Monday, 29 March 2010

Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009)

In search of new taste thrills, I scour local festival schedules for films that sound as if they might tickle my fancy. The National Film Theatre, of which I am a member, holds an annual Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. While this has no bearing on my own preferences, I have over the years found films featured in their programmes which sound right up my street. This low-budget zombie movie from first-time writer-director Kevin Hamedani was billed as a gory treat -- and so it was!

Set on the all-American island community of Port Gamble, there is a sudden outbreak of zombieism amongst the all-too-typical townsfolk. While there is no explanation for this, in the current political climate the media assumes that it must be some kind of terrorist attack. Meanwhile the local fire-and-brimstone preacher believes that Armaggeddon has arrived and that only the virtuous will survive. Counterpointed against these assumptions, the main protagonists are a college-girl of Iranian descent and a devoted gay couple who are visiting the island to "come out" to the locally-raised one's mother. While all three roles are taken by novice film actors, they all strike the right note and add to the film's humour and studied bad taste.

When the young man baulks at telling the truth to his Mum (who complains earlier that she has been bitten by the butcher while buying dinner), he finally blurts out his sexual preferences only to find that she has turned into a foaming-at-the mouth zombie. 'That's kind of like how my father reacted' quips his paramour. The attractive American-Iranian girl, a nice turn from young actress Janette Armand, is constantly called an Iraqi by her dim neighbours and boyfriend. When the gung-ho man from next door decides to torture her to get her to confess her involvement in the current outbreak, he decides that she can't possibly be a real American or she wouldn't know why, for example, there are thirteen stars on the U.S. flag, since the average teenager would have no idea! By and large the dialogue is similarly witty throughout and there is one lovely bit of bad taste from the local minister who refers to Christ, history's greatest zombie, as being on his side -- as the first of the living dead.

Being a low-budget outing with a largely inexperienced cast of variable ability, the director's scattergun technique occasionally misfires. However Hamedani's use of gore is generally inventive (in the best tradition of zombie films) and there are frequent jump-in-your-seat shocks, like when Armand promises to protect a scared, non-infected youngster, promptly leads her in the path of an oncoming car, and is left holding only one arm!

Having two attractive and fairly amusing gay men in pivotal roles accounts for this film's inclusion in this particular festival, but the movie would have been just as successful and politically relevant overall with a pair of straight friends as leads. As I've often written before, this is not great film-making in any sense, but it is definitely a rather promising debut, and it was great fun on a grey Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Parting Shots (1998)

I am always very curious about movies that seem to fall through the cracks after receiving a certain amount of hoo-hah on their release. Like a shooting star they shine brightly for a wee period of time and then seem to disappear from one's consciousness. I had heard that this one, the last to date from British director Michael Winner, was particularly awful, but since he is something of a hate-object to many people nowadays, being currently best-known as a smug food critic with a string of ex-girlfriends and 'fiancees', I thought it might prove watchable. After all Winner made a good run of popular movies from "The Jokers" (1967) through "The Wicked Lady" remake in 1985, including the morally dubious Charles Bronson "Death Wish" series and one of my own favourites, "Hannibal Brooks" (1969). He was also able to call on a range of starry talent including Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Michael Caine (who is apparently still a friend).

So when I finally saw this listed as a premiere in the schedules of a terrestrial TV station last week, I grabbed the opportunity to view it and make my own assessment. In one of the favourite phrases of my late mother when studying the menu at a pricey restaurant, she would say "The turkey sounds good". Well take it from me, this particular turkey is a tasteless, embarrassing mess.

He was obviously able to call in a lot of favours and the cast list includes some very well-known late 1990s talent: John Cleese, Diana Rigg, Felicity Kendal, Oliver Reed, Bob Hoskins, Ben Kingsley, Joanna Lumley, and a host of familiar faces from television -- but most of these appear in bitty parts. The lead has been given to one Chris Rea (a musician with whom I am unfamiliar); as an actor he shouldn't give up his day job and comes across as a wooden, charisma-free zone. Perhaps we should consider this a vanity piece or perhaps he helped with the finance, but he just about kills the movie stone dead.

