Thursday, 25 February 2010

'Films Not in the English Language'

When one watches as many films as I seem to do, it is a safe bet that many of them will be foreign-language movies. I must confess that I personally love watching subtitled films (and will even opt for subtitles on English-speaking movies where available), since it saves having to ask every so often "What did he say?" as yet another 'actor' mumbles his lines -- an increasing problem nowadays.

However this is not to suggest for one minute that so-called foreign movies are always better than English-language ones, although this is frequently the case. Believe you me, there are some pretty awful, pointless, and depressing flicks out there, even if their foreignness gives the initial impression of their being better- made. As an exercise in futility, let's consider the eight foreign films I've watched in the last fortnight. Oddly enough these have all been European movies and six of them were French (thank you CineMoi for five of them), where normally there might well have been some Far Eastern films in the mix:

L'Ange Noir (1994): Sylvie Vartan gives an amazing performance as a femme fatale married to long-suffering Michel Piccoli. She is being investigated for shooting a crook whom she claims has attacked her. She receives her poetic comeuppance from her plain largely ignored daughter. Much better and more involving than I would have believed possible.

Je vous trouve tres beau (2006): A rather sweet movie where widowed farmer Michel Blanc travels to Romania and brings back Medeea Marinescu to work alongside him, pretending to his friends and family that she is a distant relative fobbed off on him. He falls in love but is too shy to verbalise this and he is prepared to sacrifice everything for the self-involved young gold-digger. The title refers to the standard phrase used by perspective Romanian brides to the generally unattractive men that they view as meal-tickets to lift them out of their poverty.

Adua e le Compagne (1961): When the Italian brothels are closed down, prostitute Simone Signoret and her friends, including Emmanuelle Riva and Sandra Milo, decide to open a country restaurant, intending to eventually continue their "business" in the upstairs rooms. However their police records are against them and they need a 'respectable' businessman to obtain the necessary permits (against an exorbitant kick-back). As the restaurant becomes successful and as potential love interests appear, they really, really would like to go straight. No such luck and a truly depressing bottomline.

Summer Hours (2008): This movie from director Olivier Assayas seems to be attracting rave reviews and I'll be damned if I see why. Siblings Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeromie Renier decide to sell their art-laden family home after the death of their mother (Edith Scob -- the amazing daughter in "Les yeux sans visage" for the movie-buffs amongst you), since their various life-styles have taken them in different directions and they can not envision that their own children might have welcomed their keeping it. Nicely photographed and certainly well-acted, but all rather pointless.

Yella (2007): This German film won its lead actress Nina Hoss a silver bear at the Berlin Film Festival, but what a disappointing movie. As one watched her leaving her abusive husband and trying to find a living in a big city, one couldn't help but guess that all was not as it appeared, especially since she never changed her clothes and continually fugued. While it was all watchable enough as the story progressed, the 'shock' ending came as no surprise whatsoever, made virtually no sense in terms of what had come before, and couldn't even claim to be original.

Mademoiselle (2001): This was another pleasant enough but rather empty movie, where businesswoman/wife/mother Sandrine Bonnaire gets involved with Jacques Gamblin and his troupe of impromptu actors before returning to her regulated life.

Burnt Out (2006): This is the English title for the rather lengthier French one and the movie is so unmemorable that I didn't realise until halfway through that I had seen it previously within the last year! Wage slave Olivier Gourmet (always a very proficient actor) gets the hump when his best friend and co-worker commits suicide; he blames the company and may or may not be responsible for the car accident that kills his boss. Everyone assumes that he is guilty and the movie goes boringly on from there.

Un Honnete Commercant (2002): This translates literally as 'An Honest Dealer', but the film's English title is mystifyingly "Step by Step". Benoit Verhaert plays an overworked tax inspector who becomes a ruthless money launderer and probable drug dealer after he discovers his wife en flagrante. He works alongside his new mentor Philippe Noiret and virtually the entire film shows his being questioned by the police concerning a recent multiple murder. His cat-and-mouse exchanges with the police officers do not quite add up to worthwhile viewing and one is no wiser of his position or future at the film's end.

I think what I am getting at is that one never knows just where the rewards will come when watching such films. For every gem, there are usually a high proportion of 'not too bads', and the frequent 'what was that in aid of?' But that won't stop me!

Monday, 22 February 2010

The BAFTAs 2010

As I have written previously, the British Film Academy rescheduled its award ceremony a few years back so that it wouldn't seem to be an anticlimax after the Oscar ceremonies and in the attempt to give greater prominence to British films and British taste. The truth of the matter is that it remains a pretty parochial affair, despite valiant attempts to make it an international sparkling occasion.

