Tuesday, 30 June 2009

An Unfinished Life (2005)

I've written before about movies that seem to fall between the cracks and which are studiously not aired. This "all-star" film from director Lasse Hallstrom was apparently never deemed worthy of being scheduled on satellite TV and has only rather belatedly surfaced on terrestrial TV where it was awarded a paltry one out of five stars in the blurb. Since it has a 7+ rating on IMDb, I was intrigued to find out who was correct and having now watched it, I will add my positive vote to those discerning viewers.

Not that I am a particularly big fan of Robert Redford whose later roles have vainly attempted to recapture his previously pretty looks by careful camerawork. Nor have I ever been much enamoured of the preening Jennifer Lopez. However, I am happy to say that they are both excellent here and this might well be her best-acted role ever. Abused by her current boyfriend, -- we've seen her as such a victim before --, she grabs her 11-year old daughter and seeks refuge in Wyoming with her rancher father-in-law Redford, whom she has not seen since her late husband's funeral and who was not previously aware that he even had a grand-daughter. She is initially not made welcome since he continues to blame her for his son's death in a road accident when she was at the wheel. His wife has also left him and his only companion is hired hand Morgan Freeman whom he must nurse after the latter was badly mauled by a bear. For once Redford is playing his age and not only are his looks those of a grizzled older man, but he is a curmudgeon to boot. However the depth of the relationship between him and Freeman, who gives as good as he gets in the short-temepered stakes is moving, as is his growth as he comes to love his little grand-daughter and even to forgive Lopez.

There are also fine roles for Damian Lewis as her violent -ex, Camryn Mannheim as the local cafe owner, Josh Lucas as the country sheriff, and expecially young Becca Gardner as the strong-willed daughter. It's a pity that this film did not make more of a mark, since Gardner might then have had the subsequent career that her playing here warrants. There is also a wonderful turn by a great grizzly bear, the same one that attacked Freeman, who looks ever so cuddly but who in the end was simply following his animal instincts. And even he deserves forgiveness!

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Back to the Oldies

Some people indulge in "comfort food" to alleviate whatever; my vice is "comfort movies". Whenever I feel I am getting a surfeit of tasteless modern fare or I'm satiated with foreign arthouse flicks (and there have been a profusion of these lately), I go back in time to preferably beautiful black and white minor films. Since I last wrote, there has been time for two of these which were dandy, plus a relatively more recent colour movie which didn't quite do the trick. The gems, such as they are, first:

Quality Street (1937): I am a big Katharine Hepburn fan even from this period in her career when she was considered 'box-office poison'. Based on a J. M. Barrie play, she plays a spinster living with her sister Fay Bainter, whose one true love -- Franchot Tone -- has gone off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. When he returns ten years later, he seems not to recognize the plain schoolma'am she has become, so she pretends to be her own young and flirtatious niece to win him back. The joke is that he really has been in love with her all along and he must find a way of disposing of the mythical niece to satisfy all of the nosy neighbours; foremost of these is the wonderful Estelle Winwood who was still appearing in films when she was pushing 100. This movie directed by George Stevens, is impossibly twee like so much Barrie whimsy, but the wonderful Hepburn brings a warmth and glow to her role which makes it all worthwhile.

Angels over Broadway (1940): Written and directed by Ben Hecht, this film nominally stars Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as a penniless hustler, the ever-so-gorgeous Rita Hayworth as a showgirl down on her luck, and Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic playwright (it's fascinating how often he was chosen to play a drunk!) They get together one evening to help poor snook John Qualen -- a fixture in John Ford films -- raise 3000 bucks to satisfy his boss who is about to turn him over to the police for embezzlement. And it is Qualen who really makes this movie the happy experience it is, as Mitchell concocts a scenario where Fairbanks will get Qualen into a crooked poker game, contriving for him to leave early on with his "come-on" winnings. It's a very small little movie, but it manages to convey a big heart.

