Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Wave/Die Welle (2008)

Michael Haneke's award-winning "The White Ribbon" (2009) was an impressive film which suggested a design-fault in the German make-up, a propensity towards Fascism which ended up with the excesses of the Nazi era. One might suspect that this German movie from the previous year was more of the same, if the true story on which it was based had not taken place in Palo Alto, California back in the 1960s.

Jurgen Vogel plays a not overly academic high school teacher who is popular with his students and who also coaches the school's water polo team. When he is asked to lead one of two one-week learning projects, he is disappointed not to be assigned Anarchy (which fitted in neatly with his own student past), but to be given Autocracy to discuss with his class. As modern-day young Germans, the kids pooh-pooh the suggestion that Nationalistic extremism could appeal to rational thinkers or that a charismatic leader could ever control the thoughts and actions of the majority. However, as the week progresses, what begins as a bit of game-play with the students acting with exaggerated respect to their teacher leader, ends with their adapting a uniform style of dress, a logo and a salute (the Wave of the title), and finding that they are bonding as a group. They no longer think of each other as West Germans or East Germans or Turks or the bright or the stupid, but as equals, united in a common way of life -- and correspondingly intolerant of all of those outside their class circle. In other words they have not only become as extreme as the Nazis that they deride, but they want to convert all of the outsiders to the bright future that they can suddenly envision both for themselves and their country.

After violent fighting breaks out at the Friday night water polo march, Vogel begins to understand what he has wrought. He gathers his class together on the Saturday morning in an ill-judged attempt to get them to realise the dangers of their new philosophy. He does this by singling out a dissenter who wants to leave the group as a "traitor" and asks the kids how he should be punished, thinking that this will jolt them into more rational behaviour. However one disaffected young man for whom The Wave has become his first meaningful way of life draws a gun. The kids are beginning to come to their senses, but not before blood is spilled and the their charismatic teacher-leader is taken away by the police. The look of horror on his face is worth a thousand words.

This movie is reminiscent of another German film, "The Experiment" (2001), which also dealt with the ease that fascist and authoritarian behaviour can arise at the first opportunity. Oddly enough that story too had a U.S. source and was based on the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Both films stand as chilling reminders of how easy it is to mould people's behaviour and how readily they can be made to perform deeds that might have been unthinkable just a short while before.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Went the Day Well (1942)

Every so often a classic film is given a limited cinema re-release, usually to celebrate its anniversary or a restored digital copy, but seldom just for the sheer pleasure of being able to see the movie on the big screen. When this occurs, it makes me want to view the film again as a refresher, and so it is that yesterday I watched a copy from my collection. Parenthetically, although it is a wonderful flick, its full-screen format and fairly pedestrian black and white photography do not particularly warrant a cinema viewing, and since it has been on DVD for years and occasionally shown on television, it is not really a rarity either.

Still I enjoyed coming back to it. Based on a short story by Graham Greene and set in a small bucolic English village during the War, the townsfolk welcome a group of soldier engineers who have come to install some "hush-hush" equipment over the weekend. It is not a spoiler to state here that these would-be British tommies are actually a crack German squadron in disguise, sent to disrupt communications in preparation for an imminent Mainland invasion. In fact the film opens and closes with villager Mervyn Johns standing by a tombstone in the churchyard marking where those soldiers now lay buried, saying it is the only bit of England that they can claim as their own. The movie's strength lies in its suspense, as the locals gradually discover the truth of the situation and bravely join together to defend themselves and their community. Picking up on little clues like crossed sevens on a scoresheet and finding "chokolade" from Wien in one of the billets, even the more dubious locals begin to suspect the worse, forcing the Germans to show their hand, threatening the villagers to keep them in check until the work is done. Word does leak out, but prior to the real British troops arriving, the villagers fight back with pepper, axes, knives, and finally guns, holding the enemy at bay, but suffering losses amongst their numbers as well -- the vicar, the shopkeeper, members of the Home Guard. One can just about imagine how such a scenario must have hit home with local audiences in 1942, with the real German threat just a few scant miles across the Channel.

