Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Gomorrah (2008)

Together with Sodom, Gomorrah was of course a biblical 'sin city' and this Italian film (the title is something of a pun on Camorra -- the local Naples Mafia) drops us into a mire of crime and depravity. Based on the best-selling expose by Roberto Saviano. the movie was a popular festival award winner (including the Grand Prize at Cannes) and sufficiently well reviewed to make me keen to see it. However forceful as it may be in its relentless depiction of evil, starting with the showy massacre of a bunch of buddies using tanning cubicles, it is certainly not conventional entertainment as we know it and certainly not an easy watch.

The film illustrates its premises by following five stories set among the denizens of a squalid and decaying pyramid tenement. There is young Toto, a lad sufficiently girly in appearance that I spent the first part of the film trying to figure out if he were a boy or a girl, who desperately wants to be part of a gang family. There is an elderly money runner, dispensing the mob's largesse to those who have been helpful in the past and who are under its protection, but who finds his personal safety at greater and greater risk. There is a smartass entrepreneur buying up sites to use for the surreptitious dumping of toxic waste, assisted by his increasingly disillusioned graduate sidekick. There is a master tailor and cutter for a clothing manufacturer who moonlights training potentially cut-rate Chinese workers and who revels in having his talents appreciated for once in his career. Finally there are a pair of teenaged layabouts, who fancy themselves as the next Tony Montanas, and who think they don 't need any help in outsmarting the local gangsters; their ultimate doom is 100% apparent from their first appearance.

A major problem with this film is that the five stories barely intertwine and therefore only appear as examples made flesh of the author's preoccupations. In no way do they gel into a coherent whole and one has some difficulty identifying with any of the protagonists or sympathising with them. It is too cold a film to be moving. All it seems to say is that no one can remain untouched by the local milieu nor refrain from taking sides in what appears to be a neverending war. The prevalent philosophy by which they all appear to live is that 'if you are not with us, you're against us'. Many have compared this film to the 2002 Brazilian film "City of God", but that film at least had a reasonably coherent storyline and offered the option of some characters being able to escape into a better life. In this movie the pyramid slums are symbolic of the pyramid of criminal power and one can not hope for a happy outcome or redemption for any of the main protagonists.

From tomorrow evening through late Monday, I shall be immersing myself yet again in the llth annual FrightFest -- non-stop horror and fantasy (although rather less of the latter this year) with only small breaks for sustenance and sleep. A full report will follows -- probably in dollops -- early next week, so no time for journal entries from PPP in the interim. See you then and wish me strength!

Friday, 20 August 2010

Volga-Volga (1938)

I don't suppose you realised that Josef Stalin had a favourite film. After all, who knows what Churchill's or Roosevelt's movie preferences were, although one is told that Hitler liked the ultimately treacherous Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Just don't say to me 'Who's Josef Stalin?'

Despite the bloody purges that Stalin masterminded in Russia during the 1930s, where any dissension from the party line risked either summary execution or banishment to Siberia at best, the Dictator stated 'life has become better, comrades, life has become more fun' and he commissioned director Grigori Aleksandov to make this film. Stalin was indeed so enamoured of the end product that he apparently knew the dialogue by heart and presented copies of the film to foreign leaders and dignitaries. The director, who began his cinema career as an assistant to Eisenstein, visited Hollywood with him in 1932 and returned home full of enthusiasm for Walt Disney, Busby Berkeley, and musicals in general.

This one starts off at a provincial musical instrument factory where the romantically smooching lead couple each wish to take their amateur ensembles to a cultural music Olympics in Moscow. He wants to compete with his highbrow classical band, and pooh-pooh's her ambitions for her folk musicians. His river boat leaves without her for the journey up the Volga, but she commandeers a rundown vessel for her musicians, singers, and dancers, and the race is on. I must confess I was a little dubious about the whole scenario when the film began as it seemed too diffuse and amateurish. However as soon as her players started performing Russian folk classics familiar to me from recordings of the Red Army Choir, I was hooked, falling for their joyous enthusiasm and amusing antics. The heroine Strelka, played by the director's wife Lyubov Orlova, with her coloratura voice, became something of a Soviet megastar after this performance and the film was deeply loved by all -- not only because Stalin insisted it should be loved. On the river journey she decides to write a song especially for the competition and her colleagues scribble bits of the score on dozens of scraps of headed factory notepaper; however when her ship founders, these notes are swept overboard. Imagine her amazement when on arrival in Moscow she finds that everyone else is performing "her" song as their own, having retrieved the music from the raging waters.

