Sunday, 27 June 2010

Lymelife (2008)

This morning I attended a preview of this low-budget indie movie which was released Stateside last year and which is now being given a British release -- not that I can see it raking in many shekels. That's a shame on certain levels, since this debut effort from director Derick Martini from a script co-written with his brother has much to commend it. However neither its coming-of-age story nor the melodramatics of suburban life on 1970s Long Island is likely to attract the summer movie crowd looking for 3D extravaganzas and big bangs. Still it is well worth a look, as I am sure Martin Scorsese (one of the films 14 producers!) would agree.

The story follows two neighbouring families. The first of these consists of father Alec Baldwin who is making a success of building affordable housing (his developments are intended as a latter-day Levittowns), his very Catholic wife played by Jill Hennessy, and their two sons, real-life brothers Rory and Kieran Culkin. I didn't recognize Hennessy who is primarily a TV actress, but I guess one could describe Baldwin nowadays as a TV actor! Rory, the younger Culkin, is effectively the lead, the bullied high school student left in the bickering household after his older brother joins the army. The natural affection between them in real life comes across in the film as well,; both are excellent, although neither has made as huge a cinematic mark as their big brother Macauley. The second family unit consists of father Timothy Hutton, suffering from rampant Lyme disease which causes erratic behaviour and left him jobless, flighty and impatient Mum Cynthia Nixon (ex SATC), and too wise for her years teenaged daughter Emma Roberts, on whom Rory has had an unrequited crush.

Not a lot happens but the angst is palpable. Baldwin and Nixon are indulging in an illicit affair, the most current of the many Baldwin has pursued. The difference is that this time it is obvious to all three children, causing the soldier Culkin to fall out with his father, Hennessy to finally give up on her errant husband, and for the young Culkin and Roberts to experiment with supposedly grown-up pleasures. Even Hutton, in a virtuoso performance, is aware that he is losing his family and in all probability his sanity -- all from the bite of a little tick on his last hunting trip with Baldwin. 'Why me and not him' he thinks. Meanwhile Baldwin is chuffed that maybe next year he may be a millionaire and that he and his family have escaped from their earlier and simpler life in Queens; Hennessy, on the other hand, misses those happy days. As both family units fall further into disarray, the film ends with one of the main characters slowly bleeding to death. I will not say which one or why, but this ending is as effective as any other at bringing a touch of reality to the sorry procedings.

My only criticism is a lack of historical research in one area. Soldier Culkin is about to be shipped off to the Falkland War -- but not as a gun-waving soldier to the disappointment of his brother, but as a communications technician (like Radar in MASH -- how wimpy). The only trouble is that American forces did not fight in the Falklands, just Britain and Argentina, and no one in this country can discount the possibility that the U.S. might have supported the Argies had they chosen sides (which may be why they didn't). However this is a small niggle about what is in effect a well-cast and well-acted ensemble effort.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Ninth Gate (1999)

I seem to have watched a ragbag of films over the last few days and, as so often is the case, I have little inspiration to dissect most of them. (Just as well that I don't earn my living as a film reviewer). The strangest of the lot was a peculiarity from 2003 called "Tiptoes", a movie primarily about 'little people' and society's treatment of them. However I struggle to understand what possessed Gary Oldman to take the role of a hunchbacked dwarf (believably rendered through CGI), twin brother to a full-sized Matthew McConaughey. The latter has inpregnated girlfriend Kate Beckinsale and the genetic odds are that she too will deliver a dwarf, like the majority of the boys' family. I understand that Oldman's interest was instrumental in getting the movie made, but his motives remain something of a mystery to me.

I had planned to write about a French flick from 1974 with the title translated as "Let Joy Reign Supreme", the second outing from respected director Betrand Tavernier. Set in 1719 we follow the escapades of the Regent to the underage Louis XV played by Philippe Noiret (again) and an atheistic abbe who wants to become an Archbishop, played by the never-dull Jean Rochefort. However the film was so lumbered by chunks of French history mixed with the lascivious, decadent behaviour of the court, that it seemed endless (and dare I say slightly boring). Obviously a big production with a host of extras, elaborate costumes, lovingly photographed scenery, and even music written originally by Noiret's Regent, but I found it heavy going.

