Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Death Race (2008)

I recently wrote about the unlikely success of British actor Jason Statham and his very dubious action films which seem to be beloved of teenaged boys who want more bang for their buck. This recent effort falls squarely in that league, especially since it is directed by hack Paul W. S. Anderson who is never to be confused with cognoscenti darling Paul Thomas Anderson.

The mystifying anomaly is that this movie derives its name from the 1975 cult fave "Death Race 2000", shares a producer with Roger Corman, and even uses the same names for the two lead characters, Frankenstein (Statham) and Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson), but that's where the similarities end. The earlier slapdash movie set out to make hit-and-run driving a spectator sport as the colourful contestants, led by David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, garnered points for the number and type of pedestrians maimed and/or killed. Its tongue stayed firmly in its cheek and it was pretty mindless fun.

This so-called re-make is more like mindless mayhem. Statham plays an ex-racing ace who is railroaded into prison on a faked-up murder charge so that he can assume the legendary status (and mask) of a driver who has died on the operating table. Set in the near future, all of the drivers are inmates looking for a release by winning the violent contest organised by their warden, Joan Allen of all people, who has found a formula for making big money on the jaded and bloodthristy taste of the internet viewer. One doubts that she was in this farrago for more than a paycheck, since she is reduced to acting the big bitch and mouthing some appalling dialogue. There is also a meaty part for old-time British actor Ian McShane who seems to have found a new lease of life in the States after "Deadwood". All of the cars and the track are fitted with machine guns, grenade-launchers, and flame-throwers and the idea is to completely demolish the field by killing the competition in the noisiest and most grisly fashion. For no good reason a bunch of shapely female prisoners are imported to act as navigators, since apart from being the ultimate tough guy, the rather dirty-looking Statham must prove irresistible to women as well.

As luck would have it, this movie was the final film at the 2008 FrightFest and we wisely skipped it at the time, just knowing that it would be the nonsense that it is. Now this year's Festival is upon us, starting tomorrow evening through Monday. It's the tenth anniversary edition with a sidebar of B-movies as well; we have a week-end pass and lots of good intentions to stay awake from early morning through the late-night showings, but time and age will tell. There will be a full report -- probably in a series of articles -- next week, but definitely nothing before Tuesday at the earliest. So wish me luck...

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Beautiful Memories (2001)

I recently wrote about the World Movies satellite channel and I am still finding rewarding films in their schedules. This is harder than it might appear since their forward listings seem to feature the same dozen or so flicks in haphazard order and their actual showings are seldom known with any lead time. But I keep my beady eye on them!

The French title for this film is "Se souvenir des belles choses", literally meaning to remember beautiful things, and this is the problem facing lead actress Isabelle Carre, whom I also wrote about earlier this year with the launch of CineMoi. In this film she plays a seemingly healthy 32-year old, but is actually in the throes of early-onset dementia from which her mother died. Her bossy sister takes her to a clinic dealing with memory problems in general and Carre soon chooses to take up residency there. The clinic caters to an appealing collection of odd-balls, and the staff which includes the director Zabou Breitman also seem to march to a slightly different piper. One of the "inmates" is a wine-taster, played by Bernard Campan (a vaguely familiar-looking actor whom I can't quite place -- or perhaps he just seems typically French). After losing his wife and young child in an auto accident in which he was badly injured, he has repressed all memories of his earlier life and these are only beginning to resurface. After some initial friction, he and Carre connect and a deep attraction and love between them develops.

The clinic's director knows that he must choose between doing what he can for Carre in a professional way for the small time she has left as a rational being or to let her find happiness with Campan in the time remaining. He opts for the latter course and arranges for the lovers to move into a flat he owns. There Carre has the security to try to cope with everyday life, although she is dependent on a series of memos, timetables, and alarm clocks to jog her failing memory and to find strength through her "nicely" man (another symptom of her growing problem is her inability to remember the right words for things). The irony of the story is that as Campan's past seeps back into his consciousness through a series of nightmares, Carre's future looks less and less rosy as she begins to forget more and more.

