Monday, 30 March 2009

Various Diversions

From time to time I feel obliged to do a compendium entry, especially when there is nothing much amongst my recent viewing that seems to warrant a review of its own. So here is a selection of movies seen since my last entry -- quite a few as it happens -- to be 'blessed' with a few comments:

Three French flicks, one from German TV: "Etoile sans Lumiere" (1946) which I watched for its screen role for Edith Piaf; it's a similar tale to "Singin' in the Rain" in which her voice is used to dub a fading screen star at the introduction to talkies, but without the happy ending. The other two, courtesy of CineMoi were "Mon Colonel" (2006) about intrigue in Algiers and its latter-day aftermath and "Rue des Plaisirs" (2002), a period-piece set at the end of World War Two about a whore, her true love, and the man who truly loves her. Again, don't look to the French for happy endings, although the former seemed to be morally acquitting a murderer.

Spring Parade (1940): This is the only Deanna Durbin film which I'd not seen before and a pleasant piece of period Austrian fluff it was with the young singer in good form and great support from some of my favourite character actors: Mischa Auer, S.Z. 'Cuddles' Sakall, and Franklin Pangborn.

Trauma (2004) and Bug (2006): These were two thoroughly muddled and unpleasant films of mental delusion, the first starring Colin Firth and the latter starring Ashley Judd, both of which featured a selection of creepy crawly insects which is guaranteed to freak me out.

Diary of the Dead (2007): I wish George Romero would pack it in with his zombie movies and either retire or find a new string to his bow. This one, in common with [Rec] a Spanish film of the same year which I saw about a week ago, follows the current Blair Witch/Cloverfield vogue of telling the tale via a hand-held video camera. Yuk! At least the Spanish entry which of course is being remade Stateside was well and truly scary, whereas the Romero effort could only boast three really nifty gore effects -- if you go for that sort of thing!

Painted Veil (2006): I really don't know who thought it would be a good idea to remake this 1934 Greta Garbo film at great length, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Yes, the photography actually filmed in China was magnificent, but the movie itself was worthy and dreary, despite the acting talent involved.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937): This is one of the great unknown classics of that fabulous decade and is throughly sad and upsetting as it deals with a family's treatment of its older generation, a story which is as true today as ever. Beulah Bondi, only 48 when this was made, plays the aged mother of five children, including Thomas Mitchell (all of three years her junior) who is forcefully separated from her loving husband of many years (Victor Moore). A real weepy!

The Great Madcap (1949): This is another very minor film from the great Luis Bunuel during his Mexican exile concerning a wealthy man who pretends to have lost everything in an effort to teach a lesson to his greedy children and relatives. I'm glad to have finally seen it, but it's a very workaday film.

So now you have it, or partially, since I actually did see a few other things over the weekend, but who in their right mind watches so many films? I do, I proudly admit...

Friday, 27 March 2009

Isabelle Carre

It seems that I am still capable of discovering new things -- some saying about old dogs and all that. I had never heard of the French actress Isabelle Carre until, as chance would have it, I watched two films in which she stars two nights in a row, thanks to the surprising programming of the new French cinema channel. Both films date from 2005: In His Hands and L'Avion (The Airplane) and both were something out of the usual.

In the former, also known as "Entre ses Mains", she stars as an insurance claims manager, married and with a young daughter, when she meets the latest claimant, a vet played by the Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde -- so memorable for his turn as a killer in the 1992 movie "Man Bites Dog". He seems lonely and craves her company and she agrees to various meetings which are innocent on the surface, despite the fact that he is no oil painting and irascible and despite the fact that she has an attentive, dishy husband at home. The story is set in Lille where a serial killer has been preying on women for the last year and suppressing her fears that her new friend may be the culprit, she continues to see him. An arrest is made and she relaxes her guard, even as his behaviour becomes more and more suspicious, until the shock ending which one would only find in a French film.

