Friday, 31 July 2009

The Love Guru (2008)

Just when did Mike Myers stop being funny -- assuming he was ever funny in the first place. While he probably deserves his funnyman rep from Saturday Night Live and other stand-up gigs, his success as a film actor makes me wonder. The two Wayne's World movies have their moments. The three Austin Powers films were just about tolerable, if increasingly stupid. He was fine as the voice of Shrek, but the less said about his Cat in the Hat the better. In this self-penned effort, I seriously think that he is about the only one who still believes that he is amusing.

He plays a conceited and full-of-himself non-Indian self-styled guru, whose idea of a foreign-sounding greeting is "Mariska Hargitay", and whose main goals in life are to appear on Oprah and to overtake Deepak Chopra as the guru of choice. He would also like to get rid of the chastity belt that he has been forced to wear since adolescence. He is employed by dishy Canadian ice hockey team owner Jessica Alba and her manager Verne Troyer to get their disconsolate star player and his wife back together after she has taken up with rival player Justin Timberlake, nicknamed 'Le Coq' for obvious reasons. That is about the level of the potty humour in this movie with its punning Indian names churned out by the preening Myers. The whole shooting match reeks of desperation, with only the very occasional bit of slapstick on the ice rink raising the ghost of a smile.

I shudder to think what new horrors Mr. Myers will inflict upon us with his forthcoming remake of the Danny Kaye classic "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What Price Glory (1952)

This John Ford film is a companion piece for "When Willie Comes Marching Home" (1950) which I reviewed back in April. I said at the time that it is a little unusual for Ford to do straight comedy, although many of his movies have their comic moments. This one which is a remake of Raoul Walsh's 1926 silent of the same name is also somewhat heavy-handed on the comic elements whereas the original play was intended as an anti-war polemic. Mind you war films are my least favourite genre, so on the one hand I should be pleased that Ford has opted for the comic over the tragic here, but it doesn't sit well with the anti-war sentiments which intermingle.

Like the 1950 movie, this one stars Dan Duryea as top soldier Sergeant Quirt in Captain Flagg's (James Cagney's) marine detachment in France during World War I. They have fought together -- and each other -- all over the world, and things come to a head here when they both fancy the local inn-owner's daughter, Corinne Calvert, again from the earlier film along with character actor William Demarest. Too much is made of their rivalry, although the viewer understands that underneath the outward bickering lies a deep affection and an acceptance of a soldier's priorities.

While it is always a pleasure watching the pugnacious Cagney, his dialogue as he bemoans the needless death of the young and inexperienced soldiers under his command does not sit too well with his hard man persona. The subplot of a 22-year old Robert Wagner wanting to marry the French schoolgirl he has just met seems to be there only to underline the sacrifice of such young men. Perhaps Flagg and Quirt's banter is really there to mask the horrors of war but it seems only to dilute them.

On balance this is very minor Ford -- still watchable, but not as memorable or as moving as many of his much greater films.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

W. Somerset Maugham

This long-lived and prolific British novelist, playwright, and short-story writer bequeathed a treasure trove of source material to both film and television, which is still being tapped today. Cinema versions of The Razor's Edge, Of Human Bondage, and the Painted Veil have been done and re-done, and Ashenden -- the Secret Agent -- continues to delight us. Several of his best short tales were sourced to provide three still-fine British compilation movies: Quartet (1948), Trio (1950), and Encore (1951). Apart from providing a Who's Who of acting talent from that period, the three also benefit from having Maugham himself on camera, introducing each collection.

Since these stories were originally written a quarter of a century or so before the movies were made, the attempt to update some rather dated behaviour to a contemporary setting does not always work, but that apart, all ten tales bring their enjoyment to the table. The first collection is probably the best of the bunch, with the young Dirk Bogarde's would-be pianist in 'The Alien Corn' and Nora Swinburne's unlikely literary cause de celebre in 'The Colonel's Lady' as the stand-out performances. The other two stories of a young tennis player proving that luck beats brains when enticed by a gold-digger in 'The Facts of Life' and George Cole as the young husband who refuses to support his wife after she destroys his precious kite (in the story of the same name) are also absorbing.

