Monday, 20 December 2010

Films on TV for Christmas - 2010

In the same way that I have written about in-flight movies throughout my blogging life, I have done a piece about the Christmas movie choice on British TV for the last five years. I must now reluctantly conclude that the time has come to draw a halt after this last diatribe. For while films on flights still offer the potential of discovering something new, irregardless of the fiendish viewing conditions, the Christmas TV schedules become more of a disappointment year by year. Like a kiddie awaiting Santa, I pant with enthusiasm for them to be published, only to discover that I have already seen nearly everything on offer.

We all know that I am something of a demon and devour as many films as possible day by day, but I do believe that the movies on offer on terrestrial TV must be a lacklustre selection for other viewers as well. If one concentrates on the scant dozen premiere offerings between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, the new-to-terrestrial choices are aimed mainly at the young viewer. Fair enough, except for the fact that most desperate parents have probably previously sat through cinema showings of these with their family in tow and have very likely invested in the DVDs to keep the kids amused while they sneak away for a few minutes peace and quiet. I'm talking about the like of"Cars", "Enchanted", "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian", and "Shrek the Third". The only unlikely-to-have-been-seen offering for children is the rather twee French flick "The Fox and the Child" (BBC2 on the 24th), which may or may not involve reading subtitles!!

For the adults in the household, the feeble selection of premieres includes "I am Legend", "Elizabeth: The Golden Age", and the appalling "Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor". The only newbie I can hardily recommend is "Stranger than Fiction" (Channel 5 on Christmas Day). The rest of the schedules are loaded with the sort of re-runs that have been re-running for years. Granted these include a lot of old favourites, but just how many times does the non-movie buff want to see "Doctor Zhivago" or "From Here to Eternity"? If you do want to revisit some classic oldies, I would recommend "Born Yesterday" (BBC2 on the 23rd), "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (BBC2 on the 24th), "Edward Scissorhands" (Channel 4 on the 25th), and "The Man who Would be King" (BBC2 also on the 25th). Also, in the light of the soon-to-be-released remake of "True Grit" by the Coen Brothers, it might be a good idea to revisit the original with the Duke to refresh the basis for comparisons (Channel 4 on the 30th). Of course for sheer confusion, the sequel "Rooster Cogburn" is being shown earlier in the week. Finally to fully participate in the holiday joie de vivre (ho ho ho), do take another look at the Scrooge of all Scrooges, Alastair Sim (Channel 5 on the 24th). Finally, although it is outside my datewise remit and since there is no showing -- there seldom is -- of that Christmas perennial "It's a Wonderful Life", do revisit the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (Channel 4 on the 23rd).

So what will PPP be watching? There is only one terrestrial premiere which is new to me: "From Time to Time (ITV on the 26th), a somewhat dubious Downton-ish period piece. However since I excluded satellite showings from the above selections, I shall watch "Up in the Air", which I've not yet seen, on Sky. Most of that channel's other premieres over the period are already known or hardly worth viewing -- not that that will stop me, and I shall probably take the opportunity of copying "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland". Elsewhere there are a couple of French films on CineMoi and at least one Bollywood confection on More 4. Of course there's always the DVD backlog to fall back on.

Mind you much of the week will be taken up with cooking, eating, drinking, and generally rejoicing with visiting family, so it's just as well that there is not a plethora of must-see viewing for me in the wishy-washy schedules. Since I am unlikely to find the time to post again this side of the New Year, let me take this opportunity to wish you all a restful and satisfying holiday break and a peaceful and fulfilling year to come.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

In-Flight Flicks 2010

It serves me right for saying that this next entry would be about in-flight movies -- a subject I've avoided for the last two years, but one that used to be a regular feature when I crossed the Atlantic more regularly. On this trip I only managed to view two on the outward leg and a scant one on the return, but I've committed myself to their reviews:

Machete: This is a film that I would have been quite happy to view in the cinema, had it not rapidly disappeared from most screens apart from the odd late-night showing. Developed by the multi-talented director-cum-everything Robert Rodriguez from one of the cod trailers featured in "Grindhouse", it can best be described as a definite guilty pleasure. Nowhere else would the plug-ugly and aging Danny Trejo be given a lead role which he carries off with great bravado and aplomb. Rodriguez has managed to collect a eclectic powerhouse cast to underline his pet TexMex concern about so-called illegal immigrants. There are meaty parts for Robert De Niro (playing a nasty Bush-like politician), Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal, and Jessica Alba, most of whom end up violently dead, with the most ironic fate of all saved for De Niro's slimeball. I never thought I'd see the day when Seagal allowed himself to play a villain or to actually lose in a macho fight. Maybe the fact that he now lumbers about like a pregnant elephant is the reality. Trejo's avenger acquits himself well and even gets to make love to the nubile, young Alba. He even mouths a line that could well go down in film history: "Machete don't text!" The end credits promise two sequels -- loosely 'Machete Kills' and 'Machete Kills Again', but I think it is fair to assume that this is another of Rodriguez' little jokes.

Shrek Forever After: Since I have been something of a fan of the first three films in this series, albeit with diminishing amusement returns, I thought I should have a look at this one as well. It's probably an improvement on the third entry, but lacks most of the adult-friendly wit of the earlier films. Still it is entertaining and undemanding enough for children of all ages. With a plot stolen from "It's a Wonderful Life", Shrek begins to regret his so-called domestic bliss, yearns for the days when he was a fearsome ogre, and enters into a Faustian pact with the evil Rumpelstiltskin. He ends up in a parallel universe where all of the familiar characters have morphed into other destinies -- Puss-in-Boots is literally a fat cat and neither Donkey nor his beloved Fiona knows him. The movie probably worked well in 3-D (not that this is a remote in-flight possibility when one has enough trouble viewing even two dimensions on the minute screen), but I think the franchise is beginning to outstay its welcome. Enough already!

Cyrus: I was hoping for something vaguely amusing on the return flight before trying to sneak in some needed shut-eye, but I can honestly report that I hardly saw this movie. The seat in front of mine was occupied by a younger version of Two-ton Tessie O'Shea and when she reclined her seat, not only was her seatback nearly touching my nose but the screen became dark and barely visible. Add to that some inordinate engine noise and turbulence and you can begin to picture the scene. Fortinately I vaguely knew the film's plot or it would have been even more of a wasted effort. As is, I think the would-be talents of John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill were probably wasted anyhow. Divorced and lonely Reilly thinks he has met the woman of his dreams in Tomei, but soon discovers there is another man in her life, her needy, super-polite son, the chubby Hill. Hill doesn't want to share her with anyone -- in fact their relationship is so close that it's spooky -- but I guess everything works out in the end. I'll never know unless I see the film again some time in the future, because if the truth be told, I didn't really view it this time around.

So I can promise that there will be no more in-flight reviews in the foreseeable future. This is probably just as well, since as we all know it is hardly the best way to actually see a film, but only a means of trying to fill in those slow, boring hours.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Miracle in the Rain (1956)

Some movies linger in the memory, not because they are classics of their genre or because they feature all-time great performances, but because they are satisfying on so many levels. To call such films 'nice' is to use an adjective that minimises their achievement, but I can think of no other word that concisely sums up their appeal.

This film stars Jane Wyman and Van Johnson, neither of whom feature amongst my great favourites. She was always a well-praised and indeed an Oscar-winning actress, but no great beauty and her characters were not always striking. Here she plays a mousy secretary with little outside life, forced to return home each evening to look after her sickly mother, who has developed into something of a hypochondriac since her husband walked out on the family years previously. One very rainy evening, as she shelters outside her office building, she meets Johnson's soldier on furlough (the movie is set during the early years of World War II). He sees her home and arranges to spend more time with her during the next few days, much to the annoyance of Mom who has warned her all about men and their unreliability. Johnson plays an ebullient and winning Southerner and Wyman soon falls for his genuine charm and his obvious attraction to her. Johnson, often associated with more lightweight fluff, is totally convincing as the loving suitor, despite what one has subsequently read about his actual sexual preferences. His unit is about to ship off, but he gives her his mother's ring, asks her to wait for him, and promises to return.

It is not quite a spoiler to say that he is killed in action, leaving Wyman in a spiral of despair. However the film moves into the realms of the supernatural to leave us with a slightly happier ending, involving a genuine Roman coin, bought at a shopfront cod auction for two dollars during the couple's first date. Yes, tears begin to swell behind the sentient viewer's eyes.

However the real miracle of this movie, written by super-scribe Ben Hecht, is the perfect thought given to even the smallest parts. The protagonists are surrounded by a wonderful collection of character actors, some of whom are not even marginally well-known, who bless us with a gallery of well-rounded, believable performances. Foremost amongst these is Eileen Heckert playing Wyman's older, spinterish workmate and confidante, who accompanies her shy friend on her first arranged meeting with Johnson (who insists that she accompany them all evening) and who takes her to St. Patrick's Cathedral during her grief. Josephine Hutchinson as the mother who resents her daughter's happiness and William Gargan as the wayward-pianist missing husband also inhabit their roles as in a well-tailored suit. Fred Clark plays the henpecked but womanising office boss. An important early role is inhabited by stand-up comedian Alan King, as a newly married, brash soldier that the couple meet in Central Park, along with his nightclub-singing floozy (but sweet with it) of a wife. Even the very smallest roles of a kind cathedral priest, a restaurant maitre d', the gung-ho office boy predicting the course of the war on a wall map, and the beer-guzzling, kvetchy old neighbour who helps look after Hutchinson are all fully-formed and totally real.

In short, this is a wonderful film -- not necessarily a great one, but very definitely a completely 'nice' one which will reward your viewing.

On a personal note I am away now for a short while, so there will be nothing new for about a week. However I shall then pen one of my infamous in-flight movies reviews which I've not done for a while. See you soon...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Kill Zone (2005)

There was a time when I considered myself pretty au fait with Hong Kong movies, having seen and enjoyed a vast number of martial arts, swordplay, and fantasy films, along with heroic modern action dramas of the John Woo/Chow Yung Fat variety, and there were a number of actors (both male and female) that I really liked. However in the last decade the complexion of Hong Kong cinema has changed after the 1997 reversion to Mainland rule. A lot of the old reliables -- Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh amongst them -- found a new niche in Hollywood and/or China; the talent pool seemed to contract noticeably. In addition the old themes were seldom in evidence and there appeared to be an increasing reliance on modern day policiers like "Infernal Affairs". With the exception of some of Stephen Chow's flicks like "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung-Fu Hustle" much of the fun disappeared.