In the second film which falls squarely into the fantasy genre, she again plays the married mother of a young boy. When her husband who is a military pilot and researcher is killed in an accident, the two of them must face life without him. At Christmas, shortly before his death, he gave the son a large one-piece model airplane of some strange white material; the boy does not conceal his disappointment since he thinks he was promised a bicycle. Afterwards, however, he develops a fascination with the plane and believes it has wonderful powers to move and to fly and that it will be able to lead him to a last meeting with his Dad to properly say their goodbyes. The plane does indeed appear to be something magical with a will all its own, and when a military scientist takes it away for study, the boy must find a way to liberate it and discover its true purpose. This was a warm and involving story, although perhaps not quite as successful as it might have been -- it just seemed to miss somehow -- but certainly a worthy effort by all concerned.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Three and Out (2008)

Some film projects appear so misbegotten that one would suspect that they had no chance of succeeding. Such is the case here with this story of a would-be writer who works as an underground (subway) driver and who has the misfortune of having two people fall in front of his train in short order. His co-workers convince him that if a third fatality occurs within the same month, he will be pensioned off with ten years' salary -- an appealing idea to someone who dreams of escaping to the countryside to fulfill himself. That this central role is taken by the anorexic-looking Mackenzie Crook (of British "Office" fame and also featured in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" flicks) made me wonder even more about its chances of success. So it was fair to say that I came to this movie with extreme prejudice and only watched it because it was there.

However I must confess that it worked as a film although I am at something of a loss to explain exactly why. Crook is tempted by the prospect of "easy" money and starts searching for a would-be suicide to agree to be his third victim. This involves keeping an eye out for bridge-jumpers and logging into suicide chatrooms on the web. As the result of the latter, he meets up with Sir Anthony Sher as a French nutter who wants him to cook and eat various bits of his anatomy until there is nothing left -- an absolutely outre turn for this respected actor. This is obviously out of the question, but he does find Colm Meaney as a down-and-out wastrel who agrees to the cash-for-his-life offer as a way of trying to make things up to the wife (Imelda Staunton) and daughter (British starlet Gemma Arterton) whom he deserted some eight years back. So off they go for the weekend up North to try to mend the bridges before Monday's date with death.

Apart from the fact that it was a little offputting to see Arterton happily snogging and shagging the skeletal Crook, the scenes between Staunton and Meaney felt very real. I won't write how this tale finishes, but it is not exactly as one would have expected in any conventional movie and it did manage to become unexpectedly moving. So, so much my preconceived prejudices; there is something to be said for keeping an open mind, even at the most dire of possibilities.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hitmen -- the Good, the Bad & the Ridiculous

Sometimes my movie viewing seems to centre around certain themes, and this seems to have been Hitman Week. However I really want to focus on only two of these films.

First up is "In Bruges" (2008) which I previously saw in part during my myriad transatlantic journeys last year (my initial reactions can be found in the archives) and which I wanted to view again under better conditions. This award-winner and audience-pleaser from writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to hit a happy vein of black comedy-drama in its tale of two British-based hitmen lying low in Bruges. The fact that this is one of my own favourite cities adds to the movie's appeal, but while the older of the two as played by Brendan Gleeson is happy to soak up the ancient town's appeal, the younger and dimmer played by a foul-mouthed Colin Farrell thinks it is a dump (except he describes it rather more explicitly). Farrell has messed up his first hit of a priest by accidentally killing a young lad at the scene and their boss, played by an equally potty-mouthed Ralph Fiennes, has sent them to cool their heels until he can decide how to deal with this. I have always found Farrell's appeal to be minimal, but credit where credit is due, he shines here as he mixes "culture" with a dishy drug-dealer and her venal colleague, American tourists, and a "midget" (actually a dwarf but dum-dum doesn't know the difference). The actual story is pretty grim if looked at too closely, but it is told in such an amusing way that the violence is almost forgiveable here.

The second film worth mentioning is a far less-known British effort, American Cousins (2003). This small movie seems to have made no dent on the moviegoer's radar and is not even listed in most film guides, but we found it a little gem. Two American hitmen from New Joisey have created something of a problem for their mob while on business in Prague, and they are told to hole-up with some Scottish-Italian relations in Glasgow (which in fact does have a large ethnic community). The two are played by young Danny Nucci and older Dan Hedaya; the latter has been a favourite of mine for many years, first registering with me in his occasional role of Nick Tortelli in "Cheers", a character actor with many strings to his bow. So they find themselves involved in the life of a small local cafe where owner Gerald Lepkowski, his would-be girlfriend/manageress Shirley Henderson, and his grandpa Russell Hunter (in his last role, but remembered here forever as the character Lonely in the "Callan" TV series) are at the mercy of some local hoodlums who want the premises. Hedaya soon makes short work of the British toughs while Nucci tries his hand at producing edible fish and chips. There is a pleasant feeling of good humour throughout, despite some fairly strong violence, and when the rest of the Sopranos-style New Jersey mob appear at the denouement, one again believes that hitmen can be as human, flawed, and complex as any of us.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Oxford Murders (2008)

