Monday, 20 December 2010

Films on TV for Christmas - 2010

In the same way that I have written about in-flight movies throughout my blogging life, I have done a piece about the Christmas movie choice on British TV for the last five years. I must now reluctantly conclude that the time has come to draw a halt after this last diatribe. For while films on flights still offer the potential of discovering something new, irregardless of the fiendish viewing conditions, the Christmas TV schedules become more of a disappointment year by year. Like a kiddie awaiting Santa, I pant with enthusiasm for them to be published, only to discover that I have already seen nearly everything on offer.

We all know that I am something of a demon and devour as many films as possible day by day, but I do believe that the movies on offer on terrestrial TV must be a lacklustre selection for other viewers as well. If one concentrates on the scant dozen premiere offerings between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, the new-to-terrestrial choices are aimed mainly at the young viewer. Fair enough, except for the fact that most desperate parents have probably previously sat through cinema showings of these with their family in tow and have very likely invested in the DVDs to keep the kids amused while they sneak away for a few minutes peace and quiet. I'm talking about the like of"Cars", "Enchanted", "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian", and "Shrek the Third". The only unlikely-to-have-been-seen offering for children is the rather twee French flick "The Fox and the Child" (BBC2 on the 24th), which may or may not involve reading subtitles!!

For the adults in the household, the feeble selection of premieres includes "I am Legend", "Elizabeth: The Golden Age", and the appalling "Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor". The only newbie I can hardily recommend is "Stranger than Fiction" (Channel 5 on Christmas Day). The rest of the schedules are loaded with the sort of re-runs that have been re-running for years. Granted these include a lot of old favourites, but just how many times does the non-movie buff want to see "Doctor Zhivago" or "From Here to Eternity"? If you do want to revisit some classic oldies, I would recommend "Born Yesterday" (BBC2 on the 23rd), "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (BBC2 on the 24th), "Edward Scissorhands" (Channel 4 on the 25th), and "The Man who Would be King" (BBC2 also on the 25th). Also, in the light of the soon-to-be-released remake of "True Grit" by the Coen Brothers, it might be a good idea to revisit the original with the Duke to refresh the basis for comparisons (Channel 4 on the 30th). Of course for sheer confusion, the sequel "Rooster Cogburn" is being shown earlier in the week. Finally to fully participate in the holiday joie de vivre (ho ho ho), do take another look at the Scrooge of all Scrooges, Alastair Sim (Channel 5 on the 24th). Finally, although it is outside my datewise remit and since there is no showing -- there seldom is -- of that Christmas perennial "It's a Wonderful Life", do revisit the original "Miracle on 34th Street" (Channel 4 on the 23rd).

So what will PPP be watching? There is only one terrestrial premiere which is new to me: "From Time to Time (ITV on the 26th), a somewhat dubious Downton-ish period piece. However since I excluded satellite showings from the above selections, I shall watch "Up in the Air", which I've not yet seen, on Sky. Most of that channel's other premieres over the period are already known or hardly worth viewing -- not that that will stop me, and I shall probably take the opportunity of copying "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland". Elsewhere there are a couple of French films on CineMoi and at least one Bollywood confection on More 4. Of course there's always the DVD backlog to fall back on.

Mind you much of the week will be taken up with cooking, eating, drinking, and generally rejoicing with visiting family, so it's just as well that there is not a plethora of must-see viewing for me in the wishy-washy schedules. Since I am unlikely to find the time to post again this side of the New Year, let me take this opportunity to wish you all a restful and satisfying holiday break and a peaceful and fulfilling year to come.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

In-Flight Flicks 2010

It serves me right for saying that this next entry would be about in-flight movies -- a subject I've avoided for the last two years, but one that used to be a regular feature when I crossed the Atlantic more regularly. On this trip I only managed to view two on the outward leg and a scant one on the return, but I've committed myself to their reviews:

Machete: This is a film that I would have been quite happy to view in the cinema, had it not rapidly disappeared from most screens apart from the odd late-night showing. Developed by the multi-talented director-cum-everything Robert Rodriguez from one of the cod trailers featured in "Grindhouse", it can best be described as a definite guilty pleasure. Nowhere else would the plug-ugly and aging Danny Trejo be given a lead role which he carries off with great bravado and aplomb. Rodriguez has managed to collect a eclectic powerhouse cast to underline his pet TexMex concern about so-called illegal immigrants. There are meaty parts for Robert De Niro (playing a nasty Bush-like politician), Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Seagal, and Jessica Alba, most of whom end up violently dead, with the most ironic fate of all saved for De Niro's slimeball. I never thought I'd see the day when Seagal allowed himself to play a villain or to actually lose in a macho fight. Maybe the fact that he now lumbers about like a pregnant elephant is the reality. Trejo's avenger acquits himself well and even gets to make love to the nubile, young Alba. He even mouths a line that could well go down in film history: "Machete don't text!" The end credits promise two sequels -- loosely 'Machete Kills' and 'Machete Kills Again', but I think it is fair to assume that this is another of Rodriguez' little jokes.

Shrek Forever After: Since I have been something of a fan of the first three films in this series, albeit with diminishing amusement returns, I thought I should have a look at this one as well. It's probably an improvement on the third entry, but lacks most of the adult-friendly wit of the earlier films. Still it is entertaining and undemanding enough for children of all ages. With a plot stolen from "It's a Wonderful Life", Shrek begins to regret his so-called domestic bliss, yearns for the days when he was a fearsome ogre, and enters into a Faustian pact with the evil Rumpelstiltskin. He ends up in a parallel universe where all of the familiar characters have morphed into other destinies -- Puss-in-Boots is literally a fat cat and neither Donkey nor his beloved Fiona knows him. The movie probably worked well in 3-D (not that this is a remote in-flight possibility when one has enough trouble viewing even two dimensions on the minute screen), but I think the franchise is beginning to outstay its welcome. Enough already!

Cyrus: I was hoping for something vaguely amusing on the return flight before trying to sneak in some needed shut-eye, but I can honestly report that I hardly saw this movie. The seat in front of mine was occupied by a younger version of Two-ton Tessie O'Shea and when she reclined her seat, not only was her seatback nearly touching my nose but the screen became dark and barely visible. Add to that some inordinate engine noise and turbulence and you can begin to picture the scene. Fortinately I vaguely knew the film's plot or it would have been even more of a wasted effort. As is, I think the would-be talents of John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, and Jonah Hill were probably wasted anyhow. Divorced and lonely Reilly thinks he has met the woman of his dreams in Tomei, but soon discovers there is another man in her life, her needy, super-polite son, the chubby Hill. Hill doesn't want to share her with anyone -- in fact their relationship is so close that it's spooky -- but I guess everything works out in the end. I'll never know unless I see the film again some time in the future, because if the truth be told, I didn't really view it this time around.

So I can promise that there will be no more in-flight reviews in the foreseeable future. This is probably just as well, since as we all know it is hardly the best way to actually see a film, but only a means of trying to fill in those slow, boring hours.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Miracle in the Rain (1956)

Some movies linger in the memory, not because they are classics of their genre or because they feature all-time great performances, but because they are satisfying on so many levels. To call such films 'nice' is to use an adjective that minimises their achievement, but I can think of no other word that concisely sums up their appeal.

This film stars Jane Wyman and Van Johnson, neither of whom feature amongst my great favourites. She was always a well-praised and indeed an Oscar-winning actress, but no great beauty and her characters were not always striking. Here she plays a mousy secretary with little outside life, forced to return home each evening to look after her sickly mother, who has developed into something of a hypochondriac since her husband walked out on the family years previously. One very rainy evening, as she shelters outside her office building, she meets Johnson's soldier on furlough (the movie is set during the early years of World War II). He sees her home and arranges to spend more time with her during the next few days, much to the annoyance of Mom who has warned her all about men and their unreliability. Johnson plays an ebullient and winning Southerner and Wyman soon falls for his genuine charm and his obvious attraction to her. Johnson, often associated with more lightweight fluff, is totally convincing as the loving suitor, despite what one has subsequently read about his actual sexual preferences. His unit is about to ship off, but he gives her his mother's ring, asks her to wait for him, and promises to return.

It is not quite a spoiler to say that he is killed in action, leaving Wyman in a spiral of despair. However the film moves into the realms of the supernatural to leave us with a slightly happier ending, involving a genuine Roman coin, bought at a shopfront cod auction for two dollars during the couple's first date. Yes, tears begin to swell behind the sentient viewer's eyes.

