Friday, 30 December 2011

A review of re-views

Since there was so little new of interest on the box I found myself re-watching a number of previously seen flicks with surprisingly mixed reactions -- some movies seem to age reasonably well (and not just the so-called 'classics') while others are even more boring the second time around.  Let's consider one from each category:

Love Actually (2003):  I asked my house guests if there was any one movie from my sprawling collection that they would like to see and the l2-year old in the party asked for this title which I gather she had seen previously at a friend's house.  It turns out that the film actually has a 15 certificate and should not be viewed by anyone under that age.  Ha!  One forgets that most 12-year-olds nowadays are 12 going on 25...  Incidentally her younger sister put on a pair of earphones to block out the many 'naughty' words.

Anyhow the film has held up reasonably well although in the great scheme of things it could be considered a contemporary movie.  Like so many subsequent and lesser films like "Valentine's Day" and the dreadful "New Year's Eve", it is a compendium of a number of 'love' stories in the broadest sense of the term;  we follow the paths of the various characters as they cross and interact in the run-up to Christmas week.  Some of these stories are far better than others and one or two were so dreary that I had forgotten about them completely like the nude couple pretending to make love in increasingly convoluted positions for a sex education video.  (Not what I would have selected for l2-year viewing).  Some tales verged on the stupid like the sex-starved Australian who decides to spend the holidays in Milwaukee where he thinks all the nubile young American chicks will fall for his 'cute English accent'.  However there were sufficient strands amongst the balance to make happy viewing.

In particular, veteran actor Bill Nighy found a break-out role as a washed-up pop singer trying to flog one of his old hits as a potential Christmas Number One.  Each time his story was picked up smiles were guaranteed.  Then there was the rather sweet tale of writer Colin Firth discovering that his live-in girlfriend has been having it away with his brother, going off to write at a cottage in Provence, and falling for his Portuguese housekeeper -- and she for him although neither could communicate in the other's language.  Amusement too could be found in the strand of  floppy-haired Hugh Grant's newly-elected bachelor Prime Minister falling for one of his staff but appalled to catch her in an embrace with the visiting U.S. President -- Billy Bob Thornton eschewing Bill Clinton.  Then there was another heart-warming tale as recently widowed Liam Neeson bonds with his young son who is desperate to make an impression on a girl in his class who is about to return to America. Not all of the stories were light-hearted: there was Emma Thompson discovering that hubby Alan Rickman has succumbed to the office minx and poor old Laura Linney desperate to connect with one of her co-workers but forever at the beck and call of her mentally ill brother.  On balance, however, this was an inspired choice for all of us -- except probably the children!

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964):  I have never been terribly taken with any of the run of Epic sagas that were spawned in the '50s and '60s as the studios' response to the threat of television.  Their theory was to look to historical subjects on the wide, wide screen, with lush costuming, big music, extravagant set pieces, and a cast of 1000s.  Initially such films did well and were considered suitable viewing for a family day out, but as tastes changed and movie-going gradually became the preserve of the younger generation, the studios began to find diminishing returns.  A notorious example was the out-of-control cost-spiraling extravaganza that became Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" (1963).  The crunch finally came with this movie which cost somewhere between 16 and 20 million dollars (big bucks in those days) and took a mere 2 million at the U.S. box office.

However with a cast that includes Alec Guinness, James Mason, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Plummer, I thought to myself 'how bad can it be?'.  I noted that it was directed by Anthony Mann who was responsible for a wonderful run of James Stewart westerns and normally a very reliable helmsman.  Well, all I can tell you is that it was something of an overblown snorefest.  Despite having one of the largest sets ever built and inhabiting it with a gazillion extras (real people in the days before CGI crowds), it was about as exciting as watching gladiators fight a flock of sheep or goats rather than lions. Added to the distinguished names above whose histrionics ranged from superb (Guinness) to autopilot (Mason and Sharif) to towering over the top (Plummer's new Caesar declares himself to be an infallible god),  we have Sophia Loren substantially out of her depth as the virtuous love interest and the ever-so bland Stephen Boyd as our goody-two-shoes hero, very much the poor man's Charlton Heston (and I even find Heston hard to take).  No point my going into the ins and outs of the story except to say that it took some three hours to relate and left me thankful that the Roman Empire was very definitely about to fall.  Hopefully forever...

On a cheery note, let me close with my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year with a lot of more satisfying movie-viewing to come.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Killer in the Family (1983)

In my neverending attempt to view any movie not previously seen I get through a silly number of films made for television.  However even I can't face the myriad Christmas-themed movies being flogged at this time of the year on dedicated so-called 'Christmas Channels', although I will make an exception for the delightful Doris Roberts in the Mrs. Miracle flicks. And while many TVMs are pretty disposable, occasionally one finds something really worth seeing like the above title.

For a start back in the 80s, established old-time film stars did make the occasional small-screen film appearance and there are some wonderful television movies starring the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and James Cagney. This film was one of a few TV outing for the iconic tough guy Robert Mitchum, which in itself is a sufficient recommendation, but it was also fascinating to discover early outings for recognizable faces who would become more and more visible on the big screen in the years following.  Like many a TVM this is based on a harrowing true story and I gather the producers stuck pretty close to the facts.

The film opens with a family picnic -- Mitchum, his loving wife, and three late teenaged sons enjoying their afternoon outing.  It is only when the camera pulls back that we realise that the family are eating together on the Arizona State Prison grounds during visiting hours.  Mitchum plays Gary Tison, a career criminal who has spent much of the previous twenty years inside and who has little hope of early parole.  So he spins a song-and-dance line to the boys that his life is in danger from another inmate, convincing them to help him break out and flee to Mexico. Two of the sons are James Spader and Eric Stoltz (the third Lance Kerwin is unknown to me -- but you can't expect breakout success for all TV actors).  They take guns and other paraphenalia with them on their next visit, hold the guards at bay, and allow their dear dad to escape with his pal Stuart Margolin ('Angel' from the iconic James Garner TV series "The Rockford Files".)

Nothing goes according to plan and the five of them find themselves on a frantic run from pursuing lawmen, constantly having to find new vehicles and to camp out in the wild.  The boys, especially Spader the eldest (previously a promising law student), rapidly discover that Dad is not the loving father he feigns, but a cold, selfish and hard-hearted psychopath, who was in no danger whatsoever from the other inmates who indeed feared him.  This all becomes blatantly clear after Mitchum and Margolin coolly assassinate a young family of four whose car they want to appropriate.  The boys, while technically good people, are now accessories to murder and Spader is unable to convince the other two to escape while they can and hand themselves over to the authorities. Stoltz in particular can not fathom that Mitchum is not the beloved parent he imagined.  The end credits let us know just how awful the outcome actually was for the doomed five. Needless to say, Mitchum doesn't need to stretch his acting chops to play a cool killer.  Screen acting was always so easy for him that the nuances in his many performances are often overlooked. 

In addition to the above-named actors, the keen-eyed viewer can also spot Arliss Howard as the father of the murdered family and Catherine Mary Stewart as Spader's college sweetheart before all hell breaks loose for him. There are also juicy roles for veteran actresses Salome Jens and Lynn Carlin.  All in all an involving scenario, even if an ultimately unpleasant tale.

I did sort of promise last time to make some Christmas viewing recommendations from the boring UK terrestrial schedules, where the premieres on offer include such crud as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua"!  OK, if you've not seen it, "Tropic Thunder" has its moments, but "Young Victoria", "Bruno", "Defiance" and "Step Brothers" didn't shake my world.  Apart from some minor animations, there is repeat after repeat after repeat -- which is only fine if you haven't seen the films in the first place or are eager to see them again.  (And chances are if you like them that much you might even own your own copy!)  The best bets are actually some black and white oldies from director Fritz Lang and some splendid B-chillers from producer Val Lewton.  Finally on Christmas Eve Channel 5 is showing the best Scrooge of all time, Alastair Sim, in, it is rumoured, a colourized version of this classic.  Watch his definitive performance by all means, but turn the colour down! I'll be back some time before the New Year...meanwhile, Seasons Greetings to all.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Vive la France

It sometimes feels as if the majority of the foreign language films I view are French, but this is really not the case, since I also seem to be attracted by many Far Eastern movies in a variety of languages plus a fair assortment of flicks from other nations.  The French factor is also slightly on the wane at the moment since the CineMoi channel that I have raved about previously has not managed to premiere more than two new offerings since the summer -- and yes, I have had a moan at them for their very boring schedules.  However today I shall be considering two wonderfully entertaining French films made, as it happens, some eighty years apart!

Le Million (1931):  This film from director Rene Clair has been on my 'must see' list forever and fortunately friend Richard got hold of a copy for a showing in his wee garden cinema.  As with a number of movies that had become legendary to me without having ever seen them, including previously Clair's silent "The Italian Straw Hat", the eventual viewing was a little anticlimactic. One is expecting so much more than the film actually provides.  This is not to say that it was not a jolly affair and quite advanced in many ways for an early talkie studio-bound production.  The plot concerns a poor artist (Rene Lefevre) beset by his creditors who discovers he has won the lottery, making his creditors his new champions.  Unfortunately he has left the winning ticket in the worn jacket that he has left with his fiancee (Annabella) to mend; piqued by his flirtation with one of his sultry models, she gives the jacket to a crook called Grandpa Tulip who is on the run from the police. And so begins a merry chase across Paris as Tulip sells the jacket to a visiting opera singer who needs the tattered rag for a role.