Hot Enough for June (1964): Some titles remain more in the memory than the movie attached to them, and so it was with this one which I hadn't seen for yonks. In truth, the film has not aged well, although it still had its moments. For some reason, the title was changed in the U.S. to "Agent 8 & 3/4", suggesting some sort of spoof, since Dirk Bogarde is the unsuspecting spy sent to Prague, but is hardly meant to embody the derring-do of a James Bond. In fact he acquits himself admirably while managing to romance communista Sylva Koschina. Bogarde was THE British heartthrob of the 60s, but in fact was not one for the ladies, which makes his romantic leads somewhat hilarious in retrospect. The very best thing about this movie was the casting of Robert Morley and John LeMesurier as the couldn't-give-a-damn British spymasters and Leo McKern as their Czech counterpart. All very good-natured, but not as memorable the original title (which was the code-phrase for identifying overseas moles). I doubt that I will be tempted to revisit here again.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Ikinai (1998)

There are so many specialist channels on satellite television -- more than I am ever likely to sample even out of curiosity (and one does wonder to whom some of them might appeal). However I do keep my beady eye on the various film channels of which there are a surprising number, although they have a tendency to abruptly disappear, since their finance remains a mystery. Most of those which are not subscription channels do carry an assortment of advertisements, which cuts up the viewing process into less pleasurable chunks. I therefore tend to ignore the various made-for-TV film channels, the so-called 'Movies for Men', and even the Horror Channel unless they are showing something which sounds irresistible (not often). An exception is made for Film Four, now that they have gone to Freeview with adverts, on those very rare occasions when they schedule something which has not already been available elsewhere ; it was a wonderful channel in its subscription days, but apparently insufficiently profitable.

I was surprised to come across a channel -- new to me and I have no idea how long it has been going -- called World Movies which not only shows mainly subtitled foreign films (there is the occasional Australian or US Indie in English), but also seems to have access to movies which are not available on DVD. The downside is that they have an intrusive logo and even worse allow for frequent ad breaks, although they do not appear to have any advertisers yet, without a clear title card to signify the end of one section and the start of the next. However, I am putting up with this in the short term and have been rewarded with some pretty obscure, but generally quite good, films in Japanese, Chinese, French, et. al.

The above Japanese movie which I watched yesterday is a typical case in point. Billed as "Can't Live", I was unable to trace it on IMDb without knowing any cast or filmmaker names, but the blurb sounded interesting. I now learn that the correct title is as above which apparently translates literally as 'cannot live' and that the Festival circuit title was "Suicide Bus". Produced by Takeshi Kitano's company, it was the first film for director Hiroshi Shimizu, who was an assistant director on earlier and later Takeshi projects and who has only directed one subsequent movie. The story concerns a diverse group of 10 men plus a perky female tour guide who gather to take a bus tour to Okinawa. Each of them wishes to die, for various reasons which emerge during the telling. They are heavily insured and know that the accident they have scheduled for New Year's Day on a treacherous stretch of road will receive a big payout to their heirs and/or creditors. However one of their original number, who has now been confined to a mental institution, gives his ticket to his young niece, rather than waste it, and the group reluctantly allow her to come along, fully accepting that she will need to die amongst them. One wonders here just how mentally ill her uncle must have been to offer his beloved niece a one-way journey!

For the next few days they behave as any tour group, visiting the expected sites, watching folksy troupes, taking group photographs, entertaining each other with their spectacular non-talents at a group dinner, and generally bonding. And only gradually does the cheerful young gal become aware of the group's ultimate destination. Even 'though this movie is unlikely to come your way in the foreseeable future, I will not spoil the ending, other than to say that it is as black and bleak as it could be, with a totally out-of-left-field denouement. I can well understand why it was thought a suitable project for Office Kitano and I thank the very flawed World Movie Channel for bringing it to my attention.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Ship of Fools (1965)

This all-star film from director Stanley Kramer is set in the early 30s and tells of a voyage from Mexico to Germany. It has one of the great ensemble casts of its day and these are the main characters: Vivien Leigh in her last role is the jaded, world-weary woman that she played so perfectly in her previous film, "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone"; Simone Signoret is an aristo headed for a Spanish island jail after formenting revolution amongst the workers; Oskar Werner is the unhappily married ship's doctor with heart problems who loses his heart to Signoret; Jose Ferrer who lords it over the passengers at the Captain's Table, where only the purest of Germans are welcome, spouts Nazi propaganda to anyone who will listen; Lee Marvin is an uncouth redneck who can't see what the fuss is about -- he never even saw a Jew until he was 15 ("too busy lynching Negroes" quips Leigh); rich Elizabeth Ashley and poor artist George Segal are the sex-obsessed couple who have nought else in common; Jose Greco entertains with his Spanish dance troupe which he pimps out to the passengers each evening; Heinz Ruehmann, a stalwart of German cinema since silent days in his only English-speaking role, is the ostracized Jewish salesman who does not fear for his future since he considers himself a German foremost; finally there is the Oscar-nominated Michael Dunn, one of the most memorable dwarfs in film history. Add to these names various archetypes (the religion-spouting bigot and his hard-done-by virginal nephew, the couple whose pampered fat dog is treated as their child, and more) plus some 600 immigrant workers crowded onto the lower decks who are being sent back to Spain and the stage is set for non-stop drama.

