Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Mirage (1965)

It must be a good twenty-odd years since I last saw this film from versatile director Edward Dmytryk and I must confess that I barely remembered it, although there are many components in its favour. It stars Gregory Peck in a sub-Hitchcockian thriller in a role that has much in common with his confused character in "Spellbound". Coinciding with a blackout and a man falling from the upper floor of his building, Peck seems to have suffered total amnesia and is unable to make any sense of who he is (although he knows his name and where he lives), his background, or what exactly he has done before the past two years; he seems to believe that he has been working as a "cost accountant" (whatever that is) at an office that doesn't seem to exist amongst co-workers that he can't find. His grasp on reality is not helped by the fact that gunsels Jack Weston and George Kennedy (both in early roles) are after him. This permits Peck to play something of an action hero as he evades them, which somehow feels a little forced.

I can never quite make up my mind about Peck. His good looks and competence assured him leading roles from the start, but there is something of the Redwood about him, not so much wooden as majestic and stiff. In contrast this film provides a wonderful part for Walter Matthau, slightly before his breakout roles, as a wisecracking private detective whom Peck hires to help him work out the truth. SPOILER here: Matthau is killed halfway through the movie and his death takes some of the spark from the proceedings. Apparently he told Dmytryk that this was a mistake and the director assured him that he had a great future as a character actor; Matthau replied in no uncertain terms that he had every intention of being a leading actor. (And so it was, with his non-handsome hangdog looks gracing every subsequent role).

Moving in an out of the action is Diane Baker, as a woman who obviously has some sort of past with Peck and who is concerned for his future, but who does not help the viewer make too much sense of the story -- more window-dressing than pivotal. This perhaps is where the movie falls down before its hurriedly explained denouement; it starts as a wild goose chase and ends up as something of an anti-climax, but there are sufficient highpoints along the way. Filmed on location in New York, the hostile City becomes another character along with supporting players Kevin McCarthy, Walter Abel, and Leif Erickson.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Molly and Me (1945)

Monty Woolley was one of the most unlikely Hollywood character actors of the 1940s. He gave up his English professorship at Yale to turn professional actor at the age of 47 and is probably best known for his signature role as the cantankerous long-term guest in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1942). He generally gave off a gruff exterior which increasingly did not disguise his inner pussy-cat. In this film he was re-teamed with his co-star from 1943's "Holy Matrimony", Lancashire! (correction: thanks M) singer Gracie Fields and this film is really a starring vehicle for her.

I never much cared for her Northern working-gal persona in her popular British films of the 30s, but she was well-loved and highly paid. Her popularity dipped when she went off to America during the Second World War and it never again reached its dizzy heights on her return. This Hollywood film is supposedly set in London out of deference to her, since she could never convincingly play anything other than a chirpy British type. She appears as a down-on-her-luck music hall player who finagles a job as a housekeeper chez Woolley, despite the protests of his butler, Reginald Gardiner in an accomplished turn, who is also an unemployed actor. She systematically goes about bringing some joy into the erstwhile mausoleum and manages to get rid of the remaining staff who had been swindling their employer at every opportunity. In their place she recruits an assortment of theatrical types who are happy to play at being cook, gardener, housemaid, and so on.

Rejoining Woolley from "The Pied Piper" (1942) is that film's co-star Roddy McDowall, who here adds yet another memorable child-actor role to an impressive list. (He had a long Hollywood career right up until his death in 1998, but never with quite the same impact). He plays Woolley's distanced son, home from boarding school; the two can barely communicate until housekeeper Fields' infectious warmth brings them together. She even manages to sort out her employer's blackmailing ex-wife who had ruined his previous political career and whom McDowall believes to be dead. By the inevitible happy end, Woolley is melted and a much better man; and while there is no indication that love might bloom between him and Gracie, there is a definite suggestion that she will have a long-term role and impact in his household.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Is Anybody There? (2008)

We went to a preview of this BBC co-produced film which opens soon and which I understand leading actor Michael Caine agreed to make for a pittance since the script made him cry. Well, I know he is getting on and perhaps he is becoming more aware of his own mortality (as are we all), but honestly it was not that remarkable an exercise.