I vaguely recall the very brief reviews that were published when this film was released here, which from memory were kinda poor, as are most of the comments on IMDb, so I was unprepared for my very favourable reaction to what I found to be a literate and intelligent mystery. Directed and co-written by Alex de la Iglesia, who has made some of the most unusual semi-horror flicks to emerge from Spain over the past fifteen years, this was his first English-language production and remained true to his love of the grotesque.

Elijah (Frodo) Wood plays an American graduate student who comes to Oxford University to do his mathematics doctorate under the mentoring eye of his hero John Hurt. Hurt on the other hand has given up tutoring students and now only gives the occasional lecture underlining his nihilistic philosophy; at one of these he trashes Wood's arguments when the latter tries to gain his attention, to the extent that the student is just about ready to pack up and go. However on returning to his digs at the home of eccentric Anna Massey, the widow of an Enigma code-breaker, and her unappreciated carer-daughter, he arrives at the same moment as family friend Hurt to discover Massey murdered. This begins a strange cooperation betwen the two mathematicians as they try to crack a code which they believe will lead to other random murders -- and indeed more follow (or so we are led to believe). There are any number of red herrings to puzzle police inspector Jim Carter before a final explanation is given that satisfies him, although the true answers and real culprits are only detailed at movie's end. Not having read the novel on which this film is based, I for one did not foresee the final twists.

There is a strong role for Spanish actress Leonor Watling (recognizable from several Almodovar flicks) as a hospital nurse with a sexual history with both Hurt and Wood, a sub-plot involving French actor Dominique Piton (whom I first saw in "Delicatessen" and who has one of those faces you just can't forget) as the father of a terminally ill child, and one of the most bizarre turns ever from director Alex Cox as a limbless, brain-damaged ex-colleague whom Hurt frequently visits. The film is far from perfect and logically doesn't completely hold together. However it is clever, involving, and so brilliantly acted by Hurt in particular that I have no problem in recommending it.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Edge of Heaven (2007)

I have seen earlier films from the director Fatih Akin which, while reasonably involving, did not prepare me for this masterly film. Although he is thought of as a Turkish director, he is actually German-born of Turkish parents, and his focus is on the experience of being caught between two cultures.

The story being told here is linked by three parent-child pairings and is played out in time shifts in Bremen, Hanover, and Istanbul. Ali is a horny old Turkish immigrant, whose German-born son is a university professor of German and part of a different world both intellectually and physically. Ali takes up with a Turkish-born sex worker who is supporting her daughter back home, with whom she has lost recent contact, under the myth that she is working in a shoe shop. The daughter in question is part of a Kurdish revolutionary group and has fled from the police to Germany where she meets and begins a lesbian relationship with a university student, daughter of a bohemian mother played by the great Hanna Schygulla.

There are two meaningful deaths amongst these six characters which I will not spell out with a spoiler warning, but these are clearly foretold in the first two (of three) chapter headings. The interesting thing about this film is not just how people deal with family and loss, but how chance and circumstance affect our lives. Although the characters all come close at times to discovering the underlying truths that connect them, they never fully realise how all six lives are linked together. They can only perservere and perhaps find forgiveness and/or salvation.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Vampire (1913) & A Fool There Was (1915)

Ever vigilant for new cinematic taste thrills, I noticed that there was a season of femme fatale flicks at the BFI and hastened there forthwith. However it was something of a disappointment and just goes to show how one's potential enjoyment can be mitigated by unknown factors. I hadn't realised that the films were part of some obscure festival celebrating female filmmakers, and for a start the showing was delayed (the kiss of death at a repertory cinema) while the organisers faffed about. However the biggest disruption was saved for the second and longer film when the movie was stopped halfway through for a scantily-clad and not overly talented tap-dancer doing her thing for what seemed like an interminable time. In addition both films "boasted" newly-commissioned scores: the lady pianist for The Vampire was adequate in a tinkly sort of way, but the Broken Heart DJ Collective ruined the second film by their unsuitable choice of music for the period, foremost of which was their playing of 'Aloha Hawaii' music during the principals' sordid sojourn in Italy, and they also ripped off Joplin, Gershwin, and Benny Goodman. I think they were trying to be too clever by half.