One can take this remnant of an era on its own strengths and the quirky music, dancing, singing, and close-ups of looming bearded faces (a la "Ivan the Terrible") are infectious fun. Underneath the surface joy, however, there are numerous indications of the occasionally false comaraderie of the day and hints of rebellion against a repressive regime. After Stalin's death in 1953 when his legacy fell from favour, the movie was censored and slashed to remove all references to him, but it was a real treat to have seen the film in its original whole. So now you know what Stalin's favourite film was and a little bit more about the tyrant who commissioned it. It's just about the only thing I can thank him for!

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Proposal (2009)

Sandra Bullock is something of a mystery to me. I have not yet seen her Oscar-winning role in "The Blind Side" nor the purported turkey that preceded it, "All About Steve", and I don't dislike her girl-next-door charm nor her general feistiness. However there is little depth to her performances, and I have an upper tolerance level for her clutzy heroines. Her films are pleasant enough to watch, unlike much of the drivel out there, but like the proverbial Chinese meal they leave one unsatisfied and hungry after an hour's gorging.

In this run-of-the-mill rom-com she plays a bossy-boots publishing executive in New York, feared by all of her staff, who has somehow overlooked maintaining her work visa and who is about to be deported to her native Canada. So her beady eye settles on her oppressed 'executive secretary' Ryan Reynolds, whom she bullies into agreeing to marry her if he hopes to save his own ambitions of a career and publishing his magnum opus. Of course there is a nosy immigration official who doubts their genuineness (much like 1990's superior "Green Card") and the couple have only the weekend to prepare for his forthcoming inquisition. They go off to Reynolds' hometown of Sitka, Alaska, where he was due to celebrate his "Gammy" Betty White's 90th birthday and where his family appear to own just about the whole scenic town. Taking advantage of the previously-hated Bullock's new vulnerability, Reynolds uses the occasion to be bolshy towards his boss. Yet at the homecoming cocktails, he announces their engagement to the astonished assembled family, friends, and neighbours. Naturally his progressive parents, Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson, have allocated them a room with a single double bed and the couple are forced to keep up their pretense, as Bullock tries to maintain her very prim modesty. To add insult to injury, his family decide that they should wed that weekend as a special treat for "Gammy".

Despite the obvious age difference between the leads (45 and 32 respectively when the film was made), they do have a workable chemistry. However the scenario is so contrived and far-fetched that one would prefer to not accept the obvious outcome. Apart from the leads' general likeability, Betty White is nearly the whole show with her straightforward outspokeness and Native Indian beliefs. One admires her taking on this important role (she is pushing 90 herself) in making this farrago more palatable. She was certainly preferable to the so-called comic relief of Oscar Nunez, playing a pushy waiter, a male stripper, the local shopkeeper, and the minister at their will-they-or-won't-they wedding. It's hard enough to believe that a grand ceremony can be arranged in 24 hours but we are also meant to wonder if the two leads can squirm out of the procedings. Will he risk his future? Will she resign herself to being deported? No prizes for predicting the eventual outcome!

Since any moviegoer knows from square one the inevitable denouement to such flicks, it is not a spoiler to say that he ultimately recognizes the loveable, mushy interior to her hard-bitten exterior and that she learns the value of warm family relationships. However I think on balance I prefer the old Doris Day/Rock Hudson shennanigans to this latter-day contrived confection.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Mother's Boys (1994)

Sometimes I find myself rewatching movies, not because I have any raving desire to see them again, but because they just happen to be there. And especially with films that were not very good in the first place, it's amazing just how much one hasn't remembered about them. The above movie might appear to have a lot going for it with its lead cast of Jamie Lee Curtis, bushy-browed Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (as she was then billed), and even the great Vanessa Redgrave in something of a throwaway role, to say nothing about some other familiar faces in even smaller parts. However at best it was really something of a potboiler, despite a promising premise.