This film from director Wilson Yip is something of a welcome throwback insofar as it combines the current police vs. Triads themes with a good dose of quick-moving martial combat and gives meaty roles to three of the old stand-bys: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and the wonderful Sammo Hung in an unusually villainous role. I must confess that it is a little slow to get going and is somewhat marred by an unnecessarily flashy stooting style, but it builds to an exciting climax with some spectacular action sequences along the way. Yam plays an about-to-retire detective who has been trying for years to get the goods on Triad boss Hung and he and his team are not adverse to a spot of larceny or falsifying evidence to get their man. Yam is leaving the force because a terminal brain tumor has been diagnosed and the by-the-book Yen is due to take on his job, initially disapproving of Yam and his men.

Yen is well-known for his fighting skills and he has a suitable opponent in Hung's assassin-for-hire Wu Jing. However it is Yen's final showdown with good old Sammo that lifts this film to greatness. For a fiftyish fat man, Hung is amazingly spry and graceful and the pair are evenly matched in fighting skill. When one is led to believe that that the good guy has finally triumphed and that the bad guy has finally met his match, there is a sudden bit of unexpected action which destroys one of the pair physically and the other one mentally. In fact the overall ending of the movie is believable yet incredibly downbeat, but none the worse for that.

The action is set just before and on Father's Day and each of the main characters can be viewed as a father or son or surrogate father. Hung has at long last just had a child with his beloved young wife (who had previously had a series of miscarriages), Yen became a cop because his father was and remained on the force after his dad's murder despite being begged to give up the life, and Yam has a sweet orphan that he has adopted after her parents (potential court witnesses against Hung) were dispatched by the gang boss's minions. Another of Yam's team has just been reconciled with the daughter he has not seen for many years, when Wu Jing makes short work of his newfound joy and his life. It's a busy film with a fair amount of bloodshed but this is all part of the tale rather than a gorefest. Oddly enough I discovered half way through that I had seen the movie previously, dubbed into German, but I think I must have been in one of my sleepy-gal modes since I remembered nearly nothing about it. Take it from me, it really is a memorable addition to Hong Kong cinema and I doubt that I will forget it this time around.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Irina Palm (2007)

This is one very peculiar film, both for its star turn and its subject matter. I have been trying to catch up with it for a while, having missed a showing two years ago on one of the minority channels -- and it has only just resurfaced. Although something of a 'Euro-pudding' with its German-born, Belgium-based director and multinational funding, it was made in English with a largely English cast.

What makes it unusual is its strange story and its lead performance from Marianne Faithfull, once the archetypal rock-chick and groupie, who subsequently forged a singing and film career -- although mainly in minor productions -- starting with her cult performance in "Girl on a Motorcycle" (1968). While once a good-looking lass, she has not aged overly well, and here she plays a 50ish widowed grandmother without any attempt at 'glam' and with little false modesty. Her young grandson is dying of some rare disease which has cost his family all of their meagre assets and the only hope is a specialist operation in Australia. While the surgeon's fee would be pro bono, money is needed for flights, accommodation, and the hospital. Faithfull's Maggie, having already sold her house, tries desperately to get further loans or employment, but is turned down everywhere. Walking through Soho she sees a sign in the window of a club looking for a 'hostess'. Thinking that means welcoming the guests or making the tea, she soon finds that it is a euphemism for a sex worker. Too old and plain to join the ranks of the pole and lap dancers, the club's owner Miki -- a wonderful turn from Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic -- sees her soft hands as the answer. She would be perfect as the unseen presence behind a wall giving hand relief to the male organs thrust through a hole. While appalled by the prospect, Maggie is enticed by the potential earnings and reluctantly learns her trade.

There is no graphic portrayal of what she does, with carefully-framed camera shots, although there is plenty of background nudity on the club premises. For a film about 'wanking', it is done in the best possible taste, even when she develops a medical condition labelled 'penis-elbow'! In fact she is so good at her job that the punters queue up for her services and she takes the trade name Irina Palm. Unfortunately it also means that the only friend she has made at the club loses her job for not being as 'in demand' and bitterly rejects her. (I must say that this part of the story didn't ring true, as surely Irina was not available 24/7). Taking advantage of her increasing trade value, Maggie borrows £6000 from Miki, agreeing to work for nothing for the next ten weeks to pay it back. Miki, a cold-hearted businessman, reluctantly agrees to this and despite his increasingly warm feelings towards Irina, threatens to kill her should she renege.

The fly in the ointment is her weakish son who demands to know how she raised the cash. When she refuses to share her 'shameful' secret, he trails her to the club, recoils in disgust, and forces her to stop working (or else no grandson access). He even threatens to return the 'dirty' cash, making one wonder why he is so reluctant to make moral sacrifices for his son's treatment while his mother's priorities remain steadfast. Meanwhile all of the local busybodies including so-called best friend Jenny Agutter (the only other well-known name in the cast and another actress now showing time's ravages) want to know where Maggie disappears to each day and why she is being so evasive. This lends a certain underlying humour to what might be considered a basically grim tale. We don't discover how her grandson fares, but we are finally left with another, and not unexpected, happy ending.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2010)

At the risk of alienating thousands of 'Potterheads', I must confess that I did not think much of the latest film. To clearly state my position, I am actually something of a fan. I have read all of the books, seen each film on the big screen shortly after release, and do have DVDs of all of them. However, despite the already numerous raves on IMDb, I am unable to enthuse.

So what is the problem? The main one is, I think, to have split the final chapter into two parts. I will not be cynical and conclude that this was done to make the franchise even more of a moneyspinner, although that is of course one net result. I will be charitable and believe that it was done to remain more faithful to the original text with a minimum of skipping and reducing the action. But I am not a purist. I didn't enjoy any of the previous movies any the less for their omissions; whenever a book is adapted for the screen, there are inevitably necessary changes and it is seldom that these completely ruin the finished film, which the cineaste must take on its own merits. By dividing the action into what may be two unequal parts, the director and his crew have given us a very, very slow movie, barely alleviated by the occasional set piece. In the previous movie we learned that Harry must locate and destroy a number of horcruxes to allow good to win over evil. In this film only one of the remainder was found and eventually destroyed, leaving a larger number to come in Part Two. In fact one wonders how they managed to fill up the best part of two and a half hours here.

A second problem is the over-emphasis on Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, Emma Watson's Hermione, and Rupert Grint's Ron. While the trio have matured in their acting skills over the seven movies, watching them on their seemingly endless and random quest does produce a measure of tedium. Most of the remaining and well-loved characters are given minimal screen time and some old favourites don't even get a look-in. Ralph Fiennes' noseless Voldemont and Helena Bonham-Carter's overeager Bellatrix are given some play, but most of the other characters seem treated as background decoration. Also I must agree with those who feel that Grint seems at the end of his tether and that he is growing bored with his role as the gormless although ultimately faithful Ron.

This is not to say that there are not some things for the viewer to enjoy in this dark entry, generally far from the fun and frolics when the movie was largely Hogwarts-set. There is one bit of inspired animation as the tale is told of the three brothers whose symbols became the Deathly Hallows, a modern-day riff on silhouette animation reminiscent of the great Lotte Reninger. Changing the cast into multiple Harry Potters to affect his escape at the film's start is also mildly amusing in a somewhat jejune way. Voldemont's CGI snake is well done too, although very probably a little too scary for the young 'uns. Unfortunately, much of the joy and most of the humour has been drained from the series as the emphasis veers towards racial purity (no more mudbloods) and the triumph of the Dark Side.

The film ends with a cliffhanger, reminding me of those old Saturday serials, shown to get the moviegoer back next week. However in this instance we have to wait until some time next year (rather than next Saturday) to discover what happens next. Those of us who have read the book know the answer. Viewers new to the series may not really care.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

There are some films which most people rave about which have left me on the chilly side of cold and I begin to wonder what is the matter with me. So I watched this Oscar-winning flick again (best original screenplay for Charlie Kaufman plus a best actress nom for Kate Winslet) and I remained unenchanted by it the second time around as well.

I can understand why it has its fans and why it is considered amongst the best films of the decade. Based on a quotation from Alexander Pope praising the blissfulness of an empty mind, free from all disturbing memories, we can all recall painful loves and losses and dream of being liberated from such distractions. However, this is to deny life with its many ups and downs. After a fight with boyfriend Jim Carrey, Winslet approaches Tom Wilkinson's Lacuna Corp. to wipe her memory of their relationship and to enable her to start afresh. When she no longer recognises the lovelorn Carrey and has taken up with a new, younger beau, he too opts for the Lacuna treatment. However in the midst of losing the bad memories, Carrey realises that there are so many deep-rooted happy times that he would want to recall that he tries to prevent their inevitable destruction.

With its non-linear structure -- the end of the film is actually at the beginning, but it takes the viewer a while to understand this -- the movie is self-consciously quirky and one struggles to follow the story. That in itself is fine, as one can use the colour of Winslet's messy hair -- she favours outlandish shades of green, blue, and red -- to pinpoint the actual times and sequence of the action. However well-done the film's dreamlike meandering might be, I for one did not care, as I found most of the characters annoying. In particular Lacuna's staff of Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and current flavour-of-the-month Mark Ruffalo were on balance both aggrevating and took up too large a chunk of the action. The latter, with his unwashed appearance, cavorting nakedly with Dunst whilst supposedly monitoring Carrey, verged on the nauseating. And as for the gormless Wood stealing both Winslet's underpants and many of Carrey's memories to woo her, ugh with a capital U. Oddly enough, the un-Oscar nominated Carrey probably gave one of the best performances of his career as the needy, nerdy Joel.

Writer Kaufman has produced some interesting scripts and director Michel Gondry is also a talent to admire, but I still find it nearly impossible to share the admiration that this movie instilled in so many other viewers. Between them, I think, they pulled the wool over some easily distracted eyes.