The film is wonderfully put together and acted, but despite moments of pleasure, one just knows that things will not end well and sadness looms. Like so many French films the action just stops and the viewer is left to make his own mind up as to what will happen next. My blog-buddy from the AOL days Tommy/James says that this is what he likes about European films. Me? I like a feeling of closure.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Bandslam (2009)

I've not been on line since last weekend since I've been looking after some young visitors -- girls aged six and ten -- which is the only conceivable explanation why this film is being reviewed. Having exhausted a host of other activities meant to be of interest, since rain was forecast for today, going to the pictures seemed the best option. But what a rotten selection of kiddie movies from which to choose: G-Force (even in 3D) sounded disastrous, Ice Age 3 only had early AM showings, GI Joe just didn't seem the smartest choice, which left the above film which at least the elder of the two wanted to see.

OK it was hardly original or great, but it had the odd amusing moment and the girls thought it was pretty groovy. Meant as a breakout role for Vanessa Hudgens after the three High School Musical films, she was actually the second lead to another Disney alumna Aly Michalka. (No, me neither!). The main role was taken by one Gaelen Connell, a chinless wonder, who has left his old school in Cincinnati where he was something of an outcast because of a dark family scandal and who has now moved to a new school in New Jersey with his divorced and protective mother, Lisa Kudrow. He is a knowledgable music buff and can't believe his luck when a gorgeous senior student asks him to listen to her band which she has formed with two real geeks. He makes various constructive criticisms and improves the band's performance by drafting in a drummer, two classical musicians for keyboard and cello, and three brass players from the school's marching band. Together they practice for the forthcoming competition of the title for the best school band in the greater New York area.

Hudgens plays a gothlike classmate for whom he begins to feel romantic stirrings and it is up to her to step in as the band's singer when Michalka leaves them high and dry (It was all part of a do-gooder bargain with God which didn't pan out for her). SPOILER HERE (not that I think any of my readers will be rushing out to view this adolescent fantasy): they do not win the contest, but in this internet age someone posts their performance on You Tube and they become a runaway popular success, and Connell's idol, David Bowie may even offer them a recording deal. This feature movie was only one step away from another made for cable Disney film, but it was a harmless afternoon's entertainment -- especially if you are a six or ten year old girl!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Grow Your Own (2007)

I think allotments are a particularly British phenomenon. They are the provision of small individual plots on communal land for gardening, particularly for growing fruit and vegetables, primarily for flat-dwellers who do not have their own gardens. The idea probably originated as a local government amenity for the so-called lower classes, but the concept has grown in popularity and there is a long waiting list in most areas for plots as they become available.

This film which is set in Liverpool finds one allotment's avid community horrified when the Council begins offering plots to newly arrived political immigrants and asylum-seekers as a form of therapy. The "Little Englanders" among them -- and this includes most of them -- are horrified at their preserve being 'invaded' by 'gypsies' and set out to make their lives as miserable as possible as ordered by their bully-spokesman, an ex-cop played by Phillip Jackson. However the three families in question from Iran, Africa, and China, gradually win over all but the most bull-headed of the locals. When a wireless telephone company gets permission to build a transmission aeriel on the site, they offer £5000 to Jackson and his committee to nominate a single plot to be demolished; he is more than happy to sacrifice one of the detested newcomers.

The unfortunate family is that of Benedict Wong a traumatised Chinese whose wife died in the container in which he and his two young children were smuggled into the country and who is just beginning to emerge from his cocoon of silence as he watches the melon seeds he has brought from home begin to grow. Wong is excellent and extremely moving in this role and his young daughter who has accepted the responsibility for looking after the family is equally good. In fact the casting, largely made up of British TV stalwarts, is excellent overall. I normally dislike Eddie Marsan who plays Jackson's harrassed son, who has a hopeless crush on the African woman, but he was just about acceptable here, especially as the worm begins to turn and rebel against his father. I also usually have trouble with the comedian Omid Djalili, but he does a fine job as the Iranian exile, a doctor in his previous life, who fears that his plea for asylum will be rejected.

Do you ever when watching some movies feel like screaming or throttling one or more of the characters on screen? Well that was the case here, particularly with Jackson and the female from the phone company as one watched their self-serving behaviour, but much as I hate to admit it, this film probably presented a fairly accurate portrayal of the deep-rooted prejudices that still ripple through British society. It was the odd portrayal of non-conformity and renewal (in every sense of the word) that gave one hope.