Clair plays on the merry mayhem that ensues as Tulip and his mignons, Lefevre and his best pal, and an assortment of opera hangers-on chase the elusive jacket, ending up at one stage in a frantic rugby match with the jacket as the ball, reminiscent of a Marx Brothers farrago. Throughout, the various characters break into song without rhyme or reason; there is one lovely bit where the estranged lovers hide in the scenery echoing the words that the opera singer and his Wagnerian partner are spouting in a cod grand peformance -- consistently a virtuoso early use of sound. I felt that the film was slow to get going, but was still enchanted by the opening rooftop scramble, achieved through forced perspective and miniatures, finally focusing on the celebrating dancers below a skylight who relate the night's adventures.  This was a remarkably flowing bit of camerawork, quite uncommon in such an early film.  Despite some clever bits of business, the story is more farcical than funny, but in the end it leaves one with a bouyant feeling of bonhomie.  However, Clair certainly went on to make a number of more interesting films.

I was unfamiliar with all of the cast apart from Annabella -- here a brunette rather than the platinum blonde of her later Hollywood roles.  She started in movies when selected at the age of sixteen to appear in Abel Gance's "Napoleon" (1927) and tried her luck in America in the mid-thirties.  Her 'luck' included marrying my handsome hero Tyrone Power for a while, so she didn't do too badly all things considered.  Clair also settled in America during World War II, a period which produced some of his most memorable movies.

Romantics Anonymous (2010):  Clair actually shot "Le Million" in 1930 and here we have, 80 years on, another charming French trifle.  This movie reunites the lovely Isabelle Carre with Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde -- last seen together as Carre's estate agent finds a flat for serial killer Poelvoorde in an earlier film.  Here they play emotionally stilted chocolatiers, bound together by their love of chocolate-making but tongue-tied and socially inept in romance.  Their mutual attraction is blatant, but each of them does their best to avoid commitment.  In one scene on their first dinner date, Poelvoorde excuses himself every ten minutes to change his sweat-soaked shirt for a fresh one from a suitcase that he has stashed in the mens' room, re-appearing at one stage in a frilly dress shirt completely at odds with his earlier garb.  The movie plays with their romantic constipation to the extent that Carre attends a self-help group of other emotional cripples.  However the viewer knows full well that these two charmers will find a way of getting it together by the end of the movie.  Mind you the film's final shots let us know that their way will never be quite the expected way of coping with life.  All in all this was a slight but throughly enjoyable movie thanks to the sweet playing of its leads (with their believable chemistry) and the strong supporting cast of chocolate lovers.

For the last six years I have tried to give some viewing tips from the Christmas television schedules, but the terrestrial choice is so dire this year that there is not much to say.  If I can raise myself from the despair that they have created in me, I will try to make a few more positive recommendations in my next pre-Christmas entry.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese truly deserves the plaudits that his latest film has been garnering and there is so much that is truly wonderful about it.  However it is not a perfect 10 on my scoreboard.

For a start, I think his use of 3D techniques in the film's creation is quite possibly the best use of this format ever -- even James Cameron's "Avatar" falls into a close second place.  Unlike so many recent releases where the aim seems to be to throw as many objects at the viewer as possibly, harking back to the ping pong bat in 1953's "House of Wax", Scorsese achieves a majestic flow in his filming.  The opening scenes in the inner workings of the Paris rail station clock where our young protagonist Asa Butterfield lives, is one of the most bravura and realistic sensations of sweeping flight that I have ever sensed in a film.  Occasionally the director doesn't get it quite right with some of the crowd scenes in the station concourse more closely resembling a kiddie's pop-up picture book, but much of the filming is breathtaking.  Of course it is unfortunate that this part of the film's brilliance will be lost to subsequent viewing until such time as we all are 'blessed' with 3D televisions.  (Not that I've seen it but I would guess that the 2D "Avatar" verges on the tedious).

Fortunately the film has much more to commend it.  Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that Scorsese has embraced a film suitable for children, rather than his trademark gangster movies and literary recreations; however it is not really a movie that all youngsters will enjoy and it is really more like the director's heartfelt love letter to early cinema.  The movie begins as an adventure movie for youngsters, as we learn how young Hugo came to reside in the mechanical innards.  After the death of his clockmaker father, a very brief turn from Jude Law, his drunken uncle Ray Winstone (another mercifully brief turn) abandons him there, to take on the work for which the old sot continues to be paid as he chases bender after bender.  Hugo does his work and lives from hand to mouth by stealing the odd croissant, all the time trying to avoid the unwanted attention of the station's security in the shape of Sacha Baron Cohen, who with his fearsome mouth-snapping doberman, has it in for all orphans.  His main concern is to finish the automaton man that his father was working on at the time of his death, convinced that it will be able to write a final message from his father from beyond the grave.

He also steals mechanical parts from the station's toy kiosk until he is finally caught by the old man who runs it (Ben Kingley) and his precious notebook is confiscated.  He enlists the help of Kingsley's young and sheltered ward (sweet-faced Chloe Grace Moretz -- miles away from "Kick-Ass") to regain it, and the two begin a series of adventures together.  This is somehow where things begin to slow down for the younger viewer, but pick up dramatically for the film buffs in the audience. It turns out that 'Papa Georges' is actually an embittered Georges Melies, one of the great and most imaginative pioneers of early cinema, long believed dead in the
Great War and whose previously popular short films have gone out of fashion.  This gives Scorsese a platform for a subject close to his heart and he uses the film to teach a potted history of moviemaking's first days.  He launches into a tour of Melies' original glass studio and recreates the making of "A Trip to the Moon" and other magical fripperies in a most believable way.  Movie Nirvana for someone like me, but I suspect a little wasted on younger children or older ones expecting continuous action.  Finally through the intervention of an enthusiast played by Michael Stuhlbarg (the only American other than Moretz in the main cast), Melies is drawn out of his self-protecting shell, given the honours due him...and Hugo finds a home.

Based on the graphic novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, Scorsese has wisely shortened the film's title and given us a loving and colourful recreation of Paris in the 1930s. Most of the cast including of course the soulful Buttefield are British and the director has unexpectedly found roles for the always reliable Christopher Lee as a book dealer, Emily Mortimer as a flower-seller (worshipped from afar by Cohen's would-be comic villain), and character actors Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as a pair of aging, dog-loving romantics.  Even (Sir) Ben -- not the most likeable of actors -- is very good indeed as the disillusioned Melies, quite possibly his best role since his Oscar-winning Gandhi. 

This is finally a movie of two parts which don't quite synch together.  The children's fable gives way to Scorsese's cinema valentine but offers us assorted pleasures along the way.  His recreations of Hugo's nightmares, including a runaway engine crashing through the station is a genius use of 3D, and another where the boy sees himself turned into another mechanical automaton is imaginatively done.  By the end the movie is chokey, as Melies' sadness segues into a happy ending but I somehow don't know whether the film will have as wide an audience appeal as it deserves.  Finally, as wonderful a filmmaker as he is, I suspect that Scorsese doesn't really possess a strong sense of humour and some of the film's attempts at laughs ring slightly hollow, especially Cohen's usual overplaying. However this is a minor fault in Scorsese's brilliant conception, leaving a thrilling cinematic experience for all of us and especially for your faithful film-fan PPP.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

While the list may vary from time to time, Charles Laughton always features amongst my top five favourite film actors.  While he was never in competition with more 'beautiful' players, his infinite ability to lend shades and nuances to his characters makes him one of the most consummate of the many 'stars' who have graced the silver screen. Unlike many other charismatic actors whose film personae seldom vary, each of his roles is subtly different.  It is therefore possibly something of a heresy for me to write that his role as the fiendish Dr. Moreau is not one of his best.  In his movies, he did occasionally reach the border line between subtle histrionics and hamminess, and his performance here does occasionally overstep the divide.

This is not to conclude that the movie is not worth seeing since it has so much to commend it.  I saw it originally some years ago at a repertory theatre, but it has not been much in evidence on these shores.  In fact, the movie was banned in Britain on its original release like "Freaks" and for much the same reasons. However Criterion have now issued the film on a excellently remastered DVD in the U.S., complete with fine extras, and Masters of Cinema have a UK release planned for the New Year, so there is no longer any excuse for its not being better-known, expecially since it remains a far better film than the two subsequent "Island of Dr. Moreau" remakes (1977 and 1996).

Because of the remakes the story is pretty well-known.  Based on a novel by H.G. Wells (who incidentally hated Hollywood's first take on his tale), it tells of a 'mad scientist' who decides to play God by fusing animal and human DNA to create new humanoid life in his so-called 'house of pain'.  The 1930s were a great time for horror movies and all of the studios tried to have a go after Universal churned out a string of now classic monsters.  This film was Paramount's entry in the genre along with the Frederic March's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and the little-known but atmospheric "Murders in the Zoo" -- not a bad track record at all.  The somewhat oaken Richard Arlen plays a seaman rescued from the wreck of his own vessel, but then cast ashore by the drunken captain of the steamer that found him.  He lands with a cargo of exotic animals and a disgraced doctor, a nice turn from Arthur Hohl, on Moreau's tropical island.  At first he is taken in by the luxurious surrounds and his host's gracious manner, but soon discovers that much is amiss and that Moreau harbours secret plans for his future.

