Sunday, 31 January 2010

Valkyrie (2008)

I wonder how many people I will upset if I admit that I have never really liked any film in which Tom Cruise starred. This is not to say that some of them haven't been watchable (if disposable) or that his cameos in both "Magnolia" and "Tropic Thunder" weren't good fun. I also seem to remember that I was vaguely positive quite recently about "Interview with the Vampire". My reaction has little to do with his "religious" beliefs or his personal life, but with the smiling, cocky persona that he so often inhabits. He comes across as the little boy who believes he can do no wrong. His character is awfully "samey" in so many of his movies -- whether he is conquering impossible missions or aliens.

This film which he also produced may well be of some interest to history buffs, but trying to pass Cruise off as the aristocratic Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the driving forces behind one of many plots to kill Hitler, just doesn't work for me. Director Brian Singer and his "Usual Suspects" screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have turned out a suspense movie without suspense. It's not just that most people over the age of 25 (or am I pitching that too low?) know that Hitler was not removed by any conspirators and that his eventual death was by suicide, it's a question of holding an audience's interest for the best part of two hours where the outcome is well-known. With its surfeit of named characters, this draggy movie -- however faithful it may or may not be to history -- is largely boring, and I soon tired of Mr. Cruise strutting about in his eyepatch, polished boots, and apparently amputated hand.

While his character mouths the politically correct platitudes about why Hitler must go, it seems to me that his motivation stemmed largely from the war injuries which had ended his military career and from the fact that he could clearly see that the war would soon be lost. By the early removal of Hitler, he would have been securing his own future, but not to prove -- as at least one other character voiced -- that not all Germans were uncaring brutes! When he and his cronies attempt to put their plans into action without definite confirmation that Hitler is actually dead, von Stauffenberg keeps exclaiming that he must be, since he himself saw the bunker exploding. Each time he says this, Cruise sounds more and more like a petualant schoolboy.

It didn't bother me particularly that Cruise was the only American-sounding German in this film, since one accepts the movie-making convention of actors speaking with their own accents. In fact he was just about the only American-speaker in the cast. His lovely wife was played by "Black Book's" Clarice van Houten, who unfortunately was given very little to do. It was the largely English cast of co-conspirators that saved this movie from being totally unwatchable. This supporting cast led by Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and even Kenneth Branagh in his relatively brief turn were uniformly believable and could have given Cruise a few pointers on more subtle screen acting.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Along Came Jones (1945)

Some actors just seem to grow and grow on me -- in a good way. I'm pretty sure that when I first started watching movies seriously Gary Cooper was well down the pecking order of favourites. Yet after years of watching his unassuming performances from the silent days through some of the most classic films of the 1930s and 1940s -- "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", "Beau Geste", "Meet John Doe", "Pride of the Yankees", "Ball of Fire" -- and his heroic turns in the Oscar-winning "Sergeant York" and up to "High Noon", I've come to realise that he was a natural screen actor and always much more than watchable. It's hard to believe that he has been gone since 1961, but his films continue to enchant me, even in oddities like "Peter Ibbetson" (in which he came closest to being miscast).

The above movie may be one of the more minor ones in his filmography, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp in which Cooper satirises the strong, silent hero with which he is associated. People say that it is the only film which he produced as well as starred in, but he was also the producer (albeit uncredited) of the previous year's "Casanova Brown". Working to a very sharp script from versatile screenwriter and his production partner Nunnally Johnson, all of the expected Western cliches are in place and accounted for. He plays a wanderer called Melody Jones who sings verse after verse of 'Old Joe Clark', accompanied by his droll sidekick, the ever-amusing William Demarest. When they arrive in a town where the initials on his saddle are taken for outlaw Monte Jarrad's ( Dan Duryea, always a multifaceted villain), the complications ensue, especially when he falls for Duryea's gal, an excellent turn from Loretta Young. It seems that various groups are out to retrieve the hidden stash from a stagecoach hold-up and the feckless and not overly gun-proficient Jones finds himself in the middle of the action.