So by default I shall say a few words about Roman Polanski's "Ninth Gate", my first re-view in about ten years. I have no intention of discussing Polanski's morals and fugitive status, but I will say that he has made some brilliant films throughout his career; he has also made a few clinkers. This one is not exactly in the middle, veering more to the interesting end of the spectrum, but fatally weakened by a muddled and hasty ending. Based on a Spanish novel, "El Club Dumas", the tale has Johnny Depp playing a New York book-dealer and bibliophile called Dean Corso. He is employed by megalomaniac collector Frank Langella to establish if the satanic volume he has just acquired from a man who subsequently commiited suicide is the real McCoy. While Langella firmly believes that his copy is genuine, he wants Corso to compare it to the two other remaining copies. During the first half of the movie, there is a definite sinister air of mystery as Corso unearths certain differences among the three volumes and as the other two owners meet violent ends with the engravings torn from their copies. Meanwhile, Langella's copy which he has entrusted to Corso is stolen by Lena Olin, the suicide's widow, who claims the book was hers and not her huband's to sell. Both Langella and Olin are obviously well into black magic and hope to use the book's mysteries to raise the Devil.

Like many moviegoers I have a lot of time for Depp who has created a variety of fascinating characters in the last twenty years and whose 'duds' are few and far between. At the moment only the feeble "Secret Window" (2004) springs to mind. I also have really been a Langella fan since I first noticed him as the louche and rather beautiful lover in "Diary of Mad Housewife" (1970). As he has aged he has grown gracefully into his roles and normally leaves a strong impression. However in this film, he veers dangerously into over-the-top histrionics which may or may not be essential to his character. Depp is as usual very watchable and full of memorable tics. The real puzzle concerns the fourth lead player, Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner. She is hovering in the background throughout the action, getting closer to Corso as things proceed and seems not quite of this world with her gliding to Corso's rescue on several occasions. He assumes that she is in Langella's pay, hired to keep a watchful eye on him. Her role remains deliberately enigmatic throughout, but the 'big reveal' proves too much to accept. One is left with a 'what's going on' mentality as Corso too seems set on unlocking the fiendish secrets of the ninth gate. Well worth the rewatch, but just a little anticlimactic after Depp's noirish derring-do for the bulk of the film.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Night of the Generals (1967)

I have always liked Peter O'Toole's film appearances, not just because of his real beauty in his youth (Florence of Arabia anyone?), but also because of the 'edge' with which he endows most of his roles. It is for this reason twice as terrifying to see the repressed stillness that he brings to his character in this film; the man he portrays is obviously an out and out nutter, but one who strains to keep his emotions in check.

The story opens in occupied Warsaw in 1942 with the brutal murder of a prostitute. An eyewitness saw the red stripes of a German general's trousers descending the staircase from her room and only three of the generals stationed in the city at the time have no alibi for the night in question: humanistic but haughty Donald Pleasence, old-Junker mentality Charles Gray, a man adept at safely sitting on the fence, and the young, Hitler-favourite O'Toole. It is no real spoiler to guess which of these is the culprit since this is more or less obvious from the start. The strength of the film is to follow how the fates of these three generals intertwine and to guess when and how the truth will out, especially when another murder occurs in Paris two years later -- again when all three are based there. O'Toole's "Lawrence" co-star Omar Sharif (forever known as Cairo Fred in this household) plays a German military policeman convinced that a murderer must pay for his crime, however grand his army position, whose attempts at unravelling the truth are thwarted at every turn by his brass targets.