He discovers the population of 'successful' mutants, as opposed to Moreau's 'failures' who man (without being men) the power treadmills, and their leader, the "Sayer of the Law" -- a nearly unrecognizably hairy Bela Lugosi.  It is his job to regularly ask his flock the questions laid down as the island's laws by the unassailable Moreau, who loves to brandish his fearsome bullwhip, to which the final chant is always "Are we not men?".  Well, the viewer can easily see that they are indeed not men thanks to the brilliant make-up effects from the legendary Wally Westmore.  In fact it is rumoured that Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, and Buster Crabbe in early roles are numbered among these animal-men, but I defy anyone to spot them. The only female on the island is the 'Panther Woman' Lota played by one Kathleen Burke who purportedly was chosen from some 60,000 contenders in a contest to win the role, not that she was ever offered more than other exotic roles during her brief subsequent movie career.  Moreau is hoping to be able to mate her with the now stranded Arlen, but help is on the way courtesy of his fiancee Leila Hyams who has hired Paul Hurst's trawler. Once an animal is allowed to kill at Moreau's behest, one of the sacrosanct laws has been broken and the final uprising and revenge are inevitable.

The film's director Erle C. Kenton is not one of the great auteurs, despire having churned out some 140 largely-B titles since the silent days.  However he has done wonders with the material here.  Running only 70 minutes the film is an atmospheric marvel with genuine frissons of fear and dread, with nary a wasted scene. The film retains its power even today; I only wish that I could say as well that this was one of Laughton's best.

I'm hoping to see Scorsese's "Hugo" sometime next week, so hopefully that review will be my next posting.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

It is no secret that I have a soft spot for Woody Allen's movies and I was therefore heartened that his most recent film has done record box office in America -- unlike most of his output over the last many years which have at best reached respectable but not particularly startling grosses Stateside.  I will not deny that he has turned out the occasional clunker, but most of his films manage to sparkle on my moviemeter (I even liked "Jade Scorpion").  Perhaps this film's success is a growing resentment on the part of those audiences seeking grown-up entertainment in contrast to the likes of "Hangover 2".

This is Allen's second Paris-set movie and can be taken as a love letter to the City of Lights, both past and present.  It begins as a romantically filmed three minute travelogue of typical and less typical Parisian views before introducing us to Owen Wilson's lead character Gil, a jaded Hollywood scriptwriter yearning to turn out his own Great American Novel.  He is travelling with his fiancee Rachel McAdams (I prefer her as a brunette, not the shallow blonde she plays here) and her pushy, wealthy conservative parents.  After running into her friends from home, Michael Sheen -- playing a know-it-all pedantic visiting professor -- and his pretty vacant wife, who try to organise their stay in the city with a selection of cultural and 'fun' outings, Gil baulks one evening preferring to walk back to their hotel rather than 'go dancing'.  At the stroke of midnight he encounters a vintage car and its revelling occupants who whisk him into a time warp, landing him in the artistic Paris of the 1920s.  There he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ditzy wife Zelda, Cole Porter, Picasso, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein (who agrees to critique his nearly-completed novel), and other glitterati of the period.  He also meets Picasso's latest sexual conquest played by Marion Cotillard who has boasted previous liaisons with Modigliani and Braque.  Gil is growingly taken with her on his subsequent midnight rambles (none of which McAdams is prepared to believe thinking him unhinged) and is tempted to stay -- if he could -- with this new love and her remarkable circle of friends.  However one evening the pair of them end up in yet another time period the Belle Epoque of the 1890s with the likes of Lautrec, Gaughin,and Degas; Cotillard elects to remain there, suggesting that all of us are capable of looking back and prefering idealised more attractive times.

The film is well-cast, but not as full of starry names as many of the Woodster's earlier movies, with a number of lesser-known British and French players.  However among the star performances we have Kathy Bates as a less pompous and less masculine Stein, the heralded appearance of Carla Bruni (Mrs. Sarkozy) as a museum guide (a completely acceptable and attractive performance), and the lately growingly-annoying Adrien Brody in a here spot-on embodiment of Salvador 'Da-lee'.  However the movie's main strength is Wilson's winning interpretation of the previous 'Woody Allen role'.  Unlike earlier incarnations like Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell, Wilson is not striving for a Woody imitation, although one can almost hear Allen in his cadences, words, and obsessions (not surprising since Allen did write the script).  However he makes the role his own with his winning combination of sweet reactions and innocent wonder.

I suspect the playing of this popular actor has much to do with the movie's relative success in the US, since the movie is charming rather than laugh-out-loud funny, apart from one truly delicious joke toward the end concerning the detective that McAdam's father has hired to report on Gil's midnight wandering. Perhaps I am underestimating the tastes and intelligence of the average American audience, but I suspect that a lot of the in-jokes possibly passed way over some of their heads.  I doubt that many of the modern masses remember folk like Josephine Baker or can appreciate the sly conceit of Gil's suggesting to Dali's friend Luis Bunuel the outline of the plot of the latter's 1962 movie, "The Exterminating Angel", to that director's dismissive disbelief.  Irregardless of this intellectual oneupmanship on my part, adult audiences have obviously warmed to the gist of Allen's time-travelling fantasy and they have shown themselves to be truly grateful for this sparkling and amusing entertainment.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Arcane Japanese 'Horror'

I know I've not written for a week now.  This was semi-deliberate as I wanted my next post to be a review of "The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen" (1938) for which we had tickets yesterday.  I suppose I shall forever be tempted by the screening of oddities, although too often the net result is not as wonderful as I had hoped in advance.  When I read that something called the Zipangu Festival at the ICA included this film which was described as a rare showing of an early Japanese horror movie, all of my buttons were pressed.  I tried looking it up on IMDb but nothing was listed under this title.  So I searched by the director's name (Kiyohiki Ushihara) and found a listing for "Kaibyo Nazo No Shamisen" but without any plot summary, ratings, or user reviews. Never mind, off we went, hoping for a film as exciting as the Japanese silent "Page of Madness" which we saw many moons ago.

It is not surprising that I could not locate the English title of this movie as I discovered that the film was subtitled for the first time for this showing.  So far so good.  However I am unable to tell you very much about this film.  Maybe it was the heavyish, wine-accompanied lunch that preceded it or maybe it was the persistent discordant drone of the ever-present shamisens (three-stringed lutes), but I found myself drifting in and out of the action.  As far as I could tell, a shamisen-player's dead sister appears to her in the form of a ghostly cat and it is incumbent upon her to avenge both that death and the death of her father.  How they died and who the culprit was escaped me.  Every time I surfaced she, having failed to 'lose' the tainted instrument, was playing at some sort of stylized performance involving a male dancer and another dancer in a monkey mask.  It seemed to go on forever as she continued to hallucinate, the monkey mask morphing into a cat morphing into her sister's ghost.  I expect these early special effects were indeed effective, but the film was hardly a 'horror' movie by even loose modern standards.  If anything I may be making the film sound more interesting than it actually was, but it left me feeling distinctly 'blah' -- and don't tell me that was the wine!!! 

So, since I have let the side down with the above review, let me think if there was anything more interesting amongst the other God-knows-how-many movies I have watched since I last wrote.
There were a couple of worthwhile documentaries "The Flaw" (2011) and "Cloud 9 - the Call Girl and the Governor" (2010), both very well done, but I tend to ignore docs in my reviews;  267- minutes' worth of Abel Gance's 1923 masterpiece "La Roue" (great creative filming of a very, very soppy story); re-viewings of previously reviewed films where I wanted to burn copies ("Monsters" and "Machete" -- still a guilty pleasure); the Indian movie "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" from 1971 (I am getting totally fed up watching these cheesy back entries in Dev Anand's filmography -- this time set amongst the hippies of Kathmandu!); a number of disposable TVMs and a selection of recent releases: "The Tourist", "Made in Dagenham", "Rabbit Hole" "The Resident", and "Never Let Me Go" (bad, well-done, boring, OTT, and very sad respectively); and three films unearthed from the cracks in the floorboards: Jarman's harrowing "War Requiem" (1999), Ben Affleck's 2006 "Man About Town" -- directed by the annoying hack Mike Binder, but not uninteresting -- , and a French flick also from 2006 "The Stone Council" with a very glammed-down Monica Bellucci and a brunette Catherine Deneuve (badly rated on IMDb, but I thought quite worthwhile).

And believe it or not, that's not all -- but it's all I'm going to go on about for today!

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Duel Project

Once upon a time there were two Japanese directors having a quiet drink when an unusual challenge was presented to them.  Each of them was to make a feature-length movie in one week, using a single set and as few actors as possible with the same theme: a battle to the death.  This resulted in two very different yet equally interesting films released in 2003, Ryuhei Kitamura's "Aragami" and Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "2LDK".  I wouldn't like to choose which is the better movie since both achieve interesting results within the confines of the challenge, but the latter proved to be the audience fave when the pairing made the festival rounds.

Kitamura remains the better known of the pair having had overseas breakout success with "Azumi" in 2003 and particularly with his 2000 film "Versus", a satisfying mash-up of the samurai and vampire genres done on a low budget.  The title character's name Aragami translates as the 'raging god of battle''. He has nursed a gravely-wounded samurai back to health in his isolated Buddhist chapel; he is tired of the eternal round and seeks a worthy champion to end his immortality. Masayo Kato, as the demon, goads Takao Osawa to challenge him to a duel, dropping the tidbit of information that his recovery was hastened by feeding him body parts from his close companion lying dead in the next room. Observing this initially verbal battle is an inscrutable beauty who fetches food and drink, but who is more often to be found sitting between them as a cool observer.  All of this builds up to a stupendous final swordfight between the two where we think at first that the samurai can never overcome his fearsome adversary; however (spoiler here) he is no longer completely human himself and ends up as the new demon of the temple, awaiting the swordsman who will release him in turn, and still watched over by the same strange beauty.