"Trio" has two charming stories in 'The Verger' where James Hayter becomes a successful businessman after being sacked from his church job for not being able to read and write and 'Mr. Knowall' where a boorish ship's passenger manages to annoy just about everyone but ends up nobly protecting a lady's honour. Unfortunately the third story, 'Sanitorium', takes up more than half of the film's running length and possibly marginally outstays its welcome, but is redeemed by a sweet turn from the very young Jean Simmons.

"Encore" also features three stories with, I felt, diminishing returns. The first 'The Ant and the Grasshopper' is a rather droll tale of wastrel Nigel Patrick ending up more successful than his very dull and careful brother. In 'Winter Cruise' -- another shipboard drama -- spinster Kay Walsh never stops chattering until the ship's officers on the return journey where she is the only passenger devise a scheme to divert her attention. Finally, in the story I liked least 'Gigolo and Gigolette', we have variety artist Glynis Johns beginning to lose her nerve for the high-dive act which she performs nightly with her husband for the thrill-hungry patrons of a Riviera club -- all waiting for her to fail and kill herself.

Despite any reservations outlined above, I can cheerfully recommend these three films to anyone looking for some mild diversion. Meanwhile, let us drink a toast to Mr. Maugham and his continued legacy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

This Land is Mine (1943)

As I am wont to comment periodically when Charles Laughton figures in my recent viewing, he is one of my top favourites and in so many ways one of the most accomplished screen actors ever. I am glad to discover that I am not alone, having recently stumbled on a Laughton group on Yahoo comprised of others who believe the same. The thing about him is just how expressive he could be on screen with the most minimal of gestures or facial tics and also how moving he could be when speechifying (there is no other suitable word for some of his longer bits of dialogue). All of this wonderful ability is on display in this movie.

The illustrious French director Jean Renoir sought refuge in Hollywood during WW II and turned out an assortment of fine films of which this is one of the very best, albeit possibly the least-known. It is set "somewhere in Europe" during the German occupation, without specifically mentioning France (and all of the characters have slightly anglicized names). Laughton plays a timid schoolmaster, jeered by his pupils, who lives with his overbearing and babying mother, Una O'Connor. He is reunited with his "Hunchback" co-star Maureen O'Hara, a fellow teacher and neighbour, whom he silently worships, but who is engaged to George Saunders, a local bigwig who reluctantly knuckles under the German authorities as personified by slimy Walter Slezak, hoping for survival and a better future. Her brother, Kent Smith, appears to fraternize with the occupying soldiers but is a secret saboteur.

When Resistance activity results in German deaths, hostages are taken including Laughton, but O'Connor fearing for her rather elderly little boy shops Smith to Saunders who in turn tells Slezak, in the misguided hope of helping his fellow citizens. When Smith is killed and only Laughton is released, O'Hara assumes that he is the squealer. In a rage, Laughton goes to confront Saunders only to find that the latter has remorsefully committed suicide; found at the scene, he is arrested for murder and brought to trial in the civil court which the Germans maintain under the pretext of coexisting with local authority. Laughton known primarily for his cowardice now finds this the only available forum for free speech. After an offer from Slezak to manufacture a suicide note in exchange for collaboration and after seeing the other hostages shot by a firing squad, he uses the court to encourage resistance and sabotage. He is acquitted of the murder charge, but his days as a free man are now numbered, and he uses these to indoctrinate his students (who now idolise him) on the rights of man.