But what of the films themselves? Vampire in this context refers back to the scandalous 1897 Burne-Jones painting and the term refers not to a bloodsucker, but to a sex-wielding wealthsucker. The second movie takes its title from a minor Kipling poem which was normally recited before the showing of the film (as it was here by some more would-be talents) and stars Theda Bara, who is widely considered the screen's first vamp. The rather doggy female from the first film, Alice Hollister, came first, but it is Bara who wears the crown. All this is rather a dubious distinction for a nice Jewish girl from Ohio whose stage name was NOT chosen as an anagram for Arab Death! Although she made some 40-odd movies, most of these are now lost, and I think this is the first time I actually saw her in a full feature -- however I was not overwhelmed by her presence. Both films were remarkably pedestrian with a static camera in telling their tales of the good man who loses his way when he is enticed by a grasping woman. In the first a simple farm-boy comes to the Big City to make his fortune so that he can marry the lovely lass back home and loses everything, until he views a "famous" vaudeville stage dance portraying a Vampire's evil and mends his ways. In the second, a respected diplomat leaves the comfort of his loving family and sacrifices his reputation when he is ensnared by the irresistible Miss Bara. Nothing now can stand between him and total ruin as with other unfortunates before him. It was not easy to imagine what the vamp's actual appeal was here as tastes of female pulchritude have changed, but at least she got to whisper the immortal line (as rendered by the intertitle, this being a silent movie) "Kiss me, Fool!"

Monday, 9 March 2009

A one-day FrightFest

Apart from the annual four- or five-day gross-out every August Bank Holiday, the FrightFest mavens occasionally organise a one-day event (last year it was half a day!). So it was that we returned on Saturday to the Prince Charles Cinema, the festival's spiritual home, for an amusing twelve hours:

First up was "Embodiment of Evil" (2008), the third part of the Coffin Joe trilogy begun over 40 year's ago by the Brazilian eccentric Jose Mojica Marins. If you have never seen any of these black-and-white low budget atheistic atrocities, you haven't really missed much, although they form part of every horror aficionado's knowledge. This one boasted colour and far higher production values than his earliest outings and old footage was craftily included as the back-story of the black-caped sadist on his release from gaol and his need to father a child of his blood, This involved kidnapping and sadistically torturing a procession of nubile females with some of the grossest effects yet put on screen. What does it say about me if I call these "good fun"???

The second film was "Shuttle" (2009) which apparently opened in the States the day before. This low-budget rather cheapjack production told of five passengers kidnapped on an airport shuttle bus on a nightmare ride to somewhere -- the twist of the final destination was really the only mild shock in a badly filmed and barely watchable effort.

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008): This rock opera developed from a 2006 promo by the director of "Saw" Two through Four and his two writing pals, was a very mixed bag, which while hardly to my taste did feature good production values and inventive staging. The story of spare body-parts mogul Paul Sorvino (who has an amazing singing voice) and his repo-man Anthony Head (who also made a good fist of the vocals) who rips out these parts when payments fall behind was an amusing concept. There was excellent use of graphics to flesh out the background stories of the main characters, but the film was a little let down by the variability of the vocal talent from the very adept Sarah Brightman through the screechy Alexa Vega as Head's daughter. As for Paris Hilton as one of Sorvino's greedy offspring, she has become a tolerable presence, who seems willing to send herself up, and this role certainly did not justify her appearance at the Razzies. Not my cup of tea, but I could see its attracting a cult following.

The "surprise film" was pretty well guessed at by all concerned and turned out to be the world premiere of "Lesbian Vampire Killers". This was not quite the trash that its title would suggest, but a tongue-in-cheek and generally amusing riff on the vampire genre, featuring James Corden and Mathew Horne,two popular TV comics (from series that I have never seen), fighting off the cursed village daughters -- all them become vampires when they turn 18 -- who follow the Vampire Queen Camilla (I shudder to think if this is a reference to Mrs. Charles). There was also a neat comic turn from Withnail favourite Paul McCann as the local vicar trying to save his daughter from the sexy tribe.