Add to this fine cast a role for Tom Courtenay as a cowardly lance-corporal who has won an Iron Cross for supposed bravery, purely as a propaganda exercise for being the only survivor of his company. He is involved in an intense love affair with Joanna Pettet, the high-born daughter of Gray and his haughty wife Coral Browne. Finally there is a major part for French acting stalwart Phillipe Noiret as a Paris police inspector who shares Sharif's beliefs in justice. Somewhat surprisingly this movie directed by Anatole Litvak is not particularly well-rated in my various guidebooks, but it seems to have its fans among IMDb users with a rating of 7+. Part of the problem is that at nearly two and a half hours the film is indeed a little bloated and might have been sharper with tighter editing and story-telling. The recreated Valkyrie sub-plot to assassinate Hitler is played out in unnecessary detail and a cameo by Christopher Plummer as Rommel adds very little. However the strength of the acting keeps the viewer riveted and boredom is not really a factor here. One theoretically unneeded scene early on where O'Toole's icy general systematically destroys an entire Warsaw district, apparently just for the hell of it, gives us an eerie insight into the depth of his madness and his belief in his own superiority and invincibility. That it takes another 25-odd years for him to face his nemesis makes for a gripping saga.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Plenty (1985)

It has taken me a very long time to come around to believing that Meryl Streep is as great an actress as her fans would have you think. Her myriad Oscar nominations might attest to her clear superiority over most other actresses, but even her great roles from the 1980s have always left me cold. One could admire her acting chops without in any way warming to the character being depicted. Oddly enough the film that swung me 'round was Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995), where for the first time I could grasp the reality of the woman she was depicting. Since then, I have come to accept that hers is a real talent and I have begun to re-evaluate some of her earlier outings -- although a number of them still seem overly mannered to me.

The above film is, I think, a good case in point. Based on a stage play by David Hare and in a role originated by Kate Nelligan, Streep plays an Englishwoman (nearly impeccable accent) who was a courier in France with the Resistance during World War II. She fully believed that the 'glory' of those years and the idealism of her co-patriots, many of whom paid with their lives, would result in a better tomorrow for all mankind. However, back in London after the war's end and participating in a variety of upwardly mobile jobs, her existence and mental health become more and more fragile; she feels disillusioned by society, despite her life of 'plenty' with devoted diplomat husband, Charles Dance. The years pass, but she is unable to move on with her life; eventually she manages to alienate most of the other characters, to say nothing of this viewer, with her selfish and irrational tantrums. Her playing may have been a technical tour de force, but her histrionics left an empty hole and an air of tedium. Some have suggested that the play is really an allegory for Britain's decline on the world stage, but I just can't buy Streep's character embodying that.

Director Fred Schepsi, with whom Streep would work again, assembled a fascinating supporting cast to set off his star 'jewel', with the likes of Sam Neill, Tracey Ullman, Ian McKellen, Sting, and the always scene-stealing John Gielgud; but, with the exception of the latter, none of them are able to breathe life into this tale of self-pity and mental breakdown. Dance in particular comes across as a slightly wooden, emotional void, and even as Streep manages to ruin his career, one hopelessly looks for the believable anger that he should display. Thank goodness then for Gielgud, playing a career diplomat destroyed by the Suez crisis. At a tedious dinner party at Streep's home, he just about demolishes the pretentious wife of an oriental diplomat who has been rabbiting on about the angst in the "Norwegian" director Ingmar Bergman's films! Once his character is killed off, there is nothing left to amuse the viewer amongst the progressingly dreary action.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

From the sublime to the gorblimey

When you watch as many movies as I do, they really do run the gamut from the great to the pathetic. Although I occasionally succumb to good taste and sensibility and 'kill' a film midstream, I try not to give up on those previously unseen, even if it is something of an effort to stick with the more idiotic ones. In between the two extremes, one comes across a number of curiosities, a few with lasting cult appeal, and a great number of watchable-but-forgettable entries. Two of the several many flicks I've seen since last writing, slot into this sliding scale of watchability:

Bruno (2009): Maybe I have suffered a humour bypass or maybe it's just a generational thing, but I stuck with this movie, despite hating great chunks of it. I do know that Sacha Baron Cohen is an intelligent man from a cultured family background, but his use of offbeat characters to dramatize his barbs at modern society and tastes is fast running out of steam. First Ali-G, then Borat, and now the gay Austrian fashionista Bruno have been let loose on the movie-going public; I can only hope that there are no other bad-taste brothers waiting in the wings. Cohen may be clever, but he is really not that funny, and it is all too easy to make fun of sitting ducks. I found "Borat..." (2006) just about watchable; there is a certain perverse humour in dead serious 'talking heads' not realising that they are the butt of some forced joke, as Cohen's character mouths more and more outrageous statements to challenge their sensibilities. However in this latest outing, I did feel that most of the similar confrontations were staged rather than spontaneous. I mean would any mother, desperate for her 30-pound baby to appear in TV adverts, agree that she could get its weight down by ten pounds in a week or would agree for him to be dressed as Hitler!

After losing his fashion perch on Austrian TV, Bruno decides to conquer America and to become famous. As each of his more outlandish ideas alienates a growing number of enemies, he decides that only 'straight' men achieve fame in the U.S. and looks for a charitable cause to make his name. So the audience is forced to watch a dire selection of would-be Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, the exploitation of an 'adopted' African baby, his sparring with 'gay converters', his attendance at a swingers' party, and his stint with the Alabama National Guard (apparently a real try-it-on until he was recognised as Borat). He finally achieves the notoriety he covets by a gross-out love-making scene with his faithful poofy assistant that goes viral by you-tube coverage. The film ends with his cod peace anthem being crooned by Bono, Chris Martin, Elton John (sitting on a Mexican -- an earlier joke), Sting, and others. Tell me the fault lies with me and that this really is the stuff of good humour...

Against this dire outing, let me recommend "Angel" from 1984, a cult item, not to be confused with the 30s Dietrich starrer which I wrote about recently or Neil Jordan's IRA shocker from the same decade. The tagline reads "A-student by day, hooker by night", as 15-year old Molly aka Angel takes to the streets to earn the dosh to keep her at her snobby private school after first Dad and then Mom took a hike when she was twelve. Pretending that her mother is ill in bed, she forms a dysfunctional surrogate family unit with an emaciated Rory Calhoun playing an erstwhile film cowboy (a riff on his own screen career), comedian Dick Shawn as an over-the-top transvestite queen, and the always eccentric Susan Tyrrell as a punk dyke artist. A nutter, effectively portrayed by John Diehl, is murdering her young co-workers on Hollywood Boulevard and is out to get Angel as well after she picks him out of a police line-up.

This low-budget outing epitomises the sleazy reality of a hooker's precarious life, particularly as portrayed by the angelic-looking Donna Wilkes, who never appeared in anything so good either before or after. There is lots of gratuitious nudity (although not by Wilkes), but that is not the reason that this film became an unexpected and surprise exploitation hit. It's the interesting characters, the non-stop action, and the sense of an environment populated by entertaining outcasts. The movie produced two lesser sequels ("Avenging Angel" and "Angel 3: The Final Chapter") in each of which Angel was portrayed by a different actress. Unsurprisingly neither achieved the success of the original despite Calhoun and Tyrell appearing in the second, with none of the original cast in the third. The first of the trilogy however remains a nifty example of the kind of tasty independent film-making that often achieved a minor greatness in that less commercial decade.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

It's Love I'm After (1937)

I'm not in the habit of plugging commercial undertakings, but I really must commend the Warner Brothers Archives for their enterprise. What they have done is to make available a growing number of film titles which are generally not available anywhere else, either by download or by limited issue DVDs. These are largely vanilla discs, apart from the very occasional trailer, but who cares when it means that one can obtain an excellent copy of a rare film title. The only trouble from my point of view is that they will not deal with customers outside North America. I do understand their reasoning, even if I am not happy with it. However, other suppliers of their discs are quite willing to deal with overseas purchasers; this includes the U.S. TCM shop (and their affilliate Movies Unlimited) and Amazon US, together with most of their recommended outsources. I can even find copies at my local cinema shop here in London, albeit at greatly increased cost. I have now obtained a selection of these films from all three sources and intend to carry on putting my money where my mouth is; and I am chuffed as monkeys to do so!