Produced on a strict wartime budget and using cheap technques like back projection for the outdoor scenes, one can't help rooting for Cooper's inept hero as he faces up to Duryea and lands sharpshooter Young. The film succeeds winningly in giving audiences of the day what they probably craved, a good laugh at the expense of Western heroics. Coop could afford to mock the genre, as he was a good Montana ranching lad; but the fact that he spent seven years of his childhood education in England may have contributed to his willingness to poke fun at the conventions. However, his cinematic legacy remains the all-American 'gee-shucks' hero that I have come to love as one of Hollywood's treasures.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Mon Idole (2002)

CineMoi is still managing to schedule a fascinating assortment of films many of which I almost certainly would never have sought out without their guidance. Granted I have previously seen quite a few of their scheduled movies -- after all there haven't been THAT many French films produced since the year dot and many of their choices are relatively recent releases -- but there are still films like the above one which I knew not and which are contibuting to my cinematic education.

The film is co-written, directed by, and stars Guillaume Canet, an actor who has never particularly registered with me. While the literal translation of the title is 'My Idol', it was also known on the festival circuit as 'Whatever You Say' and it is a pretty scathing indictment of modern morals, particularly as they relate to the television industry. Canet plays Bastien, an overworked and underappreciated assistant to TV presenter Philippe Lefebvre (the film's co-writer.) He resents his boss' pinching his ideas for new programming and passing them off as his own -- and I should add parenthetically here that all of the TV programmes being aired by this duo are in exquisitely bad taste. He therefore tries to cosy up to the network's powerful producer Jean-Louis, an incredibly evil turn by actor Francois Berleand -- a familiar face to me if not a familiar name and nominated for a Cesar for this role. Looking to further his career and to land his own programme, he agrees to spend the weekend at Jean-Louis' country estate, estranging himself from his steady girlfriend in the process. Little does he realise that he is only wanted as a bit of distracting entertainment for the producer and his much younger wife, an early role for Diane Kruger before her "Gladiator" rise to fame (and Canet's wife at the time).

Despite succumbing to Kruger's sexual needs, he proves to be a dismal failure as the weekend's amusement and finds himself being instructed to feed Jean-Louis' pet vultures (!), helping him to dispose of a stag that has crashed into his car, alienating the already harrassed cook-cum-housekeeper, getting lost in the woods during a suggested jog, and totally failing to get into the spirit of things in the bunny-suit that he is forced to don, as Berleand, Kruger, and Lefebvre cavort as grown-up kiddies and a kangaroo. When this ends in an apparent accidental homicide it looks as if he too might end up in a common grave as part of the other-worldly and immoral couple's cover-up. Making an escape and returning to the television studio, he thinks he has learned the secrets of getting ahead from the condescending, cynical, and casually cruel Jean-Louis and that he has the correct blackmailing evidence to further his career. However, the producer has the last laugh in the movie's totally unexpected and vaguely 'magic realism' ending.

What struck me most forcefully while watching the proceedings, apart from the realisation that they were at heart totally black and that none of the characters were particularly likeable, was the feeling that this movie could never have been foisted on the public by either an American or British production company. Not that there was anything distinctively French about the storyline, but there was a definite foreignness to the evolving action that left me feeling like a cultural voyeur as Canet's dreams of fortune and fame came to nought.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet finally won an Oscar for her role as an illiterate, ex-concentration camp guard in this worthy but rather depressing film. The cynics amongst us might snipe that it took a Holocaust movie to achieve this for her, but the story being told here portrays her as a very small cog in a terrible machine whose fate is writ large for all the wrong reasons. That aside, she gives a relatively brave performance as the flawed heroine of this film, casually displaying her naked mature body (this is nothing new for Winslet) and daring to look plain and old in the later scenes. It's not quite a case of Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose, but the award is probably as much for her appearance as her genuine acting skills.

