Firth's company. The poor sap must play along with the fiction that Morgan is Thurman's fiancee and that he is her brother. Oh what jolly japes!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Blue Bird (1940)

As I have written previously, I enjoy watching Shirley Temple's 1930s' movies despite myself for the innocent charm that she purveys. I am not that enchanted by her later roles. It's been a while since I last watched this fantasy based on the allegorical 1908 play by Maeterlinck. It was filmed at least twice as a silent (neither of which I have seen) and in 1976 remade in an overblown joint US-Russian production with the young Patsy Kensit in the Temple lead. This version was rushed out by 20th Century Fox after the critical success of "The Wizard of Oz" the previous year and proved to be their young star's first commercial flop. I am not too surprised, since at 12 years she was beginning to lose her childish innocence and in fact comes across as somewhat bolshy and petulant in this role. Added to the somewhat saccharine whimsy of the tale as filmed, the movie possibly had little appeal to a world on the edge of war.

Shirley and her more than chubby little brother play the children of a woodcutter and his wife in another time when war threatens. Shirley moans about their humble life and is told by a fairy to set off to find the blue bird of the title. Joined by human embodiments of their own cat and dog, played by the ever-treacherous Gale Sondergaard and vaudeville comic Eddie Collins in his penultimate role, their journey takes them in search of some elusive happiness. First they visit the past as represented by a graveyard, where they encounter their now-dead grand-parents and learn the lesson that people are only dead when they are forgotten. Next they visit the house of Luxury where everything may be available but where they learn that material goods alone do not bring happiness; Shirley realizes that her family is not poor -- they just don't have any money! There is then a scary section where they are lost in the forest. The wicked Sondergaard encourages the trees and their associates, fire and wind, to destroy the woodcutter's kids; that the trees end up destroying themselves makes little sense when you think about it. They next visit the future as represented by a world of unborn children, a collection of would-be Shirley Temples, and get to meet their little sister-to-be and some coming scientists and potential peace-makers. It is only when they return home that they discover that the blue bird of happiness was there the whole time, reminiscent of the no-place-like-home moral of Oz, but without the seamless magic of that film.

Shirley went on to make one last film for Fox before taking on some disposable teenaged roles, ultimately leaving movies for bigger and better things. There is no doubt that she brought much joy to many people during the Depression years and her charm is evident even now. However this particular movie is not one that reinforces her lasting legacy.

RIP World Movies: I am sad to report that this recently discovered satellite channel has now bitten the dust. I did write that I was mystified how they managed to survive for even a year without subscriptions or advertising -- and now I know the ultimate answer. They couldn't! I'm so sorry to see them go since they really tried to provide something rather different and wonderful.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Andaz (1949)

Although I think I have some depth of knowledge when it comes to cinema, there are certain areas in which I admit I am relatively ignorant. The vast beast that is Indian cinema is a case in point. I have probably seen most of Satyajit Ray's films, a selection of other "classics", and a few of the multi-coloured all-singing, all-dancing, modern extravaganzas. However there are many on my "famous" list which I have yet to view. These titles tend to be culled from personal critics' selections from Sight and Sound's 'top 10' poll every ten years.

"Andaz" is considered to be one of the all-time classics and although I can see why it has achieved this status, I didn't really warm to the film. Its English titles include 'Misunderstandings' and 'A Matter of Style' and its underlying message appears to be that Indians who embrace a Western lifestyle do so at their peril. It is basically a love triangle starring Nardis (whom I know from "Mother India"), Dilip Kumar, and Raj Kapoor. She is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy industrialist whose life is saved when Kumar stops her runaway horse. They become good friends and it is obvious that he is falling in love with her, but she neglects to mention that she is engaged to Kapoor who is currently overseas. Her father does warn her that she is tempting fate by continuing this relationship and partying. After her father's death, Kumar helps her regain her enthusiasm for life and she rewards him by making him her partner in her father's business empire. It is only when Kapoor returns that Kumar becomes aware of the depth of her feelings for her 'god', her only one true and lasting love.

