Sunday, 31 May 2009

Up (2009)

When I went to see "Coraline" recently (see below), it was not being shown in its 3-D version, since the number of cinemas offering this facility are still relatively few in Britain, not that this detracted from my enjoyment of the film in any way. However, I did welcome the opportunity to attend a preview 3-D showing of the above Cannes opener, not only because it is a film that I would wish to view regardless (and although it has been released Stateside, it will not be released here until October), but also because I was curious to see how the 3-D phenomenon has matured from those few that I'd seen previously.

My immediate reaction, despite the trailer for another animation and a short film aired before the main film being as "in your face" as I recall, capitalising if you will on tricky shots to emphasise the 3-D illusion, "Up" played down the novelty value and used its effects mainly to include and involve the viewer in the procedings. Although I have now read sufficient reviews to realise that not every critic would place it amongst Pixar-Disney's best, I would be inclined to agree with those who have labelled it an instant classic. Mercifully free from a twee storyline and anthropomorphic critters, despite a very appealing big bird and a selection of talking dogs, the main protagonists are an elderly man, childless and now widowed, and a lonesome kid who pours his all into his Wilderness Scout quest for badges. How these two end up together flying into adventure in the man's house attached to an army of balloons is the charming and smile-laden story. It does not shirk from avoiding the pain of a loved one's death nor the cantankerousness of age, but it does find a middle ground for its two flawed protagonists. Like a number of animations it gets a little soggy during the middle section as they are pursued by a dastardly explorer, but there are sufficient little pleasures throughout to make its relatively short running time a delight. The fact that the 3-D becomes less and less important as the viewer warms to the main characters is a testatment to the film's potentially lasting charm.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Mortal Storm (1940)

1933. A snowy small university town in the German Alps. It is the morning of Professor Roth's (Frank Morgan) 60th birthday. His loving family circle comprises his devoted wife who has two very Prussian grown sons from a previous union and two children of their own, a teenaged son and a beloved daughter, Margaret Sullavan. The professor is admired by his colleagues and adored by his students. That evening at their birthday celebration, the family is joined by two childhood friends, ever-the-good-guy James Stewart and usually-a-good-guy, but not here, Robert Young; they both love Sullavan, but the more extrovert Young has staked his claim first. Then the news comes over the radio: Adolf Hitler has just been named Chancellor, to the enthusiasm of the young men (apart from Stewart of course) who view this as a chance for Germany's rebirth. They do not think that the fact that the professor is a "non-Aryan" -- the word Jewish is studiously avoided -- will change anything and that exceptions will be made. In a pig's eye!!

At once everything begins to change: the young men are mobilised by the Youth Corps led by a very dislikeable Dan Dailey, undesirables are harassed and beaten, and the professor is drummed out of the university for his unacceptable scientific teachings and taken to a concentration camp. Stewart retreats to his mountain-top farm where he lives with his mother, the always remarkable Maria Ouspenskaya, and Sullavan breaks it off with the indoctrinated Young. This is a difficult film to watch as the once strong and happy family circle disintegrates; it was sufficient to result in all MGM productions being banned forthwith in Nazi-controlled territories. Although the movie is very much of its time it still delivers a powerful message against totalitarianism under the direction of its ever-underated director Frank Borzage and through its very able cast.
AWAY AGAIN -- more next week.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Coraline (2009)

Finding myself with an afternoon to kill in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I went to the movies on my own, which is not something I do too often. The local multiplex has 12 separate screeens for one's delight, but I was not tempted by the likes of "Startrek", "Wolverine", or another "Night at the Museum" -- although all of these will be viewed in due course. For me, the above animated film was the obvious choice, not only because it has had excellent reviews and done good business Stateside, but also for its provenance. Based on a prize-winning novella by Neil Gaiman with a screenplay co-written by him and genius director Henry Selick, I knew I was in for a fantasy treat. Selick was also responsible for the memorable "Nightmare before Christmas" (NOT directed by Tim Burton, despite his name being in the title) and the wonderful "James and the Giant Peach". The film also boasts a fine voice cast, led my Dakota Fanning as the eponymous heroine, and a spooky score.

Coraline moves to an apartment in a creaky old house with her parents who are too involved with their own pursuits to give her much attention; their immediate neighbours are a mad old Russian and two aging ex-burlesque queens -- not great company for a young inquisitive girl. The only other child of her age in the neighbourhood is an initially creepy masked boy who tears about on his bike. Then she discovers a bricked-up, wallpapered-over hole in the wall of their flat which opens up into a parallel world, where her bedroom is a fairyland marvel and where her "other-mother" and "other-father" do their best to spoil her rotten. The only catch is that everyone in that world, bar a talkative cat, has buttons instead of eyes, and Coraline is asked to sew some big, black ones onto her own face if she wishes to stay.