After playing a series of victims in earlier movies, Curtis is given a change of pace and cast as the villainess -- a big baddie. She is Jude (wife of Gallagher, daughter of Redgrave) who walked out on her husband and three young sons three years earlier. Now that he has found new love interest Whalley and initiated divorce proceedings, she decides she wants her family back, since as her mother points out she doesn't take well to losing. Some people claim a horror label for this film, but that is inaccurate; it is more of a far-fetched drama in which Curtis plays a deeply flawed and horrid character. Her eldest son Kes was distressed when she left and has exhibited recurring violent behaviour since; the chubby middle son is in awe of his older brother and the youngest son was too little to remember much. While Kes claims that he doesn't want to see his mother again when she reappears and demands visitation rights, he is soon under her spell, as she uses her not inconsiderable psychological and sexual wiles to entice him to do her bidding -- which is to get Whalley out of the picture.

After Curtis' impressive nudity in the previous year's "Trading Places", she is again given what might be considered gratuitous, if brief, exposure (and even I must admit that she has a great body). However here she uses her nudity to cow young Kes and to taunt him in a way that makes generally uncomfortable viewing. I understand the novel on which this film was based was even bloodier and more sexually explicit that what's on screen here, but the 12-year old boy is soon under her spell. Even Gallagher, playing something of a blah good guy and professing his love for Whalley, is tempted by the high-heeled, mini-skirted, teasing
siren. It is up to the badly-treated Whalley to save the day when the action becomes even more melodramatic and far-fetched.

By the end of the movie when Curtis' death plans for her rival backfire and she receives her just punishment, it is probably true to say that now all three children have been left damaged and traumatized. That is hardly what one could call a happy ending, so maybe it was some sort of horror movie after all, especially with the suggestion that the boys were now capable of even greater anti-social behaviour after experiencing their mother's lies and propensity for violence.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Canicule (Dog Day) (1984)

As is my wont, I have watched a ridiculous number of films over the last week or so -- some vaguely entertaining and some absolutely appalling ("Year One" or "Observe and Report" anyone?). However one of these movies has lodged itself firmly in my mind and I keep thinking about it. There is always a frisson of excitement and pleasure when I come across a film of which I knew nothing previously; this French flick starring Lee Marvin in one of his last roles before his death in 1987 was something of a revelation. Whether he took the work as a tax-break or for a French vacation, or for some star exposure in a dwindling career I can't say; nor can I tell you whether he was actually speaking the French dialogue or post-dubbed. What I can tell you is that it was a weird and very black oddity and for that reason alone of great interest to me. If you were to look up the users' comments for this film on IMDb, you would be awash in a sea of negativity, claiming that the role was unworthy of Marvin, that he was walking through it in a daze, that it was only the French having a go at making an American gangster film, etc. Nonsense!

Marvin has always been a charismatic screen presence, whether as a macho thug in "Prime Cut" or as the drunken cowboy and his metal-nosed doppelganger in "Cat Ballou"; he is almost (but not quite) the whole show here. He plays a bad-ass bank-robber called Jimmy Cobb, in France with his ladyfriend Tina Louise, who sticks up a local bank for millions (mysteriously in dollar bills) and who is then pursued by an army of cops after killing various bystanders including a young boy and by crippling others with his trademark kneecapping. We find him in his fashionable dandyish gear, including a flower in his buttonhole, running across endless fields of billowing wheat in the Normandy countryside (quite a spiffy cinematic image that) with police helicopters in pursuit. He takes refuge in the barn of a nearby farm but finds himself in a cesspit of immorality, as the farm's inhabitants are even more venal than he. The family consists of three middle-aged siblings: the eldest of whom renovates derelict fairground statues, a middle sister who is a raving nymphomaniac attacking anything in trousers, and the younger brother who is an insatiable satyr married to young Miou-Miou (nearly unrecognizable here). She actually owns the farm, having inherited it from her father, but she is dominated by the unsavoury sibs after becoming pregnant by her pig of a husband. There is one scene where he disguises himself as a straw-stuffed scarecrow in order to do some pervy spying on topless Swedish campers nearby; I don't think you find much of that sort of behaviour in American gangster movies. Also in the household is a batty aging housekeeper who is being threatened with being sent to an old folks' home. They all know that Cobb is in the area and he is soon spotted and captured by them; they want his loot as do a number of other local crooks headquartered at a nearby brothel.

