Saturday, 28 February 2009

Only God Sees Me (1998)

A new French-language film channel called CineMoi (clever name) started broadcasting this week and anything which puts a further selection of movies at my disposal is always warmly welcomed. It is due to be encrypted into a subscription channel in April, but I shall treat it as a "taster" in the interim to decide if it is worth the cost -- although I suspect even now that I will succumb. They are only showing three films a day plus the occasional short and the first week's offerings have been strong on well-known flicks like "Jules et Jim" and the Three Colours trilogy, but there is an encouraging sprinkling of movies which are completely unknown to me -- although I think I can live without watching some of the downbeat "kitchen-sink" type grimfests.

This film originally known as "Dieu seul me voit" is a collaboration between director Bruno Podalydes and his writer-actor brother Denis P, neither of whom I could have told you about last week, although I did recognise Denis from other films. He plays an insecure, somewhat unattractive and balding film sound engineer, who hasn't had much luck with the ladies, but who suddenly finds himself desired by three dishy females -- a left-wing bloodbank nurse with a string of ex-lovers, the oversexed ditzy girlfriend of his best friend, and a controversial and intellectual film director. One was rather put in mind of Woody Allen finding himself the love object of an unlikely string of leading ladies in some of his films, but despite the occasional small smile, there was little of Allen's trademark wise-cracking here. French comedies are seldom all-out ha-ha funny, but the situations in which our feckless hero found himself made the film an entertaining and undemanding watch before -- like so many French flicks -- it just stopped without any satisfying conclusion.

Never mind; if this channel continues to produce enough new taste thrills for my jaded palette, it should prove well worth the cost.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Les Portes de la nuit (1946)

As far as I know this was Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevost's last collaboration, although both continued to work in film for some years, and it is of interest for a number of reasons. It originated as a short ballet which Prevert wrote in 1945 for the choreographer Roland Petit, which was both a critical and popular success, and the film adaptation was eagerly anticipated. The stars of choice were, believe it or not, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Gabin (they did indeed appear in another film together) but both begged off the project. Their replacements were the somewhat younger and inexperienced Nathalie Nattier and Yves Montand -- the latter best known as a singer rather than an actor at the time.

The story is in the Carne-Prevost tradition of doomed lovers -- strangers who meet in the night to fall in love and then lose each other -- and the setting is a very drab post-war Parisian neighbourhood populated by very ordinary characters. In fact Carne was quoted as saying that if he could not have his choice of film stars, he would make the environment the star of the film. Unfortunately this did not fit in with what the public of the time wanted after the grey war years and the film does not allow for any escapism from the harsh realities of post-Liberation Paris. Looking at it now, we can appreciate its place in the filmmakers' canon, with its poetic veneer and moody photography; it even has a quasi-supernatural character in a foreseeing tramp called Destiny. I liked the film a lot, although again it was probably just a tad too long for the sad tale.

What threw me most however was the theme music which we in the English-speaking world recognise as Johnny Mercer's "Autumn Leaves" but which was originally a French tune played in counterpoint to the action here. Montand, who seemed huge and whom I barely recognized since I associate him with his much later roles, doesn't actually sing the song, but it is reprised at various stages throughout and the worldweary lyrics include the film's title: The Gates of Night. The other thing that briefly confused me was the appearance of Pierre Brasseur as Nattier's estranged husband, whom I was convinced I saw in a film a few days back -- some sixty years on; turns out that was his son Claude Brasseur, now 70ish, but immediately visible in his much younger father here. There is also an early role for Serge Reggiani as a nasty collaborator who meets his comeuppance as Destiny foretold.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Fur (2006)

I actually watched this film a few weeks back, but couldn't quite decide whether I really wanted to write about it or if I could collect my thoughts sufficiently to make any worthwhile comments. The movie is subtitled 'An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus' which is the main reason that I wanted to see it -- and like so many unsuccessful films, it was not straightforward to find a copy here. Diane Arbus was one of the great photographers of all time -- not a point that I wish to argue -- and the story of her life from her moneyed New York Jewish background through her suicide at a relatively young age would have made a fascinating biopic, but this movie is not that creature. Instead the filmmakers have created a make-believe rationale for her development as a highly original talent which, while not uninteresting, has absolutely nothing to do with the real artist. Apart from playing fast and loose with the facts of her life, there are no examples of her work -- not even pastiche samples -- which is rather like filming a composer's biopic without his music.