The film was directed by (Alberto) Cavalcanti, a Brazilian who started his career in Paris as an avant garde documentarian, moving to England in 1933 to work for the GPO Film Unit, before joining Ealing Studios where this film was produced. He later gave us other cinema gems like "Champagne Charlie" (1944), "Nicholas Nickleby" (1947), and the most memorable and scariest section of the compendium film "Dead of Night" (1945). The cast is a role-call of B-List talent from the period and it is a treat to see character stalwarts like Arnold Rigby and Marie Lohr in their late prime, latter-day TV doyennes like Thelma Hird and Patricia Hayes ("I am NOT the vagrant") as fresh-faced Land Girls, and English film regulars like Basil Sydney, David Farrar, and James Donald playing the dastardly Hun. The most impressive bit of casting against type is from Leslie Banks, always a paragon of true blue British bravery from "The Hounds of Zaroff" (1932) onward, playing a local laird who is secretly a Nazi collaborator, with no explanation given for his traitorous sympathies.

All in all, watching this movie again was a splendid bit of nostalgia. It has not really dated nor dimmed in its freshness, despite its flag-waving patriotism. I still do not understand why it received the fanfare of a re-release, but I can only hope that some people who were not previously aware of its existence were tempted into a cinema to discover for the first time this paragon of British film history.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Silver City (2004)

John Sayles -- a real renaissance man -- is one of the more interesting talents on the quasi-independent American film scene. He writes, directs, acts (so handsome still at 60), composes, edits, and is one of the most sought-after script doctors in Hollywood. He has made a scant twenty films since 1979 and many of them fall into the category of an acquired taste. They are largely non-commercial and political, a splendid exception being "The Secret of Roan Inish" from 1994 (actually released by Disney I believe). He manages to attract talented ensemble casts (like both Robert Altman and Woody Allen), but his movies tend to draw smaller audiences.

This film, while never less than interesting, is probably not one of his best. His themes here are big business, the environment, and illegal immigration and how these feed off each other in terms of vested interests. Chris Cooper plays a Bush-like dimbo running for State governor, who can barely read his autocue. He is the son of a successful senator, Michael Murphy, who works hand-in-glove with local tycoon Kris Kristofferson. However, none of these actors are in the lead role. This is taken by Danny Huston (son of John, grandson of Walter) who plays a disgraced journalist working as a private investigator for a detective agency, which has been employed by a slimy Richard Dreyfuss (Cooper's campaign manager) to find out if the dead body of a migrant worker which turned up at a photo-opportunity was the handiwork of one of several suspected ill-wishers.

Part of the problem with this movie is the casting of Huston, who is a likeable actor with his cheery grin, but who doesn't have the heft to carry the story. Too much time is given to his failed love-life, especially the earlier loss of true-love Maria Bello. Sayles also attempts to incorporate too many layers of intrigue with too many characters, and the roles given to Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Miguel Ferrer, and Billy Zane, amongst others, are fairly dispensible. Only Daryl Hannah makes any impact as Cooper's estranged and sluttish sister. While Sayles makes a strong case for the catastrophic impact of commercial interests on the health of the environment, apart from the final image of hundreds of dead fish floating on the lakeside site of a new housing development, the diffuse story-telling doesn't quite get his message across in this instance. Still, lesser Sayles is rather more intelligent and interesting than much of the dross that not only reaches our screens, but that makes a financial killing as well.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Collision Course (1989)

With the recent release of the 're-imagined' "Karate Kid", which is apparently doing remarkable box-office Stateside, I've been thinking about the lovely late American-Asian actor Pat Morita. I have been a big Jackie Chan admirer, long before his move to the Hollywood scene, and I am happy that he can still pack them in, even now when his action hero antics have somewhat diminished with age. However the seminal Mr. Miyagi character from the first four movies (1984 to 1994) will forever be Morita for me. I also have fond memories of his occasional appearances in "Happy Days" as luncheonette owner Arnold. So when I remembered having the above movie in my eclectic collection, I thought it was time for another nostalgic look.