This was followed by "Not Quite Hollywood" (2008) a documentary about "Ozploitation". Apparently Australia progressed (if that is the right word) from having one of the most censored film communities to a cheery assortment of "Boobs, Pubes, and Tubes" in the 1970s, followed by a dandy assortment of minor horrors and action films spaced amongst the better-known art house output. Again, this was a humourous retrospective with a number of jokey talking heads -- Australian directors, producers, critics, and actresses who had removed their clothes -- although I personally could have done with rather less Quentin Tarantino, a self-confessed fan of these obscurities. Possibly a little too long with a trough of boredom in the middle, it was still entertaining to see so many of these long-forgotten clips.

Since it was now approaching midnight, we didn't bother to stay for the final film, "Turkey Shoot" from 1982, which I have on DVD anyhow and which couldn't really compete with the appeal of going home to bed after a long but generally entertaining day.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Two more from France

Well, my sampling the new CineMoi channel is turning out to produce its pleasant share of surprises, if not yet any really memorable outings. However I am fairly certain that it provides the opportunity to view a selection of flicks that would otherwise escape me. Here's a few words on two of the latest:

Riens du tout (1992): This is the debut film from director Cedric Klapisch and it is certainly an accomplished piece of work. For some reason the English translation of the title is "Little Nothings" which may or may not be relevant to the story about the numerous employees of a vast department store which faces closure in a year's time if the business can not be turned around. A new manager is brought in whose aim is to better employee relations and thus increase sales -- through such exercises as bungee-jumping and weekends at nudist camps -- and to make these anonymous clock-punchers into one big happy family. The large ensemble cast is made up of many familiar faces, if not familiar names, and we come to know and care for many of them during the film, especially a basically unemployable trouble-maker, a black cleaner (i.e. sanitation expert), and an unpaid student whose duties include performing costumed Greek dances and being the store's Santa Claus. The camera work as it sweeps about the store's expanse is also very professionally done. The film ends with a fine show of staff morale and togetherness, even 'though one knows that their jobs are no longer secure.

Un Secret (2007): I knew that this film starred dishy Cecile de France (who is actually Belgian) and flavour-of-the-year Mathieu Amalric, although I did not expect to see them as mother and son! The movie zips between action from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 80s with de France as the sexy mother in the early scenes (not that she ages much until the end of the film) and Almaric as the grown son in the late ones. I was surprised to find that this is actually a Holocaust-genre film, since the characters play French Jews who undergo various traumas during and after the war years. Unlike many films, the characters do not all suffer nobly and the secret of the title is that the young son's heritage is denied and hidden; it is only as a teenager that he learns about his father's first marriage (an impressive turn by Ludivine Sagnier) and the disappearance of the son that could make his father proud in a way that he never can. This destroys the fantasies he has nurtured about his parents' fairytale marriage and helps to explain his father's continued disappointment. The action moves rather haphazardly amongst the decades with not a little confusion at times, but director Claude Miller handles this adequately. The irony is that the arrogant father played by Patrick Bruel is more concerned in the final scenes about the death of his pet dog than he was about Sagnier and his supposedly beloved son.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Trust the Man (2005)

Considering the cost of making and marketing movies nowadays, it is remarkable that so many flops reach the public, and not just from the so-called Indie sector. Until I noticed this film in the late-night schedules, I had never heard of it -- despite its starry cast -- and it had not even been shown previously on the not too fussy subscription film channels.

It stars Julianne Moore and was written for her by her husband, the director Bart Freundlich, but frankly it was not much of a gift. She plays the stage actress wife of David Duchovny who has given up the world of advertising to become a house-husband. Being something of a sex addict -- not too far a stretch if the tabloids are to be believed -- he begins an affair with a divorcee whom he meets at their kids' school, thus jeopardising his already shaky marriage. Meanwhile Moore's immature brother, Billy Crudup, who is in a long-term relationship with broody Maggie Gyllenhaal, shies from commitment. The plain truth is that one doesn't really care about any of these people and the film lacks both humour and warmth. The contrived happy ending feels like just that and nothing more. This talkfest was not some low-budget effort since there were throwaway parts for Eva Mendes, Gary Shandling, James Le Gros, and an uncredited Bob Balaban, but one can't help regretting that the talent on display were not better served.