However, the situation becomes impossible for all of them, even after her marriage and the birth of a (singularly Western-looking) child. Kumar mopes about and Kapoor begins to suspect the worst concerning his wife's past behaviour and fidelity. The story continues with some irrational behaviour on the part of all three protagonists and ultimately tragedy. In the traditional Indian style, the action is interspersed with love ballads, many of which I understand have become classic favourites. Perhaps it is my unfamiliarity with this music and the singular melodramatics of the plot that stopped my full appreciation of this film. It was also not helped by the introduction of Kapoor's idiotic 'guru' who became an immovable houseguest and whose behaviour was probably intended as comic relief -- which just didn't appeal to my Western tastes. Yes I'm happy to have seen this film and to be able to cross it off my list; I only wish I could say that I thought more highly of it.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009) (+ Inglorious Bastards 1978)

Let me say upfront that I did like Quentin Tarantino's latest movie and happily watched the unnecessarily long two and a half hours that it lasted, for the various good points it provided. However that is not to say that I didn't find it overly leisurely or free from more than a modicum of self-indulgence on the part of a very self-important director.

The best thing about the film, as others have mentioned, was the discovery of a formerly little-known Austrian TV actor Christoph Waltz in the multi-lingual role of Landa 'The Jew Hunter' who becomes this generation's Von Stroheim (trademark: "The man you love to hate"). He was the personification of all that was evil about Nazi Germany, but so charming with it. I do not doubt that he now has a spectacular career ahead. The big problem is that the remainder of the cast which was reasonably well-chosen seem overshadowed by his performance. The French actress Melanie Laurent runs him a close second in her role of the Jewish woman who saw her family slaughtered by Landa's men, who is now living under a Christian pseudonym and running a Parisian cinema where the action reaches its finale. As for the big-name draw, Brad Pitt, I found his performance mildly embarrassing -- although part of that was down to the supposedly redneck character he was playing -- to the extent that horror director Eli Roth as his 'Jew-Bear' sidekick (a man I normally detest for unrelated reasons) was marginally more tolerable. Much of the other celebrity casting, especially the cameos for Mike Myers and Rod Taylor, struck me as a waste of time. Even the normally superb Michael Fassbender was in many ways superfluous here. At least we can be grateful that QT resisted giving himself an appearance.

The film is a revisionist view of World War II with only the use of various languages being a nod to realism. I did wonder briefly why part-Apache Pitt should have been put in charge of a group of eight American-Jewish renegade avengers, but decided that this was just another instance of Tarantino's poetic license and concept of vigilante justice. One could produce an argument however that the group's over-the-top violence is in the end no more justifiable than the Nazi top brass applauding the film-within-a-film of their hero Daniel Bruhl's slaughter of some 300 Allied soldiers. Anyhow the Basterds want to rewrite history and end the war by massacring the Nazi leadership at the cinema, while independently Laurent plots a concurrent disaster solely for revenge.

Tarantino's love of movies is not only demonstrated by the many cinema references throughout, but by having Fassbender's film critic, Diane Kruger's film-star, and Laurent's repertory cinema owner among the major players, and ironically having the final holocaust triggered by highly flammable nitrate film stock as the ultimate weapon -- a totally pleasing device. Pitt's last line of "I think this just might be my masterpiece" may imply QT's own assessment of his latest effort, but I choose to reserve judgment about this generally entertaining, but also deeply flawed entry.

For my own curiosity I thought it would be a wheeze to have a look at the earlier film from Italian director Enzo G. Castellari, which really only shares its title and whch has seen various edited releases under a number of alternate titles. Apparently Tarantino saw it a long time ago on television and relished a kind of secret oneupmanship that not many people knew about it and that this somehow made him special. Starring very minor actors Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, and Fred Williamson, it is more of a "Dirty Dozen" scenario with a group of soldiers destined for a military prison escaping and reaping disproportionate havoc. Badly dubbed, except oddly for those characters speaking French or German, it is typical of the sort of film that used to be made with some frequency, but which fortunately is no longer in vogue (except if your name is Steven Seagal!).