I recalled the film as being something of a hoot, but sadly my memory was playing tricks on me, as it is actually largely a pedestrian affair. Morita plays a Tokyo policeman sent to Detroit to retrieve a stolen technological prototype, which has been offered to an American car manufacturer. There, after the culprit has been murdered by local nogoodnik Chris Sarandon and his mob, Morita ends up working with a maverick Detroit cop, Jay Leno (of all people). Now Leno is not exactly best known for his work as an actor, although he has lent his vocal talents to a number of recent animations. However, paired here with Morita, they make a fine couple of mismatched buddies in the grand tradition of such things. Although their cultural differences underline the bulk of the humour, they manage to establish a likeable rapport. In a fistfight with Sarandon's hoods, Leno complains that it is his bad luck to end up with the only person in Japan who doesn't know any karate (a direct reference to Morita's three earlier Karate Kid flicks); Morita replies that this is not true, as his brother is also unversed in the discipline.

My memory of the movie was definitely faulty. At one early stage Morita tries to escape from the chasing Leno by enclosing himself in a garment bag and hopping along. I had a firm mental picture of their both doing the same later in the film, but there was no such scene, although it might have been an amusing inclusion. Basically the film was not as humourous as it could have been, given the duck out of water premise, but it was pleasant enough viewing the charming Morita once more. The movie also accommodated minor roles for Ernie Hudson, Tom Noonan, and "Tex" Cobb, so it was hardly a waste of viewing time. On the other hand, it's good to know that Leno has been able to find a happier career niche than that of a not very funny comic lead actor.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Charley's Aunt (1941)

Although I have fond memories of Ray Bolger's "Where's Charley" from 1952, I have not previously had the pleasure of seeing this fairly amusing version of the classic play. Originally produced in London in 1892 where it ran for years, it then opened on Broadway the following year for a four year run. Prior to this film, the first movie version dates back to 1915, followed by a second American silent in 1925 (starring Sidney Chaplin) and the first sound version in 1930 with Charles Ruggles. There have also been earlier foreign-language versions plus innumerable later ones in various tongues, while the play remains a staple of amateur dramatic societies. The casting coup here was to present popular comedian Jack Benny in the lead role as Lord Babberley (the oldest Oxford University student ever!), blackmailed by his buddies into impersonating his friend Charley's aunt from Brazil ('where the nuts come from').

Benny was rising fifty when he took on this role (it's explained away by saying that he has been pursuing his degree for ten years), but then again his two college mates played by James Ellison and Richard Haydn were both well into their thirties when the film was made. They need Benny to chaperone their luncheon with their sweethearts (a young Anne Baxter and Arleen Whelan) when Charley's previously unknown millionairess aunt delays her arrival in Oxford. To complicate matters Ellison's recently impoverished father (Laird Cregar) decides to woo the mysterious widow as does the girls' fortune-hunting guardian -- a manic Edmund Gwenn (everyone's favourite Kris Kringle). To cap things off, Charley's real and glamorous aunt, played by a still handsome Kay Francis, arrives incognito to spy on the suitability of her nephew's sweetie. As they say, hilarity ensues! Benny has a ball in drag in what must be one of his best roles, with set scenes of comic slapstick mixed with the cast's frantic dashing about to prevent their deceptions being unraveled.

Two further comments on the casting. Cregar was only 28 years old when he took on the role of Ellison's portly father -- some three years younger than his movie son. He was always a memorable actor in all of his early 1940s character parts, but unfortunately he died only three years later after attempting to slim down drastically to make himself more suitable for lead roles. As for Arleen Whelan, she made little else of note, but she does take the lead female role in the much later "The Sun Shines Bright" (1953) which figures very high amongst my John Ford favourites, so it was good to see her in another entertaining movie.

I shall be away for a few days later in the week, so I probably won't post anything new before next weekend. I'm sure you'll all survive this deprivation. See you soon....PPP

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Management (2008)

Just what is it about Jennifer Aniston that accounts for her surprising popularity and results in her being cast in a succession of stooopid movies -- with the emphasis on the "ooh"? I know she has a broad fanbase from her "Friends" days and that people felt sorry for her after being dumped by Brad Pitt, but just why does this needy actress still get star treatment? This film by novice writer-director Steven Belber seems to have pleased a large number of its viewers (judging by the comments on IMDb), but it is a perfect example of the kind of 'bad' film in which she is to be found nowadays. I think we are meant to think 'What a sweet movie', when in fact one has the two main characters behaving like certifiable idiots.