The above title was purchased as a replacement for an old beta copy which I taped on a rare television showing many moons ago. I hadn't seen it again in all these years, but my goodness it does hold up as a jolly 90 minutes. One advantage of being a 1930's film fan is that one gets to see one's favourite actors co-starring in a startling variety of roles. This screwball comedy reunites Bette Davis (a personal fave) with Leslie Howard after their earlier "Petrified Forest" and pairs GWTW's Ashley with his Melanie, Olivia DeHavilland, two years earlier. For an actress who tended to be linked with more serious roles, she shows a lively penchant for comedy in this movie. She plays a flighty rich gal (oh those 1930's heiresses) who is engaged to Patric Knowles but who develops a huge crush on Howard's narcissistic actor. Like Lunt and Fontaine, he is often paired with Davis' diva and the couple have been putting off formalising their obvious attraction for some years, preferring to bicker under their breath during their latest production (an adept yet amusing version of the death scene from "Romeo and Juliet").

After a backstage visit where DeHavilland announces her infatuation to the easily flattered Howard, Knowles does a deal with him to discourage this flame. Howard and his manservant, played by the incomparable Eric Blore (a frustrated ham himself) arrive in the middle of the night at DeHavilland's dad's country pile where a house party is in progress. The game-plan is to repeat the scenes and dialogue from an old warhorse play in which the man comes across as such a cad that the young lady runs back into the arms of her true love. However no matter how hard Howard tries to discourage the lass -- meanwhile offending most of her family -- she justs falls further under his spell. Even when Davis turns up as Howard's supposed wife, DeHavilland just clings harder. There's a wonderful scene in the gardens, where Blore says that he will sound his famous bird calls any time that Howard seems too close to giving in to his natural inclination for seduction, which doesn't work, despite Blore trying harder and harder, as there is a competing pet aviary nearby.

Naturally, as these things do, the two couples end up with the partners they deserve. When DeHavilland explains away her fleeting fixation, she says that very recently she thought she was in love with Clark Gable. "Who's he?", asks the self-obsessed Howard. By and large a real treat courtesy the aforementioned Warner Brothers Archives, apart from perhaps rather too much screen time for the bratty, teenaged Bonita Granville. However to paraphrase another WB flick, why ask for the moon when we have the stars!!!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

This Weekend's 'Big' Premieres

The Sky Premiere movie channel now only shows five new films a week, which is not really too exciting from my point of view, since normally at least one is a kiddies flick or a dreary TV movie, and since chances are that I have previously viewed one or more, either on release or on DVD. So it's a would-be treat for them to schedule two mainstream features that I haven't seen, like this week's selection from 2009 of "Public Enemies" and "Cheri". At least it might have been a treat if either of them had been particularly good films, which I regret was not the case.

It is interesting to discuss this failure, especially since both were made by A-List directors, Michael Mann and Stephen Frears. To deal with Mann's film first, "Public Enemies" should have been a sure-fire wow with leading players Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard retelling (for the umpteenth time) the John Dillinger story. Mann may be a well-respected director, but I'll be damned if I know exactly why he is so highly thought of. He has made a scant dozen films in the last 30 years, but, with the possible exception of "Heat" (1995) they are fairly plodding, pedestrian affairs. In general they are good films, but not great ones. While his filmography appears solid, the films themselves are largely stolid. Mann is so painstaking in his approach that his movies just seem to limp along. Passion seems to be an alien concept to him. Dillinger may well have been 'loved' by the depression era public who hated the banks that he robbed, but it is hard to love Depp's portrayal. Unusually for him, his acting is shallow here and one gains very little insight into what makes his character tick; the same is unfortunately also true of Bale's portrait of G-man Melvin Purvis. They are both largely ciphers. Only Cotillard as the lady in red brings some emotion to the proceedings. In addition the movie is uninspiringly filmed and the action has little pace or purpose to justify remaking a tale that has been told so many times.