However Miou-Miou's 13-year old son has seen where Cobb has buried the stolen cash, dug it up, and reburied it. This is where this film becomes magical for me, since the role is taken by David Bennent. This Swiss-born actor is forever a part of film history by having taken the lead role in the German picture "The Tin Drum" (1979), playing a precocious and extremely peculiar child who ends up having sex with an adult. Bennent suffers from some genetic growth disorder (but he is not a dwarf) and was actually 18 when "Canicule" was made. Subsequent appearances were as Gump in 1985's "Legend" (one of the little people) and more recently in the horrid "She Hate Me" (not that I recognized him there). He is still appearing in movies, but the thrust of his career has been on stage. However this particular movie belongs as much to him as to Marvin, as he takes a chunk of the money to the brothel for initiation into life's so-called pleasures and as he seeks fame (to add to his fortune) by being the one who actually captures Marvin. Not that this is unlikely, since by the end of the film only he and his mother are still alive. The body count cheerfully builds and no one is immune: the family, the campers, a selection of policemen, the farm's dogs, and just about anyone who gets in the way of the rampant greed and sexual desire on display.

The nay-sayers on IMDb may have a point, but there was so much about this movie that tickled my fancy that I just might want to revisit it again some time soon. And to me, that's entertainment!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Gun Crazy (1950)

There is probably no such thing as the 'perfect little B movie', but this one sure comes close. It is also a fine example of Film Noir with a desirable female basically corrupting a decent man. Directed by the largely ignored Joseph H. Lewis, who had a prolific career in low-budget movie-making, it is one of his few memorable flicks. Two others that remain long in memory are "My Name is Julia Ross" (1945) and "Terror in a Texas Town" (1958) with its enduring image of Sterling Hayden strutting up the deserted main street of a small town to face the baddies wielding only a harpoon.

Similarly the leads here did not enjoy particularly distinguished film careers. Welsh-born Peggy Cummins, despite her adorable looks, never made it big in films and John Dall had only two earlier memorable roles starting with "The Corn is Green" (1945) and reaching a highpoint in Hitchock's "Rope" (1948); the balance of his career was largely on television before dying at the relatively young age of 52. As unstarry as these two may be, the balance of the cast are equally unknown, other than little Russ (here billed as Rusty) Tamblyn playing Dall as a teenager. However Lewis has drawn sizzling performances from Cummins and Dall who play criminal lovers on the run, much like Bonnie and Clyde, but with a lot more heat and passion. The title has a double meaning. It describes both Dall, who has had an obsession with guns since childhood -- an obsession which landed him both in reform school and a job as a shooting instructor in the Army -- and Cummins who literally goes crazy and out of control when faced with the enpowerment that a gun gives her. Their eyes lock when he first sees her doing her sharp-shooting act at a carnival, and her interest is piqued further when he accepts and wins a challenge to outshoot her. He joins the carnival act, but their sexual attraction is blatant to the jealous proprietor, who fires them.