Kitamura does wonders with the one small set depending on atmospheric lighting to highlight the ornate (and slightly kitschy) carvings creating the illusion of space. He manages to stage the exciting cut and thrust of swordplay in this confined area by close filming and editing.  It is all beautifully and excitingly staged.

"2LDK" on the other hand has a contemporary setting and manages to limit itself to only two players.  The title is shorthand for small rental adverts offering 'two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen'.  Sharing this (to my mind) rather spacious apartment are two would-be actresses the wide-eyed virginal Nozomi, fresh up from the countryside looking for big-city fame and fortune, and the vampish, more-knowing Lana, with her dyed hair and beauty queen background.  Both are reading for the same movie part and, as it turns out, both are involved with the same man.  Building on the petty grievances of flat-sharing such as Nozomi's anally marking all of her food (including each egg) in the shared refrigerator and Lana's casually using whatever she wants at the moment, we become witnesses to the growing hostility between them.  This is largely achieved by their verbalizing their real thoughts about each other direct to the audience as they fruitlessly try to preserve the niceties of conversation.  Nozomi views Lana as an over-the-hill slut, while  the slightly unstable Lana (whose last chance is the pending role) views her flatmate as a talentless wannabe.

The action soon escalates from slapped faces to more and more violent attacks with a variety of weapons, from everyday household appliances and cleaning agents through icepicks, flame-throwers, swords, and chainsaws.  (It is probably best not to wonder why an apartment occupied by two young ladies should have such an assortment of weapons available.)  In the end, setting us up for the film's final irony, neither of them need worry anymore about becoming a film star.

Both directors responded imaginatively to the challenge given them, even if both films are relatively short -- between 70 and 80 minutes.  Kitamura has the larger cast, but uses his very small set brilliantly.  Tsutsumi manages to hold our attention with only two characters spinning relentlessly out of control, but does cheat somewhat by having the girls' impossibly spacious apartment as his battlefield.  He remains the less internationally-known of the pair with only his 2008 movie "Twentieth Century Boys" (the first film in his own franchise) making any dent in overseas markets.  Kitamura continues his relative success, although I'm not sure that making the English language "Midnight Meat Train" in 2008 with Vinnie Jones amongst others is worthy of too many kudos. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Patchy Premieres

I'm back to having a wee moan about the weekly premieres on the main Sky film channel -- their other nine have a nifty line of repeats and more repeats.  Unlike most weeks, there were actually a full five flicks this week that I'd not already seen, unlike last week when there were all of two, neither of which I particularly wanted to view.  Of course, PPP being PPP, I did watch them both: "Africa United" a fairly sugary tale of three youngsters making their way the 3000-odd miles from Rwanda to South Africa to get to the Soccer World Cup (much of which I saw on fast-forward) and "Paranormal Activity 2".  I can't begin to believe that this actually made money at cinemas -- which it did -- since the first film in this series was about as scary as corn flakes and this second one was a fine example of watching paint dry with absolutely nothing happening until the last five minutes.  No doubt P.A. 3 is en route...

Anyhow, what about this week's five?  As usual something of a mixed bag with not a lot to get excited about:

First up was a Hallmark Channel product called "A Dog Named Christmas".  Given its origins, you would be right in guessing that it was a healthy, family drama with a feel-good punchline.  A pleasant but somewhat intellectually-challenged young man living on a farm with his parents hears that the local animal shelter is urging the community to 'adopt a dog for Christmas' and not only manages to convince his folks to let him do so (father Bruce Greenwood has doggy-issues in his background), but also convinces the family's married offspring, their friends, and neighbours to do so as well.  Naturally the chosen dog, whom he has promised to return to the shelter on December 26th, turns out to be a heroic charmer ultimately melting even Greenwood's hard heart.  A totally watchable film, especially if you love dogs, but otherwise pretty yuck as cinema.

Then there was the "big" premiere of the week, director Tony Scott's "Unstoppable" starring the Denzel and Chris Pine.  Based on a true incident from 2001 (but reminiscent of earlier movies), we have veteran train driver Washington and his novice conductor Pine risking their necks to stop a runaway train laden with dangerous chemicals from wreaking havoc on the communities in its path by preventing its derailing.  To give Scott his due, there is no denying his skill at getting our adrenaline flowing and to make us savour the growing tension, but again it wasn't exactly brilliant film-making.  Both leads did an adequate job, as did Rosario Dawson back in the control room, but there were a number of loose ends, especially with the subplot of a bunch of school kids taking an educational train ride, who were never actually in danger.  Anyhow the end credits tell us that the Washington character who was working out his 90-days notice was told that he could keep his job.  So there you go...another happy ending.

The week's third film was the one I actually liked best although it is something of an obscurity and a real mish-mash of talent: "The Warrior's Way", which advance reviews suggested would be abysmal.  Produced and filmed in New Zealand, the movie is the first and only feature written and directed by someone called Sngmoo Lee (nor me) and stars a Korean, Dong-gun Jang, alongside Yanks Kate Bosworth and Danny Houston (as the big baddie), and Aussie award-winner Geoffrey Rush.  Our hero is an invincible swordsman in exile with a small babe in America's 'wild, wild west'. He's hired by Bosworth as a laundryman but ends up teaching her fighting skills so that she can avenge herself on Houston and his murderous horde of outlaws who killed her husband and child.  In this same small community we also have a stranded colourful troupe of circus artistes, amongst whom is Rush's perpetually drunken sharpshooter.  What makes this movie so remarkable is the flair with which the director has staged the setting, with stylised sets reminiscent of von Trier's "Dogville" (2003), and his skill with the martial arts elements, especially with flocks of ninja warriors descending from the sky in pursuit of the rogue swordsman. In fact all of the action sequences are both brilliantly handled and exciting -- far more so than one would expect from this film's mongrel components.

As for films four and five, the fourth one "London Boulevard" was so forgettable that I had trouble remembering what it was called or what it was about within a day.  Ex-con Colin Farrell is hired by David Thewlis as a bodyguard for Keira Knightley's actress superstar and must fend off the larcenous ambitions of Ray Winston's Mr. Big.  Yawn...   Number five, "Puncture", came across as a made-for-television effort, although with current flavour-of-the-month Chris Evans in the lead, this was possibly a 'real' film.  Again based on a true story, it tells of Evans as hotshot lawyer Mike Weiss and his more grounded partner taking on the crusade of getting the hospital buying cartels to purchase a new type of life-saving syringes.  Meanwhile druggie Weiss is fighting his own demons in the form of his uncontrollable drug habit (which eventually took his life) a la Gosling in "Half Nelson".  Sorry...more yawns.

The annoying fact is that Sky manage to offer a pretty up-to-date selection of appealing movies on their pay-per-view Box Office, but many of these never make it to their regular subscription channels, where the weekly premieres tend to be padded out with made-for-TV dross.  It's just as well that I'm not totally dependent on them for my viewing pleasures. Even if I do try to watch all of their new offerings, there is always a miscellany of non-Sky channels and the growing DVD backlog to enhance my choices.   In fact, I never seem to catch up -- which is actually a good thing in this instance.  Keeps me busy and off the streets!!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Many interesting flicks without big studio marketing bucks behind them struggle to get any sort of distribution, flicker brightly but briefly when discovered, and then are destined to fade into the misty realms of memory. 

This movie written (based on her novel) and directed by Rebecca Miller -- daughter of Arthur -- is a good case in point.   Since 1995, it is her fourth outing as a director of her own work; I have seen two of her three earlier movies, but I am pushed to recall much about them. She had an earlier brief career as an actress in bit parts and is also the co-writer of the screenplay for the rather dreary (and also non-memorable) "Proof" (2005).  Taken with her first career outings in the graphic arts, she is something of a 'renaissance' women, but unlikely to be remembered as one of the cinema greats.  I know it's early days yet since she is still under fifty, but her track record to date doesn't promise any sort of cinema immortality or any deep affinity for the genre.

In this film she has garnered a remarkably starry cast, many of whom have very little to do -- again burning bright in their small parts and then fading into the background.  Stand up Julianne Moore in another lesbian role, Winona Ryder (getting hard to recognize) as the heroine's neurotic friend, Maria Bello as her hyperactive, speed-addicted mother, and the lush-bodied Monica Bellucci as a former wife of Mr. Lee (the always watchable Alan Arkin).  However the movie belongs to Robin Wright (here still billed as Robin Wright Penn) playing Arkin's much younger wife and facing her own midlife crises as the couple downsize to a Connecticut retirement community after his three recent heart attacks. The screenplay focuses on the various traumatic events that have made her the woman she is today with her younger self played by Blake Lively (not really a believable young Wright).  Bored by her new environment, with the height of excitement being pottery classes, and overly concerned with Arkin's health, she finds herself sleep-walking and sleep-stuffing-chocolate-cake-in-her-gob.  She also has a slightly fraught relationship with her two grown children, especially her daughter who appears to hate her -- much as she grew to hate her own mother.