She plays a travelling saleswoman for a firm that flogs the anonymous paintings for the walls of anonymous motel bedrooms. She checks in at a small motel in the Arizona boondocks, run by the likeable Margo Martindale and her surly husband Fred Ward, where their slacker son, played by a gormless, Benny Hill-faced Steve Zahn, is the night-manager. When he lays eyes on Aniston his heart goes flippity-flop and he goes up to her room with a so-called 'complimentary' bottle of undrinkable plonk, looking for the opportunity to speak with her. His opening gambit is that she has 'a nice butt' -- talk about knowing how to woo a maiden! When he is reluctant to leave and to let her to get on with her 'work' (which is actually playing solitaire on her computer), she offers to let him touch her backside as some sort of incentive to go away. He interprets this as returning his interest and looks to continue their non-existant relationship by letter or e-mail after she checks out. She does not encourage his infatuation and drives off towards the airport -- only to return minutes later to indulge in wild sex with him in the motel laundryroom. At this point I could not decide which of them was more deficient in the brains or normal behaviour department.

But it gets worse! He drops everything, gathers his feeble savings, and buys a one-way airticket to turn up at her workplace some three thousand miles away in Maryland. Although appalled by this invasion of privacy or stalking, she spends the evening with him playing soccer and handing our meal vouchers to a group of down-and-outs; she even allows him to sleep on the floor of her flat before paying for his busfare home. However, sure as God made little green apples, she checks in at his family's motel again some time later on and spends more time with the love-struck simpleton before warning him off again and returning East. After his mother's death, Zahn pawns the favourite necklace that she left him and goes back to Maryland, only to discover that Aniston has quit her job to go to live with her wealthy ex-boyfriend in Seattle. So of course the irrepressible Zahn goes off to Washington to find her and woo her back. The only trouble is that he doesn't know where to begin and has no more money; fortunately he is befriended by the son of a Chinese restaurant-owner who gets him work as a waiter and allows him to live in the shop's basement.

My apologies if I am revealing too much of the plot but it is 100% necessary to make you understand the farfetchedness of the proceedings. Having discovered where Aniston is now living with her 'ex-punk' yogurt tycoon, a bald and manic Woody Harrelson, Zahn arranges to sky-dive into her swimming pool. That's one way of arriving unannouced! While she is on some levels happy to see him again, Harrelson is violently aggressive and specialises in spouting way-out silly dialogue. Aniston reveals that she is marrying her lover at the weekend as she is pregnant -- not it seems by Zahn, so the latter does the only logical thing he can do: he becomes a Buddhist monk, where he discovers that there is more to the spiritual way of life than playing volleyball for seven hours a day.

I can't go on! Needless to say this quirky would-be relationship between the sweet but stupid Zahn and the uptight Aniston, who really only wants to run a hostel for the homeless, reaches its obligatory conclusion to satisfy the diehard romantics in the audience. As for me, I could never allow myself to sit through this drivel a second time. So, I ask again, what is it about Ms. Aniston that seduces so many people?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Last Chance Harvey (2008)

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep share a joint category in my movie-watching preferences, insofar that for many years I was unable to understand their broad appeal -- despite their many award nominations and apparent acting skills. Both struck me as being ever so mannered in their approach to their roles. However as I have written both previously and again quite recently, I have come to warm to Ms. Streep; unfortunately I have yet to reach the stage where I actually like Mr. Hoffman in many of his films. This is not to say that I haven't liked certain of his movies, especially if I cast my mind back to some of his roles from the 1970s and early 1980s, such as "Lenny" (1974), "Marathon Man" (1976), and "Tootsie" (1982). However while I have managed to enjoy some of his subsequent films, despite his distracting participation, I still find his overly-affected style something of a problem. As Laurence Olivier (who was himself a ham at times) is famously quoted as saying to Hoffman when he was busy trying to work out his 'motivation' for a scene, "Just try acting, dear boy".