He plays an erstwhile stage magician, now in his dotage and generally grieving all that he has lost in the past. Set in 1987, he goes to live in a rambling old house, somewhere on the South Coast with a disillusioned rising-middle aged couple and their 10-year old son, who are making do by looking after wrinklies who can afford the cost of staying there -- not that they seem to have any particular skills in this area. The most interesting part of the movie is the assortment of elderly "guests", well known to us past the first flush of youth from their stage, film and TV roles: Sylvia Syms, Rosemary Harris, Thelma Barlow, Leslie Phillips, and Peter Vaughan for starters. The young lad, who is obsessed with ghosts and wonderment about what happens at death -- not surprising from the rapid turnover of the house's inhabitants -- forms a quirky attachment to Caine. The latter, in a bitter and cyncial turn, teaches the lad magic tricks and even performs a show for his fellow-oldies at which a guillotine trick goes madly wrong. It is clear that Caine is rapidly falling into senility and when the boy tries to help him to reconcile his past by locating his ex-wife's grave, one is left to wonder whether anything more is registering with the likeable but definitely past-it old coot.

I thought the boy (Bill Milner) looked vaguely familiar, but couldn't place him before doing some minor research. It appears that he played the lead in Sky's TV Easter extravaganza "Skellig" which frankly wasn't much cop. This film was infinitely better because of its superior casting, but was hardly the 'comedy of the year' as I have seen it advertised. Still, it is always a pleasure watching Michael (God bless you Sir) Caine.

Monday, 20 April 2009

When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950)

If you were to ask me to name my favourite directors, the choice might vary from day to day, but you can bet that John Ford would always be among the top three. Best-known for his Westerns, his enormous output from silent days forward was far more varied and includes war films, "oirish" larks, literary adaptations, and the down-homey Judge Priest movies. While I don't love each and every one of his films, most include more than enough to keep me happy and the best of them make me cry as well (now what sort of criterion is that?). While many of his movies have their humourous moments, he seldom set out to make a comedy as such, which makes the above film a little unusual amongst his work.

The basic story is of small-town hero Dan Dailey being the first to enlist after Pearl Harbor and how, after basic training, he finds himself stationed at a camp just outside his home town. It seems that his gunnery skills are better employed training new recruits than being tested on the battlefield and every time he complains, he is given another Good Conduct Medal. So after several years during which his old friends have proved their courage, he goes from hero to zero amongst the local folk who view him as some sort of slacker, much to the disgust of his Great War veteran dad, the lovingly grumpy William Demarest and even to his faithful girlfriend, Colleen Townsend. When he gets a chance to go overseas as a replacement bombadier, everything goes wrong -- he becomes separated from his crewmates (since he was asleep at a crucial moment), bails out over France, and falls in with gorgeous Resistance heroine Corinne Calvert. He witnesses the launch of a Nazi secret rocket and is entrusted to get the film to London; unfortunately the drink which is pressed upon him over and over and extreme tiredness make him incapable of logical thought, and when he is then flown to Washington to report to the big brass, he is thought to be insane. Escaping from a threatened strait-jacket he runs back to his home, where everyone thinks he is either a deserter or a spy -- until explanations guarantee a happy ending.

If this sounds like a good idea for a hilarious comedy, think again, since apart from a few minor amusing moments and the fact that Dailey is as good-natured an actor as was, the film is if anything a little draggy and forced. OK, it's very minor Ford, but not quite amongst his failures ("Gideon's Day" heads that list).

I bought this DVD as a replacement for a copy of the film which I had previously on a beta tape. The bonus however is that the disc includes a second Ford feature, "Up the River" from 1930, which amazingly I had never seen before. Faced with competition from MGM's release of "The Big House", the director turned his prison project into something of a light-hearted romp. While it's not overly great film-making (and I think the copy I viewed was cobbled together from remaining sources), it is notable for giving us the film debuts for both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart which makes it something of a milestone in film history!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Swimfan (2002)

Some films seem to improve the second time around and others warrant multiple viewings with something satisfyingly new registering each time. This film does not fit into either category and its second view was even less appealing than its first, since any novelty value it may have had once is now gone, gone, gone. You may well ask, why bother to watch it again, but that is another story.