Apart from a number of purely local awards such as outstanding British film, outstanding contribution to British cinema, outstanding debut by a British writer or producer or director, and a Fellowship award given to one of the grand old-timers of the British scene, the nominees pay lip service to some of the international favourites, but also feature an eclectic group of British performers who have been ignored elsewhere (not that these usually win anything). The producers then try to add to the "glamour" of the occasion by roping in presenters who are absolutely nothing to do with British cinema or the most recent film year. This year's included Matt Dillon, Dustin Hoffman, Uma Thurman, and an unbelievably laid-back and slightly incoherent Mickey Rourke.

Other American "celebrities" in the audience tend to be the lesser nominees, and few non-British actors bother to turn out for the ceremony unless they are pretty certain to be among the winners. If either George Clooney or Meryl Streep were in the audience, they might as well have been invisible. Furthermore I don't know that the BAFTAs can be taken as serious indicators of the Oscar results. Several unstoppable juggernauts like "Up" for best animated film, and Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique as shoo-ins for best supporting awards appear to repeat themselves at every ceremony, although I would like to have Maggie Gyllenhaal see off Mo'Nique at the Oscars. However the British bias which awarded Colin Firth best actor and Carey Mulligan best actress (also awarded as best British breakout performance, although the highly-nominated "An Education" won no other awards) are unlikely to be repeated at the Oscars, despite nominations for both of them. If you ask me, Sandra Bullock (who was not even nominated here) will walk away with the best actress Oscar on a wave of populist emotion and Jeff Bridges will get his long overdue and well-deserved recognition; he was indeed among the nominees yesterday, but since his film has only just reached these shores, I doubt that many of the British voters have seen it.

There is only one award voted for by the great British public and that is the so-called 'rising star' award which the British Academy would probably have liked to have gone to one of the several British nominees, but the surprise winner was Kristen Stewart, voted in by the legions of "Twilight" fans out there.

The biggest winner overall was "The Hurt Locker" which won six of the eight categories for which it was nominated, including best director for Kathryn Bigelow. This was at the expense of only two technical awards for "Avatar", much to James Cameron's evident disappointment. I would be a little surprised to see this pattern repeared at the Oscars since commercial success does weigh heavily amongst the Academy voters, but it sure would be nice if it did, especially for the talented and rather self-effacing Bigelow who would become the first female best director winner.

What else? I'm not too bothered about the winners for costume design or make-up or even music, but I do hope "A Prophet" does not repeat its win for best foreign-language film, since I truly believe that "The White Ribbon" is the superior movie; however I have a horrible feeling that one of the outside nominees like the jointly-directed Israeli/Arab effort will take the glory.

Finally a few words about this year's Fellowship winner, Vanessa Redgrave. Her acceptance speech had its 'senior moments' where she seemed to lose the thread of what she was saying, but her whole demeanour was so graceful that hers was a truly popular win for the home audience.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Garbo Talks (1984)

Occasionally a minor movie based on the slimmest of premises can become a thoroughly satisfying viewing experience. This is a lightweight concoction from prolific director Sidney Lumet whose vast output includes such classics as "12 Angry Men", "The Pawnbroker", "Dog Day Afternoon", and "Network", as well as a number of other less-known but equally gritty dramas.

Set in New York City, Ron Silver plays a nerdy accountant, uncomplaining and overworked, married to a Californian, moany JAP Carrie Fisher. He is forever having to bail out his constantly-arrested mother, a major turn from Anne Bancroft, who nurtures dozens of self-righteous causes and who protests violently at the drop of a hat. This ended her marriage some years previously and her ex-husband, while still fond of the firebrand, has married a nice, quiet woman. Bancroft's only non-political obsession is with the actress Greta Garbo and a wonderful montage of her old films plays under the front credits while other classic scenes punctuate the action.

When Bancroft is diagnosed with an inoperable tumor and hospitalised with only a short time left, she informs her son that she wants to meet Garbo before she dies. This presents a major challenge for her duitful son, as the reclusive actress, while often seen about in the city, is notoriously private. Staff at her apartment block deny her existence and only a very few charmed souls have any access to the elusive star. However no obstacle is too much for Silver and and his determined mother-love. He pays and hangs out with a celebrity photographer staking out her apartment. He takes a part-time job as a deliveryman (to Fisher's absolute horror), but gets thrown out of her building. He fruitlessly looks for her on Fire Island where she is known to visit, wading out in the surf when he thinks he sees her. He finally spots her at a flea market, approaches her, and pitches his heartfelt plea. Presumably moved by his words, she accompanies him to his mother's hospital room where, left alone with Bancroft, we do not hear her speak (and she is only glimpsed from the back throughout). Bancroft indulges in a heart-rending soliloquy, telling her of the highpoints of her life and pointing out how each of these were marked by various Garbo movies. She later tells her son of their conversation and how very alike she and Garbo are in many ways, while obviously appreciating how Silver has fulfilled her dying wish.