Frears has had a far more varied and prolific career dating back to 1971's "Gumshoe". In his day he has made a number of gems, including "The Queen", "Dirty Pretty Things", "High Fidelity", and "The Grifters", along with the occasional dud like "Mary Reilly", but his is on balance the more interesting filmography. This film reunites him with one of the stars from one of his biggest hits, 1988's "Dangerous Liaisons". The still very attractive Michelle Pfeiffer plays an aging courtesan during the Belle Epoque (she was a hard-to-believe 51 when the film was shot) who falls into the arms of 19-year old Cheri (Rupert Friend), the son of another lady of the night, Kathy Bates. Their somewhat inexplicable passion lasts for seven years until his Mummy, yearning for grandchildren, arranges a marriage to a young filly. Friend is a fine actor (I was particularly taken with him in 2005's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont"), but I couldn't fathom the depth of feelings between him and Pfeiffer's Lea. The film was scripted by super-scribe Christopher Hampton from two novels by Collette, but again the basis for their attraction and obsession remains elusive. I know that love is seldom rational, but one always hopes for some insight into the characters' behaviour. I somehow couldn't help thinking that the story might have worked better filmed with a French cast rather than as a vehicle for Pfeiffer's mysteriously uninspired interpretation.

In short, they were both time-fillers, reasonably watchable movies, that will soon disappear into the recesses of vague memory without having made their hoped-for impact.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Wonder Bar (1934)

Al Jolson! What can one say in the 21st century about a legendary performer whose trademark persona was that of a blackfaced minstrel. Even if his act came from a long-standing theatrical tradition, you can't get much more politically incorrect nowadays. But let's overlook that for the moment and agree that not only was Jolson a standout entertainer of his day, but that he also will forever figure in movie history for his starring role in 1927's "The Jazz Singer".

He didn't make that many sound movies, but his every film appearance is a wonderment and a welcome revisit to a very bygone era. This film is of particular interest, having been made at the birth of Hay's new production code and it includes a number of features that would soon be definite 'no-noes'. These include a wry joke about a gay couple on the dancefloor, graphic whip-lashing during an apache dance act, a subplot about suicide, and no punishment for the murder of one of the main characters. Jolson plays the host of the eponymous trendy night club in a studio Paris that never was. Kay Francis is the glamourous, adulterous wife of a banker, involved with greasy gigolo Ricardo Cortez (one half of club's dance team with the gorgeous Dolores Del Rio). Jolson also covets Del Rio, as does band-leader/crooner Dick Powell, but she only has eyes for her abusive partner who is trying to flog Francis' diamond necklace in order to skip town. Add to the mix comic tourist couples Guy Kibbee and Ruth Donnelly plus Hugh Herbert and Louise Fazenda, all of whom come across as sexual opportunists trying to make hay in such an ooh-la-la environment.

However what really makes this Lloyd Bacon-directed film most memorable are the elaborate stage routines from musical director Busby Berkeley. The first of these is a standard production number to Powell's crooning of 'Don't Say Goodnight' full of dozens of nearly identical platinum blonde showgirls, masked men, and a mirrored stage which makes the action appear to go on for miles. However it is Jolson's biggest number that leaves one aghast with raised eyebrows. He sings 'Goin' to Heaven on a Mule' in his usual blacky make-up on a stage set that could never ever be contained in a single club. His concept of heaven here is a honky-tonk paradise full of hundreds of blackfaced angels, with its pork-chop orchards, fried chicken machines, dancing watermelons, leggy dancers, cigars, and gambling. One could just about accept this kind of interpretation in all-black musicals like "Green Pastures", but it is rather harder to take with a gurning Jolson in full swing. It really has to be seen to be believed.

This film is not well-known, partly because of its so-called bad taste and dated ideas. But it is an absolute hoot to watch and it should be compulsory viewing for anyone who wonders why movie action has been conventionally and forcibly altered since those carefree bygone days.