The film which has a PG rating is quite probably unsuitable for susceptible youngsters; while I know that most kids can tolerate the occasional scary story and macabre characters, I can see this film giving some children the old heebie-jeebies, especially as the "other-mother" eventually reveals her true, insectoid real self in her determination to trap Coraline, as she has other ghost-children before her. Against this however are some wonderful fantasy scenes, foremost of which was a theatrical performance by the two rejuvenated ex-ecdysiasts for an audience of appreciative scottie-dogs. That did make me smile! Needless to add, I loved the film as, I think, would most adult audiences; it's the kiddies for whom it was made and certificated that I worry about.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Projectionist (1971)

It's ages since I watched this movie for the first time and I had forgotten what a treat it is for the movie buff. Like the French flick "One Hundred Years for Mr. Cinema" which has also never been available here, it's one of those movies filled with classic clips and one can happily play "spot the reference". This small independent film stars one Chuck McCann (no, I never heard of him either) playing the projectionist at a New York moviehouse that has obviously seen better days. He wiles away the lonely hours losing himself in the projected films, dreaming conversations with his movie heroes, and imagining a world where he plays superhero Captain Flash, slaying his enemies, and winning the fair damsel.

The theatre manager is a brash Rodney Dangerfield in his first film role, trying to pretend that he is running a first-class house, and browbeating the projectionist and the other downtrodden staff. These scenes of reality are in garish colour, while the fantasy sequences are in black and white. Dangerfield morphs into Captain Flash's nemesis, the Bat, until he is finally vanquished by our daydreaming hero. There is incredibly clever use of clips from far better-known films slipped seamlessly into McCann's imagination, which are used to flesh out his quest and to create make-believe scenarios and a hilarious 'end-of-the-world' trailer. Considering how much fun this film is, I was somewhat surprised to see its relatively low IMDb rating of 5.6 out of 10. Granted the film is uneven and the Flash scenario a little clunky at times, but it is hard to dislike such a sweet film and to my mind it is the perfect cult movie. Then again, not everyone is quite so demented about movies as I am.

I was hoping for some end credits to see if the various clips were acknowledged, but there were none, although IMDb do have a page listing the various film references, both in action sequences and clips. One wonders how such an obviously low-budget effort managed to obtain clearance for so many studio clips and it would not surprise me to learn that this was guerilla film-making without the necessary clearances. Had the movie been more successful, I suspect someone would have jumped upon it with jackboots and this oddity might have been lost to us. And that would be a pity...

I shall be away for the rest of the week, so no new posts for the next few days.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Night Listener (2006)

I definitely have mixed feelings about Robin Williams. I quite liked a few of his earliest films, like "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), but then found it increasingly difficult to appreciate his mile-a-minute motormouth performances. These were then followed by the saccharine excesses of movies like "Patch Adams" (1998) and "Jakob the Liar" (1999) which were nearly unwatchable. Granted he has now cleaned up his act and gone for darker material, but there is still the occasional frenetic style that alienates me. Even when he is being still, there is little quiet or understated about his technique.

So why you may ask did I not only watch the above film but also choose to write about it? Well, being the good little film buff that I am, I watch nearly anything going that I have not seen previously; this is my admitted mission statement. And I must confess that this movie kept me watching as I tried to work out where it was going and how it would end. Based on a novel by Armistead Maupin, who also had a hand in the screenplay, it is supposedly based on actual events that happened to him, although I have no idea if that is fact or fiction. Williams plays a radio storyteller called Gabriel Noone, whose show 'Noone at Night' has a dedicated, syndicated audience. The plot opens with his having problems concentrating on his work, as his long-term partner, Jess, has just left him. We only gradually realise that Jess is male and that the character is a flag-waver for gay rights -- much like the author.

An associate gives him the unpublished manuscript of a 14-year old boy from Wisconsin who suffered years of abuse by paedophiles egged on by his own parents and who is in the final stages of AIDS, a disease from which Jess is now apparently recovering. He has been adopted by a carer, played by Toni Collette, and the two begin a long-distance telephone relationship with Williams, since the boy is a big fan of the spooky tales that he tells on air. Williams becomes more and more involved in the boy's life and health-care problems, until Jess points out that the voices of the boy and his carer are uncannily similar. Williams is determined to investigate the truth, but an invitation to spend Christmas with them is withdrawn and he becomes increasingly worried when their telephone number becomes unobtainable.