She finds some solace in the company of her neighbour Shirley Knight's ne'er-do-well son, played by a fairly competent Keanu Reeves, with a lifesized head of Jesus tattooed on his chest.  Events come to a head when she discovers her supposedly devoted husband's ongoing affair with Ryder and his subsequent final heart attack.  Part of the film's problems stem from combining the roles of mainly middle-aged players into a coherent whole.  Wright doesn't seem quite old enough to have lasted through the best part of thirty years of marriage (to the extent that for a while I thought she was the stepmother of Arkin's kids), and we are asked to believe that Reeves is some fifteen years younger than she (when in fact he is all of two years older!).  One is never bored in the company of these various characters and their self-absorbed problems, aided by some clever, sharp dialogue, but in the end one wonders if we really care about any of them.  The simple answer is probably 'no'.  

Saturday, 29 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part Three

As a postscript to my previous entry, I can not believe that I omitted mentioning the delightful dog in "The Artist".  This Jack Russell terrier is as important a character as his master Dujardin, a crucial part of his screen persona and his best friend.  His antics are incredibly amusing and ingratiating and he even gets the opportunity to display some Rin Tin Tin bravado when he saves the washed-up actor from his burning apartment.  A more than worthy contender for the annual Cannes Dog (or d'og).

Now to the final four films or as it turns out the final three and a half -- explanation follows below:

First off, nothing but praise for the French film "The Monk" ("Le Moine") from the interesting director Dominik Moll.  While his first two films were effectively modern thrillers, this one is a period piece based on Matthew Lewis' 1796 gothic novel.  A well-cast Vincent Cassell plays the eponymous monk Ambrosio, a foundling raised by the brothers of an isolated Spanish monastery, renowned for his piety and unrelenting sermons.  When a masked youth seeks the order's sanctuary, Ambrosio soon finds himself tempted by illicit love and the devil's growing mischief, until in the end he finds that evil is indeed more potent than godliness.  Beautifully filmed in the stark desert wastes and with more than the occasional surrealistic touch, this film is not only well-cast but also impressively persuasive.

From there we went to the 'half-film' mentioned above.  The Festival always features a so-called 'surprise' film in its programme and I have never been tempted to take my chances with their selection, although there have been some worthy UK premieres in the past.  This year, as a membership reward, they offered a ballot for a free screening and I thought what-the-heck.  After sitting in the auditorium for some thirty-odd minutes, my thoughts were more like 'why am I sitting through this rubbish?'  The film in question probably sounded promising to the programmers, being the first movie for thirteen years from director Whit Stillman, who had a critical hit back in 1990 with "Metropolitan" followed by minor success with his second film "Barcelona".  Thinking back these were both very 'talky' movies rather than plot-laden and his latest, coyly titled "Damsels in Distress" is more of the same with a vengeance.  Set at a small college we are introduced to a group of friends and their rather uninteresting (and very talky) problems.  The lead female is Greta Gerwig -- definitely an acquired taste from her mumbledore movies (or whatever they're called) and the lead male is the Australian actor Adam Brody.  At roughly 28 and 32 respectively, they are both rather too old to play believable students and the balance of the completely unknown cast are only slightly more creditable.  Boring, boring, boring to say the least -- so out we went and we were not the only walk-outs.  Sometimes one feels that one should give a film a chance to see where it is going, but it was pretty obvious that this one wasn't heading anywhere of interest.

Number three was the fascinating Japanese film "Dendera".  If you have seen either version of "The Ballad of Narayama" (and my pick would be the 1983 remake), you know the backstory of the small rural village that sends its old folk once they reach 70 up the mountain to die of exposure, thereby freeing the villagers from feeding and tending the elderly.  Based on a novel by Yuya Sato, this film imagines an alternate scenario where the elderly women (but never 'scheming' men) are saved from death and incorporated into the all-female, self-sustaining settlement of Dendera founded some 30 years previously.  The village's matriarch Mei, now over 100, dreams of the day when she can lead her people down to their old village to attack and kill the men in revenge for their harsh rules.  The story begins for us when the 50th woman is rescued and Mei reckons she has sufficient womanpower for her plans.  However she has not reckoned with the problems of a marauding ravenous bear and her cub which decimates their food supply and also decimates Dendera's numbers nor with a killer avalanche en route down the mountain.  As the women's numbers decrease, each of the remainder attempts to find some solution to their problems and to guarantee Dendera's survival.  All in all this was a fascinating tale, but I must admit some dissatisfaction with the film's rather abrupt and unclear ending.

Finally, number twelve, "Faust" from the director of the amazing "Russian Ark" Aleksandr Sokurov.  This film won the Golden Lion at Venice this year and it was a movie that I really wanted to love -- but regretfully I was unable to do so.  With a German-language screenplay, this is obviously a reworking of the Goethe masterpiece, forever immortalised to us in Murnau's silent film, but we found it nearly impossible to follow the ins and outs of the convoluted scenario as the impoverished and dour Dr. Faustus is seduced by the promises of the devil in the guise of a moneylender -- an interesting portrayal from Russian mime/clown Anton Adasinsky.  The quasi-medieval world is mixed with some very modern CGI effects and the very long and very sinuous telling lost me along the way.  This movie is the fourth in the director's tetralogy about the shortcomings of men in power and we had resolved to watch the first three movies which are coming up in the BFI's Sokurov season.  These are "Moloch" (Hitler), "Taurus" (Lenin), and "The Sun" (Hirohito).  However after the hard-to-watch "Faust", saved only by its majestic music, I'm beginning to wonder if I have the stamina to sit through those movies.  Time will tell...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part Two

Another four selections behind me now -- again producing some mixed reactions.  In choosing which tickets to apply for, I usually opt for titles that are unlikely to obtain any sort of widespread release, films by one or other of my 'pet' directors like Takashi Kitano (absent), martial arts flicks, anything to do with cinema history, and films starring a favoured actor like Gerard Depardieu (nothing from him either this year).  Maybe I should broaden my criteria, since for every 'gem', I usually manage to select a 'dud' as well, with the vast majority just falling into the 'pleasant enough' category.

First up was "Tales of the Night" (Les Contes de la Nuit) from the French modern master of animation Michel Ocelot.  I'm not completely sure why I selected this which was showcased as the 'Family Gala' (i.e. suitable for the kiddies), but it sounded imaginative and I certainly liked his earlier animations "Azur and Asmar" and "Kirikou and the Sorceress" for their bright colours and very stylized design.  This one had the added 'attraction' (?) of being made in 3D as well.  Using a form of silhouette animation, not seen since the heyday of Lotte Reininger's 1926 "Adventures of Prince Achmed", against brilliantly and psychedelically-coloured backgrounds, this film is certainly a tour de force.  However his telling of six different fairy or folk tales merged into much of a muchness after a while -- visually intriguing but dramatically lacking. I can certainly recommend this movie for its technique but not for much more for a mature audience.

"Let the Bullets Fly" is a joint China-Hong Kong production and apparently China's highest-ever grossing film.  It is directed by and stars one of the country's most admired screen actors, Jiang Wen (see his 2000 film "Devils on the Doorstep"), who plays a ruthless outlaw nicknamed Pocky Zhang (despite his unblemished skin); he decides to pose as the new official for the hamlet of Goose Town with its high taxes and easy financial pickings, taking the place of conman Ge You whom he has ambushed en route, along with the wife of the now deceased real mayor-to-be.  However they soon discover that the city is in the greedy, sticky hands of local ruthless warlord Huang, played by the one and only (coolest man in the world -- trademark) Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat.  Chow also plays his own body-double and great fun ensues as the three 'villains' strive to outbluff each other.  It is all a lot of cheeky well-filmed fun, but at 132 minutes it begins to outstay its welcome being rather talkier than action-laden.

The third film of this quartet was the main disappointment.  "Last Screening" (Dernier Seance), a French would-be thriller, should have been right up my street with its combination of a fanatic movie-buff as the hero who is also a deranged serial killer.  Written and directed by Laurent Archard, it stars Pascal Cervo as the young repertory cinema manager made even more unhinged by its impending closure.  We are given a certain amount of unhelpful backflashes to his relationship to his movie-obsessed mother, but little real explanation about why he goes about killing women, cutting off their ears with their dangling earrings, and sticking these on black-and-white photos of some of the screen greats.  The film was poorly paced with some unnecessary longeurs, such as one of the victim's endless twirling routine, and even at 81 minutes felt ever so long and pointless.  Something of a waste of time.

Had I been told that I could only choose one movie from the hundreds of films screening, it would have been the next one "The Artist", since I have been intrigued by it since I read about its Cannes premiere.  It is a lovingly-crafted, beautifully shot in black and white, paeon to Hollywood of the silent era and its star, Jean Dujardin, walked away with the Best Actor gong at the French fest.  I was first made aware of Dujardin, his co-star Berenice Bejo, and his director Michel Hazanavicius when I saw their "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies" in 2006.  I thought that spy-spoof of a movie a touch on the silly side and did not bother with its sequel.  However, they are all delicious here.  Dujardin plays silent movie idol George Valentin, undone by the coming of sound and Bejo plays young ingenue Peppy Miller, whose star rises as his crashes.  It is not quite "A Star is Born" scenario, since there is ultimately an uplifting (and highly believable) happy ending. Despite its subject matter of the popularity of the coming of sound, the film is shot virtually as a silent with intertitles, apart from its score and the very occasional and very telling use of sound effects.  Although it is a French film, it feels very American  -- there are no subtitles anywhere, and well-known normally English-speaking actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller lend fine (silent) support.  (Malcolm McDowell is also in the cast, but his scene lasts mere seconds).  All in all this is a delightful concoction and having been taken up by the Weinsteins, its distribution is assured.  Don't miss it!