As a footnote and possibly to prove that at heart I'm a cinematic philistine at times, yesterday I watched Gerard Butler in 2009's "Law-Abiding Citizen". While not delving the same convoluted depths as "Sunshine...", but nearly as preposterous, I found it the more watchable movie. I don't normally like Butler, but he was surprisingly good here, when he was not trying to play a muscled hero or a frothy rom-com love interest. I found myself rooting for his good-guy turned bad-guy to win, even if movie convention left victory to Jamie Foxx's unlikeable 'hero' (not!).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

For My Viewing Pleasure - Ha Ha

I have ranted previously about the dearth of attractive new movies each week on the satellite Premiere Channel. Most weeks Sky offers its subscribers five films new to television, although some weeks it is only four if they are premiering a 'big' attraction like one of the Harry Potter flicks (which of course most viewers have seen previously in one form or another). Sky's myriad other film channels seldom offer any premieres, although this has not always been the case; they tend to schedule the same old selections, jokingly lumped into into Indie, Modern Classics, Adventure, Horror etc. etc. I suppose I should be thankful for the chance to add some relatively recent releases to my ongoing cinema knowledge, even if some of these are instantly forgettable.

This week I had not previously seen any of the premieres and have now lapped up four of the five -- I can not yet bring myself to watch "Amelia" (2009), another worthy and Oscar-chasing peformance from Hilary Swank. As for the other four, while the selection was better than usual, they were on balance underwhelming:

Death Warrior (2009): To deal with the worst of the lot first, this clunker is something of a vanity project from a 40ish Argentinian martial arts lunk called Hector Echavarria (no, nor me!). When not making slo-mo naked love to his adoring wife, he is brutally knocking off a selection of opponents (played by real MMA fighters), all of whom are supposedly in thrall to a Russian mobster and who must fight to the death as millionaire punters around the world place their bets. I nearly switched off before Ivan the Terrible came on the scene, but he is so wonderfully overplayed by Nick Mancuso that this character nearly made the movie watchable. Nearly!

New Moon (2009): This second film in the Twilight series, beloved of the so-called Twi-Hards, was hardly my cup of tea. While I actually find Kristen Stewart's Bella rather fetching as she is torn between the dubious charms of pasty-faced Robert Pattinson's Edward (when did vampires begin functioning in daylight?) and muscle-bound Taylor Lautner's werewolf Jacob, it all became rather yawnful, especially with the film's not very crafty CGI beasties. Of course mind always wins out over matter and Edward is indeed her own true love. Only two more parts of the saga to go I'm told! Neither Michael Sheen's Tony Blairish vampire lord nor a red-eyed Dakota Fanning added much to this two-hour drag.

Paranormal Activity (2007): I believe this low budget docudrama from writer-director Oren Reli made a packet, as some not very discerning audiences apparently succumbed to its low-rent scares. Filmed in his own house and featuring two inexperienced actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Stoat (playing Katie and Micah of course), we were meant to be enthralled by the dubious charms of these slightly obnoxious yuppies as they try to track the possible demon that may or may not have been stalking her since childhood. If video footage of a couple tossing and turning in their double bed night after night, with the occasional bang or thud, rocks your boat -- great. However the shocks, such as they were, were too slow coming and the so-called scary moments were too few and far-between. Of course a sequel has just opened by popular demand!

Julie and Julia (2009): This was the most enjoyable film of the four, but not quite as winning as I hoped it would be. As I have admitted previously, I have finally been won over by Meryl Streep having resisted her early 'let's talk in a funny accent' roles; however her embodiment here of the classic cook Julia Child, with her overbearing and screechy voice turned out a little hard to stomach (if one sticks to food metaphors). I also like Amy Adams; here she plays a dead-end government office worker and would be writer who blogs about mastering the 524 recipes from Child's first volume in 365 days. The film leaps between their two lives without completely immersing the viewer in either. Julia turned to cooking as a pastime while living in Paris with her beloved State Department hubby, a sweet turn from the versatile Stanley Tucci, and we watch her ongoing efforts to bring French gourmandism to the American kitchen. Julie, on the other hand, has a whiny underachieving husband and is hoping to use her blog as a stepping stone to greater things for herself. In short she is not a completely likeable character, although it is hard not to fall for this winning actress. One hoped that the two stories might have intertwined by the film's end, but we are only told in passing that Mrs. Child was not taken with the younger woman's efforts (which Julie interprets as 'she hates me'). I researched this; apparently the truth of the matter is that the venerable Julia decided that Julie could not be much of a cook if she had so much trouble with recipes that she had tested and re-tested for any would-be gourmet chef.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Tenant (1976)

It is something of a conceit to compare movies with fine wines and to say that some grow better with age. However certain films do seem to improve each time that I return to them. I have probably seen the above film directed by and starring Roman Polanski at least twice previously, but I was struck by how accomplished a piece it is after watching it again recently.

Despite having an alternate French title (Le Locataire), being set in Paris, and having been produced and shot by a French crew, I do believe that the movie was actually made in English, since the main cast are obviously not dubbed. I am prepared to be told, however, that some of the minor parts amongst the very large French supporting cast were in fact post-dubbed. And what a bizarre lead cast it is, including Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Lila Kedrova, and Shelley Winters. Polanski plays a timid naturalised French citizen, Trelkovsky, who hears of an apartment that may fall vacant in the block run by Douglas. It seems that the previous tenant, a young woman called Simone Choule, has thrown herself from its fourth floor window and is dying in hospital. Anxious to secure the flat for himself, Polanski visits Choule's bedside where he meets her friend Adjani, only for them to hear terrified screams from the heavily bandaged patient.

Trelkovsky moves in and soon makes enemies amongst the motley collection of tenants and the conceirge (Winters), who accuse him of making unnecessary noise and needlessly moving his furniture. When he finds a human tooth buried in a hole in the wall and when he notices different neighbours standing ominously in the communal toilet across the courtyard for hours on end, he becomes more and more wary and suspicious. Polanski returns to themes from some of his earlier films including the paranoia manifest in "Repulsion" (1968) and the cross-dressing from Cul-de-Sac (1966), as Trelkovsky begins to don Choule's left-behind clothes and makeup. He even goes out to buy a wig and high heels. He gradually feels himself becoming Simone and being driven to suicide by his oppressive neighbours, as he believes she was, staring out from his window for hours, preparing himself for the final leap.

Polanski is never off-screen and gives us a bravura performance. We begin to feel his terror as his world closes in on him. The creepiness of his environment becomes tangible and claustrophobic, but the viewer can not draw his eyes away. One then begins to wonder whether there was in fact some previous relationship with the dead Choule, whether they are two parts of the same person, and whether there is a inevitability about Trelkovsky's fate.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Jennifer's Body (2009)

It is probably fair to say that the critics had their knives out for screenwriter Diablo Cody's sophomore effort after her Oscar win for "Juno". That film found favour, not just for Cody's snappy and hip dialogue, but for its smart casting, particularly with Ellen Page, who brought her words and insights into teen emotion to vibrant life. Unfortunately despite more of the same here, dressed in the trappings of a would-be horror film, much of the dialogue falls flat with a cast that is trying just a little too hard.

Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried play a pair of mismatched 'best friends' since childhood, although it is hard to see what binds Seyfried's sensible character Needy (not that she is 'needy' in the least) to Fox's teenaged femme fatale. When they go to hear a new band with a 'salty' (i.e. hot and sexy) lead singer at the local dive, the joint inexplicably bursts into flames. The girls escape, but many are left dead. Fox then takes off in the band's van and it eventually emerges that these wannabe popstars reckon that they can get Satan on their side if they sacrifice a virgin. Big joke, since Fox is self-evidently an experienced and knowing trollop, and she emerges from their ceremony as a razor-toothed succubus with a taste for young male flesh. That's the so-called 'horror' part of the story as she begins to munch her way through a foreign exchange student, a jock, and the class nerd to keep herself looking fit. Unfortunately, even with the occasional lashings of blood, the film is neither sufficiently scary nor suspenseful for any horror aficionado.

In her first lead role after her decorative turn in the two "Transformers" movies, Fox's acting chops are not really stretched or tested. She looks great and sexy, but the film is overly careful with her teasing non-nudity. And I have no idea what her would-be lesbian make-out scene with Seyfried was in aid of, other than Cody's throwing everything but the kitchen sink into her poorly structured screenplay. Yes, there was the occasionally clever line (I for one was taken with Fox's being invited out to watch "Rocky Horror" and retorting that she doesn't like boxing movies), but the script was striving too self-consciously to be both 'with it' and knowing. Seyfried was marginally the better showcased actress, as she alone became aware of the changes in her not-so best buddy. However, the plot took her finally over the top in completely unbelievable ways. If this was meant to set up a sequel, forget about it folks.

The film is largely an all-girls effort from Cody (who was also one of the producers), the two female leads -- none of the male roles are that strong, and the director Karyn Kusama. This was only her third feature after her success with "Girlfight" back in 2000 (a film I found impossible to warm to) and the messy sci-fi flick "Aeon Flux" in 2005. She brings little to the table in terms of helping the viewer to decide if they are watching a black comedy or a failed horror flick. Ultimately the film may find its fans, but it is really nothing more than a disjointed tale about a flesh-eating cheerleader!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

El (1953)

I have written previously about one of my favourite directors Luis Bunuel and the strange period that he spent in exile between the end of the Spanish Civil War and his triumphant recall to Spain with "Viridiana" in 1961. He did not leave for political reasons but rather to find work, and after a short and fruitless sojourn in the United States, he landed in Mexico in the late 40s, eventually taking Mexican nationality. Oddly enough everyone continues to think of him as a Spaniard and he is most lauded for his later works back in Europe. However his Mexican output runs the gamut from cheapjack quickie productions (where he was definitely a director-for-hire) through some enduring classics.

"El", also known as "This Strange Passion", is definitely the work of a master, even if it is the product of a rushed, three-week shoot. The story of a rich and devout older man (with an apparent shoe fetish) becoming infatuated with a young woman and luring her from her fiance becomes a haunting study of jealousy and paranoia. The film is not a thriller in the Hitchcock sense, but rather a mesmerizing slow-burner, drawing the viewer into the doomed marriage between urbane Arturo de Cordova's Francisco and his feisty wife, the Argentinian actress Delia Garces. Although there is little reason to suspect that theirs will not be a happy life together, one soon begins to notice the cracks: his insane jealousy, his possessiveness, and his obsession that the world is against him as he pursues a hopeless lawsuit to recover his family's lost properties. Any man who even speaks to his wife is perceived a would-be Lothario and any civility on her part is seen as sluttishness and a cue for violence. As they rattle about in their magnificent Art Nouveau home, one wonders how much she will stand before running home to Momma. However, even her dear mother and the family priest are inclined to accept his explanations rather than hers and to take his part.