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The Fall (2006)

I was intrigued by the reviews for the above film when it eventually -- some three years late -- opened here, which varied wildly between describing it as a magical experience and overblown hooey. Apparently Variety called it 'absurdly elaborate' and the product of a 'wildly indulged' creator. The Indian-born director Tarsem (Singh) is the US-based director of music videos and his only previous cinema outing was 2000's "The Cell" with Jennifer Lopez, a visually-arresting but muddled and underperforming movie. This one was shot over several years in nearly twenty exotic locations and it is something of a miracle that it ever managed to see the light of day or to sustain its funding. But a rating of 8 out of 10 on IMDb suggests that I am not alone in having found it worthwhile viewing, despite the critical sniping.

Set in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s, Lee Pace plays an injured stuntman (the background to his accident is shown in the black and white footage under the opening credits and is an important part of the story) who makes friends with a young immigrant girl, the enchanting Romanian Catinca Untaru; she wanders through the hospital grounds and wards as her broken arm heals. He begins to weave an elaborate tale which catches her burgeoning imagination concerning the exploits of five heroes -- an Indian (imagined by her as a native of India and not a native-American), an ex-slave, an Italian explosives expert, Charles Darwin with his pet monkey, and a masked bandit, all of whom are out to destroy Governor Odious who has wronged them. They are joined by a mumbling mystic who descends from a tree in the desert and their travels take them from one gorgeously elaborate location to another. In her mind, these characters take on the faces of various people from the hospital environment (much like "The Wizard of Oz") including a comely nurse who becomes entwined in the tale. Little does Catinca realise that the Pace is using their friendship to entice her to bring him morphine so that he can end his life. Reality mixes with illusion and the storyteller's death-wish colours the fate of the various protagonists.

It is apparently not an original story, but a reworking of a completely obscure Bulgarian film from 1981 caled "Yo Ho Ho"; one wonders how Tarsem even stumbled across the original movie. What he has created here can certainly be described as a folly, but it is a glorious one. The film may or may not be an act of hubris as his accusers would have it, but it is a truly beautiful one.

Monday, 7 September 2009

FrightFest Part Three

A further thought on the Argento fiasco: I have seen the suggestion that the director intended "Giallo" as a comedy, a parody of his own movies, and certainly the sprinkling of laughter in the audience might bear this out. However, while Argento may possess a black sense of humour, there have never been any comic sensibilities in any of his films, and if this latest one was deliberately meant to be amusing, it is an experiment that failed.

The only way now that I will have the stamina to cover the last two FrightFest days is to minimise the amount that I write about the remaining films -- not quite by a limited number of characters per Twitter (which is not my bag), but just a few tasters rather than any full-blown exposition and evaluation:

Dead Snow (2009): Norway is not exactly known for its zombie heritage, so this is a welcome addition to the dead Nazi genre from earlier European flicks like "Shock Waves" and "Zombie Lake". Like last year's "Cold Prey" we have a group of students on their spring break at a snowbound cabin in the beautiful Norwegian mountains. Their holiday is ruined by never-ending troops of rotting Nazis rising from the snow to exact some very gruesome deaths. Quite good fun actually.

The Human Centipede (first sequence) (2009): I only saw the first half of this Dutch peculiarity as we wanted to see the overlapping Discovery Screen movie (below). Inspired by a trio of dogs nose-to-bum, our mad scientist wants to recreate this with the human grafting of two female American tourists and a Japanese businessman. I didn't see the results, but since this was intended as the first of two movies, no doubt I can view the gruesome end-product in due course. I just hope that it is an improvement on the rather pixillated images on display here.