It plays like a junior league version of "Fatal Attraction" with a very definitely B-list (or worse) teenaged cast. Jesse Bradford is a previously-troubled high school senior who has served time in juvie, but who has found redemption through his star status on the swim team and with his loving girlfriend Shiri Appleby. Enter would-be siren and full-time psycho Erika Christensen (Michael Douglas' daughter in "Traffic" and a little homely to my eye) who sets out to seduce him (in the swimming pool of course) and manages to do so without too much resistance on his part. The trouble is that he can't get rid of her as she bombards him with e-mails with tasteful nude photos of herself, gets him fired from his hospital job by switching his patients' meds, loses him his position on the team and his chances for a college scholarship by slipping him anabolic steroids, kills his team-mate and plants incrimating evidence, tries to kill his girlfriend, yada yada yada. It all goes to prove that in movies teenage immorality can only end in disaster! By the movie's end his once starry future seems more than a little uncertain -- but that will learn him say the moralists.

In the film's favour, it was only a scant eighty minutes!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Sky satellite movie channels

A while back Sky Television revamped their film channels and I had a little moan at the time; things have become even worse since. Although there are now a minimum of eleven channels (laughingly dubbed Comedy, Action, Classic, etc.) showing movies 24/7 (plus a +1 channel and various HD channels), they manage to show the same films over and over and over again. The so-called Premiere Channel features five "new" films a week, but whereas even when there were fewer channels the monthly average of films new to satellite was higher in the past, there are now only very occasionally first showing films on the other ten. This week is fairly typical of the sorry fare on offer:

There is always at least one film of the five that I have viewed previously and this week's is "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008) which I saw on a flight and which I have touched on before. Since in-flight movies leave much to be desired, I did watch it again and found it vaguely amusing as Jason Segel goes to Hawaii to get over being dumped by Kristen Bell, only to find her there vacationing with new beau Russell Brand. Some child is rumoured to have asked of Brand recently, "What is he for?", which is a good question; I can only say that he is marginally more watchable than other "national treasures" like Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry.

Then there were two late-night "horrors" in both senses of the word, the American "Pathology" and the British "Doomsday", both from 2008 and neither, as far as I know, blessed with a theatrical release. The former followed the nasty exploits of a bunch of medical interns, including Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia, as they played a sick game of seeing which of them could best get away with murdering the patients in their care without being discovered. Makes you wonder! The other was rather more imaginative but absolutely stupid, as action heroine Rhona Mitra and her fellow-soldiers are dropped into Scotland (which has previously been quarantined from the rest of the country) to find a cure for some grotty plague which has now broken out in London. The survivors she finds -- a remarkably high number given the plague's history -- seem to be divided into two groups. The first centred in Glasgow consists of all-the-same-age heavy-metal punks; the second in the Highlands, led by renegade scientist Malcolm McDowell, has recreated a medieval microcosm with knights in armour and trial by combat. The film doesn't address minor issues like how petrol manages to be available some twenty-odd years after civilisation has effectively shut down or where all the consumer gear comes from; the filmmakers don't seem terribly bothered by the nonsense and illogicalities on display and expect the viewer to have a good time.

There is usually one film a week aimed at children and this week's is "The Spiderwick Chronicles" (2008) which I again saw much of on a flight. Likeable British child actor Freddie Highmore dons a suitable American twang to play twins, one adventurous and one studious, who move to a creepy old house with their older sister and recently-separated mom, Mary-Louise Parker. There the more forward twin discovers a journal written by a great-great-uncle (David Strahairn) some 80 years earlier categorising all of the unseen denizens with whom we share our world: fairies, goblins, elves, and ogres to name a few. He disappeared all those years ago leaving his young daughter to grow up into the aged Joan Plowright (now consigned to the local loony bin). When the big bad local ogre gets wind of the book's emergence, the family is under attack by a variety of beasties until young Freddie manages to save the day. It's all imaginatively put together with the now visible demons not overly scary for younger viewers, although as they say, parental guidance is probably advised. This one would make a good double bill with "The Water Horse" which I touched on last week.