De Cordova gives a stunning performance. A leading man in Mexican films since the 1930s, he was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s as the next hot 'Latin Lover', but none of his Hollywood movies did justice to the talent he displays here. His is far from a sympathetic character, but his growing madness is fascinating. Bunuel allows us to view Francisco's seemingly hostile world through the character's own eyes, before snapping us back and forth to reality. By the film's end, when Francisco has retreated to the 'safe' environment of a monastery and his wife has remarried, we still can not believe that he has found peace with himself, nor do we know for certain whose child is the young boy in the final scenes.

In closing let me quickly mention a fascinating French film I watched last night, "Avril" (2006). I was not familiar with the director nor any of the cast, apart from Miou-Miou as an aging nun, but the story was beautifully told. Avril is a novice, raised by a strict order of nuns since she was a baby, and locked away to spend her last two weeks in contemplative isolation before taking her final vows. Released by Miou-Miou (whose own motivations become apparent later) and told that she has a twin brother, the artistic Avril uses those two weeks to discover the outside world and to be seduced by the joys of life. And with a potentially cliffhanger ending, the film does not take the usual French tactic of leaving the viewer guessing, but has the grace to indicate its likely outcome. Recommended.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

London Film Festival Wrap-up

Well, another LFF bites the dust and allows me to return to my usual mishmash of film-viewing, a combination of new premieres on the satellite film channels (like this week's "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra" and the Rob Zombie's remake "Halloween 2", both exceptionally stupid and nearly unwatchable), favourites and 'gotta-sees' from my ever-growing collection, and whatever arthouse offerings have accumulated amongst the DVD backlog and from foreign-language channels. First, however, I am duty-bound to finish the two remaining film festival reviews -- to explain why I chose these titles and what I thought of my choices:

Biutiful (2009): This is the fourth full-length feature from the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and the first not to be written by the talented Guillermo Arriaga (who has now begun his own directing career). I thought his debut feature "Amores Perros" an amazingly brilliant calling card and although I reacted to his next two features, shot in English, with decreasing enthusiasm ("21 Grams and "Babel"), I was eager to have a look at his return to Spanish-language filmmaking, especially when I noticed that powerhouse compatriot directors Cuaron and Del Toro were listed among the producers. Set in Barcelona's less touristy environs (i.e.slums), the film boasts a magnificent central performance from Javier Bardem as a 'fixer' dealing with illegal immigrants, a single father struggling to provide a living for his two children and to protect them from their mentally-ill mother, a gifted medium who is able to communicate with recently departed spirits, and finally a man who has received news of his own impending death from cancer. There is no glamour and not much chance of redemption in his desperate existence in this seedy underworld milieu. Therefore his attempts to do the right thing in an increasingly hostile, malignant, and doomed life ultimately make for a truly depressing film. The one fact that emerges, however, is that Bardem is one of the great actors of our generation. If only he had applied his talents to a potentially more likeable movie.

Kaboom (2010): It was a matter of principle to see this film since it was one that the director Gregg Araki pulled from the recent FrightFest programme on the grounds that he didn't want his movie to receive its UK premiere in front of "a bunch of geeks". How diplomatic! After its international premiere at Cannes, it might have been more user-friendly to say that he had already decided to allow the film to be shown at this year's LFF. But if you want to trade insults about "geeks" (or freaks for that matter), after viewing this disappointing farrago, I am tempted to say that this auteur of independent 'queer cinema' only makes movies for a fringe audience and an easily-pleased one at that. I thought his recent "Mysterious Skin" showed a new-found maturity, after his 90's trilogy of teen trauma ("Totally Fucked Up", "Doom Generation", and "Nowhere"), but he seems to have regressed badly.

As a line from the film says, the end product on display here is "nuttier than squirrel shit". Pretty-boy lead Thomas Dekker has just begun university, together with his best gal friend, a lesbian who appears to have taken up with a witch. His character Smith may appear to be gay-inclined too as he ogles his buff roomie, but he is not adverse to rampant sex with whomever opportunity provides. We are teased by a mystery of disappearing co-eds, hostile animal-masked attackers, and growing unease and paranoia, where nothing is what it seems to be. However rather than playing on the potentials of this quasi sci-fi plot, Araki turns to a completely bonkers chain of events to produce an ultimately stupid, mind-boggling, and disappointing finale. Kaboom indeed!

In summary, I can't say that this year's festival was one of the better ones. Perhaps I was unfortunate in my choice of films, although all of them -- bar the Korean entry -- had their moments. None of them however really resonated with me to the extent that I will be counting the moments to their next viewing. However, distance lends enchantment, so they say, and my feelings could well mellow with time.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Five from the Fest

Five. That's how many sets of tickets I had for the London Film Festival since I last wrote, but I have actually only seen four of the films. The miserable 'winter' cold that is making the rounds had me sufficiently laid low on Monday that I couldn't face going out in the damp. I therefore did not go to see Catherine Breillat's erotic riff on "The Sleeping Beauty", especially since I was not overly enchanted by her treatment of "Bluebeard" last year (although I've just reread my review and it is vaguely positive). So Michael went off on his own and reports back that I didn't miss much -- and I believe him. So what did I see?

The Book of Masters (2009): In its Festival previews, Time Out magazine was particularly scathing about this first Russian production from good old Walt Disney, suggesting that it should be avoided at all costs. However since I am traditionally a sucker for fantasy films, I was tempted to view one based on Russian folk tales and legends, and at least we were spared a plethora of talking animals and saccharine songs. Visually the movie was a feast for the eyes as storybook tableaux sprung seamlessly to life. If the the story was overly complicated and the characters a little uninvolving, at least the live-action effects were reasonably well done and the colourful landscapes enchanting. No doubt Disney will be releasing an English-dubbed version in due course, but I will not suggest for a minute that you speed down to the nearest showing when they do.

13 Assassins (2010): The Japanese cult director Takashi Miike is also usually a safe bet for me, although some of his more recent pictures in what has been a ridiculously prolific career have been less off the wall than earlier outings. In this movie the auteur has foregone his usual sparring at the bizarre and gives us a fairly traditional costume drama set in the 1840s. A group of concerned samurai seek numbers to eliminate the evil Lord Naritsugu before he achieves even greater political influence. The thirteenth is a cheeky but fearless bandit whom they encounter when they are lost in the forest en route to their quarry. The second half of the film which altogether is probably at least half an hour too long, is taken up with the bloody battle in a booby-trapped village before the Lord and his do-or-die protectors (vastly outnumbering our heroes) fight to the death. A big problem with this film is that I couldn't individualise most of the protagonists and therefore feel their loss as they fell one by one. However if spectacular and gory hand-to-hand battle scenes are your bag, you should have a ball with this flick.

Surviving Life (2010): The Czech director and animator Jan Svankmajer is another of my favourites and this is his first movie since 2005's "Lunacy", which I sort of disliked at the time but which I am dead keen to see again. This film from the master surrealist uses a combination of live actors melded into cut-out animation to produce a confusing but amazing essay on our dream life. The main protagonist, garbed in his pajamas throughout, consults an analyst to help him differentiate between his mundane waking life with his plain old wife and his double dream world with a beautiful woman. Watching from the walls are photos of Freud and Jung, who react with comic dismay at the various revelations. Like dreams there is little logic in the plot and its resolution, but lovers of the weird and the wonderful should feel right at home with Svankmajer's flights of fancy.

Sunny Side Up (1929): There were fewer 'Films from the Archives' this year to tempt me, most of them being fairly well-known to me, and indeed I had seen this confection previously. However that was many years ago and this new restoration from MOMA appealed, especially since I have recently been watching a run of Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell starrers (although this one is not from Borzage). An early musical outing for the sound era, this movie boasts a slew of classic oldies from DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, undermined by some pretty horrendous renditions in out-of-date singing styles from most of the cast. Gaynor can just about hold a tune (although her dancing is gormless), but Farrell -- reasonably appealing in his silent roles -- comes across as a great lummox with a squeaky voice in talkies. Still the film had its charming moments outside the clunky dialogue from the likes of El Brendel, especially in a few of the big production numbers. These included the bizarre sight of a host of half-garbed showgirls dancing to 'Turn on the Heat' as they moved from a melting Arctic landscape to a tropical paradise and the inclusion of a group of children taking off the emotions of the big love duet. The gal sitting to my left was chortling away with enthusiasm and I suppose it really is a movie worth seeing, if only to realise how more sophisticated the musicals of the 1930s would become.

That leaves two more films to complete this years delectations. Reviews to follow soon...

Friday, 22 October 2010

London Film Festival - Part One

It hasn't exactly been an auspicious start to my Festival attendance. To start with the second film which I saw yesterday, I would very much like the two hours plus of my life back. Korean movies have generally been something of a treat in recent years, so when I noticed "End of Animal" (2010) described in the programme as 'one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history', I thought I might have chosen a winner. I should have suspected the worst when I couldn't find the movie listed on IMDb, either under its English or Korean title, nor could I find out anything about its novice director Jo Sung-Hee -- who was in attendance at yesterday's showing (looking all of about 15 years old). I can tell you he gives Bela Tarr a run for his money in static composition and inaction, as one tries to fathom what is going on amongst the few characters who seem to have survived some off-screen and unexplained apocalypse predicted by an enigmatic hitchhiker. I suppose when IMDb eventually catch up with this 'gem' someone will give it a 10 out of 10 rating, but it won't be me!