While Dall is at heart a good guy who is unable to willingly kill even a small animal, Cummins has a criminal past and lusts after riches and an easy life. At the risk of losing her, Dall reluctantly participates in a series of stick-ups and they begin a precarious life on the lam. This film shares a doomed sensibility with Robert Altman's later "Thieves Like Us" (1974), but it is Cummins' embodyment of a sexual siren that drives the action. As always there is the lure of doing one last 'big job' in order to raise the money to retire in obscurity and as always things go wrong, wrong, wrong, especially as Dall becomes as much a murderer as the hard-to-satisfy Cummins. There is a lovely symbol in her purchasing a showy fur stole with the loot from the last job, inappropriately wearing it on their last carefree night at a fun fair, and then having to leave it on the sidewalk when it falls off as they run from the police. The movie's alternate title is "Deadly is the Female" and Cummins takes on this caveat in spades.

This film has so much going for it that it transcends its Poverty Row pedigree. Apart from the leads' palpable fraught attraction, Lewis is working to a highly literate script, part written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and has mastered a highly pictorial style. The camerawork in the final showdown set in a misty swamp furnishes as strong a climax as this wonderful small movie deserves. If you don't know "Gun Crazy", by all means seek it out.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Yes, folks, everything you have heard is true. Pixar have gifted us with a brilliant 'must-see' movie. In film history, there have been many trilogies, but usually by Part 3 one's enthusiasm has been numbed by overkill or shoddy film-making. Of course there are so many exceptions to this that it is not a safe rule of thumb to fear the worst. Successful three-parters that spring to mind are the Indiana Jones films, the Lord of the Rings cycle, Sergio Leone's Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy. Some people might include the first three Star War films (now confusingly numbered 4, 5, and 6), but they have never rowed my boat. While the first two Toy Story films were incredibly good in execution and storytelling, Number 3 outshines them both in the improved skill of its animation, its clever scripting apart from the very occasional potty joke, its impeccable voice cast, but most of all by its successful tug at the old heartstrings. There is no doubt that it will win the animation Oscar next year, but if there were any justice in this strange world, it should vie for Best Picture as well.

It has laugh-out-loud jokes, nail-biting tension and excitement, and that undefinable something that reminds us all that we have lost the innocence of childhood; it brings tears to our eyes and a choke to our throat. As their owner Andy gets ready to go off to college, his remaining toys, bar his favourite cowboy Woody whom he plans to take with him, are bagged for the attic. Unforeseen circumstances land them at a day nursery for rambunctious youngsters, ruled over by the seemingly benign, berry-scented stuffed bear Lotso and his scary stooge Big Baby. It is Woody's job to convince his friends that they were not abandoned and that they must escape back home. Friendship, loyalty, and love are the virtues that Pixar celebrates.

It is good fun to welcome back all of the old voice cast, although there is a lovely section where Tim Allen's Buzz gets reprogrammed in Spanish and segues into a Latin lover. Two additions to the cast are Ned Beatty as the treacherous Lotso and back-from-the-wilderness Michael Keaton as Barbie's Ken. The action and robotic animation between these two plastic dolls is one of the film's cleverest highpoints, as Barbie trashes his massive wardrobe to get his cooperation. But there is so much more that one might praise.

Like all major, non-Ghibli, animation nowadays, the film has been released in 3-D since this is what the punters expect and also the format that produces the biggest return for the studio and the theatres. However, once one has oohed and ahed at seeing the toys' three-dimensional world, this gimmick quickly becomes irrelevant here and the film would be equally involving in old-fashioned 2-D. While no doubt superior technology is on the way, 3-D does not really work on DVDs at present. I have Coraline in both foremats and the 3-D disc produces a washed-out picture at best, with the fruitless search for depth interfering with the charming story being told. It is for this reason that "Avatar", "Up", and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" have not been released to disc in that foremat. With the latter two films, this should not matter since they are sufficiently involving stories without the added dimension. With "Avatar, however, the visual effects are the best thing about the movie and I can't imagine wanting to own a copy without them. I don't know whether its sales on disc have been disappointing, but no doubt this is why that film is shortly being re-released to cinemas for the waiting world (?).

I must give Pixar a final shout of praise for their short feature "Day and Night" which plays with "Toy Story 3". This is as unusual and clever a bit of animation as I have seen for many a day and one wonders whether there are any limits to the miracles that Pixar can tap. I hope not!