However to paraphrase Dunn's final words in the film, 'What have we learned from all this? Absolutely nothing!' The movie is like a shipboard romance that fades into the distance when one faces the realities of life on shore, but it is a fascinating voyage while it lasts.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Chaos (2005)

This policier set in Seattle stars three of the least charismatic actors currently available: Ryan Phillippe, Wesley Snipes, and Jason Statham. Phillippe while now well over 30 and making a decent attempt to accept more adult roles (I saw him in the thoroughly depressing "Stop-Loss" (2008) a few days ago playing a soldier who considers defecting, when instead of being demobbed he is told that he is being sent back to Iraq), still manages to come across like a youngster playing with the big boys. Snipes, despite having had a definite presence in the past, particularly in the "Blade" series, has, since his recent tax troubles, only appeared in pretty dismissable rubbish phoning in his roles; I watched him in the Mario von Peebles' "Hard Luck" (2006) a few days ago and can now barely remember it. As for Statham who has appeared in a ridiculous number of action roles since his debut in 2000, his appeal eludes me, probably because I can not relate to his cardboard hero in the 'transporter' movies and the like; now maybe if I were a teenaged boy...

In this film Statham plays a suspended cop whose action in shooting a criminal at a police standoff resulted in the death of an innocent hostage. When a gang raids a bank taking 40 hostages, the ringleader Snipes will only deal with Statham and we are led to believe that he is the brother of the guy Statham has killed and that he is seeking revenge. Phillippe is brought in as the straight-arrow policeman attempting to fill his dead father's shoes who becomes Statham's new partner. Of course little is as it seems as the gang escapes from the bank (without on the surface having taken anything) and as their members are killed. The writer-director attempts to put a philosophical gloss on these dire procedings by trying to tell us the action should be interpreted by studying chaos theory. Whatever! The movie ends with a thoroughly amoral and hardly surprising denouement which has in its way become stereotypically par for the course nowadays. The biggest mystery is why there is no attempt to explain away Statham's thoroughly common South London accent, although that too does not seem to matter to his non-discriminating audience. Just count me out.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Front Page (1931)

And so another one bites the dust! As my readers know I have this famous not-so-little list of films that I really want to see and I finally got to view (courtesy of friend Richard) this original screen version of Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthurs's famous stage play. It's best-known incarnation is the role-reverse version "His Girl Friday" (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, which puts paid to the theory that remakes are never any good. I am also quite fond of the Billy Wilder remake using the original title from 1973 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the leads. There has also been a more recent and dismissable version set in a television studio. However the first adaptation from the early sound era has eluded me until now.

First off I must say that I was delighted to have the opportunity of viewing it in a relatively clean print, although the sound-track (very important for so verbal a movie) could have been better. The director Lewis Milestone used his skills with a swirling camera to make it seem less of a stage adaptation despite being locked largely into a single set. Both the director and the film were Oscar-nominated as was Adolphe Menjou in the lead role (although I'll be dipped if I know why) -- not that any of them won. Menjou plays the crafty editor Walter Burns and the Hildy Johnson part is taken by Pat O'Brien in his first lead role -- and far better a role than much of the minor movies which made up his long career. The script is very similar to the 1940 version, although one feeels in retrospect that Grant had rather more screen time, presumably because of the strength of his playing (and he wasn't Oscar-nominated!). The one difference is the pre-code inclusion of some swear words which don't jar overly in the machine-gun pace of the dialogue.

The movie also features a number of character roles for some long-lost faces and the showiest of these are given to Walter Catlett, Frank McHugh, and in a wonderful bit of casting as a fusspot (an image that haunted him throughout his career) Edward Everett Horton. The depiction of a newsroom set up at the scene of a would-be hanging is a wonder, as the various reporters embroider the actual facts to make their stories more readable -- much like today? And the pompous self-interest of politicians is also portrayed, making the screenplay as timely as ever. I guess on balance I would vote for the 1940 version as the best of the three, but one really needs to have seen this early one to fully appreciate the success of that film. So thanks again Richard for helping me enlarge my cinematic education.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Un Air de Famille (1996)

I was quite certain I had viewed this French film previously, but couldn't quite remember it. However since it was written by and featured the husband-wife team of Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri who were so very good in both "The Taste of Others" (2000) and "Look at Me" (2004), I was happy to give it another go.