Produced in conjunction with the BBC, this indie had only a minimal cinema release and virtually no further distribution, which is something of a pity. I found this quirky comedy -- and despite much of the hardship depicted that is what it is -- an intelligent, warm, and ultimately realistic endeavour. If ever it comes your way, do try to have a look. The director, Richard Laxton, has just completed "An Englishman in New York " in which John Hurt revisits the role of Quentin Crisp that he created in the memorable "The Naked Civil Servant" (1975). On the strength of the film reviewed here, that should be something well worth seeing.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Having viewed the first five films in this series at the cinema, it was predictable that I would want to see this one as well in the best circumstances. However, it was something of a disappointment and perhaps does not bode well for the seventh novel which is being filmed in two parts. Despite its two and a half hour running time, this movie seemed largely a preview for the final chapters of the tale and its mix-and-match approach managed to leave out some of the novel's best action and to focus on some of the least rewarding. This is the "bitch" from someone who has read the book, but anyone who has not might well be at a disadvantage to understand what is being shown. In no way is this movie a stand-alone story.

We join Daniel Radcliffe's Harry and his best friends Hermione and Ron in their penultimate year at Hogwarts although all of them are getting just a wee bit long in the tooth for their roles. Most of the regular characters that we have known and loved like Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith aren't given much to do here; the focus is on Dumbledore's quest to educate Harry (aka "The Chosen One") to destroy the so-called Dark Lord and on evil young Draco Malfoy who has been selected to stop the kindly Headmaster. There is not even much screen time for Helena Bonham-Carter's Beatrix Lestrange or for Alan Rickman's Snape. Instead we are given an overabundance of Jim Broadbent as Slughorn, the new Potions master, whom Dumbledore tempts back to Hogwarts so that Harry can cosy up to him and extract some hidden memories of Tom Riddle, the teenaged Voldemort. We first encounter Slughorn disguised as an armchair which is pretty amusing, but it is downhill after that.

Too much time is spent on the students' teenaged rampaging hormones and frustrated crushes to move the story along, although Ron's ingesting a disastrous love potion has its humourous moments. There's an exciting Quidditch match, far better than previous ones, but this hardly helps the overall action and time is taken out to mourn the death of Hagrid's giant spider. It seems as if the director has tried to incorporate bits of the book's excitement by idly sticking in unconnected episodes, such as the fun of the Weasley brothers' new magic shop and the destruction of their family farm over the Christmas hols. Unfortunately very little of it seems to hold together and it all just seems to be a come-on for the final films, with the death of one of the main characters being tragically underplayed. Even the big reveal of the Half-Blood Prince's identity fizzles into something of an unexplained anti-climax.

You can take bets that I shall visit the cinema to see the final films as well. I only hope that they prove more satisfying than this outing.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Marlene (1984)

This Oscar-nominated documentary originally made for German television but released cinematically must be one of the strangest ever made with the theoretical cooperation of a living subject. Marlene Dietrich was 82 years old when she agreed to the project by actor-director Maximilian Schell, a co-star from 1961's "Judgment at Nuremburg". However she apparently stipulated that the interview and retrospective which was meant to be filmed at her Paris apartment could neither picture her nor her living quarters. So all the viewer has is a very stroppy and denigrating disembodied voice of the former legend.

Schell mixes the film's running time with wonderful clips from her films, her appearances for US trooops during World War II, the mixed reception she received from the German people after the war, and her long post-film concert career with Burt Bacharach, with his increasingly unsuccessful attempts to get the star to open up. Most of his questions are dismissed as rubbish or he is told that he can read about it in her book (or one of the other 53 that had been written about her). She lets down her guard somewhat when she talks about why she opposed Hitler and when she finds the occasional kind word about the many people with whom she worked over the years; in particular Spencer Tracy and Orson Welles come off well. Nearly everyone else from Emil Jannings through her husband through the other directors who made her famous receive very short shrift and only bland comments. The director's attempts to get her to watch videos of her movies and to reminisce are summarily dismissed as a waste of time by the very bolshy woman hiding in the next room. Only towards the end when she speaks about Berlin songs and a piece of poetry favoured by her mother, is there some crack to the voice and we assume the facade.