Nicole Kidman is totally wrong physically for the embodiment of small, dark Diane, a tall painfully thin and painfully pale spectre, under the thumb of her overbearing parents and husband. According to this film her conversion begins when an intriguing masked man moves into her apartment building and how she becomes infatuated and indoctrinated by her new neighbour, Lionel. He is played by the ever-remarkable Robert Downey, Jr. as a man suffering from an illness which manifests itself by covering him from head to toe in thick, silky hair -- an artsy Chewbacca if you will. His apartment is filled with curios and photos of freaks and he undertakes educating the repressed Diane by introducing her to his strange circle of friends. Anyone familiar with her actual work knows that she not only liked to photograph unusual-looking folk -- giants, midgets, nudists, subnormals -- but that even ordinary people look somewhat freakish in her pictures. This distinctive take on humanity is what makes her photography something special and it is a little flip to suggest that she was led into this mindset by a tragic romance.

On its own terms the film is well-made and absorbing, but it is something of a disappointment for anyone who knows anything at all about Arbus.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Voyage Surprise (1947)

All I really knew about the French surrealist poet Jacques Prevert is that he wrote most of the screenplays and dialogue for the populist director Michel Carne and that between the late 30s and mid 40s they were jointly responsible for some of the most poetic, atmospheric, and memorable films of that period including "Drole de drame", "Le Quai des brumes", "Hotel du Nord", "Le Jour se leve", and their monumental masterpiece "Les Enfants du Paradis". The National Film Theatre is currently presenting a season of their work, jointly and separately, and I shall be returning next week to view "Les Portes de la nuit" which is one of their few I've not seen previously. What I was not aware of beforehand is that Prevert also scripted Jean Renoir's "Boudu.." back in 1932 nor that he had a younger brother, Pierre, who was also a director, actor, and writer.

This film is one of the brothers' rare collaborations and is an unusual, humorous treat. The title translates as "Mystery Tour" and this is what is being offered to the inhabitants of a provincial village by the elderly and failing tour bus operator Pere Piuf. There is no itinerary nor price and the proposed vehicle is a converted 'wedding bus' with plush loveseats and fixtures. An assortment of local types of all classes are attracted to the voyage including two young men on the lam from Paris with a purloined taxi (in which the stolen jewels of a Ruritanian duchy have been hidden in the toolbox) with two inept cops hot in pursuit. There is also the daughter of a more successful coach operator, played by the young Martine Carol -- the only cast member familiar to me -- who is aboard to sabotage the tour and a young and swooning wedding couple who join the motley crew en route. Their adventures include overnighting in a smalltown brothel where the rooms convert into magic kingdoms or otherwise, as the two policeman find their room turned into a hurricaine zone, and finding themselves on stage at a theatre performance attended by an exiled Duchess. Much has been made of this grand personage throughout the film, so it comes as something of a hoot to find her being played by a male dwarf! Throw into the mix a mad revolutionary and desperate diplomats chaining up dissidents and the stage is set for the farce this film becomes. My only criticism is that the programme listed this as an 85-minute film and it in fact ran for another twenty minutes or so which is probably 20 minutes too much for this sort of whimsy.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Let me state upfront that I am a big Woody Allen fan (there are increasingly fewer of us). It's not that I particularly love his early "funny" work nor his cod-Bergman serious stuff, but most of his post-"Manhattan" movies charm me through their zingy dialogue, amazing casts, and general air of pleasant inconsequence. The one recent exception which I saw on an airplane and which has never been released here is "Hollywood Ending" which is definitely sub-standard and I understand that "Cassandra's Dream" which I've not yet seen is pretty awful -- although I shall make my own mind up in due course.

I was therefore especially keen to view the above film which everyone said was a 'return to form', although that's been said before. Perhaps because the movie has been so hyped, I'm sorry to say that I was actually a little disappointed. It's a pleasant enough watch and Allen makes good use of the wonderful Barcelona settings and Spanish music, but it seemed to be lacking that leavening of humour which makes his films special. The story concerns two best friends from the States spending a summer in Spain, the serious level-headed one played by Rebecca Hall (who's really beginning to register with me) and the flighty ungrounded one played by Allen's new muse Scarlett Johansson. There they meet macho artist Javier Bardem -- wonderful as always but in a slightly degrading role I think -- and his fiery ex-wife played by Penelope Cruz. The latter seems to be walking away with best supporting actress awards at present, but I can't say that I thought she was all that remarkable, and would far rather see either of the actresses nominated in the category for "Doubt" walk off with the Oscar.

Anyhow to return to the Woody at hand, yes, it's an interesting enough movie and a pleasant diversion with a fine ensemble cast, but nowhere near his greatest or most memorable films.