On many levels this film is really a series of episodes rather than a continuous piece of action but they afford opportunities for some wonderful cameos from the likes of Howard DaSilva, Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, and lyricist Adolph Green. There is also a sweet turn from a potential new love interest, Catherine Hicks, after Fisher sensing looming poverty has high-tailed it back to California. Although still both active, neither Silver nor Hicks have had recently brilliant careers, but they both do wonderful work in this film. The never seen-Garbo is played by two women, one of whom, Betty Comden, is Adolph Green's writing parner. Her character has only one line of dialogue towards the end of the movie which nicely enhances the growing Silver/Hicks attraction.

With its underlying themes of lost opportunities and impending death, this is not quite a 'feel-good' movie, but it is, despite its underlying melancholia, a triumphant celebration of life and devotion.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Two Lovers (2008)

This is the third film directed by James Gray which stars Joaquin Phoenix. Like their previous collaborations, "We Own the Night" and "The Yards", we are back in grim New York drama. I think this movie did relatively little business since it was released at about the time that Phoenix decided to go "weird" and re-invent himself as a rapper! This makes it his last movie to date. Although it was well-received by many of the few who saw it (its IMDb rating is mystifyingly high), I found it a very annoying film made more annoying by the two very annoying lead characters.

The film opens with a suicide attempt by Phoenix which we gather is not his first; he was apparently institutionalized after an earlier break-up with his fiancee, when genetic testing indicated that they could never have healthy children. Yes we are squarely in Tay-Sachs land, dealing with his Jewish family and that of his father's business associate. The latter hope that Phoenix will marry their daughter, the rather lovely Vinessa Shaw, who commits herself to him early on. He however is immediately smitten by new neighbour Gwyneth Paltrow -- a blonde vision of loveliness with whom he becomes more and more emotionally involved as she uses him as a sounding block to moan about her long-standing involvement with an older married man, played by Elias Koteas. It is obvious to even the dimmest viewer that Paltrow is a flake and that Phoenix risks both his relationship with Shaw and his family by giving in to her various whims.

I do wonder why this is meant to be an ethnic drama, although Paltrow who in fact is half-Jewish makes an attractive "shiksa"; the rest of the cast including Phoenix himself seem an unlikely assortment of Jews, although one can warm to his doting mother played by Isabella Rossellini. However their religion adds little to the story. While Phoenix has been relatively successful in some of his other roles, he comes across as a rather blah character here and there is nothing to explain his puppy-like devotion to Paltrow. When she announces that she is finally leaving Koteas and moving to San Francisco, he begs to go with her and promptly goes out to buy an engagement ring. When they are due to travel, she announces that Koteas is back on her terms and that Phoenix can forget about it. SPOILER: rather than waste the ring, he remembers that he has another "love" -- one who is in fact probably more suitable (to say nothing of more likeable). Boring, boring, boring and totally unbelievable.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Words and Music (1948)

I was watching a film programme on television and the reviewer said that the new release "Valentine's Day" had the starriest cast ever. I nearly fell on the floor! So many of today's "big" names are unlikely to endure or to be of much interest to film buffs in not-so-many years from now. It's not as if all-star casts are anything new. Just look at the later Robert Altman movies like "Short Cuts" or "The Player" or war extravaganzas like "D-Day, the Sixth of June".

However if you really want to find examples of starry casts, look no further than the various music biopics like "The Ziegfield Follies", "When the Clouds Roll By", and the film I am considering today. Among the cast (some of whom are playing themselves) are Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Perry Como, Cyd Charisse, Vera Ellen, Mel Torme, Lena Horne (singing my all-time favourite song "Where or When"), June Allyson, Ann Sothern, and Janet Leigh. I think that line-up beats the Jessicas Alba and Biel.

This movie is the very sanitized bio of composing team Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, better known for his later collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein. Rooney plays the talented yet unreliable Hart, while Tom Drake (the rather boring boy-next-door from "Meet Me in St. Louis") plays the equally boring Rodgers. Their true story could not be told when the film was made since Hart was a flamboyant homosexual and the staid Rodgers had his hands full dealing with him. In this film Hart is portrayed as mooning over his unrequited love, Betty Garrett. However the dull storyline fades into insignificance when the bulk of the movie is taken up with a stream of classic popular hits, celebrated in both song and dance by the amazing cast. Apart from the wonderful music, Hart was as clever a lyricist as Cole Porter, and the words receive their full due.