Mammuth (2010): I know exactly why I chose this film, since any new movie with Gerard Depardieu immediately catches my eye; this one had the bonus of also featuring my new fave Yolande Moreau and boasted a nowadays very rare appearance from Isabelle Adjani. The storyline concerns Depardieu retiring from his job at a pork processing plant after ten years, (being given a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle as his farewell gift!), and his wife Moreau nagging him to get the necessary paperwork, much of which is missing from the casual jobs he has held in the past, to be able to draw a much-needed state pension. So he sets off on his faithful Mammuth motorcycle to visit previous work sites in pursuit of the elusive affadavits. What we have in effect is a French road movie with, alas, too many detours. The film which starts off as a jolly comic romp with Depardieu making a meal of his newfound leisure and Moreau doing her nagging wife thing soon becomes little more than a quirky drama with a number of random characters interacting with our generally hapless hero. There is a surprise appearance from Benoit Poelvoorde as a competing beachcomber in two totally unrelated scenes with Depardieu and a rather too long segment featuring an actress billed as Miss Ming, who also uses this as her kooky alternative artist's character's name. Adjani, whose gorgeous ghost keeps appearing then disappearing, plays Depardieu's lost first love, whom we eventually realise was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Again I should have worked out in advance that this film would not be completely to my taste, despite Depardieu's mindboggling performance, since the two previous movies from co-directors/screenwriters Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern were off-beat but largely unwatchable messes. First there was "Aaltra" (2004) which concerned two rival farmers who hate and cripple each other and then take off on a road-trip together in their wheelchairs. Then there was "Louise-Michel" (2008) which I positively hated, despite its also starring Moreau, about a sex-changed factory worker who wants to hire a killer to top the owner of the mill that has made her and her mates redundant, but ends up with a totally useless assassin. While their new film has a lot more heart, largely down the the strengths of the three main players, there were unacceptable longeurs and some very unnecessary artsy-craftsy cinematography amongst the anarchic and generally unsatisfying action.

I have written previously that Depardieu has absolutely no vanity as an actor, which is just as well as he has gone to seed and probably not just for this role. He lets his massive bulk all hang out, especially in one distasteful mutual masturbation scene with an elderly male cousin, and sports long dirty blonde curls hanging down from what is apparently a bald spot. Still his acting prowess has not dimmed and he remains as watchable as ever, even in the elephantine kaftans that he eventually dons. I have read that he accepted this role without the promise of any critical or financial remuneration and one really must salute such bravery.

Monday, 18 October 2010

3 on a Match (1932)

There are to date three volumes of "Forbidden Hollywood" DVDs churned out by TCM featuring pre-code films from the Warner Brothers stable and wonderful collections of (largely minor) movies they are. I have two of the three sets and may well treat myself to the third in due course, although none of the featured movies fall into my 'must-see' list. I have, however, been having a look at the five movies featured in the second volume, of which only the above film is new to me. But what a treat it has proved to be, brilliantly put together by director Mervyn LeRoy.

With a beautifully-worked montage of headlines and film clips we cover the passing of the years between 1919 and 1932, following our three heroines from their early primary school days together through to their more recent lives. The three are bad girl Joan Blondell -- a reform-school graduate, Ann Dvorak -- the rich, spoiled and popular one played by Anne Shirley as a youngster, and brainbox Bette Davis who is too poor to go on to high school and who trains as an office worker. When their paths cross again ten years later, Dvorak is married to wealthy lawyer Warren William with a three-year old son, but bored to tears with her pampered existence; Blondell is trying to make it as a showgirl, and Davis is ploughing on with her staid life. Over lunch, the myth of misfortune befalling the third to light their cigarette on a single match is debunked, but Dvorak's comfy life soon goes into a tailspin when she becomes number three. Looking for a break from her boredom, she inveigles her husband to let her sail to Europe with their son, but disembarks before the ship sails to begin a sordid affair with a ne'er-do-well whom she has just met (Lyle Talbot), barely noticing her dirty and hungry son (until William eventually finds him.)

Being made in the wonderful years before the Hays Code put a damper on such things, we view the wages of adultery, child neglect, cocaine usage, and kidnapping. As Dvorak's life becomes more dissolute, the other two actresses begin to fill the gap in the life of the young boy and William's. When the boy is grabbed again by a desperate Talbot to raise money to settle a gambling debt with mobster Edward Arnold, his gang of toughies (including new boy Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and an unbilled Jack LaRue) horn in on the action. Only a final sacrifice of nearly forgotten mother-love on the part of Dvorak can resolve the action.

Although often billed as a Bette Davis feature, she in fact has the least showy part in this film, since it was yet early days for her Warner Brothers contract, and the strongest role is Dvorak's. The child actor given an inordinate amount of screen time comes across as a hard-to-stomach, obnoxious curly-headed brat, a male Shirley Temple if you will, but without any of her cheeky charm. When Dvorak, who came to prominence in 1932 with "Scarface", one of her eight (!) films for the studio that year, discovered that the kid was getting the same salary as hers, she bitched like hell. The unfortunate result is that the studio rewarded this talented actress's rebellion with a run of less attractive roles in increasingly minor productions, to the extent that she is hardly remembered today. However this movie, along with "Scarface" proves that they punished an actress who should have given us even more great roles to cherish. Oddly enough, it was the young Miss Davis who flourished at the studio, at least until such time when she too had a moan about their casting decisions and miserly pay packets.

Guess what? Yes, the London Film Festival has come around again and will be taking up much of my time for the next week or so. There weren't that many films in the programme that sparked my imagination and I have only booked for nine of the many, but you can rest assured that my next entry will begin my reviews of this year's delectations.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Skin Game (1971)

There are at least two films with this title althought the 1931 movie is "The Skin Game" -- an early, wordy, and atypical film from Alfred Hitchcock based on a Galsworthy play about property speculation. The one under discussion here couldn't be more different, being a jolly and now politically-incorrect farce about slavery. Then again any movie starring James Garner is fated to be something of a romp.

I have always had a soft spot for this unaffected actor both in his film and television roles, all of which he plays with a twinkle in his eye and often with his tongue firmly in his cheek, a la "Maverick" and the two "Support Your Local Sheriff /Gunfighter" flicks. Here he is teamed up in what is actually a 'buddy movie' with Louis Gossett Jr. (billed as Lou Gossett, which makes him sound far less serious). Who would have guessed that the latter has a fun sense of humour, since so many of his later roles have veered towards brash seriousness; he also --let me add -- has a full head of hair! They play a pair of conmen in the years before the Civil War who have developed a profitable 'game' after toying with less successful ones. Although freeborn in New Jersey, Gossett pretends to be Garner's slave, whom he repeatedly and reluctantly must sell to the highest bidder, before busting his friend loose and taking off for the next town. Along the way they attract the attention of Susan Clark's fast-fingered pickpocket and grifter, who becomes Garner's love interest, although usually one step ahead of him. When they mistakenly revisit a town where they have been before and are recognized, Gossett is bought by evil slave-dealer Ed Asner and ends up in the household of Andrew Duggan; here he needs to be taught how to act like a real slave to avoid the ever-threatening lash. Meanwhile Garner and Clark in the role of missionaries search for their friend amongst the plantation owners, claiming that he suffers from a highly contagious disease, for which only they can sell the preventitive serum.

With its heavy use of the N-word and its making light of serious issues, this is not a movie which would receive a green light nowadays, but thank goodness this was less of a concern back in the '70s. It is a thoroughly enjoyable affair, a truly amusing watch, and to hell with political correctness!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Couples Retreat (2009)

Have you seen a movie where you wanted to slap everyone up on the screen? I don't mean films where there is one very annoying character who needs a right seeing to, but a film where virtually every character makes your skin crawl at one stage or another. Such is the case in this supposedly 'high concept' movie, except for 'high concept' read 'stupid'. It's the tale of four couples, one of which (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) feels their marriage falling apart, largely because of her failure to conceive. To work out their problems, he has signed onto the waiting-list for a tropical resort famous for resolving marital difficulties. The catch is that he can not afford the tariff, but if he can bring along three other couples, they can each go for half-price. So he bullies Vince Vaughn and wife Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau and wife Kristin Davis, and a fat black friend Faizon Love (since this is an equal opportunity movie) who has recently separated from his wife and who is trying to get involved with a young foxy bimbo, into dropping everything and to come along with him, promising them that they can avail themselves of the resort's wonderful facilities and that they do not need to get involved in the psychological programmes.

Ha! The resort which is run by martinet French looney Jean Reno (I hope the paycheck was worth the idiocy, Jean) and staffed by a bunch of authoritarians has other ideas. If all the couples don't take part in the therapy, they can just buzz off without recompense. So while no marriage or relationship is ever quite perfect, the protagonists allow holes to be picked in each of theirs by the most annoying group of counsellors you care to imagine, bringing each of them to the brink of collapse. Vaughn and Akerman probably started with the strongest marriage of the bunch, despite his commitment to business not leaving sufficient time for house and family, while Favreau plays a horny hound-dog lusting after the nubile females at the nearby singles resort and his wife also appears not immune to extracurricular activities. Love appears to be intended as largely (no pun intended) comic relief in what is actually a singularly unfunny comedy.

So who's to blame? Vaughn and Favreau have a long-standing movie relationship and presumably friendship, dating back to 1992's "Singles", and they have taken on co-producer and co-writer caps on this abortive film, so much of the blame must be laid squarely at their door. I mean does Favreau really imagine himself as a prone-to-masturbation satyr irresistible, when given the chance, to a flock of fetching beauties? Does Vaughn really think that being scraped by a tame shark warrants diva-like tantrums? Do the pair of them think that a running joke about a child peeing or defecating into a showroom non-functioning toilet is the height of sophisticated humour? Do they really believe that deep-rooted marital problems can be happily resolved in the last five minutes of a movie to provide an unbelievable happy ending? Between them they seemed to have wrested control of the movie from first-time feature director Peter Billingsley. The latter is probably best known for his acting role as young Ralphie in the 1983 cult classic "A Christmas Story". While I am not suggesting that he should rest on his laurels and I understand that he has had a not unsuccessful career as a producer, I do not foresee a brilliant future for him as a director if this film is anything to go by. On the other hand I believe it was financially successful, probably because of (disappointed) expectations from the name cast. However I can't recommend this humourless farrago to anyone who actually likes any of the stars so annoyingly showcased here.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Crying Fist (2005)

After war movies, for which I have very limited tolerance, my next least favourite film genre is boxing movies. With war films which I usually have to force myself to watch (and goodness knows I have given up in the middle of many of them), the basic concept is to take a bunch of loveable -- or not so loveable -- guys and kill them off one by one. With boxing films, there is usually an underdog for whom we are meant to root and one then has the spectacle of watching two men beat the living hell out of each other. Not my idea of fun! However, since there are exceptions to every rule, I have occasionally kind of admired some war flicks; rather less frequently I can just about stomach some boxing films.