The title translates as "Family Resemblances" and concerns the three children of an overbearing mother, who meet with their spouses each Friday evening for a family dinner. This night they are also celebrating the birthday of the uptight eldest son's wife, played brilliantly by Catherine Frot, and they meet up at the run-down bar/restaurant run by younger son Bacri whose wife has just walked out. Their sister, Jaoui, is a 30-year old slacker who may or may not be involved with Bacri's hangdog employee Jean-Pierre Darroussin. There are several flashbacks to their joyful childhood before they mother left their happy-go-lucky father (Bacri's restaurant is named 'The Sleepy Dad Cafe'), but they are as disfunctional a group nowadays as you could hope to meet.

The eldest son is still fussing about his two-minute TV appearance on local television that afternoon (he is 'Number 4' in a local IT firm) and is overly concerned with his superiors' reactions, especially since Jaoui has that afternoon given a mouthful to 'Number 2', nicknamed Benito (for Mussolini). It may be his wife's day to celebrate, but he is so full of himself that it is obvious that he has no time to treat her properly. Her face as she opens her presents and finds that the family has clubbed together to buy her a dog that she does not want is priceless to behold, especially since a paralyzed and senile pet of the beloved breed is present in a corner, named Caruso, because he 'used to sing'. Bacri, who is obviously not the brightest spark, is treated as a hopeless case by his mother and brother, who also dismiss Darroussin completely as a feckless servant. Jaoui in turn is so alienated from all of them that she seems to be living in some sort of parallel world.

The film is quite obviously based on a play and is only slightly opened out under Cedric Klapisch's direction, but it does not suffer for this as the family dynamics and quirky dialogue produce their own rewards. And goofy Darroussin's dance turn with a somewhat inebriated birthday-girl Frot is a wonder to behold.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Awake (2007)

There is a quite reasonable convention that film reviewers and bloggers should not indulge in SPOILERS to avoid ruining the movie for the new viewer. However, some films can not be discussed at all without indulging in these and the convention presupposes that the movie in question could not possibly be enjoyed with such foreknowledge. Well, this film would probably not be all that enjoyable to the virgin viewer and anyone who really wishes to view the dubious procedings would probably not be put off by knowing what's what.

So here we go with spoilers galore. Hayden Christensen, not exactly the cream of leading men, plays one of the richest men in the city after his father's early death. The only problem on the immediate horizon is that he has a wonky heart and a rare blood type. He lives with his overbearing mama Lena Olin who is not aware that he is romancing her assistant, Jessica Alba, and he is too scared to tell her. He becomes friends with surgeon Terrence Howard when the latter saves his life after a previous health scare, and he is therefore keen that Howard should do the transplant when a suitable donor heart becomes available, while Olin is encouraging him to put his trust in a more experienced medical team. Meanwhile Howard encourages him to face up to his mother and to marry Alba, to make the most of whatever time he has left, which he does.

So where do we go from here? Well, it seems that Howard who faces ruin from malpractice suits is actually Alba's paramour and together with a crooked medical team they plan to move him up the donor waiting list by irregular means, let him die on the operating table, and split his vast wealth. The first twist as the blurb at the front would have it is that a certain proportion of patients do not go completely under when anaesthesized and remain conscious of what is going on, pain and all. This is what happens to Christensen as he suffers through the operation and gradually becomes aware of the perfidy around him. This voiceover would have been sufficient had the filmmakers not decided that the plot would be enhanced by having a disembodied Christensen watching and roaming through the hospital. The next twist, when it looks as if their nefarious plot will succeed, is that Olin, when she learns that her son is still being kept alive by artificial means, despite not actually having a heart, takes an overdose so that her heart can be put into her beloved son. The mind boggles somewhat at trying to work out how this could all be done in the time available, to say nothing about whether such a chemically-affected heart would be suitable, and just why Olin's preferred medical team happens to be standing by. So Christensen is given a new lease of life and the baddies are brought down; he may no longer have his Mummy or his beloved wife, but at least he still has all his money! Sorry if I've spoiled it for you. I will admit that the movie held my attention for much of the time as I wondered how it would resolve itself, but I think it had the bare bones for being a far better film than this final cut. (No pun intended!).