Laughton is nothing short of magnificent in this role as he moves from an awkward and scaredy-cat big baby to a noble being. From his safe haven in Hollywood, Renoir is speaking to the free world through this character, and it is as moving and effective an anti-war film as any. Without Laughton it might have been mere melodrama, but with him, it is a masterpiece.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

This movie is not quite a case of rampant remake-itis, since it is nearly fifty years since the original and still highly entertaining film starring the incomparable and dashing James Mason was released, and this movie was conceived as one of the new wave of 3-D efforts. Since I viewed the film in its two-dimensional foremat, I can't comment on whether that was a good idea or not, but I can say that it is nearly as acceptable as the 1959 movie in terms of offering the not-too-discriminating viewer a good time. Mind you any movie which does not number Pat Boone amongst its cast starts at something of an advantage.

In fact this film is not so much a remake as a movie that takes Jules Verne's original story as a starting point for a slightly different tale. Brendan Fraser -- yes, him again -- is the hangdog college professor trying to protect his dead brother's scientific legacy. The brother was apparently a "Vernean", someone who believed that the original book was based on a real underground adventure. Fraser ends up in Iceland with the 13-year old nephew (Josh Hutcherson -- so very good in "Zathura" and "Bridge to Terabithia") he has reluctantly agreed to mind for the next ten days to save his brother's research lab from being closed down. There they meet up with Anita Briem (actually Icelandic) playing the least athletic-looking mountain guide in the world. Apart from a few very minor characters, the movie is effectively a three-hander for these protagonists and the chemistry between them is believable as they find themselves trapped beneath the earth.

Like a number of fun films it helps if you hang up your brains at the door before viewing the escapades that follow, only some of which seem derivative of better movies, especially the runaway underground mine railway so reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Yes, we have luminescent birds, scary flying fish with big sharp teeth, Nessie-like sea monsters, a rampant dinosaur, a beautiful underground landscape, narrow escapes, and a fine sense of adventure. Just don't expect any of it to make much sense, but let your inner child go with the flow. I especially liked the image of our three heroes returning to the surface in a boat fashioned from a dinosaur-skeleton's jaw. I really don't know who decided that Fraser was cut out to be the action man that he has become, but unlike the third Mummy movie reviewed recently, here at least we can see him as a caring and brave human being rather than your usual run-of-the-mill muscle-bound hero.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Madadayo (1993)

I can't quite believe that in the more than four years that I've been blogging both on my old AOL site and with this journal, that I have not previously written about Akira Kurosawa (if the search engines are to be believed), since he's right up there with my favourite directors. He was incapable of writing and directing an uninteresting film, not just the samurai epics for which he is renowned and the literary dramas, both often starring Toshiro Mifune, but also for some of his smaller tales. He had fallen out of favour with the Japanese studios in the 70s and his later films were largely financed with the help of the US-director pack of that period, Scorsese, Coppola, et. al. and proved that he had not lost his amazing touch during his very long career.

This film is his very last one and has not been widely available. It is an old man's movie as he considers the meaning of life and the approach of death, yet it is a joyous affair with just a touch of underlying melancholy The story opens in 1943 as a beloved professor (of German ironically) announces his retirement to his adoring students. He moves to a small and simple house with his loyal wife and there they entertain favourite students, starting with a 60th birthday celebration. The house is fire-bombed during the War and the couple move to a simple shack, but their hospitality remains. The ringleaders of his old students decide to hold an annual birthday bash for their "solid-gold" professor (and subsequently club together to build a new house for him). At each of these, after chugalugging a large glass of beer -- an amazing amount of drink is consumed during the telling -- the students call out "Are you ready" and the professor replies "Madadayo" (not yet) which is the traditional child's response in hide-and-go-seek. At the first party, the students take turns to say something brief but positive about the professor, apart from one man who claims to be unable to make speeches but who can recite all of the local stations on a long train route (which amusingly continues long after the others have finished). As the years progress, the gatherings grow in size to include wives, children, and eventually grand-children and become more lavish, until the old man is taken ill during his 77th celebration.