The final four to follow anon...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part One

Four down; eight to go...and so far it's been a mixed bag indeed: two watchable obscurities, one hilarious oddball destined to do little business, and one major disappointment from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike.

The obscurities both come from the "Treasures from the Archives" strand of the fest ('lost' and newly restored or 'rediscovered' classics) and it is a little unusual for us to watch two of these two days in a row.  The first was "The Goose Woman", a silent feature from 1925 with impeccable credentials.  It was directed by Clarence Brown who went on to direct a string of 30s and 40s classics and starred Louise Dresser (already into middle age when she made her movie debut a few years earlier), Jack Pickford (brother of Mary and not overly charismatic), and rising star Constance Bennett (sister of Joan who both were memorable in films of the next two decades). The story concerns an erstwhile famous opera singer who lost both her career and her voice when she gave birth to an illegitimate son many years earlier and who has become a drunken slattern on her run-down farm.  She sees an opportunity to regain her celebrity when a rich neighbour is murdered and fabricates a story which unfortunately implicates her estranged son (who is of course romancing the successful actress Bennett).  Dresser's version of the events is supported by the state prosecutor -- the wonderfully named actor Gustav von Seyffertitz, until true but long-suppressed mother love breaks through.  The film as you may guess is something of a pot-boiler but a stand-out turn from Dresser just about saves the day.  Showing with this 83-minute movie were two Vitaphone shorts featuring former vaudeville stars and each more embarrassing than the next.

The second 'treasure' was a little-known, obscure feature from neo-realist Italian director Roberto Rossellini, completely at odds with his other films called "The Machine that Kills Bad People" (1952). One just doesn't think of this director as being able to handle satirical fantasy which is what is on display here.  Set in a small seaport town south of Naples where a broadly-drawn group of yanks have recently arrived to develop a hotel on the land of the communal cemetery, a photographer is visited by a strange old man who teaches him the secret of using his camera to kill those who just don't deserve to live.  Taking a picture of a picture in his studio, the subject suddenly expires (in the same unmovable pose) in another part of town -- these range from the bumptious village policeman, a very noisy donkey, a rich old woman and her greedy relatives, and an assortment of corrupt town officials who wish to divert a recent windfall of funds from the government to their own selfish ends.  The whole thing plays like some sort of peasant farce, striving to make its points about the deserving poor of the town (very Rossellini) versus the rich folk who live up the town's many steep staircases.  It certainly had its moments of comic mayhem along with its attempts to make some serious points from the director's personal credo; its rediscovery is very welcome -- if only as a palliative to Rossellini's more humourless films.  Showing alongside this was the newly remastered and re-colored Melies short, the familiar "A Trip to the Moon" which has been making the festival rounds, starting as the opener at this year's Cannes -- worth seeing for its historical importance, if in fact rather silly and crude. 

Next up was the hugely enjoyable and nearly impossible to categorize French film, "The Fairy", written and directed by three of its four leads: Dominique Abel, the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy.  I have not seen the team's two earlier films, but will certainly seek them out if this one is anything to go by.  The tall, skinny and gawky Abel plays the night clerk at a small seaside hotel, beset by interruptions as he tries to watch TV and eat his ketchuppy sandwich, particularly from a weird Englishman with his beloved Sealyham hidden in a plaid carry-all.  In walks the equally tall and long-limbed Gordon who announces that she is a fairy and that she will grant him three wishes -- two of which he requests immediately but the third of which is still pending by the film's end.  Romy's contribution is that of a more-than-short-sighted bar owner who keeps walking into the walls.  The main delights however come from the characters 'Dom' and 'Fiona' as they pursue their weird attraction and love affair in a series of acrobatic dances and Keatonesque set pieces, including Fiona's magically giving birth to six-month old child virtually overnight.  Hovering in the background are three black illegals who want to get to England and a pair of comic Keystone-ish cops. The innocent silliness is strangely infectious and while I do not see this movie doing much box office, I can certainly see it becoming a cult favourite.

On to "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" from Miike.  His early films had a certain weird appeal in their crazy takes on the yakuza genre, but his later works were largely long-winded and rather tedious affairs.  Last year's historical romp "Thirteen Assassins" seemed to imply a return to form and this movie, shot quite unnecessarily in 3-D, promised more of the same.  Set during a peaceful period in the l7th Century and based on an earlier film, this opulent but slow-moving saga tells of the clash between traditional 'honour' and humanity.  Out of work samurai have been approaching noble houses, asking their permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyards, in the hope of being bought off with either work or a few coins.  In this box within another box storytelling, an older ronin has come to the House of Ii to make such a request; there he is told the story of another younger man who foolishly did the same and who was forced to try to kill himself with a bamboo sword (having been forced to sell his real one) and who is then beheaded by the stern clan lord. Then he tells his own story -- turns out the youngster was this man's son-in-law whose death also resulted in those of his grandson and daughter, and he has come to seek revenge.  While beautifully shot, with only the very occasional effective use of 3-D effects in the shallow and dark interiors, the story just creaked along and proved more exhausting than entertaining, with virtually no action at all before the final minutes.

More and hopefully a little more entusiastic reviews to follow in due course...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Skyline (2010)

As forewarned, it is now over a week since my last entry and while I am not exactly experiencing withdrawal symptoms, I thought I had better touch base before my marathon London Film Festival viewing commences tomorrow.  Since you ask, St. Petersburg provided a great if exhausting weekend.  It was one of the very few cities remaining on my wish-list of destinations; I am happy to have finally been able to visit The Hermitage -- overwhelming in scope and size, even if the art collection itself was a little disappointingly underwhelming. As predicted I saw no movies during my stay, but did satisfy another passion: In a city where even a simple snack is wildly expensive, DVDs (and I am not talking about pirate copies of recent releases which are apparently a thriving industry there) are ridiculously cheap -- well under £4 each.  Moreover, I was able to find copies of "Volga Volga". "Happy Guys", and Kin-Dza-Dza (all recently reviewed on this blog).  So Pretty Pink is a happy bunny indeed.

The above load of rubbish is only one of two movies that I have seen since my return and I've already forgotten the title of the other dreary mess -- something about a deaf girl beloved by a young musician who is dying of cancer.  (How do I sit through these?).  "Skyline" on the other hand was not a disease-of-the-week flick but purportedly a mainstream cinema release from 'The Brothers Strause' (Colin and Greg) whose only previous feature was "Aliens vs. Predator -- Requiem" (2007), which may give you some idea of the level of their idea of entertainment.  Both brothers have a long string of special effects credits from "The X-Files" forward and it is clear that whatever budget they had here went totally into the F/X in this alien invasion saga.

The money certainly didn't go into the non-existant script or acting talent.  You can tell that a movie is scraping the bottom of the barrel cast-wise when the leads' main claims to fame are television series of varying degrees of popularity.  Now I watch very, very little regular television, although I do get hooked by the occasional series, but I recognised the leading man (and I use the term very loosely), Eric Balfour as the druggy boyfriend from "Six Feet Under" many moons ago and the other semi-major male role as David Zayas, the Cuban detective from "Dexter".  The three female leads Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, and Crystal Reed obviously scraped beneath my TV radar as did the third male lead Donald Faison. 

And they, Folks, were the core of the action, a pretty uninteresting little group of friends, plus Zayas as the building's 'security' serving as some sort of microcosm of what was presumably meant to be happening throughout the city, country, or world.  The aliens have invaded without warning and we have little idea what they are after -- although sucking out brains seems to be part of the exercise; it is nigh impossible to avoid being drawn by their hypnotising little blue lights, as increasingly sizey aliens search the environment for more people to absorb.  At one point 'the army' or something send in a fleet of planes which are swiped down like so many annoying little gnats.  The message gets across: humanity is doomed, although we have not the slightest idea why.  There is some totally unintelligible action at the end which may or may not suggest that Balfour and his pregnant sweetie Thompson may actually survive, setting up the possibility (God help us) of a sequel.

To give credit where credit is due, the special effects were generally pretty superior and I particularly liked Faison getting smashed with a heavy metal thump when he tries to escape in an open-topped car.  Obviously, given the brothers' technical expertise, they spent their budget in a way to give us a showy spectacle.  However we could have done with a more clear-cut storyline, some vague indication of hope for humanity, and some characters that we might actually care about.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The English Patient (1996)

I can recall not being overly taken with the lengthy adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's equally sprawling novel when I first viewed it.  However since it managed to capture nine Academy Awards out of its twelve nominations, making it one of the most successful movies in Oscar history, I decided to take a fresh look to discover what made it so award-worthy.