That in fact is what the film is about: having been told that he has incurable cancer and only six weeks to live, our "hero" sets out to murder all those people that he thinks have ruined his life. The "twist" of the story is however blatantly apparent to any half-sentient creature from square one. His scheming ex-wife (Rigg), doublecrossing ad-agency partner (Cleese), and Madoff-like financier (Hoskins) are among the early victims, followed by celebrity chef (Kingsley) -- a nod to Winner's current foodie obsessions. Black comedy, such as this is meant to be, requires tongues firmly wedged into the players' cheeks, but that is sadly, sadly lacking here. Only Reed in this late role of a high-class contract killer, whom Rea has hired to finish him off, brings any amusement to the proceedings. Both Rigg and Kendal are far too old for the parts they are playing and one would be hard-pushed to understand why anyone would fancy the hapless Rea in the first place. I guess many films deserve to be lost under the floorboards!

On the same subject, I'm in the middle of watching -- yes, I do take some breaks occasionally -- a Spike Lee Joint from about 2005 which has also done a similar disappearing act: "She Hate Me". Intended (I think) as a satiric jab at values gone wrong, it's about a man who loses his high-powered job, being set up as the fallguy for his colleagues' transgressions, and who earns a living as a bonking sperm-provider for horny and broody lesbians. Bring on the floorboards!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Marley and Me (2008)

Call me a soppy sausage, but I'm a big sucker for doggie films. Normally the thought of a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson would leave me shrugging my shoulders, but throw a golden labrador into the equation and I'm stuck. Based on the 2006 non-fiction memoir by journalist John Grogan, this movie truly underlines how owning a dog can colour one's life, the pleasures that loving a dog can engender, and the eventual heartbreak that comes with losing one's furry friend. As Grogan wrote, "Give a dog your heart and he'll give you his".

This film made a packet of money and probably not for the above reasons. For some factors which escape me, Aniston has become one of the more bankable actresses and is normally able to "open" a movie, even when it is the direst of 'rom-coms', sort of like a sunnier Sandra Bullock if you like. Wilson is to my mind rather easier to warm to in his normally lightweight way -- the epitome of the laid-back surfer dude. In this film, however, they both play rather more grown-up roles, and the film which does have its chortling moments -- normally involving the dog Marley -- is not really a comedy in the modern sense, full of raunchy innuendos or gross-out behaviour. Rather it is a family drama showing how life procedes and how a family dog can be there to underline many memories.

Wilson originally purchases the labrador pup as a present for Aniston to take her mind off brooding for a family, partly so that he can fulfill his desire to be a serious foreign journalist, but children do follow and he finds his calling as a humorous columnist, often chronicling the exploits of the mischievious Marley. Marley is a destructive, unruly furniture-chomper, "the worst dog in the world" says his master, thrown out of obedience-training class by the nearly unrecognizable and very chubby Kathleen Turner. When the couple leave him with a dog-sitter after the loss of their first child in the womb, they return to a wrecked house and a sitter who describes him as a devil with a dog's face! But like the Grogans, you can't help loving him through thick and thin. Anyone who has grown up with a dog knows too well how it can impact upon one's life by sharing it. When the time comes in this film for the aging and ill animal to be put down (there is no easier way of saying this), there is not a dry eye in the house. Talk about "chokey"!!!

Shortly before watching this movie, I saw a minor Disney flick from 2004, "Chestnut - Hero of Central Park" which told the unlikely tale of two adopted orphans, Mackenzie Vega and scene-stealer Abigail Breslin, smuggling their puppy into their new home -- not only an apartment block which bans dogs but also one where there new father is allergic. How they manage to conceal his presence as he grows into a ginormous great dane, how the girls and their comic Spanish-speaking nanny exercise him in Central Park by sneaking him in and out of the building covered by huge suitcase, and how the animal eventually saves the day by catching some fiendish burglars, is all part of the totally unbelievable fun. But I did admit upfront what a sucker I can be. In fact, thinking back on all manner of silly films like "Benji" and "Bingo" my movie buff credentials fall by the wayside when I see a 'boofy' face and a big lolling tongue.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Nine (2009)

I can't say that I was in any rush to see this musical from award-winning "Chicago" director Rob Marshall and having now viewed it, I would have been quite happy to wait even longer. Not that it was "bad bad", it certainly has a number of redeeming moments, but it's really not my kind of film, which may be a little surprising considering its provenance. Firstly it is a musical reworking of the great Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" (1963) and secondly the original Broadway book was written by a schoolmate of mine, Arthur Kopit -- a producer here on the rewrite by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Mingella.