Pontypool (2008): This Canadian entry definitely proved the better film, although a very low budget one with a limited cast and setting (a local radio studio in small-town Ontario), but a fascinating premise. A rather terrific Stephen McHattie plays a down-at-the-heels shock jock who has to cover some weird happenings making news outside the studio. Only gradually do he and his station manager realise that the virus is spreading through the spoken word and he must evaluate whether he can continue to present the story without further threatening civilization. Intriguing.

Night of the Demons (2009): This was a totally unnecessary remake of the 1988 classic by Fest fave Adam Gierasch. It brought absolutely nothing new to the table and was a complete waste of the acting talents, such as they may be, of Monica Keena, Shannon Elizabeth, and the hasn't-he-fallen Edward Furlong. The only bit of interest was a brief cameo from the now nearly unrecognizable star of the original movie, Linnea Quigley.

Dread (2009): This British effort is based on a Clive Barker short story, but was actually pretty dreary. A college student wishes to research fear for his thesis and is assisted by an ever-so-willing "friend". Too late he discovers that the friend has his own agenda and he and a few of his colleagues become part of some infernal experiments. It all became rather nasty, without being particularly good. Interesting to note here that one of the characters is heavily disfigured by a strawberry birthmark, which is also a theme of the final movie below.

Colin (2008): It was no contest to decide to skip the main auditorium's World Premiere of something called "Zombie Women of Satan" to take in this British Discovery flick purportedly made for £45.00! We're in zombie-virus-spreading territory again, but the peg here (and I'm surprised that this has not been done before) is that the story is told from one of the walking dead's own point of view. We follow our friendly zombie hero Colin as he succumbs to the virus, fights its worst ravages, wards off the zombie hunters, and introduces us to other personal dramas as they occur. The lack of funding just about shows, but this could easily be developed into an even better release.

House of the Devil (2009): We're back to devil-worshipping in the suburbs and babysitter-in-peril movies with this American entry from director Ti West, but a pretty well-done one. Jocelin Donahue does a good job as the college student fated to become the host of the devil's spawn, but it is the other casting that makes this film of interest. The couple that employ her for the evening out in the sticks admit that they do not actually have any kids, but need her to "sit" their Alzheimer-stricken mother. He is Tom Noonan, the original Red Dragon from "Manhunter" and she is genre favourite Mary Woronov, who has actually retired from films but who was lured back to do this one. There is also a very small and totally unnecessary part for another horror icon, Dee Wallace.

Case 39 (2009): This is the first U.S. outing for German director Christian Alvart, who gave us the rather masterly "Antibodies" and he has been given an A-list lead with Renee Zellweger. Despite her Oscar, I normally find her a little difficult to take with her squeaky voice and chirpy chipmunk expression, but the cleverness of the script mitigated these drawbacks. She is a social worker given the case of an "abused" child whose parents have bolts on their bedroom door and who try to cook the kid alive in their kitchen oven. Until a suitable foster home can be found, Zellweger is cajoled into accepting temporary custody and only then does it become apparent that we are in fiendish-kid-from-Hell territory. Far better than expected with some grisly psychic-induced deaths, but without the ending that I would have foreseen.

Heartless (2009): The World premiere of this British film was the most hyped of the Fest, with good reason since it was the first feature outing since 1995 for Philip Ridley who gave us both "The Reflecting Skin" and "The Passion of Darkly Noon". This was apparently intended as a somewhat more mainstream offering with supernatural sensibilities, but was I thought a little muddled in the making. Perhaps a second viewing in due course will sort that out. The film is set in the urban wastelands of East London where fierce creatures roam at night and where violence is king. Jim Sturgess does a fine job as the photographer with the offputting strawberry birthmark (again), who makes a pact with a devil figure to become unblemished and to find love, but who finds that he must lose control of his soul in the bargain.

By this stage we were pretty much fested-out and decided to skip the final film, the premiere of "The Descent: Part 2" on the grounds that as a relatively mainstream movie, it would come our way soonish. Who knows, perhaps it will form my final entry before next year's llth frightful weekend.