That leaves something called "How She Move" (2007) to complete the week's tasty treats (not). As far as I can establish this is yet another 'black' dance movie and while I shall probably watch it on principle, I expect very little. Such are the trials of being such a completist!

The other satellite film channels other than the new French channel, also show little to tempt me. TCM in Britain seems to re-show the same fifty or so films -- I get very frustrated when I read details of their more imaginative U.S. programming including a large number of silents -- and Film Four since it moved to Freeview (with frequent ad breaks) seems to have cut back on films which have not previously been shown elsewhere. However, I notice that next week includes some new offerings from Iran, Paraguay, and Chad, so we shall try to retain our optimism and enthusiasm. Meanwhile I shall continue to scour the various schedules in pursuit of the elusive.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

It's been rather a mixed bag of viewing over the last few days, but too soon after my last multiple entry to do another; it included a couple of golden oldies, a pair of poorish French flicks, the penultimate 'Romance' biting the dust, and the remnants of another uninvited series of TV 'Action Thrillers'. So it was a toss-up between the above movie and a British kiddie fantasy "The Water Horse" (2007), which had its moments, of a lonely lad raising a baby "Nessie" in the Scottish lochs during World War II. However whereas I would probably resist viewing the latter again, I think this was my third time for the Woody Allen gem.

I've written before about people droning on about the latest Allen movie either not being funny or alternatively "a return to form", but this one is something of a winner on all levels. The director has always managed to attract high-powered casts for his films, which must say something in his favour. Here we have him playing a sports writer married to Helena Bonham Carter (not particularly good chemistry there); they have the opportunity to adopt a new-born as she is far too busy with her work to consider having one of her own. The child is greatly loved by both parents, and so handsome and bright that Woody begins to wonder about how marvellous his birth parents must be. Enter porn actress and prostitute Mira Sorvino playing a tart with a heart who is not the brightest bulb in the pack. The bimbo-izing of her actual striking good looks and keen intelligence earned her a best supporting Oscar.

Woody takes it upon himself to try to reform her and find her a suitable husband, partly to insure against the time when his son seeks to find out more about his mother (the father could have been one of hundreds) and partly because of his genuine concern for another vulnerable human being. He doesn't want the offered sex as a reward, but rather begins to truly care for her future, although thicky boxer Michael Rapaport proves not to be the answer. All of this action is punctuated by a latter-day Greek chorus in Manhattan's Central Park, including the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, and David Ogden Stiers, commenting on the action, offering some memorable funny lines, and eventually breaking into a full-fledged Broadway musical number -- a clever modern usage of an ancient dramatic device.

The script is witty, the final irony of the tale not foreseen, and a good time is guaranteed to any viewer who doesn't believe the myth of Woody's decline.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1995)

For the past few months during my downtime, such as it is, I have been ploughing through a 14-disc collection of 'Romances' which entered the house surreptitiously courtesy of a daily newspaper and which have been glaring at me for the last two years. They are all made-for-television films and mini-series based on books by the likes of Catherine Cookson, Rosalind Pilcher, Sidney Sheldon, and Barbara Bradford. I have never read any of these authors and had only seen one of the collection previously, Anita Brookner's "Hotel du Lac" (1986), which held up well because of the brilliant pairing of Anna Massey and the late lamented Denholm Elliot supported by a fine cast. As for the rest, it has been something of a mindless plod, occasionally enlivened by some star turns by familiar faces.
The above title proved jollier than the norm and thereby serves as the hook for this entry. It stars Tara Fitzgerald as the eponymous heroine who has just been dumped by her boyfriend of seven years for a wealthier mealticket. Briefly reconnected with her gambler father -- a sweet cameo from Daniel Massey -- who literally dies laughing in hospital, she finds he has left her better off than she could have dreamed. His last wish was for a "fun" funeral and she plans this with the young and feckless firm run by Edward Atterton and Samuel West and is amazed at how many mourners appear. Amongst them are old flame Sian Phillips and her pig-farmer nephew Joseph Fiennes who falls in love with Fitzgerald at first sight. Meanwhile she is whisked off to North Africa by her chancer ex-beau for a series of horrendous encounters before Fiennes rescues her and ultimately wins her. It was all played with a light touch and allowed the viewer a hissable villain in her ex.