Now I know why the Fellini film was so-titled: he had previously directed six films, two shorts, and had co-directed one movie which made it his eighth and a half outing; I can not really tell you why this movie is called "Nine". Apparently one of the songs from the original show had that title and explained things, but it was dropped here. It could of course refer to nine different women in the life of the stymied film director, Guido Contini, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, as he juggles relationships with his wife, his mistress, his dead mother, his costume-designer and confidante, his muse, the memory of a whore from his childhood, and an American fashion journalist, but only by stretching things to include two very minor roles can one get to the necessary nine. The first seven roles are taken by Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Fergie from Black-eyed Peas, and the always-annoying Kate Hudson. You might think with a powerhouse cast like this that the film couldn't fail, but you would be wrong as most of the parts are sorely undeveloped and only exist to give each of them a seldom-memorable song.

This to my mind one of the film's main failings. For a musical show that has been around since 1982, one would have hoped that one or more of the numbers would have become classics, but no such luck. I think it is the death-knell of a musical film if the songs are not known or instantly catchy, and this may account for the fact that this pricey production only had a worldwide gross of just over 50 million dollars. The money spent is evident both from the film's starry cast and the extravagant staging, although the numbers come across as stage productions rather than as integral parts of a movie. This film is after all meant to be about the creativity of movie-making and this strand is lost to the glossy trappings.

While I have never been wowed by Penelope Cruz's strange face, I do concede that she is one very sexy lady and her bosom and crotch are erotically displayed in one of the showier numbers. However I'll be double-dipped if anyone can tell me why this role should have earned her a best supporting actress Academy Award nomination. If any of the cast so deserved to be singled out, that accolade should have gone to Cotillard as she begins to realise that her marriage to the self-absorbed director is a sham. Dench is also good value here and adds a certain class to the proceedings, as does Fergie in her production number which is meant to remind us of the director's youth -- very Fellini-esque that. It's good to see Loren -- very, very carefully lit, but Kidman and Hudson are something of a waste of time. As for Day-Lewis with his careful Italian accent, he is more tolerable here than he has been in some of his more immersed movie characters, but he will never surpass Marcello Mastroianni in the same role in my affections.

I wouldn't go so far as to damn this as a parson's-egg movie, since there are some good intentions on view. It's just a pity that these don't hang together in a more cinematic whole.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

One benefit of Tim Burton's recent reworking of "Alice" is that it has encouraged the programmers at the National Film Theatre to excavate some of the earlier versions. The above film is one that I have been longing to see since the year dot with the Paramount Studios stock company of the day taking on the various roles -- Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle anyone? However, like so many long-anticipated treats it was something of a disappointment come the day.

The cast-list reads like a directory of 1930s character actors with Leon Errol, Louise Fazenda, Ned Sparks, Sterling Holloway, Alison Skipworth, Charlie Ruggles, Jack Oakie, Roscoe Karns, and so many more amongst the performers. However they are so heavily made-up or completely costumed as animals that most of them remain unrecognizable. Even Grant's famous laid-back voice does not really register as his furry animal intones 'Glorious Soup'. Only Edward Everett Horton's Mad Hatter, May Robson's Queen of Hearts, and Edna May Oliver's Red Queen are visually recognizable. And only W.C. Fields' Humpty-Dumpty and Gary Cooper's incredibly clumsy and rather embarrassing White Knight can be discerned by their distinctive voices. Having a long cast-list at the start of the movie showing the various characters followed by a picture of the relevant actor did not really help one recognize the players. What I am saying is that there may be great amusement to be found in watching Cary Grant play a silly animal, but only if one readily realises that one is watching Cary Grant. I bet neither he nor Cooper would boast later about these roles in their filmographies.