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Romy Schneider

The new CineMoi French film channel has just finished a mini-season of movies starring Romy Schneider. Now there's a name I know I thought to myself; but when I checked her filmography I had no particular recollection of any of her film roles, despite having seen several of them including a disposable assortment of U.S. movies from the 1960s. Born in Austria, she achieved fame as a teenager in the trilogy of "Sissi" films as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. She is still revered in Germany for this role and a commemorative postage stamp has even been issued. She followed her lover Alain Delon to Paris and was a fixture of mainly French flicks for the rest of her life, dying at the early age of 43 of a suspected overdose. Since she appeared in an assortment of top productions with A-list co-stars, I was quite looking forward to getting more familiar with her work.

Perhaps I have missed something, but I just can't grasp her magic. She is neither beautiful nor does she seem to have any dramatic depth, so I wonder just what it was that has made her something of an icon. (The French have issued a stamp as well!) She even won the first Cesar Award for best actress for her role in 1975's "L'important c'est d'aimer" -- a film that I found nearly unwatchable as porno-photographer Fabio Testi becomes entranced by her talentless actress, but refuses to have sex with her. (Klaus Kinski in another show-off role as a barnstorming, homosexual actor was the only light relief here). Then there were two films with the ever-watchable Michel Piccoli: in "Les Choices de la vie" (1970) he plays her lover who reviews his life as he lies dying in a car crash and in "Max and the Junkmen" (1971) he plays a top policeman who begins an affair with her 'working girl' in order to entrap a bunch of third-rate petty criminals. He was great in both, but in neither did she make much of an impression. In "Le Train" (1973) she was cast as a Jewish refugee who seduces Jean-Louis Trintignant's husband separated from his pregnant wife as they flee the approaching Nazis. In "A Woman at her Window" (1976) she is the wife of the Italian ambassador to Greece who falls for a hunted communist rebel, but only the supporting role of one of her admirers played by good-old hangdog Phillippe Noiret was really of any interest. There are a further two of her movies in my backlog, but frankly after the above marathon, I'm not in any galloping hurry to view them.

So I'm left with this puzzle. Many people obviously felt that she was talented and her circle of friends amongst the intelligentsia of her day was broad. She was recently voted the most memorable female film star in a German poll. Could somebody please tell me what I am missing.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

I just may have mentioned previously that I am something of a horror-buff despite my catholic film preferences, so it is no surprise that we went to see this newly-released movie from very busy and very creative director-producer-writer Sam Raimi. It is being hailed as a return to his "Evil Dead" horror roots, although much of his subsequent film-making is hardly shabby, notably "A Simple Plan" and the first (and maybe the second) "Spider-Man". I shall add to the testimonials by concurring that the film is a lot of fun, especially if you have a strong stomach for some of the cartoony violence. The frights are not heavy on gore, but rather excessive on other bodily fluids; in many ways, it's a good old-fashioned scarefest. However despite taking pleasure from the OTT effects, it is hardly a "funny" movie, as I have seen it described.

Alison Lohman plays a loan-officer at a bank, angling for a promotion from her uptight boss David Paymer. Both she and her boyfriend, played by Justin Long, while both pushing 30, looked to my ancient eyes ever so young to be a career banker and if I heard correctly a university professor. (I understand Ellen Page was originally sought for the lead and if anything she would have come across as even younger). Lohman, in order to prove her "toughness" to Paymer and to forestall her rival for the promotion (why an oriental character should have a obviously Jewish name is beyond me), turns down an appeal from an elderly gypsy hag whose house is about to be repossessed; she in turn lays a three-day fatal curse on the poor thing. We therefore get to witness Lohman's increasingly hopeless attempts to forestall her fate and the intervening horrors as she consults an Indian seer (a weak turn I thought), indulges in animal sacrifice, and takes part in an exorcism ceremony. The end is nigh if she can not give away the tainted button that dooms her (a similar device to the classic "Night of the Demon").

It all builds to cheeky thrills and Raimi excels. I particularly liked one scene where she tries to keep it together to impress Long's initially hostile parents at a family dinner, until she loses it when she spots the gypsy's dead eye in her dessert! The ending is half what I expected and half what I did not think it would be; no spoilers here....just to say it was strong and not the cop-out that one has come to expect from inferior movies.