It might be useful to first examine the three categories where it did not win, namely best actor for Ralph Fiennes, best actress for Kristin Scott Thomas, and somewhat surprisingly best adapted screenplay.  I have not read the original novel which I gather had been considered unfilmable, since it is apparently a collection of random thoughts and impressions.  From this the film's director Anthony Minghella managed to script a coherent scenario of doomed, forbidden love between Fiennes' Hungarian Count Almasy and Scott Thomas' adulterous wife of poor old Colin Firth.  Almasy was a real person who was indeed part of the loose group of colleagues exploring the desert in the 1930s, but since he survived World War II, dying in Austria in 1951 and was quite probably homosexual, the film's story is at best a piece of highly romanticized fiction -- not that it is any the less interesting for that.  It was Fiennes' second Oscar nomination and there is no denying that his part is well-acted, especially as he lies horribly burnt and dying under Canadian nurse Juliette Binoche's tender care; however the award that year went to Geoffrey Rush for his much showier role as the mad yet talented pianist in "Shine".  Scott Thomas lost to Frances McDormand in "Fargo" and I would not dispute the fact that she quite probably did not deserve to win for what was largely a mechanical and somewhat wooden portrayal.

The one acting Oscar went to Binoche for best female support, although I would argue that her role was as important, if not more so, than Scott Thomas'.  This win was a colossal upset since the odds-on-favourite was Lauren Bacall for her first-ever nomination for "The Mirror has Two Faces"; everyone and especially the likeable Bacall expected a shoo-in as being 'her turn' (and I can still picture her teeth-gritting losing face), but there is little doubt in my mind that Binoche's dynamic turn was a worthy winner. 

Of course the film won best picture and best director for Minghella, easily beating "Fargo", "Jerry Maguire", "Secrets and Lies", and "Shine".  Considering these films in retrospect, I could picture "Fargo" -- a wonderfully entertaining flick from the Coen Brothers -- being the victor, but the overall impressive production values of "The English Patient" do on balance outshine the loser's.  No doubt this is why the film also won for art direction, cinematography, editing, sound, and original dramatic score.  The movie is brilliantly filmed, capturing the expanse and mysteries of the Sahara, with a majestic score to match.  "Fargo" may well be the more enjoyable watch, but this film captures the epic scale required for romanticized storytelling, and one can admire the skill that went into its production without necessarily 'loving' the movie.

Oddly enough one category where the film was not nominated was best make-up and one might have expected some recognition for the face-distorting make-up that Fiennes must have suffered during large stretches of the scenario.  It must have been good preparation for his hideous physiog as Lord Voldemort (although no doubt that was all CGI!)

By and large I am glad that I decided to watch this film again, although some of the smaller pleasures come from its supporting cast, particularly from Naveen Andrews as a Sikh bomb-disposal expert (and Binoche's unlikely lover) and a shifty-looking Willem Dafoe as a crook seeking revenge on Almasy's possible traitor.  The screenplay is well constructed constantly moving between its now and then scenes, drawing the viewer into the motivations for the not-at-all-English patient's supposed memory loss, creating sympathy for him where possibly little is due.

A word to the wise: Entries will be rather sporadic over the next few weeks as I am going away for my birthday this long weekend and I don't think I'll be watching many movies in St. Petersburg -- not the one in Florida!  When I return, I then have twelve sets of tickets for the London Film Festival beginning next Thursday.  I promise to cover all of the fest's undoubted delights, but will need to do so when I am able to grab a few spare hours.  Watch this space...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A bit of this, a bit of that...

It's been another one of those fallow periods since I last wrote where I have seen the usual number of movies but haven't found one amongst them to tickle my fancy. (I know that statement could be made to sound rude.)  So let's have a look at some of the 'offenders':

It's been what could be described as "Deficient Dad Week" on Sky Movies Premiere. For a change they have actually screened five films new to satellite rather than the scant four they've been getting away with, but by and large they were a sorry lot.  What was meant to be the best of the bunch was award-winner "The Kids Will be Alright", where Mark Ruffalo was the deficient father, being the sperm donor trying to get to know his progeny after being contacted by the offspring of a happy lesbian couple, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Bening of course won an Oscar for her role, but Moore as the flakier of the pair and the one who succumbs to shagging Ruffalo was every bit as good.  The two teenaged sprogs were also fine, but I always have a hard time warming to Ruffalo who may be a decent enough actor but whose scruffy looks always manage to turn me off.  This drama from lesbian/feminist director Lisa Cholodenko was certainly worthy, but frankly not particularly involving or for that matter entertaining.

Then there were what I would label the 'kiddies' films:  Do the powers that churn out the schedules for Sky truly believe that the peak-time premiere of the week should be something like "Marmaduke", an oversized great dane voiced by Owen Wilson? Here dad's job forces the family to relocate to a dogocentric petfood park, and I ask if we are meant to be entertained by a plethora of CGI-created talking pooches plus one token pussy?  I suspect the answer to both questions is a resounding 'no'. I like doggy-pix as much as the next chap, but this was beyond feeble.  Then there was "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (which has alreadly spawned a sequel, God help us) and "Ramona and Beezus" based on a popular children's book.  Steve Zahn (enough said) was the wimpy kid's ineffectual dad and John Corbett, another actor who makes me grind my teeth, was the father in the latter -- not a hopeless dud-dad but rather worryingly out of work.  My inner child often finds something to amuse in many movies intended primarily for kids, but both of these were not remotely aimed at an adult audience.  Still I do know one little girl (stand up Lucy) who occasionally seems to watch the 'wimpy' movie on what seems a continuous loop.

Finally Sky 'treated' us to "The World's Greatest  Dad" which has been reasonably well reviewed as a sparkling black comedy from director Bobcat Goldthwait (now there's a comic name!)  It is probably labelled a comedy because it stars Robin Williams who will forever be thought of as a comic actor -- when he is not just being nauseatingly twee - but there was nothing remotely funny about this film.  Williams, an uncharismatic high school teacher and would-be but unpublished author, is the single dad to bolshy and pretty obnoxious teenager Daryl Sabara.  When his son accidentally dies during some autoerotic experimentation, Williams stages a false suicide scene and writes a heart-rendering suicide note to cover the situation.  Lo and behold, suddenly Williams is the popular man of the hour and his awful son, whom nobody much liked, is the centre of a what-a-wonderful-misunderstood-genius-he-was cult.  Of course it all falls apart when William eventually tells the truth.  I suppose there is some latent satire here about society's false values, but there was little that was comic in the telling.  Tragic more like.

Of course there is plenty of viewing outside Sky.  This week's included a couple of oriental period pieces which were OK if not thrilling and a 2008 French flick called "Mark of an Angel" (or its UK title "Angel of Mine").  This one was fairly involving and starred Catherine Frot as a slightly neurotic woman undergoing a divorce from her husband of twelve years and contesting the custody of their son.  Some seven years ago she lost her newborn daughter in a hospital fire and hasn't exactly been stable since.  When collecting her son from a friend's party she spots a lovely seven-year old girl and decides there and then that she is her lost daughter.  (How one is meant to recognise a child last seen as an infant is anyone's guess, but probably many mothers would think this feasible).  So she begins to stalk the girl's family who are about to relocate to Montreal, turning up wherever they are and even pretending that she is interested in buying their house.  The girl's mother is played by Sandrine Bonnaire, another fine actress -- even if she was looking terribly anorexic here.  We are led to believe that Frot really is an obsessed nutter, until we gradually become aware that perhaps there is more to Bonnaire's protective behaviour than meets the eye.  Supposedly 'based on a true story' this movie doesn't just stop dead in its tracks like so many French films, but actually proceeds further than necessary with its resolution, past the point that we need to know. As an acting masterclass the film was fine, but it's not one that is likely to become a classic.

Finally what should have been the highlight of the week was actually something of an anticlimax: a reconstructed 1922 silent "The Pharaoh's Wife" from the great Ernst Lubitsch before he left Germany for the States.  The trouble is that much of the original nitrate print seems to have been lost forever and great chunks of the film were merely stills and title cards covering the story.  What has been saved was lovingly restored and one can see the odd example of the famous "Lubitsch-touch" in the faces of some of the characters and the luscious and ornate Egyptian settings.  The Pharaoh is hammingly overplayed by the great Emil Jannings, his maudit love of a Greek slave is actually attractive by modern standards, but her own love interest was unfortunately embodied in a kohl-eyed nerd.  The Pharaoh is about to be betrothed to the hideous daughter of the Ethopian king  (portrayed with his Court as a pack of fuzzy-wuzzies), and his rejection of her for a slave leads to war and ultimately tragedy all 'round.  Although I am being at best lukewarm about this film, in truth I felt privileged to be able to view any cinema remnants from such a great director.  I only wish they had been able to save rather more.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Gainsbourg (2010)

I really had no preconceptions about this biopic of the multi-talented French musician-artist-writer-singer Serge Gainsbourg and like most 'foreigners' I was really only familiar with his scandalous "Je t'Aime" duet with Jane Birkin.  However, after sampling a selection of his other songs during the course of this movie, I am not surprised that his musical style did not translate well outside France. and I did not emerge a converted fan.  However, I was quite taken with the film itself, especially for the first half, before it seemed to peter out.  Much like Gainsbourg's career I suspect.

A first feature by writer-director Joann Sfar's from his own graphic novel, it strives to give the viewer a shortcut into the mind of a man with something to prove, without giving us much idea of the timeline or much understanding of any real accomplishments.  It starts in wartime Paris when young Lucien (as he was then called) and his Russian-immigrant parents manage to survive relatively unscathed, despite the anti-Jewish laws in force. The child actor Kacey Mottet Klein does a fine job of portraying the young boy as a precocious, yet charming troublemaker.  He is sexually aware for his age and brags to his schoolmates of greater expertise than was probably the case.  He has an alter-ego cum imaginary friend to protect him, called La Gueule (the mug) a larger than life Jewish caricature with an oversized semitic nose and huge ears, an externalisation of his own concerns about his appearance.  This shadow accompanies him throughout his life, urging him on to greater and greater excesses and is an imaginative externalisation of his own conflicted mind.  Parenthetically, La Gueule is played by Doug Jones, who has given us a fine line in fantastic creatures in films like "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth".