The Korean film under discussion from the eclectic director Seung-wan Ryoo has its quota of bloody bashing, but it remains watchable for being an unusual riff on the common theme. In effect there are two separate storylines which play out side by side but which only come together in the final scenes. The first protagonist is a washed up boxer in his forties played by Min-sik Choi, the infamous 'Oldboy', whose glory days were winning a silver medal at the Asian Games back in the '90s and who has sunk into penury, debt, and drunkeness, estranging his wife and young son. He earns a crust by busking in a public square as a human punching- bag, entreating the passers-by to pay for a minute (two minutes for women) of thumping him, as an outlet for their frustration, aggression, or despair. The second protagonist is a young punk, played by the director's brother Seung-beom Ryoo, whom I have only seen previously in bit parts. He lands up in gaol after a violent robbery, where the prison boxing coach notes his killer fists in impromptu punch-ups and encourages him to join the team as one means of controlling his violent temper.

With a local amateur competition upcoming, both men train for the title in their weight category, hoping to find a kind of redemption in the discipline and a kind of glory in the outcome. As expected our two anti-heroes end up matched against each other in the final bout, which obviously only one of them can win, and we segue into the usual violent fisticuffs, but with each of the two becoming punchier and bloodier as the fight progresses. I will not include the spoiler of which of them actrually wins, although both achieve a kind of catharsis and grace by the film's end. I will however say that had I been one of the judges awarding the victory on points, my vote would have been with the loser.

This is an involving and well-made film which I can recommend to your attention -- even if it is about boxing!!!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Pride and Prejudice

If I said that I don't really watch television, that would be a lie, since I watch the majority of the films I see via the television screen, whether they are delivered by satellite broadcasting or by DVD. What I really mean is that I see very few programmes actually made for television. I have in the past been 'hooked' by certain series, such as "Soap", the original "Forstye Saga", "Cheers", "Lost", and currently "Dexter", but I never watch 'reality' programmes and hardly ever watch the bulk of what constitutes TV fodder. I therefore have missed nearly all of the 'heritage' films and mini-series derived from the classic English writers, although oddly enough I have acquired many of these on giveaway DVDs.

Take the 1995 six-parter of "Pride and Prejudice". I was certainly aware that Colin Firth segued into a nationwide lust object when his Mr. Darcy appeared emerging from an impromptu swim in a clinging wet shirt, but I was never tempted to find this out for myself. However I did get around to watching this over a few days last week and found myself surprising drawn into this very superior production. I did not find myself lusting after Mr. Firth, but I thought he did a first-class job as the supercilious Darcy vs. Jennifer Ehle's sparky Elizabeth Bennet. Since the writers had over five hours at their disposal, they were able to include all of the original novel's ins and outs of plot, without any of it becoming tiresome. The casting was spot-on, although Alison Steadman's flighty Mrs. Bennet made my ears ache (as indeed the role demanded) and the actors playing Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins were also subtly brilliant. All in all I was impressed.

This got me to thinking about the many other versions of this story: it has been a television play/series umpteen times and has also been a feature film twice. To be frank, I can remember absolutely nothing of the 2005 production starring Keira Knightley, although I know I have seen it, so it can't have left much of an impression. Then I remembered that I have a copy of the 1940 Hollywood movie and I thought I should have another look to see how it compared.

Well, obviously the plot needs to be condensed when reduced to under two hours and I thought the obvious attraction between Darcy and Elizabeth was too blatant without the constant verbal sparring of the longer version. However, being a buff of older Hollywood character actors, the casting was something of a treat with the five Bennet sisters all played to the hilt by established screen actresses (although I must say that Greer Garson was a lttle long in the tooth at 36 to play the 21-year old Lizzy). Mary Boland as the mother was nearly as annoying as Steadman, but Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper were the perfect Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Even Laurence Olivier who I often find the ripest of hams was fine as Mr. Darcy, although I think Firth managed to out-Olivier him. The happiest casting of all however was reserved for Lady Catherine in the shape of the wonderful Edna Mae Oliver, even if the film's ending was altered to have her approve the forthcoming Darcy/Elizabeth nuptials. I probably would have enjoyed this rewatch more had I not just seen the mini-series and therefore been aware of the unnecessary tinkering with the plot and the curtailing of both the various characters and action.

So for once I find myself in the unusual position of actually preferring what in my pride I have labelled "TV fodder"; this prejudice is indeed ill-founded when it comes to this particular mini-series. I guess I am getting soft in my dotage...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Old vs. the New

Given my druthers I would probably opt for older movies to many of the current releases, which will come as no surprise to 'them what know me'. However this is not to say that I don't keep abreast of recent releases -- eventually viewing most of them, and yes there have been a fair number that are more than likeable. Fitting squarely into this category is "(500) Days of Summer" (2009) which is as pleasant a modern fable as one could wish. The first feature film from director Marc Webb, it bodes well for his future career, but the movie works because of the charm and skill of its two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (always impressive) and Zooey Deschanel. They shine amongst a largely no-name cast, apart from young Chloe Moretz (who would later make a big splash) playing Gordon-Levitt's young sister, blessed with the head of a 40-year old.

At the start the viewer is told that the film is a story of 'boy meets girl' but that it is not a love story; however this is only technically correct insofar as the movie does not give us the usual and expected neat ending. It is however definitely a love story as our hero falls heavily for a kooky co-worker named Summer and the film jumps back and forward in time over their 500 days together to trace the course of their relationship -- a deepening affection in him vs.a mere fun/friendship on her part. The film makes the point that one knows intuitively when warmth becomes love and that this can not be imposed from outside. Even in his make-time job as a greeting-card message writer, Gordon-Levitt's would-be architect eventually realises that one can not rely on other people to express one's deep emotions or to sway one's feelings. Eventually (no spoiler here) when he accepts he has lost his love, he meets a gal called Autumn; one only wonders if Winter and Spring will follow.

As mentioned above, the film clicks because of the likeability of its stars and because it feels 'real' rather than contrived. Possibly there was too much use of pop music for my taste to underline their supposed compatibility, but this is but a minor criticism of what is in fact a very charming film.

In contrast to the above, I have also over the past few days watched two German silents which I had not seen previously. Thank goodness here for the German satellite TV stations, since we are lucky to be offered even one silent a year on British stations nowadays. (Although there was a time, not that long ago, when this was not the case). The two films in question were "The White Hell of Pitz Palu" from 1929, the last and possibly the best of the German cycle of 'mountain' movies. It starred Leni Riefenstahl, later to become Hitler's favourite film-maker, and featured some of the most breathtaking high Alps scenery that one might imagine. The second film "Schlagende Wetter" (which loosely translates as 'Firedamp') was made in 1923 and only survives in patchy form, where stills need substitute for lost footage. However what magnificent footage it is -- a cross between sweet naturalism and emotive expressionism -- as the story culminates with a collapsing mine disaster trapping our mismatched lead players.

While discoveries like these are what keep my movie obsession alive, there is no way that I will stop trying to find latter-day delights to amuse and inspire me.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Hangover (2009)

The exact opposite of a movie that has escaped beneath my radar, like the entry below, is one which has been so hyped up as being funny beyond words, that it comes as something of an anticlimax when finally viewed. The above film from director Todd Phillips was the undoubted sleeper hit and box-office champion of its year and is indeed a fun watch, although I would be a little hard-pressed to explain why this film was received quite as rapturously as it was.

There is little in Phillips' back filmography which includes "Old School", "Road Trip", and "Starsky and Hutch" that suggests that he could churn out anything more than light entertainment, far less such a massive hit. Moreover he cast four little-known actors (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, and Zach Galfianakis) as the four friends celebrating Bartha's stag night in Las Vegas. As things turn out, he has gifted these performers with both an unexpected success and definite career boosts. The movie has certainly created breakout roles for Cooper and Galfianakis in particular and both are now in great demand. The latter plays the socially-gauche brother of Bartha's fiancee, who is begrudgingly invited to join Bartha and his two long-standing best buddies on their night out. They set off in the prospective father-in-law's prized Mercedes, which, one just knows in one's bones, will be a wreck-on-wheels by the film's end.

One has seen amusing bachelor party movies before, but this film's starting point is not the night's shennanigans as they unroll, but rather three of the four awakening in their trashed hotel suite the morning after to discover that the bridegroom-to-be has gone AWOL. None of them can recall anything about the night just past, having been inadvertently drugged by Galfianakis' would-be contribution to the party, and they must reconstruct their sordid adventures. All of the plot points that one had heard of in advance were present and correct: the tiger in the bathroom (stolen from Mike Tyson), the unknown baby in the closet, the stolen cop car, the naked Chinese thug in the boot demanding repayment for eighty thousand dollars worth of gambling chips. Add to these Helms' pussy-whipped dentist who finds himself minus a front tooth and married to a whore (a rather sweet turn from Heather Graham) plus no sign of their missing friend bar his bedroom's mattress on a hotel's turret, and the ingredients are all in place. Can they unravel their picaresque journey through the previous night, find Bartha, and get back to Los Angeles for the wedding in a few hours' time? You bet they can!

While the film was well-constructed, the characters reasonably well fleshed-out, and the catastrophe on catastrophe scenario well-paced, I found the movie consistently amusing and entertaining, rather than laugh-out-loud funny. There was only one (rather bad-taste) joke which actually made me chortle, but it was something of a pleasure to find a modern comedy which was not totally dependent on gross-out humour and a plethora of bodily fluids. All in all it was a very likeable film, if not the laugh-riot I had been led to expect. Needless to say its huge success has ensured that its sequel is now in post-production and I bet that's not something that Phillips foresaw when he directed this first installment. And if his name is not included in the four leads' nightly prayers, it certainly should be.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009)

Although I consider myself pretty au fait with what's going on in the world of films, reading multiple reviews of all the new releases, occasionally a film will pass under my radar. Such is the case with this movie from director Paul Weitz which struck many of the right notes with me. You could ask why a film adaptation of a series of books aimed at 10 to 14 year olds should appeal to this rather more mature viewer, but you could well ask the same question about the Harry Potter franchise, or "The Golden Compass" (2007), or the first of the Narnia movies. Or maybe I just like movies about freaks, since this film was actually something of a mixed bag.