The film under discussion here still finds Hoffman deep in his character's personality tics, but it is largely a lightweight yet likeable movie. This may be down to the appeal of his co-star Emma Thompson in this story of a man who comes to London to attend his slightly estranged daughter's wedding and who finds a new chance for romance and redemption after a chance meeting with Thompson's spinster. While the age difference between them is something of a distraction and although it would seem that Hoffman is trying to play younger than his chronological years, there does seem to be a potential chemistry between the two leads. They both have their problems: her single status is fussed over by her smothering mother, Eileen Atkins, and he finds it difficult to relate to his daughter and his ex-wife, Kathy Baker, especially when her new husband, James Brolin, is chosen to give away the bride. He is also fretful about his job back in New York and initially finds it easiest to distance himself from the wedding celebrations. Thompson manages to convince him to turn up at the reception (where the pair as latecomers are seated at the childrens' table) and he interrupts Brolin's toast to the couple to address some heartfelt and actually moving remarks to his daughter and new son-in-law.

Having been let go from his New York job and then subsequently been begged to return, Hoffman determines to stay in London to have a go at building a new and meaningful relationship with Thomson. When she reluctantly agrees (having been hurt so often in the past) and asks "Now what?", he replies that he has absolutely no idea, but knows that it will all be OK. We the viewer also want to believe this and can just about feel kindly towards Hoffman's erstwhile "loser", whose life is about to change after just one long weekend in a strange city.

A very strange London it is too! I know all about finding the most scenic locations for a story's action, but it never fails to annoy me in films where one leaves one location and seconds later finds oneself in another location which is actually miles away. The London here is a film-maker's London, not one which would make a coherent walking tour. Since the novice writer-director, Joel Hopkins, is English, I do find this blatant treatment of the city's geography a little inexcusable, but perhaps I am being just a wee bit too pedantic here.

This is not the breakthrough film which will have me really beginning to appreciate Hoffman as an actor, but even if it is a slightly disposable flick, I can't say I had any great problem watching it and even enjoying it while it lasted.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Iron Man (2008)

I saw this film originally on a transatlantic flight, which means that I didn't really see it, allowing for the miniscule screen and the variable sound. The fact that I didn't even subsequently review it suggests to me that I probably dozed off more than usual, although I certainly could recall bits of the action. To put matters right, I finally watched the movie on DVD a few days ago, which perhaps is also not the best way to view an action blockbuster, but at least I can confirm that I was sufficiently involved to stay awake throughout and to be entertained by an unlikely combination of factors.

After having their comic characters leased out to other hands over recent years, the Marvel people decided the time had come to take control of a production and this is the happy result. Despite having a lead actor and a director, neither of whom were previously known for their action credentials, Robert Downey Jr. and and Jan Favreau proved to be inspiried choices. Downey has always been an impressive screen presence, even during his drug-laden years, and now that he is "clean", he has finally proved that he can turn his talent to all sorts of roles. His armaments manufacturer Tony Stark discovers that he has lost the taste for 'weapons of mass destruction' after his unexpected capture by rebels in Afghanistan and his personal experience of the warmonger mentality. He escapes by building his Iron Man suit rather than the killer rockets he is meant to be providing, but on his return to civilisation discovers that his board of directors, headed by his erstwhile guardian, a bald Jeff Bridges, has other ideas.

The buffed-up Downey is an appealing screen presence with his self-deprecating sense of humour and his eye-twinkle at full beam. As for Bridges, who I have always maintained is amongst the most underrated Hollywood actors, he makes a super duper screen villain, as it is revealed that he is behind the scheme to kill Downey and to keep on with the profitable business of war. Terrence Howard plays Downey's military buddy and Gwyneth Paltrow is his faithful secretary-factotum plus potential love interest; both do a fine job, as do the lesser-known actors playing middle-eastern types. Chubby actor-turned-director Favreau turns up in a wordless Hitchockian cameo, but wisely concentrates on presenting a wildly imaginative stream of CGI-assisted action effects. Marvel have proved their point and given us one of the more likeable "super-hero" movies of our age.

I therefore wonder why the sequel out this year, which I have not yet seen, has attracted such universally rotten press reviews. Downey, Paltrow, and Favreau have returned to the scene of the crime, and although villain Bridges is no longer available, the new supporting cast -- including Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke -- seem promising, even if Howard's character has mysteriously morphed into Don Cheadle. I suspect it is a case of the sparkling original being a hard act to follow, (although the character's myriad fans are keeping the box-office buoyant), with the ever-present knockers of pop culture ready to pounce on a previous success. No doubt when I finally view the new movie in due course, I can make up my own mind. Meanwhile it's a definite thumbs-up for the first outing.