However the real miracle of this movie, written by super-scribe Ben Hecht, is the perfect thought given to even the smallest parts. The protagonists are surrounded by a wonderful collection of character actors, some of whom are not even marginally well-known, who bless us with a gallery of well-rounded, believable performances. Foremost amongst these is Eileen Heckert playing Wyman's older, spinterish workmate and confidante, who accompanies her shy friend on her first arranged meeting with Johnson (who insists that she accompany them all evening) and who takes her to St. Patrick's Cathedral during her grief. Josephine Hutchinson as the mother who resents her daughter's happiness and William Gargan as the wayward-pianist missing husband also inhabit their roles as in a well-tailored suit. Fred Clark plays the henpecked but womanising office boss. An important early role is inhabited by stand-up comedian Alan King, as a newly married, brash soldier that the couple meet in Central Park, along with his nightclub-singing floozy (but sweet with it) of a wife. Even the very smallest roles of a kind cathedral priest, a restaurant maitre d', the gung-ho office boy predicting the course of the war on a wall map, and the beer-guzzling, kvetchy old neighbour who helps look after Hutchinson are all fully-formed and totally real.

In short, this is a wonderful film -- not necessarily a great one, but very definitely a completely 'nice' one which will reward your viewing.

On a personal note I am away now for a short while, so there will be nothing new for about a week. However I shall then pen one of my infamous in-flight movies reviews which I've not done for a while. See you soon...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Kill Zone (2005)

There was a time when I considered myself pretty au fait with Hong Kong movies, having seen and enjoyed a vast number of martial arts, swordplay, and fantasy films, along with heroic modern action dramas of the John Woo/Chow Yung Fat variety, and there were a number of actors (both male and female) that I really liked. However in the last decade the complexion of Hong Kong cinema has changed after the 1997 reversion to Mainland rule. A lot of the old reliables -- Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh amongst them -- found a new niche in Hollywood and/or China; the talent pool seemed to contract noticeably. In addition the old themes were seldom in evidence and there appeared to be an increasing reliance on modern day policiers like "Infernal Affairs". With the exception of some of Stephen Chow's flicks like "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung-Fu Hustle" much of the fun disappeared.

This film from director Wilson Yip is something of a welcome throwback insofar as it combines the current police vs. Triads themes with a good dose of quick-moving martial combat and gives meaty roles to three of the old stand-bys: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, and the wonderful Sammo Hung in an unusually villainous role. I must confess that it is a little slow to get going and is somewhat marred by an unnecessarily flashy stooting style, but it builds to an exciting climax with some spectacular action sequences along the way. Yam plays an about-to-retire detective who has been trying for years to get the goods on Triad boss Hung and he and his team are not adverse to a spot of larceny or falsifying evidence to get their man. Yam is leaving the force because a terminal brain tumor has been diagnosed and the by-the-book Yen is due to take on his job, initially disapproving of Yam and his men.

Yen is well-known for his fighting skills and he has a suitable opponent in Hung's assassin-for-hire Wu Jing. However it is Yen's final showdown with good old Sammo that lifts this film to greatness. For a fiftyish fat man, Hung is amazingly spry and graceful and the pair are evenly matched in fighting skill. When one is led to believe that that the good guy has finally triumphed and that the bad guy has finally met his match, there is a sudden bit of unexpected action which destroys one of the pair physically and the other one mentally. In fact the overall ending of the movie is believable yet incredibly downbeat, but none the worse for that.

The action is set just before and on Father's Day and each of the main characters can be viewed as a father or son or surrogate father. Hung has at long last just had a child with his beloved young wife (who had previously had a series of miscarriages), Yen became a cop because his father was and remained on the force after his dad's murder despite being begged to give up the life, and Yam has a sweet orphan that he has adopted after her parents (potential court witnesses against Hung) were dispatched by the gang boss's minions. Another of Yam's team has just been reconciled with the daughter he has not seen for many years, when Wu Jing makes short work of his newfound joy and his life. It's a busy film with a fair amount of bloodshed but this is all part of the tale rather than a gorefest. Oddly enough I discovered half way through that I had seen the movie previously, dubbed into German, but I think I must have been in one of my sleepy-gal modes since I remembered nearly nothing about it. Take it from me, it really is a memorable addition to Hong Kong cinema and I doubt that I will forget it this time around.