The credentials of this movie are outstanding. Directed by Stephen Daldry with a script from playwright David Hare (based on a slim German novella) with cinematography from award-winning Roger Deakins, most of the cast are in fact German, with the notable exception of the two leads -- Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. The best actor however is probably young David Kross who plays the 15-year old schoolboy who begins an intense sexual relationship with the thirty-something bus conductress in exchange for readings from great and popular literature. She disappears from his life when a possible promotion at work to an office job threatens to reveal her illiteracy, but the loss of his first love affects the balance of the boy's life.

He sees her again when, as a law student, he attends a trial of six women accused of war crimes -- allowing 300 prisoners in their command to die in a locked and burning church. There is some discussion as to which of them was responsible for the written report attempting to exonerate their actions and the other knowing biddies accuse Winslet. Rather than admit that she was incapable of writing such a letter, Winslet accepts the blame and is given the most severe sentence. While her ex-lover could have given evidence to save her, he does not do so and allows his guilt to taint the remainder of his own life.

How this warm young man could mature into Ralph Fiennes is something of a mystery, since although Fiennes is a consummate actor, his persona comes across as cold as ice -- a million miles from the conflicted young Kross. To compensate for his cowardice, Fiennes begins to send tapes to her prison and over the next twentyish years she teaches herself to read and write. There is only one brief reunion, just before she is due to be released from gaol, but this does not allow either character to find their sought redemption -- and indeed there is no happy ending to come.

The film moves about in various time frames between 1955 and 1995 in a rather willy-nilly fashion adding little to the story being revealed and, if anything, rather muddying the waters. This is really a movie about how the past impacts on the present and the holocaust theme and the would-be collective guilt of the German people are really sidebars to the tale of two damaged souls.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Man in the Chair (2007)

It's a no-brainer to guess that just about any movie about filming and film-buffs will find my soft-spot, even if the movie in question is far from perfect. This was certainly the case with the above film from writer-director Michael Schroeder whose filmography is a little underwhelming and who has not made a completely winning movie here. He has, however, given us a masterly performance from 80-year old Christopher Plummer, as a curmudgeonly and somewhat boozed ex-movie lighting man, now residing in a charitable industry home for old and penurious movie folk.

The hero of the tale is 20-year old Michael Angarano playing younger than his age as a semi-delinquent high school student, obsessed with old films, and eager to make his own movie in the attempt to win a contest offering a movie-school scholarship. He first comes across Plummer in a nearly empty repertory cinema where the latter is screaming at the on-screen Orson Welles in "Touch of Evil", criticising his mumbly acting style and having a few choice words as well about a Mexican Charleston Heston in a role where he is actually wearing trousers! It turns out that Plummer has worked with many of the greats during his better years and Angarano persists in trying to pick his brain and to get help with his own would-be project. Plummer dismisses the young upstart as a hopeless case until he realises that Angarano could become his new source of obtaining his forbidden cigars and his important Wild Turkey.

Plummer introduces the lad to moneyman Robert Wagner, a spritely 77-year old (and not terribly convincing here) and to a former Oscar-winning screenwriter, played by M. Emmet Walsh (a mere 72 years, but looking older and more confused than either of the other two veteran players). He also enlists the skills of his fellow residents (a motley selection of industry types) at the Movie Home to contribute their no-longer appreciated knowledge of cinematography, editing, costume design, and so on. This allows Angarano to succeed in completing his dream project which sets out to expose the failings of senior care. Unfortunately not all of the players survive the scenario and the youngster does not win the contest, but the life-lessons he has acquired, together with new technical skills, have made him a better person.