This major quibble apart, the film does not really capture the spirit of the book and is rather too much like a number of set pieces, where Lewis Carroll's witticisms are spouted as respectfully and gravely as if they were quotations from Shakespeare or at best like Oscar Wilde bon mots. Also having a rather blah and mature-looking Alice in the person of Charlotte Henry doesn't help. Rather too much time is taken up by having her moon about the set before falling asleep and then entering Wonderland both through a looking-glass and then down a rabbit-hole (talk about overkill). It feels as if the writers -- the normally reliable Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies -- were anxious to include as much as possible from the source material without worrying about capturing its charms.

The film is certainly not a waste of time, however, and does have the occasional felicity. In particular the armies rushing to Humpty-Dumpty's rescue and a Fleischer Brothers cartoon rendering of the Walrus and the Carpenter's oyster-eating frenzy are unexpected treats, as is Field's amusing turn. As Carroll himself might have said 'curiouser and curiouser', it is a definite curiosity.

The film was preceded by a not previously announced showing of the recently-restored 1903 version of the tale -- the longest British film to date when it was made: all of 12 minutes! There are now some eight minutes remaining -- still in very poor condition (and you can search it out on-line if you're so inclined). Unfortunately the proud curator took more than eight minutes to tell us how lucky we were to be seeing it with a new original score. While I suppose I am happy to have viewed it, what remains is so very primitive that it makes the not-that-wonderful 1933 version look like the epitome of film-making art rather than the strange oddity that it actually is.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Pretty Patchy "Patsy"

We went to view the delightful Marion Davis silent "The Patsy" (1928), but nearly had the evening ruined by its terribly intrusive new score. It was being shown at the National Film Theatre as part of the 'Birds Eye View Film Festival' which celebrates female film-makers; fortunately none of the organisers in the self-congratulatory introduction started pontificating about Bigelow being the first female director to win an Oscar. What they did do however was to commission someone called Gwyneth Herbert to perform a musical accompaniment with her small band of guitars, kazoos, and various sound effects. Since they were physically on the stage and lit, just to the right of the screen, and occasionally throwing shadows onto the screen, this was in itself enough of a distraction.

Where to begin? Well, for a start I do not expect vocals during the screening of a silent movie, although obviously a well-conceived score and a minimal amount of 'sound effects' can enhance the visuals. Ms. Herbert (who had a pleasant enough voice let it be said) decided to sing occasionally during the action and even whispered some of the dialogue intertitles. Further, much of her orchestration was simply jejune. For example one of the rather clever intertitles mentioned lamb chops selling for an exorbitant price at the local yacht club, so she immediately went into a riff on 'Mary had a little lamb'! She also chose distracting sounds to underline the action, like using a bleating foghorn when the heroine's bullying mother was scolding her. It reminded me of being at the circus watching the clowns bleating their toy horns.

Fortunately, despite her best efforts, she did not manage to totally ruin the evening since the film is such a charmer that I was nearly able to ignore her auditory interference. Davis who also produced the film which was directed by King Vidor is best remembered today as Hearst's mistress at San Simeon, she of the infamous 'rosebud'. However she was an accomplished comedienne, particularly in her silent roles. Here she plays the put-upon younger daughter of a social-climbing mother (played by the inimitable Marie Dressler, who died far too soon into the talkie era), who favours her vamping elder daughter. Only her henpecked husband, a totally sympathetic turn from Dell Henderson, sticks up for young Pat. She is treated as the household skivvy and is discouraged from seeking romance, despite the fact that she madly fancies one of her sister's boyfriends. Only when she decides to develop a 'personality' and is considered to have gone bonkers by Ma and Sis, can she gain the attention she needs from her family and a man. It is a completely charming bit of action and Davies is thoroughly amusing throughout; indeed all of the small cast successfully add to the film's humour -- I just could have done without the unwanted noise from Ms. Herbert and crew.