Now there are only two more to go but I doubt I'll be reporting further details.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Maiden and the Wolves (2008)

I'm still on something of a French film kick and although I can remember reading a review of this movie, it has not yet turned up on DVD nor does it seem to have been widely shown. Billed in my Satellite TV guide as a 'family-friendly' film, it is actually anything but with its brief nudity, threat of rape, focus on illegitimacy, and attempted murder, although the animal sequences are pretty special. On balance, I can't really see this as a suitable offering for youngsters.

Starring erstwhile model Laetitia Casta, who also played the prozzie in "Rue des plaisirs" mentioned below, it is filmed in the snowy French Alps near Mont Blanc and is set in the period before, during and just after World War I. Casta plays the daughter of a local farmer and the god-daughter of the local foundry owner, who has grown rich manufacturing munitions, and she dreams of training to be a veterinarian, an unheard of calling for a woman at the time. One of the sub-plots involves the attempted extermination of the local wolf packs before the war, their survival, and their eventual destruction afterwards. Another contrasts the animal-loving simplicity of a 'wild' man in the hills who is considered a few sandwiches short of a picnic by the locals and the greedy son of the rich man who wants to develop the area for tourism and who believes that Casta should be his by right. When she is "lost" after an airplane crash in the mountains and is rescued by the local 'idiot' and his wolves, the conflict comes to a head. There are some wonderful scenes of the latter as a child watching his gypsy mom (whose body he has preserved in an ice cave) literally dancing with a wolf as her stage act -- not quite what Kevin Costner was on about.

While Casta is no great actress, she proves more than adequate for her role here and the rest of the cast are fine. I would however take exception to her recent choice as the face of Marianne, the symbol of France. Catherine Deneuve she ain't!

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Penguin Pool Murder (1932)

Edna May Oliver was one of the most recognizable character actresses of the 1930s. Often described as 'horse-faced', there was something very endearing in her homely, lanky screen persona of bossy females. After a variety of small roles in forgettable films, she came to prominence in this movie, the first of three in which she played the schoolmarm-cum-amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers. Three further sequels followed with Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts taking on the role, before it was resurrected on TV in the '70s with Eve Arden. Oliver meanwhile moved on to showier roles in prestige productions, amongst them Little Women, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Pride and Prejudice, before her death at a relatively young age in 1942.

This film is definitely a B-production running a scant 65 minutes, but it is full of delightful touches and Oliver is not the whole show. The relationship between her and abrasive police detective James Gleason (a recurrent character in the series) is full of sparks as they complement each other in the investigation of a stockbroker found dead in the eponymous penguin pool at the New York aquarium. Suspects include the deceased's wife played by Mae Clark (who was immortalised forever by being the recipient of a grapefruit in the mush by Cagney), two of her former flings including lawyer Robert Armstrong who wants to protect her, a mute pickpocket, and the aquarium's prissy director. Even Oliver is under suspicion when it is discovered that the dead man was killed by a hatpin through the ear -- hers, as it happens, which she had her motley pupils on their field trip scrambling to find. The dialogue is sharp and the photography occasionally brings to mind earlier expressionistic cinema with its dark angles and shifting focus. Even the location of the fascinating art deco building at the foot of Manhattan has historic interest. I can't say that I remember it from my childhood in New York since it was closed in 1941 (!) and the only one I recall was and I believe still is at Coney Island, but it was fascinating to see footage of the lower city back then.

Now all that remains is for me to winkle out her other two Withers incarnations, and good old Richard tells me that Murder on the Blackboard (1934) is due to be shown later this year. Now that's something to look forward to...