Although Plummer and Walsh give remarkable performances, I am less enamoured of young Mr. Angarano whom I first encountered in the Jackie Chan-Jet Li funfest "The Forbidden Kingdom" (2008) and whom I thought added very little to the party there. While this film is the earlier one, it has not altered my perception of him and I somehow doubt that he will make more impression upon me in the future. Enough to say that he was adequate for the role here, which could have been played by any puppyish young man. The biggest fault of the film however was the director's artsy crafty fast-motion shooting style which, each time he chose to deploy it, detracted from what was an involving story. This created a strange situation where I found myself moved by certain scenes and then totally alienated from the action, having to pick myself up, dust myself down, and start all over again.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Julia (2008)

Tilda Swinton, even when multi-award winning, is something of an acquired taste. I can not deny that she is an accomplished actress, and she is generally fine when part of an ensemble cast. However, this is not the first movie in which she has taken the lead role and in which she is on screen non-stop -- which for nearly two and a half hours is rather excessive. It is certainly a strange and potentially non-commercial choice of lead for the first English-language film from French director Erick Zonca, who has not released any movies since 1999's "The Little Thief" and 1998's much-praised "The Dream Life of Angels".

Swinton plays an American feckless alcoholic living a precarious existence in small-town California. She dresses trampily, can not hold a job, and her existence seems to be a non-ending round of one-night stands. The occasional gratuitous nudity throughout is also something of a distraction. Her only friend is recovering alcoholic, rotund Saul Rubinek, who may or may not be in love with her. Together they are certainly an unlikely pair and the one laugh I found in this misery-laden movie was when he said that carrying her to his bed was like struggling with a giraffe. At a local AA meeting which she only attends occasionally and desultorily, she comes across a Mexican gal who attempts to befriend her and to involve her in a complicated plot to kidnap the son she has not seen in five years, who lives with his wealthy American grandfather. This mother is obviously a few sandwiches short of a picnic, promising financial sops that she does not actually have, and apparently has tried out this same scenario on anyone who will listen. Swinton however sees this as her big chance at getting real money and, not being able to rope in a criminal accomplice, decides to kidnap the eight-year old herself. This she accomplishes in the messiest of fashions, managing to maim and probably kill his minder in the process, and then hasn't the faintest idea of how to look after the boy or to negotiate a ransom without jeopardizing her own freedom. She just plays things by ear without much rational thought or planning.

And so it goes on as she initially ties him up in a motel room, then manages to lose him somewhere in the desert, and finally ends up in Tijuana as she tries to out-run the police now on her tail. In this most lawless of towns, the kidnapped boy is in turn kidnapped by local ruthless hooligans who think she is his rich mother and who demand money that she does not yet have -- although Rubinek is en route with grand-daddy's cash. In a kind of Stockholm Syndrome -- and its reverse --bonding has occurred between the boy and Swinton (as the lesser of two immediate evils) and she too is obsessed with saving his life, even, we are led to believe, at the risk of losing her big pay-off. The ending is left ambiguously open as we are left to wonder what in the world the pair of them will do now. Is there any ransom money left? Will she reunite the lad with his forgotten mother? Or will he return to his grandfather? And will she end up in pokey for years to come?

The truth of the matter is that by this stage I didn't really care, suffering as I was from a surfeit of Swinton. I have seen other viewers refer to her performance as Oscar-worthy, but however great it may or may not have been, it was certainly insufficient to carry such a needlessly long and over-convoluted yet small film.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Moliere (2007)

You may or may not be wondering what has become of Pretty Pink Patty the Big Beautiful Blogger. When I started my film journal, I tried to write every day, but that slipped to once every two or three days -- and now humungous gaps. While my arm is now on the mend, my accident has triggered problems with my vision -- namely something that looks like big black wasps floating around in front of me (apparently known as 'floaters') accompanied by flashing lights in semi-darkness. Some fun -- NOT. I'm told these will disappear in due course or I will learn to live with them (not a great scenario), but they are proving a distraction to someone whose main diversion is watching films and/or reading and writing about them. So I shall do the best I can in the coming days, within my limitations...