What, by the way, did I think of "Avatar"? It was certainly an experience and one that I am glad I chose to view. One can't help but be impressed with James Cameron's vision and persistence to see this translated onto the big screen; his imagination is well thought-out and at times staggering. However had this movie been in regular 2-D, I very much doubt that I would have been able to stick over two and a half hours of this often turgid ecological tale, without the stunning visual distractions.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

This year's Academy Awards held few surprises, certainly not in the acting categories anyhow, with Waltz, Mo'Nique, Bridges, and Bullock all predicted winners. The biggest surprise, although that too was on the cards, was The Hurt Locker's relative success over Avatar. Not that I have seen either film yet. I tend to avoid war films -- however worthy -- on principle (the principle being that they depress me) and I have been dragging my heels to go and watch a movie about ten-foot blue-skinned people. However I know that Avatar is a film that should be seen on the big screen in 3-D and I shall be sitting through all 161 minutes of it tomorrow.

I did not however need any such coaxing to go to see Tim Burton's new 3-D movie early on in its run. I knew upfront that this version would bear slight resemblance to previous ones, but that Burton would take many of the familiar elements and reinterpret them through his own gothic sensibilities. Visually the film is a treat. His 3-D treatment is effective without being in-your-face, although there are perhaps rather too many tableaux which resemble children's pop-up picture books. However the colourful landscapes are an artistic triumph and move one along with the action.

Helena Bonham Carter is something of a hoot as the big-headed (literally) Red Queen. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, looking like a cross between Madonna and Vivienne Westwood, has had his role in the proceedings beefed up to make the movie more of a vehicle for his star-power. It is always a pleasure seeing Crispin Glover, here as the queen's cowardly Knave of Hearts. Matt Lucas (not the easiest actor to admire) is absolutely fine as the digitally-altered Tweedledum and Tweedledee -- "I just love my fat boys" says Bonham Carter. The mainly British voice cast for the creatures are all excellent, even the often-annoying Stephen Fry, whose Cheshire Cat is one of the best-conceived bits of digital tinkering. On the less positive side, I don't quite know how the film's make-up artists managed to turn the normally gorgeous Anne Hathaway (playing the White Queen) into such an unattractive bimbo. Finally I was a little disappointed with the Australian ingenue Mia Wasikowska as the 19-year old and comparatively wishy-washy Alice.
Having an older Alice on her second visit to 'Underland' is one of the main differences between this film and the traditional ones, ending up with her in full body-armour a la Joan of Arc to do battle with the Jabberwocky -- or as the amusing Bonham Carter would have it 'my jabber-baby-wocky'. At least Burton is faithful to the vision of the original Tenniel illustrations in turning the story into a sword and quest film.

Twice during the film a character states 'All the best people are a little mad'. So thank goodness for Burton, Bonham Carter, Depp, and most of all Lewis Carroll.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Deep End (1970)

This title does not refer to the relatively mainstream Tilda Swinton film of the same name from 2001, but to this rather stranger and more obscure movie from Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski -- his second English-language feature after the minor historical romp, "The Adventures of Gerard". It brings together three interesting talents, none of whom have fulfilled their early promise, to create a dark black coming-of-age film of teenaged angst and obsession.

Skolimowski was a close friend of two other Polish directors, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, but did not have as prolific or showy a career as either of them, and in fact made no movies between 1991 and 2008, filling in as a writer, painter, and actor. Of the two leads, 17-year old John Moulder-Brown, playing a 15-year old school-leaver on his first job, had small parts in films -- often uncredited -- since early childhood, but apart from a very showy role in Visconti's 1972 "Ludwig" has had only a patchy TV-role filmography since. Jane Asher was considered one of the up-and-coming actresses of the day and she of the gorgeous red hair graced a number of late-60s/early 70's outings; while she still makes occasional TV appearances, she is today better known as the long-term wife of cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and the baker of imaginative party cakes.