Before watching this film I knew absolutely nothing about its London-born Irish writer Darren Shan, who has in fact penned twelve novels in this particular saga, in a series of four trilogies, of which the first three books form the basis for this adaptation. Apparently Warner Brothers (rather stupidly perhaps) paid a million dollars for the film rights before the first book was published, obviously hoping to spawn another franchise. However since I believe the movie did rather poor business, not even featuring amongst the 100 most profitable films of its year, I would be a little suprised to see a second movie with these characters reach the big screen, although the stage was rather blatantly set up for a number of sequels.

It is the story of two 16-year old best friends: the goody-goody one, actually named Darren Shan, played by one Chris Massoglia rather blandly and the 'bad-boy' played by the more appealing and experienced child actor Josh Hutcherson. Without going into too much detail, they sneak out one evening to attend a travelling freak show where Darren is enchanted by and 'borrows' the talented huge spider controlled by its master, John C. Reilly, whom Hutcherson immediately recognizes as a vampire, vampires being something of an obsession with him. He approaches Reilly to vampirise him, but is refused because he has 'bad' blood, while young Darren ends up as a 'half vampire' in exchange for obtaining the relevant antitoxin after his friend has been bitten by the said spider. So far, so complicated, although the plotline then goes on to encompass the age-old battle between good vampires like Reilly and his weird friend Willem Defoe who do not kill those whose blood they suck and the bad vampires called the vampaneze. None of this really matters a damn although the stage is being set for a final battle, but Reilly is good value in his role of the jaded fangless bloodsucker who takes Darren under his wing and under the protection of the freak show, benevolently run by 'the tall man', Ken Watanabe. Included amongst its attractions are Reilly's current ladyfriend, played by the dishy but heavily bearded Salma Hayak, and a number of other likeable 'freaks', whose 'disabilities' are created by CGI rather than by nature; this is hardly a modern version of Tod Browning's classic "Freaks" from 1932, and can afford to be rather more offhand and jokey about its characters' unusual attributes. There is even a potential love interest for Darren in his new friend 'the monkey girl', whose expressive tail escapes from her clothing when required to assist the action.

If anything the movie is rather too dependent on special effects, some of which are in fact pretty cheesy, but it is by and large an enjoyable romp. I just can't see it going further in delineating the action to come in the would-be vampire wars. It's hardly the new "Twilight" saga and is never likely to find the same popularity, although I found it the more entertaining. I just don't really want to see what happens next. If I were that bothered, I'd read the books, just like my closet 10 to 14 year old would wish me to do.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Liliom (1930)

Have you ever heard Martin Scorsese rave about the director Frank Borzage? For his money the latter is one of the great unsung poets of American cinema, a reputation largely based on his late silents like "7th Heaven" (for which he won the first-ever best director Oscar), "Street Angel", and "Lucky Star". He did go on to make a number of interesting 'talkies' including "The Mortal Storm" and "Strange Cargo", both 1940, and the later "Moonrise" (1948), mixed in with some fairly minor and forgettable productions. The story of the above film, based on the Czech play by Molnar, was also brought to the screen in 1934 by Fritz Lang in a French production with Charles Boyer in the lead, but is best known to most of us as the basis for the classic musical "Carousel". Borzage's version is a fascinating mixture of imaginative screen images marred by a major case of miscasting.

Liliom is the charismatic carousel barker at a funfair and the role is taken by Charles Farrell. Farrell starred with Janet Gaynor in the three aforementioned silents, co-starring with her a total of twelve times between 1927 and 1934, making them one of the great screen couples. However, when he opens his mouth to speak in this film, his weedy and whiny voice undermines his would-be embodiment of a handsome masher, and he nearly ruins what should have been a truly wonderful movie. Contrasting his tones with those of the cultivated H. B. Warner on the celestial train that takes him away from earth after his suicide is like listening to one of the Dead End Kids playing against John Gielgud. This is a great shame since the film itself does indeed show a poetic sensibility with its expressionistic staging of the fairground lights and other earthbound settings, mixed with the highly stylised death-train that transports Liliom's spirit between limbo and hell.

Another strength of this film is Borzage's choice for the female lead, a debut appearance for Rose Hobart. In contrast with the slightly saccharine Gaynor, (always a little wishy-washy even in the great 1937 version of "A Star is Born") the handsome and well-spoken Hobart is an excellent choice for Liliom's lost love Julie, who keeps his fond memory alive for both her and the daughter he has never known, despite his ill-treatment of them in life and on his brief return to earth some ten years later. Hobart went on to a relatively unimpressive screen career, but has been immortalized in Joseph Cornell's avant garde short film from 1936 called simply "Rose Hobart". He cobbled headshots of her from the minor movie "East of Borneo", mixed them with tinting and music, and used all this to project a sweeping range of emotions and feelings. I must confess that I have never actually seen the end result, but it does sound a fascinating memorial for the actress.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Without a Clue (1988)

While I have always liked Michael Caine, I never really realised how subtle and gifted an actor he is until I saw him in"Educating Rita" (1983). Like many of the great screen actors his roles are often riffs on his own persona, but they exhibit shades of personality and a careful approach to his character, not always apparent at first. Of course 'not many people know' (as the joke goes), that he is willing to appear in some pretty crappy films in exchange for the pay cheque proffered. However even in these, he is never less than watchable and is often the film's one saving grace.

Somehow we acquired -- no doubt through a newspaper promotion -- a set of a dozen or so Caine movies on DVD, largely minor British efforts, rather than big budget Hollywood productions, and I occasionally rewatch these in my downtime. Without a doubt some of these fall into the 'crap' category mentioned above, like "Water" from 1985, where Caine plays the British diplomat on a back-of-beyond Caribbean island, with Billy Connolly as a half-breed rebel fighting for its independence, although even this piece of junk has its moments. Then there is the film above which remains an entertaining amusement.

The movie's clever conceit is that Dr. John Watson was the real brains as a detective and that he paid a ham actor to impersonate his creation, Sherlock Holmes. Caine plays the make-believe Holmes, worshipped by the public, but as stupid as two short planks in reality, while Ben Kingsley (who now insists upon being billed as 'Sirbenkingsley') is the power behind the mask. The equally useless Lestrade is portrayed by the (now disgraced but) always amusing American actor Jeffrey Jones. While the cheeky premise grows a little thin as they investigate the theft of the printing plates for the Bank of England's five pound note, the laughs at Caine's general ineptness are frequent and he certainly throws himself (literally in some scenes) into playing the fool. He is not only a little dim, but also a drinker and a would-be womanizer, but he continues to amaze everyone who subscribes to his myth, while poor Dr. Watson is dismissed as his pathetic sidekick. A witty script supports this witty concept and ensures some minor but very pleasant viewing.

As coincidence would have it, immediately after watching "Wedding in Blood" (1973) last night, I learned of the death of its director, Claude Chabrol. I have always expected his films to be just that little more exciting than they often are, especially as he was supposedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers. His studies of domestic mayhem tend to strike me as somewhat uninvolving, as in last night's selection, which had Michel Piccoli and Stephane Audran (then Chabrol's wife) involved in a torrid love affair and knocking off their inconvenient spouses. However it's always sad losing a creative and prolific talent and the French film world as well as the rest of us can mourn his passing.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Going to the Picture Show

I think that's what people used to call going to the movies in my 'olden days' and it's a usage that suits me just fine to describe the joys of cinema-going. While I watch a number of films most days, only a small proportion of these are seen at their best on a big screen, and my regular film festival marathons apart, I probably don't average more than one cinema attendance per fortnight, if that. So I am pleased to report that I have been to 'picture shows' twice in the last three days with an additional unexpected bonus as well:

The Girl who Played with Fire (2009): Having been more than impressed with the first of the Stieg Larsson trilogy film adapations "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", which premiered here at last summer's FrightFest, I was very keen to see this second entry, which is not so much a sequel but a continuation of the Millennium saga. While it was entertaining, I do not think it was as involving as the first film, probably because of the very limited interaction between the two main characters, Michael Nyqvist's crusading journalist and Noomi Rapace's punk hacker. Both were following leads to find the culprit for three murders, for which she had been set up as the prime suspect, but their paths only joined in the last minutes. Rapace's feisty turn is the main reason to see this movie and the loose plot threads seem to indicate where Part Three is likely to turn. (I have yet to read the novels, so I could be wrong.)

Since the film was apparently cobbled together from two parts of a mini-series first shown on Swedish TV, the movie did not really benefit from its cinema showing and had a definite small-screen feel. Also while Hollywood seems to be dead keen to get going on their remake of Part One (with I believe no improvement likely), I very much doubt that they will go on to remake this entry -- unless of course they can entice Rapace to reprieve her role, a highly unlikely scenario.

Crossways/Jujiro (1928): As a complete change of pace we went to see this Japanese silent at the National Film Theatre. I found it a little disappointing, although still worthwhile viewing. Mind you I could have done without the half-hour 'introduction' by some oriental female which largely involved her reading out the text of her slide show presentation. The director Teinosuke Kinugasa started his career as a female impersonator before it was acceptable for women to take on film roles, but switched to directing in 1922. Some years back I was privileged to view his "Page of Madness" made in 1926, an expressionistic movie without any intertitles which has stayed with me vividly since, and I was hoping that this film would be equally as memorable, especially since it has the distinction of being the first Japanese film released commercially in Europe. Teinosuke went on for a long and illustrious career culminating with the Oscar-winning "Gate of Hell" in 1953.

The film itself is a fairly simple story of a sister and her wayward brother, who is enamoured of a simpering courtesan in the nearby pleasure quarter and who thinks he has killed his love rival. A grotesque elderly man pretending to represent the law and claiming he can prevent her brother's arrest does his best to have his way with her, despite the fact that we the viewer know that there has been no murder. For a silent movie, it is particularly silent with long stretches between the few intertitles, where the characters' expressive silent screen acting comes to the fore in an often impressionistic way. Mixed with rapid cutting and the abstract use of the sets' design elements -- swinging lanterns and spinning balls -- the film is so very different from the stillness of later Japanese films, especially those of dear Mr. Ozu. However these visionary techniques are counter-balanced by equally long stretches of inaction, which marginally detract from the film's strangeness and appeal.