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Story of Mankind (1957)

This film has the reputation of being amongst the worst ever made, which -- having finally managed to view a copy (it is barely ever screened and is not available in other formats) -- I think is overstating the movie's faults and understating much of its appeal.

It was directed by Irwin Allen, later known for disaster movies like "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno", and people are inclined to describe this early effort as something of a shipwreck disaster. Based on a popular history published in the 1920s by one Hendrick Van Loon (very suitable name for the looney tunes feel of this flick), it portrays a "High Tribunal in Outer Space" presided over by Cedric Hardwicke to decide the fate of man -- whether he should be allowed to live or whether he should be destroyed by a "super H-bomb"! The case for survival is pleaded by "the spirit of Man" played by Ronald Colman in his last screen role; the case for destruction is the province of the Devil, Mr. Scratch, as portrayed by Vincent Price. Now these are two of the most mellifluous voices in film history, and I for one am happy to listen to whatever nonsense they may sprout. Between them they review history from biblical times underlining man's good works and his evil ones.

This is where the film garners its bad rep, as Allen depends on stock footage from better films and presents the viewer with one of the most insane casts in film history. For example we have three of the Marx Brothers in their last film together (and in colour) although they share no scenes: Groucho playing a wise-cracking Peter Minuit cheating the Indians out of Manhattan Island, Harpo as a harp-playing Isaac Newton being bombarded with dozens of apples, and Chico as a monk. Among the other weird casting is Hedy Lamarr as the oldest-ever Maid of Orleans -- a 43-year old Joan of Arc, Peter Lorre as Nero, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth, Marie Wilson as a streetwise Marie Antoinette, a 21-year old Dennis Hopper as Napoleon with an aging Josephine played by Marie Windsor, and Virginia Mayo in a dark wig as Cleopatra. If you look quickly, you can also spot old-timers Charles Coburn, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Reginald Gardner, and Cesar Romero. All of this makes it a camp classic in my book and well worth seeking out, if only for its weirdness and madcap conception.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Waitress (2007)

This quirky, indie film was a very pleasant surprise, made all the more poignant by the fact that its writer-director Adrienne Shelley was murdered, aged 40, by a sneak-thief shortly before the movie's debut. She registered as someone to watch in her film debut in Hal Hartley's 1989 gem "The Unbelievable Truth". Over the years she continued to act, write and direct, but most of her output stayed sub-radar. On the strength of this movie, cinema lost a major talent with her death.

Keri Russell in a brilliant turn plays a small-town waitress married to and pregnant by her pig of a husband, Jeremy Sisto, whom she dreams of leaving. Her only fulfillment is in imagining and baking fantastic pies which are served daily at the diner where she works with cynical Cheryl Hines and wallflower Shelley. When a new doctor hits town and takes over her pre-natal care, an irresistible attraction arises between them, despite his being married to a perfectly fine wife and her being both chained to the jealous and violent Sisto and lumbered with an unwanted foetus. The viewer can't help but root for this pair, despite knowing that they have no long-term future. The cast is rounded out by a sparkling turn from Andy Griffith as the cantankerous pie-diner owner with a soft spot for Russell. (I didn't even realise that he is still available!)

The film is very winning as it traces the romances of the three co-workers, especially that of frumpy Shelley and her nerdy suitor. It is also extremely colourful as Russell dreams up and creates her fantastic pies. All in all, this is a mouth-watering success.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Painted Boats (1945) plus a goodie

I haven't written much lately about my friend Richard who has a 13-seat cinema in his garden where he projects a varied selection of films once or twice a month, mainly because we've not been recently (partly down to my excessive transatlantic hopping last year and partly because I have my own copies of some of his choices). However, we returned last Sunday evening, just as our "big" (ho-ho) snow storm was beginning to see the above movie which was certainly both an obscurity and one totally new to me. Its credentials were good, being an early Ealing Studio production by Michael Balcon and the third film to be directed by the venerable Charles Crichton. However from the studio that one associates with sparkling comedies mixed with serious dramas, it was a very mundane affair. Shot on location on the Grand Union Canal, it tells the tale of families who have lived and worked on the canals for generations and how they must adjust their lives to adapt to the more modern world. While this may sound potentially interesting, the acting was pedestrian and the photography adequate at best. A narrator related the action to the history of the canals which gave the film a pseudo-documentary feel, but in the end I felt that I had managed to sit through a not too interesting school lesson. Well, at least I never have to watch it again!