In this movie, Moulder-Brown has found work as an attendant at a local swimming-pool-cum-bathhouse -- a fixture of post-war British townscapes -- where Asher also works in the ladies' section. She plays a typical "dolly-bird" of the period, scantily clothed and sexually promiscuous. She befriends the young man, teaching him the ropes of the job, and he in turn becomes besotted with her. He follows her about, makes not-so-veiled advances, and can not understand the affections she shows to her somewhat dubious "fiancee" and to a skirt-chasing married teacher who surreptitiously fondles the young female students he brings to the pool. The first half of the movie is rather disjointed and is more a series of unrelated incidents at work. The second half picks up rather as the young man stalks Asher and beau to a nightclub, which he is too young to enter, spends his waiting-time munching hot-dogs from street vendor Burt Kwouk (long before his "Pink Panther" fame) and steals a life-size cardboard figurine from outside a strip club, which he decides is the spitting image of his love. There is then a long and rather humourous sequence where Asher has lost the wee diamond from her new engagement ring in the snow and the pair of them bag-up the dirty snow, take it to the empty swimming pool, and melt lumps of it in an electric kettle in the hope of finding the nearly invisible gem. When the youth manages to locate it, he anticipates a sexual reward, before the chilling and rather unexpected final scenes.

While interesting overall and certainly worth a view, I didn't find it a particularly well-made movie, too patchy, with parts shot at a local London bathhouse and much of it shot in Germany for some reason (I think German finance was involved). Apart from the leads and Kwouk's brief appearance, the only other vaguely well-known actor was Diana Dors in an excruciatingly embarrassing cameo as a rather overripe and sexually voracious bathhouse client coming on to the horrified young man. Parts of the film are inexplicably surreal; for example, at one stage a nude female swimmer is seen amongst the pool's regular patrons, but the overall tone of the movie is bogged down in prosaic reality...and the terrifying ending seems to come out of nowhere.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Having a second look

Having watched several recent movies over the last few days ("Revolutionary Road", "Seven Pounds" -- a lightweight dog of a flick, "Notorious", and "Push" among others), I found myself with nothing that I particularly wanted to say about any of these. When that happens, I tend to revisit films that I have seen previously, generally without lingering affection, to see how they strike me the second time around.

Blood Work (2002): I revere Clint Eastwood as much as the next guy and while I always enjoy watching him as an actor, I do find some of the movies he has churned out as a director a little so-soish. Mind you, his overall filmography is so impressive on both scores, that I can forgive him a minor effort like this one. Playing a retired FBI agent who suffered a heart attack in pursuit of a serial killer, he now has had a heart transplant courtesy of surgeon Anjelica Huston (huh??). When he discovers that his new heart came from Wanda De Jesus' murdered sister, he is cajoled into looking into her death and finds himself knee-deep in red herrings left by the erstwhile serial killer who misses their little cat-and-mouse games. SPOILER: Once all of the likely suspects are found dead, it doesn't take a genius to focus on buddy Jeff Daniels who lives on the boat next door, and the alert viewer might have guessed his guilt early on. Still it was entertaining to see Daniels playing against type and to see the then 71-year old Eastwood looking fit as a fiddle (despite his character's heart problems) and romancing the much younger Latina love interest (just as he did in real life). Best not to dwell on the dubious comic relief from local detectives Paul Rodriguez and Dylan Walsh, who have resented Eastwood's celebrity FBI man every step of the way.

Extreme Measures (1996): This medical drama stars Hugh Grant as a dedicated doctor who strangely becomes an action hero. Since the film was turned out by his own production company, he probably welcomed this opportunity for a change of pace; when it flopped at the box office, he reluctantly returned to his floppy-haired rom-com persona. However, he does a sterling job as the doctor who is determined to solve the mystery of why a man died on his operating table and then appeared to have no existence in the hospital records. It seems that eminent physicial Gene Hackman has been experimenting on homeless men that society supposedly won't miss in order to produce a formula that will help thousands of neurologically-damaged people. He is abetted by crook FBI man David Morse and local cop Bill Nunn, who will go as far as necessary to stop Grant's inquires, including planting drugs in his flat and just about killing him at various stages of the action. The ethical question of whether the death of a few 'unimportant' folk justifies great scientific advances obviously left the paying movie audience cold and the film something of a box-office failure. Pity that, since it could have created greater career possibilities for a very able actor. Oh, by the way, Sarah Jessica Parker is also in this film and the less said about her unbelievable non-role, the better.

Rewatching both of these movies were pleasant enough pursuits. Perhaps I'll feel the same in some years time about those movies which I dismissed at the start of this entry, but somehow I don't really believe that any distance will make the Will Smith starrer a more appealing watch or that I would really want to view the biopic of a murdered black rapper a second time.