I'd be hard pressed to claim that this is a great bit of movie-making from director Norman Taurog, but I would argue until the cows come home that it is a wonderful record of fondly-remembered talent, now largely lost to us.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Closing the Ring (2007)

After viewing this film from Luvvie-in-Chief (Lord) Richard Attenborough, one might believe briefly that old-fashioned filmmaking is alive and well. The only problem is that the movie did virtually no business here after earning wishy-washy reviews and it went straight to disc in the U.S. While on a number of levels it comes across as a soppy chick-flick, it is really more of a curate's egg with good and bad elements. In its favour is the unusual ensemble casting of Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Neve Campbell, Brenda Fricker and Pete Postlewaite; against this talented group the director has cast a number of unknowns in equally important roles, some of whom seem to be struggling with the exercise. Attenborough also expects us to accept an overly convoluted story, made worse by unbelievable coincidences and unnecessary complications.

The film opens at the funeral of seventy-something MacLaine's husband. As daughter Campbell delivers the eulogy to a group of veterans, his widow is sitting outside the church refusing to grieve. The tale constantly weaves back and forth between the present day (which is actually 1991) in MacLaine's Michigan home town and a separate group of characters in terrorist-threatened Belfast. The same characters are also depicted in 1944, focusing on the events that will eventually join the divergent storylines to give the viewer a nice tidy ending.

The young MacLaine is played by Mischa Barton, an attractive but not overly talented actress, who displays some quite unnecessary nudity, presumably as the director's sop to modern "taste". She is madly in love with a young farmer who is building a house for her, to make him appear more suitable to her disapproving family, but she is also the idol of his two best friends. When the three go off to war after Ethel Ann and her Teddy go through a not legally-binding marriage ceremony, he makes them promise that they will look after her, should he not return (which he doesn't). Unfortunately he chooses for her next husband the more stable and dull one that MacLaine finally marries some years later and not the derring-do one (who grows up to be Christopher Plummer) who has also loved her all these years. Unfortunately no one bothered to tell her that these promises had been made or that her own promise to never love another was what has been ruining her life.

Meanwhile back in Belfast, Postlewaite has been digging up the hillside where Teddy's plane crashed back in '44, unearthing bits of fuselage and gear. He is joined by young Jimmy Reilly who lives with grandma Flicker, who was obviously the town bicycle way back then. Played by an unknown TV actor Martin McCann, he is not the brightest candle in the church, but as his is probably the lead role, it is just as well that he has a cheery, likeable presence. He finds Teddy's "wedding" ring and knows just where to telephone to tell MacLaine the good news. There is then a completely unnecessary sub-plot about the Ulster Defense Force and the IRA, with young Jimmy being caught between them. Advised to 'cool' things and to make himself scarce for a while, where does he choose to go? Michigan of course. He arrives with not just the ring but a whole suitcase full of airplane parts to give to the twice-widowed MacLaine and she in turn tears down the cladding of the room to reveal her 1944 pinboard of photos and newspaper clippings, still just as clear and colorful as they were nearly fifty years earlier. Campbell storms off in disgust at these revelations -- and I nearly did too!

Finally we end up back in Belfast where MacLaine has arrived at Grandma Reilly's doorstep, just in time for a terrorist bomb. As she grieves over a dying squaddie lying out in the road, Postlewaite reveals the true circumstances of that fatal plane crash, and Plummer arrives to reveal his feelings, all of which is meant to finally close the ring of the tale. It ends with the elderly couple cavorting on an Ulster hillside to sentimental musical strains. Although Plummer gives his usual consummate performance and although Campbell too has her moments, the rest of the starry cast seem to be phoning in their parts, and MacLaine in particular seems to be wondering to herself "what on earth am I doing in this sentimental morass?".

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Innocent Blood (1992)

Some critically-slated movies live firmly in the realm of 'guilty pleasures' and this John Landis comedy-horror is one of them. While it is not in the same league as his now-classic "American Werewolf in London" (1981), it shares the same comic sensibility without being quite as consistent and without having the same ground-breaking special effects. Despite this, I still find it good fun.