The above French film celebrating the country's best-loved dramatist was something of a romp. It opens in 1658 when Moliere's acting troupe is preparing to play for the king, but then moves back thirteen years when the impoverished playwright is thrown into gaol for debts. His rescuer is a nerdy, married businessman, brought cringingly to life by Fabrice Luchini, who wants the author to polish a poor dramatic piece with which he hopes to woo and win a clever young widow, played by Ludivine Sagnier (a young actress whose sexual appeal continues to baffle me). He is introduced into Luchini's household disguised as a pious priest, using the name Tartuffe (another among many literary in-jokes in the movie), where he soon begins a relationship with the neglected wife (Laura Morante). Before he is through and his debts cleared, he has restored husbandly affections in the heart of the rejected and humiliated Luchini and saved his daughter from a disastrous and love-free marriage.

The role of Moliere is taken by up-and-coming star Romain Duris who does wonders with the character across the 13-year age gap and who charms throughout. I had doubts that he could achieve such a masterly turn after seeing him a few days ago in "Dans Paris" (2006) where he played the depressed and suicidal older brother of Louis Garrel, an actor I have actively disliked since seeing him in "The Dreamers" (2003), but he was absolutely delightful in this well-mounted 'heritage' drama. It may have been Moliere's ambition to be better-known as a writer of tragedies, but it is his comedies that are his legacy. They are what the king and his court craved even then, and goodness knows, we can all do with a good laugh!

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Saga of Anatahan (1953)

Well, Happy New Year to all! My right arm is still not healed, so typing is a slow process, but I was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms from lack of blogging. (I briefly considered packing it in -- but no such luck!) For the first time in five years I missed out giving my recommendations for British TV viewing over the holiday period, but frankly the possibilities were far from scintillating with the "big" movies being those blockbusters which most of us have already viewed either at the cinema on release or on DVD. Nonetheless I managed to keep my daily average up with an assortment of re-views, a dire selection of Hallmarky Xmas flicks, and the latest selections on satellite. However rather than another dreary compendium review, I will tell you about the above oddity which has now been deleted from my 'must-see' list and which I dragged myself to the National Film Theatre to view, but which was well worth the effort.

Shown as part of the Josef von Sternberg season, I have been trying to trace this one for years. Contrary to rumour, it is not his last film as a director -- that dubious honour is held by 1957's "Jet Pilot" with big Duke Wayne, but it is certainly his last idiosyncratic contribution to cinema history. Like so many out-of-fashion directors, he was unable to get any decent offers from Hollywood and traveled to Japan where he wrote, photgraphed, directed and provided the voice-over narration for this small slice of Japanese history. The story concerns the survivors of a ship sunk during 1944 who wash up on the eponymous island near the Mariana Trench. There they find a man and a woman -- the only survivors of a previous settlement -- who are not actually husband and wife; she becomes the 'queen bee' sexual magnet for the party over the next seven years. It seems that even when word of the war's end reaches this isolated community, the group decides that this is some sort of enemy trick and refuse to accept a different mindset.

What makes this film so unusual is that the whole story was shot over one year in a disused aircraft hanger tricked out to look like a jungle environment that never was and peopled with a non-professional cast. The characters speak Japanese, but there are no subtitles; we are asked to follow the story by von Sternberg's narration where he assumes the role of one of the characters without the viewer having any idea whatsoever which one. His version of the events which unfold before us is full of high-blown rhetoric and drama, which we might have followed more readily had we been allowed to understand the frequent dialogue. Still one is sucked into the unusual lifestyle as the men try to forget their problems with home-brewed cocoanut booze and drunken carousing. It is only when sexual desire raises its ugly head that we begin to understand the occasional murders among their diminishing number. Keiko is as destructive a force as was Dietrich in the director's 1930's classics.

Von Sternberg counted this movie amongst his favourites. After years of modifying his creativity to the demands of an all-powerful studio, he probably relished this final opportunity to create a world which is 100% his own vision. His may have been the final control here, but without the resources of the studio system for casting, professional set decoration, lighting, and sound, the film does not reach the artistic heights that he (and we) would have really liked.