So he picks himself up and flies out to Wisconsin and the small town in the boondocks where they are living, only to find that the address he has for them is an accommodation address. However he follows up various clues and finally locates Collette, who it turns out is blind; however there is no sign of the lad, despite the fact that all of the locals know about him, although no one admits to actually having met him. His relationship with Collette becomes more and more fraught as she puts various obstacles in his way and finally says that the boy has just died. He returns to New York uncertain as to whether the boy ever existed, but the possibility is left open until the very end of the movie with its unexpected shock twist. The film does not go for the easy answers that a viewer might anticipate and continually underplays the tale. Williams is unusually restrained in the part, despite his growing confusion, but the acting kudos probably should go to Collette.

Monday, 11 May 2009


I'll tell you! You wait for years to view a movie and then find that it is so much worse than you hoped. This is the case for the famous Italian film "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (1963), directed by De Sica, and pairing Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in three separate stories. For years it was only available to view dubbed, but I held off for a subtitled version now available. The film won the Oscar for best foreign film, beating the far superior Japanese movie "Woman in the Dunes", so I was hoping for a great experience, especially with all those credentials. It was frankly just a wee bit short of embarrassing in part. The first tale concerns Loren having to get pregnant annually to avoid being sent to jail for illegal cigarette trafficing, and her disgust when Mastroianni can no longer perform after seven kids. The second and shortest casts her as a rich and indulged wife who starts an affair with him until he manages to crash her Rolls Royce. The last has her as a high-class prostitute flirting with the student priest in the next apartment while Mastroianni plays a long-standing client, a harrassed businessman who just wants to have sex; this segment contains the "famous" (and quite innocent) striptease which some people recall fondly and which was replayed as a joke in "Pret a Porter".

Both players could be fine dramatic and comic actors in their day, especially Mastroianni, but there is little left here to show them to best advantage. There is a lot of screaming dialogue and sadly little to make the viewer even smile -- unless of course a semi-clothed Loren rings your bell.

My next disappointment was a preview showing of "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) which has not yet been released here, but about which I have been reading raves. It's the first film to be both written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who was responsible for scripting a series of brilliant movies starting with "Being John Malkovich". This film like his earlier ones is crowded with quirky ideas and characters, but I felt that he did not have the directing skills to bring it all together.

Philip Semour Hoffman plays a minor theatre director, a latent hypochondriac overly aware of his own mortality, who has been awarded a generous Arts Grant and who wants to create something important. He therefore manufactures a growing collection of mini-worlds in large warehouses to re-create different aspects of his life and the lives of others, played by an endless stream of actors including Tom Noonan playing him; after some 19 years, an audience has yet to view the performances! The meaning of the title is the philosophic concept that the whole can equal a part or vice versa; get your head around that.

Various critics have remarked that this is a film that needs to be viewed more than once and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. There is too much going on to take it all in at the first viewing which is what created my own disappointment with this movie; I think a second view would make it a far more worthwhile experience, especially considering the splendid female cast which includes Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Diane Wiest, and Jennifer Jason Leigh (who appears to have grown an enormous bosom!). So maybe this will not be quite a disappointment in the long run.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Green Butchers (2003)

The director of this extremely black comedy Anders Thomas Jensen won an Oscar five years earlier for the best live action short, "Election Night", a telling signpost to the talent he shows here and proving that not all Danish cinema is Lars von Trier Dogma. Two apprentice butchers are ridiculed by their boss at the successful sausage shop where they work and are determined to open their own store, which looks doomed to failure. When an electrician gets accidentally locked in the cold store overnight, the more neurotic of the two panics and cuts up his thigh for "chickie-wickie" cutlets when asked by his mocking ex-boss to provide the meat for a large dinner party that evening. These are thought to be so delicious that word spreads and people queue up to buy more, creating the problem of fresh supplies to ensure the new shop's success.

There is a long history of playful and genteel cannibalism in film from Sweeney Todd through "Delicatessen" and this movie is up there with the best. The first lead of "sweaty Svend" is taken by Mads Mikkelsen, LeChiffre from "Casino Royale", sporting an unbelievably weird hairdo of a semi-shaved skull crowned by a great bouffant sweep of hair, making him look like a demented Christopher Walken. His partner, the pot-smoking skinhead Nikolaj Lie Kaas is even stranger. In order to raise his share of the money needed to open the shop, he borrows against the legacy due to his brain-damaged animal-loving twin brother who has been in a coma for the past seven years; he authorises the hospital to "unplug" him to hasten his death, which has the reverse effect of waking him up. Kaas brilliantly plays both parts as Bjarne tries to avoid the loony Eigel, while also trying to play down Mikkelsen's burgeoning killing spree. The movie is full of unexpected turns and one can't help warming to these damaged protagonists through the many twists of the plot. Very warmly recommended, especially to those with a taste for the macabre.