However the evening was far from a wash-out, since Richard chose to screen a short film to fill out the scant 63 minutes above. His choice was "Incident at Owl Creek" (also known as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge") which I have known about for years, but which had eluded me. This 1963 film is actually French-made though shot in English (albeit mainly ambient sound) and its original title is "La Riviere du Hibou". Based on a short story by the mysterious author Ambrose Bierce who disappeared into the desert, it is set during the American Civil War as a plantation owner is about to be hanged for sabotage by the Union troops. The rope breaks and his bound body falls into the river and we then follow his escape and flight homeward -- until the jolting shock ending, 28 minutes of pure cinema. The film was actually picked up by Rod Sterling and transmitted as an episode of "The Twilight Zone" way back when -- a bit of trivia new to me but as fascinating as this short film itself.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Doubt (2008)

Despite London being ridiculously "snowbound", I have managed to attend another preview for a heavily-praised movie which is about to open and which has garnered no less than four academy award acting nominations for its four main roles (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis). The film is directed and written by John Patrick Shanley (also up for a writing award) based on his own stage play and while it is somewhat opened out, it remains a fairly stagey, talky four-hander. In fact it is really not much of a cinematic outing since the few non-verbal images -- feathers filling the air (like irretrievable rumours) and heavy winds -- seem rather forced in the hothouse atmosphere of a Catholic school in the Bronx back in 1964 and the remaining cast with the exception of the school's only black student are ciphers.

However it is the acting which makes the movie. Streep -- whom at one stage in her early career I could barely tolerate -- is remarkable as a nun and the martinet principal who suspects the greatly loved priest Hoffman of abusing the student. Variety was a little dismissive of her performance, comparing her unfavourably with the actress in the stage production and accusing her of underplaying the role. Not having seen the original I can only admire her every vocal inflection and every grimace in her pursuit of bringing him down. One never knows for certain whether Hoffman is guilty as charged, but he too manages to convey a range of emotions by the simplest glances (and I would not have considered his a supporting role as nominated, as his presence is far too important). Adams as the chirpy young nun who wants to think the best of everyone is also something of a revelation given her previous flighty roles. However it is Davis as the boy's mother who manages to convey real feeling and humanity in her brief scene with Streep. Unfortunately I suspect that none of these actors will receive Oscars this year, although Streep richly deserves another. The film manages to convey a wealth of ideas about gossip, narrowmindedness, fear, malevolence, and of course doubt, but none of these would be as forceful were it not for the splendid cast.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Face of Another (1966)

The Japanese director Hiroshi Teshiguhara only made seven feature films and four of these were collaborations with the avant garde novelist Kobo Abe and the modernist composer Turo Takemitsu. Their best-known film in the West is the haunting "Woman of the Dunes" (1964), a Palme d'or winner at Cannes and an Academy Award nominee, but this movie is even more remarkable. There is so much going on and so many different ideas being thrown at the viewer that it would take more than one viewing to try to make sense of the existential whole.

The basic story concerns a researcher whose face has been burned off in a laboratory experiment and who faces the world, including his wife, heavily bandaged. He meets a doctor/psychiatrist who is able to construct a life-like mask based on the face of a young man who has been paid for a cast to be taken; soon this new face begins to exert its pull on its wearer, creating a new personality to go with it. He rents an apartment to use for his parallel life (having previously looked at one in the same building as the masked man), and only the landlord's subnormal daughter can sense that the two are the same man. One of his main desires for his new face is to seduce his wife who has previously rejected his sexual overtures, which he proceeds to do wishing to expose her as a slut, but it does seem apparent that she too knew all along that the young, handsome stranger was in fact her husband. Thereafter, he becomes more and more the new persona, one which the psychiatrist can no longer control and who seems to be losing all moral ties to his old life.

While all this is going on the director moves in and out of a sub-plot concerning a beautiful but scarred young girl who is trying to live with her facial disfigurement, the result of the atom bomb at Nagasaki, and her interaction with the inmates of a mental institution where she apears to live and her need for physical love with her own brother. Both stories are filmed in an impressionistic way which must be seen to be believed with much of the action filmed through laboratory vials and other distorting screens and devices. Occasionally images appear which seem to have no immediate relationship to either story, like a bed floating above the city or a room seen in the distance which appears to be full of hair. And there is an eerie bit toward the end as the protagonists stroll through a crowd of faceless folk.

I somehow feel that I have not done justice to this film which doesn't easily fall into any genre category. It is not quite horror or sci-fi or a mad-scientist flick, but it touches on all of these. Most of all it is a wonderfully filmed philosophic reflection on how our appearance affects our behaviour and how the veneer of our rationality can so easily crumble.