The adult Lucien-now-Serge is played by Eric Elmosnino who is appropriately homely in appearance, but who does not let his looks stop his ambitions as a lady's man.  Unfortunately he does not project much personality and I found his portrayal less sympathetic than young Master Klein's. I rapidly lost interest in his affairs with Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta -- far too overblown), and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon, rather better looking than Birkin and an unfortunate young suicide during the film's editing).  The man with something to prove managed to charm a number of women, but we have little insight as to why he pursued so self-destructive a course with his smoking, drinking, and womanising and even less insight into what talents he may have squandered along the way.

Sfar's film starts off like a house on fire, enchanting the viewer with his fanciful presentation, but he loses his way half way through and the movie tails off, losing our attention and interest as well. Had he been able to maintain the style of his novel throughout, his subject might have been far better served.  As it is, we are left with a not too flattering portrait of an apparently not too nice man.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Jitterbugs (1943)

The comedy team of Laurel and Hardy has entertained generations of children and adults and will probably continue to enchant many generations to come.  Theirs was a simple world of affection and gentleness, strikingly at odds with the brash humour of modern times.  Their antics and mishaps will carry on raising smiles as viewers continue to succumb to their special brand of silliness.  From their early shorts back in the silent days to their classic features of the l930s, they are undoubtedly cinema greats.  It is therefore a little unfortunate that their later movies do not consistently showcase their great talents, lumbering the boys with a miscellany of distracting co-stars. From 1941 when they did a production deal with 20th Century Fox for the fairly pedestrian "Great Guns", six of their last eight Hollywood features were produced under that studio's auspices and it is fairly clear that the aging team had lost much of their incentive for zany comedy.  As for their very last movie "Utopia" made for a French studio in 1951, the less said the better.  Still there is so much of their output for us to cherish.

"Jitterbugs" is one of their last movies to showcase them at their best with memorable bits of shtick and a relatively reasonable supporting cast.  Despite the nominal 'romantic' lead of one Bob Bailey -- a very minor mainly radio actor, there are excellent turns from "The Maltese Falcon's" Lee Patrick as a would-be femme fatale, an early showcase for the then fresh-faced singer Vivian Blaine (who shall forever be the somewhat harder Miss Adelaide of "Guys and Dolls"), and in one of his 326 (!) film roles hissable villain Douglas Fowley.  The boys play a travelling two-man jitterbug band with a Rube Goldberg assortment of instruments, who are roped into fronting for con-man Bailey's 'magic tablet to turn water to gas' during wartime rationing.  They, of course, are far too innocent to work out that he might be a fraud.  When Bailey becomes enamoured of small-town beauty Blaine and discovers that her dear old mum has been conned out of her house by a band of tricksters, he vows to help expose the villains and drags the boys into his scheme.  Ollie is passed off as a wealthy Southern gentleman (a role not unlike his own background) to set up a situation where the baddies will be hoist with their own petard.

So we are treated to a scene of Ollie dancing with and romancing George, ever so beautifully graceful for a large man.  We have the supposedly teetotal Stanley getting more and more sloshed as he hides under the lovers' chaise lounge, catching the seat of his trousers on a dislodged spring when he springs to escape.  We also have one of Stanley's classic turns in drag as he poses as Blaine's 'rich aunt from Boston'. The film is far from Laurel and Hardy's finest, but it has enough memorable moments to make it worthwhile viewing.  There is perhaps one number too many of Miss Blaine's warbling padding out the 70 minutes running time, but one advantage of DVDs is that you can fast-forward through the dross to get back to the misadventures of our sweet mismatched pair. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Room and a Half (2009)

Had you told me in advance that I would be spellbound by a two-hour plus Russian language film by a director I don't know, starring actors unfamiliar to me, and being a biopic of a Nobel Laureate for literature whose name only rings vague bells, I probably would have told you to 'sit on it'.  To prove how wrong preconceptions can be, this is one hell of a fascinating movie.

It's the first feature film from 70-year old director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, better known as an animator and documentary filmmaker, who brings all of his skills to creating the world of poet/essayist Joseph Brodsky.  It ends with the warning: "This film is fictional. Any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental".  However this is something of a conceit, since Brodsky was a very real person, constantly at odds with the authorities; he was first exiled within Russia, sentenced to 5 years' hard labour and then 'invited to leave' Russia at the age of 32. The authorities refused to recognize him as an 'officially-registered' poet and he was charged with 'social parasitism' (and the great crime of being Jewish as well).  He went to the States where he was a visiting professor at various universities, became a naturalized citizen, won the Nobel Prize for his book of essays in 1987, and died in New York in l996 at the age of 55.

The film is 'fictional' in the sense that the director has taken certain artistic liberties in recreating his childhood and his relationship with his doting parents, his prurient teenaged and young adult 'bohemian' years, and the yearning of his later years.  Khrzhanovskiy has done this by mixing black and white real footage and colourful dramatic reconstructions, with monochrome silhouette and conventional animation.  Brodsky is represented as a lascivious cat (meow-talk was a running joke with his father) and his parents as two black crows, such as the two that he says suddently appeared in his garden after each of their deaths. The actors playing his parents (both of whom give wonderfully warm performances) do not age throughout -- since this is obviously the way he remembered them during his long overseas exile in America.  In his childhood on his walks through St. Petersburg, his father would regale him with the histories of each elegant building and the stories of the families who lived there before the revolution.  At the same time, his family is forced to move from their bourgeois flat to a communal apartment (the room and a half of the title), and threatened as Jews with iminent deportation to the Far East. An animated fantasy of their piano and other cultural musical instruments floating away to the East, as the barbarians flourish, is brilliantly conceived.

The adult Brodsky, again embodied as an unchanging middle-aged man, always wrote and dreamt about returning to St.Petersburg, but never did.  He wrote, "Poets always come back, whether in flesh or on paper.  I like to believe both." His parents, who claim never to have understood his poetry, can only watch the Nobel prizegiving on their small black and white TV (normally tuned to ice skating); they have tried in vain to get permission to visit him overseas, but are constantly told that "your journey is inappropriate".  There is a touching scene near the film's end when the three of them are reuinited around the small table in their old flat in what is now obviously contemporary Russia, long after their respective deaths.  They catch up on all the news and gossip, but they do understand that they are all dead -- or they could not be sitting together.  The film's final dedication is "In Loving Memory of Our Parents".

This is a wonderfully warm and witty film and a bravura example of the filmmaker's art.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar's eighteenth film is a more than watchable fable, but one that finds the flamboyant director in a more solemn mode.  Reuniting with his favourite 'chico', Antonio Banderas, twenty years after their last collaboration (of five), l990's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down", Almodovar revisits his familiar themes of sexual identity, passion, and revenge, but with a new and unfamiliar restraint.  Gone are the gaudy colourways and histrionic performances; in their place are opulent but cold settings, underplaying, and overly-controlled hysteria.

The film is purportedly based on the French novel "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet, which I am about to read, but noting the back-cover blurb plus Almodovar's own comments on his film's source, it would appear to be a totally different tale to the one that he has written for the screen.  The only common factor is that Banderas' character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, is an eminent surgeon, obsessed with finding a synthetic skin, even if this involves Frankenstein-like tampering with animal/human fusions.  His initial motivation was brought about by his beloved wife's severe and life-threatening burns after a motor accident, which ultimately led to her suicide when she became aware of the full extent her disfiguration.  In an upstairs locked bedroom we have the 'good doctor's' latest project -- the lovely Elena Anaya's Vera, in a full bodysuit covering up her creamy perfection. We learn that she has been there for six years since the suicide of his fragile daughter after a would-be rape, but to reveal Vera's true background would be too much of a spoiler here.  It is enough to mention that what began as straightforward, if twisted, revenge by Dr. Ledgard has evolved into irresistible sexual yearning for the object of his tampering, especially after she has been raped by his criminally-sociopathic half-brother (decked out in a tiger suit for the local carnival).

Both the doctor and the 'tiger' are the illegitimate sons of housekeeper Marilia, portrayed by an Almodovar regular from earlier movies, now older and less glamorous, Marisa Paredes.  Incidentally, she is not a character in the original novel.  She loves both of her sons and tries to overlook the fact that both have become madmen in their separate ways.  Talking about 'less glamorous', Banderas too is not the fresh-faced lust-object from the director's films of the l980s, but rather now an aging, leather-faced psychological cipher.  Apparently, at the director's urging, he was instructed to play his part as expressionlessly and unemotionally as possible; unfortunately the net result of this underplaying is that his motivations become less and less understandable.  His chosen life and work remain much of a mystery to us.  As for Anaya who may be Almodovar's new muse after his five films with Penelope Cruz, she is the perfect choice for the captive Vera, lithe yet sensual; Cruz would have been a too lush-bodied presence for the role.

In many ways this is a cold film; while certainly an interesting one, taking its place in the canon of 'mad doctor' movies, it is difficult to get overly enthusiastic about it.  Almodovar has made better and more entertaining movies and I am not too certain about the change of pace that is manifested here. However I suspect that it may grow on me -- like a second skin?