The same evening I also watched another 'colour' film, the Japanese "Black Kiss" (2004), which probably deserves its own review, if only for its spectacular deaths, but only time will tell if I get back to it.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Sleuth (2007) (and 1972)

This film received invariably rotten reviews as people compared it unfavourably with the fondly-remembered earlier version of Anthony Shaffer's stageplay, the last movie to be directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which paired Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. I was therefore in no rush whatsoever to see this remake produced by Jude Law with his taking the Caine role (is he out to take on all of Caine's early roles?) and Sir Michael taking the Olivier part. Rewritten by Harold Pinter with the unnecessary addition of a slew of F-words, directed in an artsy-fartsy style by Kenneth Branagh, and amazingly for a re-make running some 40 minutes shorter than the original, I expected the worse, especially since I have previously reckoned that pretty-boy Law has as much depth as a dried-up stream. However, I must admit that within its "re-imagining", both actors were fine and the film worked more or less. What buffs like myself forget is that the modern viewer has probably never seen the original and that a remake can justifiably emerge as an entertainment in its own right.

However, comparing the two versions, one does miss the earlier elaborate country house setting with its toys, mechanical dolls, and clown costumes, marking Olivier as a man who likes to play games; the ultra-modern new set does not allow the same possibilities. The two films tell the same basic tale for the first two-thirds, but differ wildly in their third act; the newer version suggests some sort of unwelcome homosexual attraction between Caine and the sly, sex-exuding Law, whereas the original presented the viewer with a third deadly game in which the young Caine reduced Olivier to a quivering wreck before the final denouement. On balance I am in no doubt which version I prefer, even if I do find Olivier as something of an over-ripe ham in his later roles, but to give credit where it is due, the newer movie is far from a complete failure.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Baby Doll (1956)

Considering that this film is now over fifty years old, it is amazing that the three very able lead actors are still with us (or "available" to quote from "Swimming with Sharks): Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach. Director Elia Kazan did this movie version of the Tennessee Williams Broadway play and it created shockwaves on its release. The Catholic Legion of Decency banned it and it was generally thought to be the "dirtiest" mainstream movie to date, although there is no explicit sex or nudity. While it may seem very mild to our modern sensibilities, there is no escaping the heat generated by the action.

Baker is married in name only to redneck yob Malden, having agreed to marry him aged 18 just before her dear Daddy died, and having made clear that she would not be ready for "marriage" before her 20th birthday which is imminent. To subjugate his sexual desires, Malden plays Peeping Tom as she sleeps in the decrepit mansion's old nursery on a child's cot, with the sides let down, in her shorty pajamas (thereafter commonly known as 'baby dolls'). She is indeed uneducated and childish and threatens to break their agreement after their hire-purchase suites of furniture are carted away for non-payment. It seems that Malden's cotton gin business has gone into reverse, after the syndicate opened their own, run by crafty Sicilian Wallach. The obvious answer to Malden's not-too-bright mind is to burn it down, a stupid short-term solution which leads to the following day's events.

Wallach brings his trucks of raw cotton to Malden's run-down gin for processing, but with revenge in mind uses the languid afternoon to seduce Baker and to get her to sign an affadavit agreeing her husband's arson. We never really know just how far his seduction goes, since we only see him coming on to her through suggestion and childish gameplay, including his taking a nap in her crib. Meanwhile Malden returns after having been sent on a wild goose chase for a new saw, to find Wallach in his crumbling mansion and suspects the worse. The fourth character in this domestic tragedy is Baker's somewhat gaga aunt, played by that wonderful character actress Mildred Dunnock, who is meant to be the couple's housekeeper, but whose greatest pleasure in life is visiting patients at the local hospital to munch as many chocolates as possible. At a hopeless supper that evening, Malden in a fit of pique demands that she leave, and Wallach offers to take her on as a cook. However by the end scene when the police arrive after Malden has gone on a rampage with his shotgun and Wallach has gone home alone, not only Baker and Dunnock but we the viewer can only guess what tomorrow will bring.

While one can not really warm to any of these flawed characters, the standard of acting throughout is something marvelous to behold; both Baker and Dunnock received Oscar nominations (and Malden and definitely Wallach should have) as did the brilliant black and white cinematography, shot on location in a small Southern community where local non-professionals (both black and white -- no pun intended) add to the feeling of a real time-warp community.