What comes across is the great love, affection, and consideration that the professor has inspired in all of his students and his continued good humour and impish behaviour even in adversity. The film is not perfect; there is one section that goes on far too long concerning the depression caused by a lost cat (the couple have no children of their own), but this is a minor fault in a truly moving story. It is far more than just a Japanese "Goodbye, Mr. Chips".

Special mention should be made of the actor in the lead role, Tatsuo Matsumura, who played the professor from 58-ish through to 77, aging appropriately in the process. I was amazed to discover that he was actually already 79 years when he took on the role, but all of the casting was spot-on. This film is the perfect swan song and grace note for the director who was called 'Sensei' -- the Master!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Coco Before Chanel (2009)

We went to a preview showing of this French-language flick starring the ever- gamine Audrey Tautou as the young Coco Chanel, which concentrated on the years leading up to her success as a couturier. It goes to prove that the French can be every bit as careful as a Merchant-Ivory team in producing a heritage film with the relevant period evoked in loving and faithful detail and beautifully photographed. It also proves that such movies can also be ever so slow and occasionally tedious.

Apart from the wonderful production values, what saves this film is the high standard of the acting. We follow Coco in the years when she and her sister leave the orphanage where they were dumped by their father after their mother's death, through their early years as seamstresses and would-be music-hall stars, through to her sister's romance with a Baron who loves her but who is not prepared to marry her, and Coco's involvement with a boorish but moneyed landowner played by the excellent Benoit Poelvoorde (who will always be the serial killer from "Man Bites Dog" to me). Under his protection -- he can't quite get her to leave his estate -- she develops her own simple and slightly masculine sense of style, proves an amusing diversion for his aristocratic houseguests, and manages to fall in love with a visiting Englishman, played by the American actor Alessandro Nivola speaking excellent French.

What is missing, however, is any sense of time. We know that Coco left her orphange in the early years of the 20th Century, but the events which actually occurred right up to about 1919 have been condensed into what seems a shorter time frame and there is no allowance, except for a comment in passing, for World War I. And while Tautou and Nivola have great chemistry, the development of their doomed romance (he is about to marry a wealthy Englishwoman) and his helping her to launch her own salon seem to take forever. There is shot after shot of her carefully trimming hats and cutting fabric. Also, while Tautou is probably marginally too old to play the very young Coco, she does not appear to age at all during the telling; even the coda showing one of her much later fashion shows depicts her as unchanged. Apart from creating a fashion line which remains classic to this day, perhaps she also discovered the secret of eternal youth!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Nanny (1965)

I must admit that I have never been a huge fan of Hammer Studio films, although their horror outings from roughly 1957 through to the mid-70s were influential and they did churn out a number of moderately diverting movies to fill the odd 90 minutes. They brought the talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to the fore, for which we can thank them. However they also gave us an assortment of largely forgettable buxom beauties, some lurid color photography, and a number of derisory plots.

This Hammer film from the period has nothing in common with the rest of their output . For a start it is in not so glorious black and white, gives roles to a different assortment of actors than usual, but most importantly stars Bette Davis, who is well up on my all-time favourite actresses list. It is one of two movies that she made for them in the 60s when she was scrabbling for work. While it is a far less flamboyant role than the eyepatched, monstrous mother she plays in "The Anniversary" (1968), this remains one of her creepiest characters ever, almost on a par with Baby Jane.

She is the beloved family nanny in the household of Wendy Craig and James Villiers, having also been Craig's and her sister Jill Bennett's nanny when they were little. However there was a tragedy two years before when the younger of her charges was found drowned in the bath. Davis blamed the girl's death on her brother Joey and the lad is just returning home after two years at a special school for problem children. His version of the events is that Davis was responsible for his sister's death and that she is out to get him as well; however he is such a bolshie little brat that one does not quite believe him. Against this Davis brings such subservient menace to her role -- she has remained in the household for the past two years even 'though there were no children, to look after the increasingly childish and hysterical Craig -- that one just can not warm to her.