The Surreal House: I didn't even manage to escape my cinema obsession when we visited this stunning exhibition on surrealism at the Barbican's Art Gallery. It was not only much larger than we had anticipated, but it also incorporated a number of old films in its remit. Had I had the time I could have gorged myself on rewatching Keaton's "The Navigator", Tati's "Mon Oncle", the concluding sequence from Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice", and even Godard's "Le Mepris (not a film I particularly like) which uses the surreal Casa Malaparte in Capri as its architectural centrepiece. As it is. I was able to take in several clever Svankmajer shorts including the brilliant "Jabberwocky" which I don't think I've seen previously.

On balance this week's 'picture shows' were time well spent!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Max Mon Amour (1986)

I know I have seen this very peculiar film at least twice previously, but the ins and outs of the bizarre plot have not stayed with me. I could only remember the oddity of svelte housewife Charlotte Rampling being madly in love with an outsize chimpanzee. This emphasis on an obsessive sexual relationship should come as no surprise when one notes that the director was Nagisa Oshima, the man responsible for the classic Japanese sex-fests of "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Empire of Passion". However why and how he ended up directing this French film with both English and French dialogue is something of a mystery.

Set in Paris where her husband Anthony Higgins is a diplomat, Rampling is the mother of a young son who fills in the boredom of her days with an assortment of lovers. Her husband is equally involved in casual flings, but finds his own green-eyed monster when a private detective informs him that his wife has rented a walk-up flat in a seedy district where she spends most of her afternoons, but that there has been no sighting of her probable lover. Higgins descends on the flat, finding her in bed with a sheet-covered companion and prepares to play the usual angry husband scenario. To his horror he uncovers his hairy rival, while his cool wife remains unfazed. And as any sophisticated Parisienne might do, he decides that the best solution is to move Max into his own room in their sprawling flat.

Gradually Max becomes an accepted part of their daily routine, eating with them at the breakfast table and charming their son. Only their maid, a mildly comic turn by Spanish actress Victoria Abril, seems to be allergic to 'monkey fur' and threatens to leave. Meanwhile Higgins is obsessed by what his wife and Max might get up to in private and when his wife is out, he hires a prostitute to entice the animal while he watches; the only problem is that Max doesn't fancy her! Faced with the ultimatum of 'Max or me', Rampling insists that she loves them both and barricades her son and herself in Max's room. Even potential violence doesn't resolve the situation when Max seizes Higgins' gun and the police arrive.

I suppose this film is meant to be some sort of dark comedy on what constitutes sexual attraction or an oblique satire on traditional French bedroom farce. No one can really understand Rampling's need for Max (nor his for her) and their well-meaning friends keep dragging in so-called experts to proffer their unwanted advice. By the end of the film after an early escape by the animal and a subsequent near-pining away in Rampling's absence while visiting her ailing mother, the family settles into their own way of life, affection and acceptance.

The animal seems so realistic that it comes as a surprise to discover that Max is actually a man-in-a-monkey suit, tweaked by special effects artists. Whether it is meant to make it less repugnant to the audience that Rampling is not actually nuzzling a real animal, this subtefuge really doesn't work and one remains none the wiser as to what the glacial Rampling derives from her strange passion.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

FrightFest Part Two

Now that I've lumbered myself with completing my FrightFest overview, I'd better get cracking:

Monsters (2010): The preview of this British movie was being hyped by Alan Jones as the best of the fest, as it were. Sorry, Alan, I don't agree. The scenario involves alien organisms evolving over a large area of Central America and Mexico after the crash of a NASA probe, resulting in huge quarantined tracts. In what is largely a two-hander, an ambitious journalist finds himself blackmailed into escorting his boss's spoiled and engaged daughter back to the U.S. Naturally nearly everything goes wrong for them on their journey and naturally they fall in love. The film was mainly a largely engaging love story with beautiful scenic tableaux and interesting special effects when the mutant aliens were seen. However, it was slow, slow, slow and I had trouble staying awake for the 97 minutes that felt so much longer.

The Pack (2010): I must confess I was quite taken with this French film, but that was more because of its casting than its OTT premise. It seems that the Belgian-born actress Yolande Moreau has become a fixture in so many films that I've seen recently -- most notably the delightful "Micmacs" -- that I find myself saying 'Oh, it's her again' whenever she appears. In this movie she is the tough and coarse proprietress of a run-down truckstop in rural France where our heroine has been lured by the handsome hitchhiker she picked up. Little does she realise that his Mummy Moreau requires a continuous supply of fresh blood to nourish her older dead zombie sons and their fellow miners who sleep under the black soil. Leads Emilie Dequenne and the dishy Benjamin Biolay are joined by French horror favourite Philippe Nahon to create an interesting flick.

Outcast (2010): This Anglo-Irish effort was meant to delve into Celtic legend, but was too firmly rooted in the seedy realities of dingy government housing, as warring brothers seek to find the magical secrets of their tribe. Or something like that... I lost the plot early on and never managed to get back into the swing.

We Are What We Are (2010): This Mexican film was undoubtedly the worst of the main screen's offerings (and there were some pretty feeble inclusions this year). A family of modern-day cannibals find themselves adrift when the father dies and the mother and three grown children are left to fend for themselves. The eldest is technically in charge of finding food, but when he brings back someone he has picked up in a gay club, his brother says that he is not going to eat a faggot! Meanwhile a not very hot-shot cop is on their trail after a nail-polished and beringed whole finger is found during their dead dad's autopsy. Absolutely nothing happens and by the end only the teenaged sister is left to carry on the family's traditions.

Amer (2009): Like "Monsters" above, this Belgian film came with a lot of baggage with claims of its brilliance and throwback style to the classic Italian giallos. All I can tell you is that it was all style, absolutely no substance, and altogether about an hour too long -- which is saying something for a 90 minute film. It followed the same character as a girl, a teenager, and a grown woman, but only the first section had any sense of foreboding and intrigue. Just when it started to be interesting, it cut to our heroine's teenaged years and went straight to nowhere. Even the black-gloved hand and slashing knives of the last section were cruelly empty.

Buried (2010): This slot was intended for "A Serbian Film" which is apparently a stomach-churner in spades. At the last moment the local powers-that-be refused to certificate its showing without massive cuts, and this Hollywood flick starring Ryan Reynolds was the 'surprise film' alternative. Now if you think that any movie, even one starring the likeable Reynolds, can get away with having only a single character buried alive under the Iraqi desert for ninety-odd minutes, think again. I suppose it was meant to be an acting tour-de-force, but I can't think of any modern actor who can hold the screen alone for this length of time. Yet had the movie 'opened-out' it probably would have been no more suspenseful. The whole issue was does he or doesn't he escape. Maybe he should have taken his cue from Uma Thurman's "Kill Bill". Incidentally another film pulled from the original programme, Gregg Araki's "Kaboom", was another one that I would have liked to have seen. He apparently shuddered at the thought of his movie premiering to a 'bunch of geeks'. That's us apparently!

Video Nasties - Moral Panic, Censorship, and Video Tape: This new documentary on Britain's shameful history of film censorship did not really cover much ground not documented previously, with many of the usual talking heads, but it was still interesting to view the history of those films which sparked that early 1980s outrage. I doubt that there were many people in the audience who had not actually seen most of the culprits in their uncut glory; of course a number of the titles only deserved to be banned because they were in fact very bad movies. If the truth be told, much more controversial films are readily available today with our many media sources. We didn't stay for the following Q and A since little remains to be said on this subject.

After Life (2009): This American flick was probably the most mainstream movie of the festival, so it was something of a surprise to find it wedged into the small 'Discovery' cinema. With the main cast consisting of Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Long, a main cinema showing would have been suitable, but far be it from me to understand the politics of film distribution. Neeson is an undertaker who can converse with the newly departed until they are buried and Ricci is the fresh corpse in his mortuary, fighting against the truth of her demise. Long is her would-be fiancee (he doesn't seem to have much luck in this area after "Drag Me to Hell"). Neeson seemed to be trying just a wee bit too hard to be creepy and Long was just a little frenetic, but Ricci, who spent most of the film semi-clothed or less, was the main attraction.

Bedevilled (2010): South Korean film-makers have been responsible for some of the most stunning genre movies of recent years and this is another worthy effort. A slow-burner, we find our worldly heroine leaving Seoul for a visit to the backward island where her grandfather had a home and where she deserted her best friend from childhood. The latter is in an abusive marriage and hard-done-by by all of her husbabd's family where she is treated as a workhorse and sexual object, After the death of her child something snaps and this is where this film becomes interesting as she seeks her bloody revenge. Perhaps there were one too many false endings where the film could have safely finished, but it was still nearly worth its full 115 minutes.

Red White & Blue (2010): This American movie wasn't of tremendous interest nor particularly well-made and was very reminiscent of the small town Texas milieu of Hooper's parochial "Eggshells". We're introduced to a lot of characters, most of them pretty unsavoury, and are meant to care about the fate of the local good-girl-gone-wrong town bicycle. A nearly unrecognizable Noah Taylor befriends her and takes it upon himself to dispatch all those who treated her badly. I for one just didn't care.

The Last Exorcism (2010): This brings us to FrightFest's closing film produced by the big-headed Eli Roth and again a movie that we were told upfront was something spectacular. Sorry again, folks. The evening was over half an hour late starting and was then prefaced by the usual self-promotion from Roth and the film's director. Shot in documentary style, it was meant to be the story of an evangelical minister who has now lost his faith and who wants to expose the fakery of most exorcisms. He visits a family besieged by the evil supposedly being unleashed by the 'possessed' daughter, but finds himself actually having to confront real demons. To be honest, after the first half of this farrago, we were so bored that we walked out, missing what may or may not have been the (I gather) rather unenlightening denouement.

So that's that for another year. Every year I think that this might be my last go at surviving the full programme and that I should just get individual tickets for the more promising films, but who can guess how I'll feel about this horror marathon in a year's time.