Perhaps she didn't wish her appearance to be shown as a way of preserving the glamorous image she nourished during her very long career and to prove just how much work goes into remaining an idol. Certainly her last film appearance in "Just a Gigolo" (1978) shows her heavily veiled and very carefully lit. However while the voice grew huskier over the years, her singing remained unique and rather wonderful. She died eight years after this documentary was filmed and presumably remained a recluse until the end, guarding the mystery that used to be Marlene Dietrich.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

Having lived in the States during my formative years, I do not share the British prejudice against American baseball movies. At least I understand the game (which people here dismiss as girly game "rounders") which is more than I can say about American football.

In fact there have been any number of memorable films over the years taking baseball as their theme, from some rather super biopics through some gentle comedies like this one. It benefits from basing the story on a real team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, although as the blurb at the beginning states, it could be the story of any team. They have been having a bad losing streak and are languishing at the bottom of their league, not helped by the fact that the players are at loggerheads with their acerbic manager played by Paul Douglas. He is a foul-mouthed bully -- but unlike more modern movies his language is carefully muddled on the soundtrack which makes this a suitable fantasy for all ages -- and he has a violent relationship with baiting sports broadcaster Keenan Wynn. One evening after another losing game, he goes out on the pitch to look for his lost 'lucky charm' when he is addressed by a voice from above (a never-seen James Whitmore) offering angelic help if he can mend his ways. It seems that a young 8-year old girl at the local orphanage run by Spring Byington has been praying for the team. Meanwhile Janet Leigh playing a womens' writer on the local newspaper attends a game to give the female prospective when she learns that the youngster claims to have seen angels on the field.

The story escalates especially as the team begins winning games and moving up towards the pennant, and the growing relationship between Douglas and the young girl on the one hand, the girl and Leigh on another, and Douglas and Leigh on the third (although no obvious romance is suggested since he is much, much older than she) fills out the story. There are some lovely cameos from baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb commenting on the likelihood of angels, along with one from Bing Crosby on the golf course. With one important game left to play, Douglas again gets into a fistfight with Wynn and the angels threaten to desert him; it is all down to Douglas and his revised relationship with his players to save the day, even to his allowing has-been pitcher and erstwhile friend Bruce Bennett to pitch his last game. That's the chokey bit of the film which sits nicely with the various chuckles. There's a lot more to savour when the skeptics at Douglas' suitability hearing and even the crusty Keenan find themselves forced to admit that perhaps angels really do exist.

The story was remade by Disney with the same title in 1994 with Samuel L. Jackson as the potty-mouthed coach and Christopher Lloyd as the now visible angel. It's a pleasant enough movie, but really not quite in the same family-friendly league mixed with genuine baseball action. And being a latter-day remake, the script has the Bennett character due to die because he has been smoking over the years! Lord save us from this sort of nannyish moralising.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

It's interesting how often relatively minor movies lurk about somewhere in one's memory. Several many times over the years, friends -- knowing my penchant for film obscurities -- have asked me, 'What is that sweet little film where James Cagney kidnaps Bette Davis?' Well folks this is it, although there is rather more to the tale than that capsule.

Although signed to the same studio, Cagney and Davis had only worked together once previously in "Jimmy the Gent" (1934), even more obscure, probably because Cagney's cheeky persona clashed with Davis' normally dramatic roles. This film, however, proves with a vengeance that she could play comedy brilliantly as well. In it she is a spoiled heiress about to elope to Nevada with bandleader Jack Carson whom she has only known for a few days. Cagney runs a failing private charter airline heavily in debt and sees the answer to his immediate problems by promising to deliver the unmarried Davis to her father Eugene Pallette for $10 dollars a pound. When they crash-land in the middle-of-nowhere desert after Davis has tried to jump from the plane with her parachute on backwards, they bicker and spar. They come across a ghost town inhabited only by an elderly hotel-keeper, the ever-loveable Harry Davenport, who promptly slaps Cagney in his rickety jail. Then when he learns the rather different facts of their situation, he puts her inside instead as they await her father. Also descending on them are the press as personified by Stuart Erwin who is looking for headlines, the rather effete Carson, and various sheriffs and their deputies.

There are no prizes for guessing who ends up with whom, but the chase is a delight throughout as Cagney woos and wins Davis in his own tough little way. Once seen, it is a screwball comedy that insinuates itself into your memory as one of life's little pleasures.