Yes, she is almost too good to be true. As the boy played by a fine child actor, William Dix (he only appeared again in the original "Doctor Doolittle"), reveals his version of the events to the feisty teenaged girl in the apartment upstairs, Pamela Franklin, we begin to be convinced that Davis is some sort of monster in disguise. Then when Craig lands in hospital with food-poisoning (blamed of course on Joey) and Bennett who has a weak heart is left to die after seeing Nanny hovering outside Joey's bedroom door, suffocating pillow in hand, there is no further doubt. The denouement is wrapped up too rapidly for the film to be a classic of any kind and it is certainly not a horror movie in the usual sense of the word. However it will remain a fine reminder of Davis' acting skills even during one of her fallower career periods.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

The curse of the threequels strikes again! This follow-up to the two Brendan Fraser Egyptian mummy capers well and truly sucks. Put it down to the non-convincing script with its duff dialogue and the non-stop bombardment of special CGI effects, but none of Fraser's previously goofy charm shines through and he just seems to be going through the motions. Rachel Weisz wisely ducked out of playing his wife and co-worker for the third time. In her place we have Maria Bello, who is not a bad actress, but she has no real rapport with Fraser and she has been given a lot of stick for her so-called phony English accent (it's not THAT bad). John Hannah is back, as annoying as ever, as her cowardly brother.

Having exhausted the possibilities in Egypt, the director Rob Cohen has moved the action to China where Fraser's son (one unmemorable Luke Ford) unearths the burial site of the long-dead emperor played by Jet Li. Unfortunately the latter has minimal opportunity to show his fighting skills, spends most of the movie in muddy mummy make-up, and definitely does not seem to be enjoying himself in the same way as he did in "The Forbidden Kingdom". Only Michelle Yeoh as the immortal entrusted to prevent Li's re-emergence manages to maintain her dignity.

The story -- such as it is -- matches the resurrected Li's army of terracotta warriors, in cahoots with the Chinese (?), fighting an army of dead skeletal martyrs raised by Yeoh, while all of the main characters attempt to administer the necessary coup de grace to prevent Li ruling the world. We are even given a flock of huge friendly yetis to add to the action. That was when I finally admitted that the film was an irredeemable mess rather than any sort of fun.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Paris Blues (1961)

While this film has its fans and also has a number of good things going for it, it is not, on reflection, that great a movie. Partly this is because it has dated rather badly. In its attempt to capture the feel of the so-called "beat generation", every line of dialogue seems to include the word "man" and there are endless scenes of enraptured fans crowding a night club and swooning to the jazz.

Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier play expatriate musicians in Paris. Newman is there because he lives and breathes music and thinks it is the best environment for him to develop as a composer. Poitier, while also an able performer, has chosen to live there to escape the daily humiliations of racial prejudice back home. Into their lives come two American tourists on a two-week holiday in Paris, white Joanne Woodward in her fourth co-starring role with her husband and black Diahann Carroll. Once they pair off into the accepted colour lines --- Newman originally making a play for Carroll -- they all fall in love to moody black and white shots of a Paris sorely bereft of the usual tourist attractions. Woodward has to be the sexual aggressor to get Newman ensnared, but this is explained away by making her a divorcee with two young kids (and therefore an 'experienced' woman). The crunch comes when they try to convince their lovers to return home with them: Can Newman forsake his musical destiny? Can Poitier face up to and fight against discrimation?

The movie's music credentials are pretty remarkable with Duke Ellington in charge of the score which features a number of his standards. There is also an unnecessary role for Louis Armstrong as a visiting celebrity; this adds little to the story, but it does afford one great jazz battle between his players and Newman's. And it is always a pleasure watching the great Satchmo.

The final plot thread concerns Newman trying to wean gypsy guitarist Serge Reggiani off hard drugs before he loses his talent, but this is something of an afterthought since no other drugtaking, which was an intrinsic part of the beat scene, is shown. The players here only seem to get high on music.