Set in Pittsburgh (Romero-Land) the lead character is a female vampire played by French actress Anne Parillaud, so superior as the lead in "La Femme Nikita" to Bridget Fonda in the U.S. remake. It is one of her few English-language roles, but her exotic accent only complements her other-worldly character. When the film opens, she is feeling hungry and fancies 'a bit of Italian', setting her sights (and fangs) on the local mob. Rejecting undercover cop Anthony LaPaglia because she can sense his inner 'goodness', she feasts on henchman Chazz Palminteri, shooting him in the head after she has gorged to prevent his becoming another vampire. Her next victim is mob boss Robert Loggia. However she is interrupted before she can finish him off, and he awakes vampirized after he has been carted off to the local morgue.

By and large it is really Loggia's movie. He quickly realises that as one of the undead he can not be easily killed and has new powers and strengths. After noshing on his lawyer -- an amusing turn by comedian Don Rickles, who is subsequently disintegrated by exposure to the morning light -- Loggia sets about converting his entire mob to vampires to create an unbeatable collection of baddies, while still wanting to get even with LaPaglia whose cophood has been deliberately exposed by his superior, an early role for Angela Bassett. This is done in a humourous fashion with flashing eyes, lashings of blood, and some very foul language. Meanwhile Parillaud and LaPaglia, who have fallen in love despite their obvious differences (like he's alive and she's an immortal) set about dealing with Loggia's ambitions and cronies.

If nothing else, Landis usually manages to turn out entertaining films, if not great art -- which is 100% OK with me. In this one, giving cameos to such genre types as Sam Raimi, Frank Oz, Dario Argento, Forrest J. Ackerman, and others adds to the movie's fun, as the latent horror buff recognizes these elusive faces in turn. Landis has always been a great one for this kind of ploy -- his "Blues Brothers" being another of his movies to honour other directors in unlikely appearances.

Finally a few words about the Australian LaPaglia. I shall never forget the first time I noticed him in his breakout role as a rather dim American hoodlum in "Betsy's Wedding" (1990). There and then I predicted a fabulous film future for him and he was indeed very charismatic in the following "29th Street" (1991) and in this flick. Subsequently, while he is still very active, his star has dimmed with me. He's remains an acceptable presence in both film and TV roles, but his magic is long, long gone.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Angel Levine (1970)

Although I knew that I'd seen this movie some many years ago, I didn't remember it and thought that it was probably well-worth another view. It seemed to have a lot going for it: the always-watchable and larger than life Zero Mostel as a cantankerous religious Jew with a dying wife (Oscar nominee Ida Kaminska) playing against Harry Belafonte as a black, Jewish would-be angel. The story seemed to echo the James Stewart-Clarence action from "It's a Wonderful Life" and promised a warming latter-day fantasy. Unfortunately it did nothing of the sort and only proved a rather muddled and somewhat unsatisfactory exercise leaving one's heart-cockles well and truly unwarmed.

Directed by Hungarian Jan Kadar who also directed Kaminska in the award-winning Czech film "The Shop on Main Street (1965), it was the first English-speaking movie for both of them and did not echo their former successes in Europe. The daughter of well-known Yiddish actors, she had been on stage since childhood and only made a handful of films. In this one she was given little scope, spending much of the time in bed arguing with her husband. Mostel has lost his faith in God and has been to the Welfare looking for help since nothing has been going right for him with his tailor shop burning down, his back packing in, his daughter marrying outside the faith, and his bedridden wife. Into his life comes Belafonte's would-be angel, a former thief, recently deceased. Mostel takes him to be someone from the welfare office and can not credit that this jive-talking black person was sent by God to help him, especially since he has no wings and is incapable of performing any miracles.

That apart he plays one of the few screen angels I have ever seen who acts more alive than deceased, visible to everyone, eating and drinking, talking on the telephone, attempting to make out with his girlfriend, and showing little patience with Mostel's skepticism and aggressive nature. Even when things seem to improve between them as they share a meal and Kaminska seems to rally, it is clear that she would not welcome the miraculous recovery which seems to be Belafonte's mission here. Despite being a very pleasant movie presence, Belafonte was really never much of an actor and his would-be jazzy dialogue dates the movie badly. He eventually storms off, leaving his hat which Mostel returns to a Harlem synagogue. At the movie's end Mostel encounters a fall of black feathers which he tries vainly to catch -- presumably meaning that Belafonte has gained his wings. However since Mostel is in no way better off and since his wife is quite probably now at final rest, one wonders what the angel has done to earn these.

The rest of the small cast add very little. Irish character actor Milo O'Shea plays the couple's caring doctor and husband-and-wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson appear in the opening scene in parts too small to register. By and large it's the Zero Mostel Show, but there's little here to warm to his character and the film does not join the ranks of "feel-good" movie experiences.