Thursday, 28 April 2011

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

I thought that just about every British movie -- even the most obscure -- has been shown on television here at least once, if not umpteen times, and I therefore was a little surprised that the above film has not been telecast -- at least not in the past 32 years that I've been keeping  records (!).  I noticed that a print from the BFI's National Archives was being screened on the South Bank yesterday and its description and credentials made me very keen to view it.  So off we went...

It was definitely something of a curiosity, brilliant in part, but sadly lacking in one important area.  Described in the BFI's programme as one of British cinema's weirdest 'noirs', the film does not slot readily into what I would describe as 'noir'.  Rather it is a fine example of an atmospheric Gothic tale translated into the period in which it was made.  It marked the debut of director Terence Young who went on to make the best-known Sean Connery Bond movies and it is a surprisingly accomplished piece of baroque story-telling from such an inexperienced hand.  Eric Portman -- a stalwart among British leading men (with an ever-so-cultured voice) from the mid-thirties to the mid-sixties -- plays a wealthy eccentric with a love of beauty in all of its forms.  He becomes obsessed with a woman he meets in a nightclub, who he believes is the reincarnation of a woman he loved in another lifetime.  She is attracted in turn by his courtly behaviour, ornate mansion, and generous gifts, but avoids giving herself to him physically.  There are wonderful baroque scenes as she follows a white cat down a long mirrored corridor, finding behind each door sumptuously gowned wax dummies, and eventually chancing upon an aging retainer (a scary turn from character actress Barbara Mullen) who spins tales of Portman's decadent dalliances.

The big problem with this film from my point of view is the nondescript performance from its lead actress, Edana Romney, who also had a hand in the screenplay.  She previously appeared in minor roles in two early forties flicks and this is her one and only starring role in a film; her few subsequent appearances were on television, before she disappeared from the scene.  She is neither much of a beauty nor much of an actress for that matter, and one can only conjecture how she came to be cast in this fairly lavish production.  One wonders whose girlfriend she was...

Despite her disappointing turn, the film affords many pleasures and occasional chills, as the tale leaps forward and back to include a lavish Venetian costume ball in the grounds of Portman's estate, a sordid murder for which he is condemned, and a denouement nicely photographed amongst the wax denizens of Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" as well as to the role-grooming of "Vertigo", but despite its incidential pleasures "Corridor of Mirrors" is not in the same league as either film.  Perhaps with a different female lead it might have become a more satisfying bit of sinister hokum.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Your Highness (2011)

It would be a completely valid question to ask why I would go to see a film like the above or "Sucker Punch" (reviewed below) on the big screen, while I seldom seek out the majority of new releases at the earliest opportunity.  Well believe it or not, it's not all about 'me, me, me' and occasionally we go to the cinema to watch a film that my other half is keen to see -- almost always as light relief.  You can gather from these opening remarks that I didn't think much of the latest movie from director David Gordon Green.

Mind you, the man is an enigma to me.  His first two films "George Wahington" (2000) and "All the Real Girls" (2003) were independent productions and generally critically acclaimed, if undergrossing at the box office.  I didn't like them all that much myself, finding them slow moving and a little uninvolving, but Green was quoted as saying that he did not make films to please a wide audience, but to please himself.  'Good for him' I thought.  It therefore came as a complete shock when his fifth film was the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" in 2008.  What a strange choice for him and how unfunny a film it proved, although it was more widely seen than his earlier work. His latest movie continues his downward spiral.

Reuniting the two Pineapple stars James Franco and Danny McBride, who co-wrote the jejune screenplay, it is a fantasy fairy tale for adults -- something along the lines of "The Princess Bride" or "The Dark Crystal" with the expletives NOT deleted.  I suppose it is amusing to some to hear questing princes and abducted fair maidens liberally sprinkle their dialogue with the F-word, but that joke wears very thin very quickly.  Franco plays heroic elder brother Prince Fabious who has returned from his most recent quest with rescued damsel Zooey Deschanel and he asks his ne-er do well brother Thadeous (McBride) -- an expert in dwarf-humping, masturbation, and  lazing about -- to be the best man at his upcoming wedding, thereby alienating his previously loyal band of knights.  When the wicked wizard Leezar, an eyeball rolling, OTT baddie played by Justin Theroux abducts the virgin bride for his own lascivious ends ("Let the fuckening begin"), King Charles Dance (slumming it again) instructs both brothers to ride off in pursuit.   And so their adventures begin...

Current opinion seems to be to cast Franco as some sort of modern Renaissance Man because of his widespread artistic interests, but his acting here -- where I assume he is meant to be sending up the idea of fearless nobility -- leaves much to be desired.  He may be having some sort of fun with the role, but it is less amusing for the viewer.  As for McBride his reluctant participation in the current quest is meant to make him into a man, but it is his natural inclination in the role that he has written for himself to remain a smut-loving, hopeless boor.  First the brothers visit a CGI paedophile who gives them a magic compass and directions on how to destroy Leezar.  Then, deserted by their cohorts who have gone over to the dark side, they are captured by an evil transvestite (surrounded by a bevy of nubile, topless maidens of course) who unleashes his five-headed dragon against them.  In the nick of time arrives a female warrior on her own quest, played by Natalie Portman, who delivers them; she then uses her feminine wiles to steal the compass from the idiotic Thadeous.  Portman seems to be acting in a different film than the rest of the cast and one can only wonder why she agreed to the role;  an antidote to the traumas of  shooting "The Black Swan" is an insufficient reason. Anyhow we can agree that she has a very pert 'tush'!

To paraphase one of the reviews that I have seen for this film, McBride's script encourages his two-dimensional characters to speak their mind, but the result is a weird mess of mindless tosh.  How a respected Indie director decided that churning out a movie barely fit for the 15-25 year old male market was the next step in his career path is a fascinating conundrum.  

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

On a number of levels the above film seems a strange choice from the BBC to commemorate the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, since it is not one of her award-winning roles nor one of her 'classic' performances. If the truth be known, it is probably one of her lesser-known movies, one of several many made with Richard Burton during the period of their tempestuous first marriage. These ranged from the highpoint of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to the definite lowpoint of the disastrous "Boom".  However it proved a felicitous selection to broadcast, insofar as it stands as a wonderful testament to Taylor's beauty and screen presence; it also gives the viewer a privileged peek at the real-life chemistry that existed between her and Burton.  If you really want to know what is meant by "the look of love", you have only to watch those two here.

In his first proper theatrical film, the noted production designer for grand opera, Franco Zeffirelli,  brings a colourful, luscious eye and some wonderful mise-en-scene to Shakespeare's bawdy tale.  The film is less about the bard's words than about the opened-out Italianate romp that Zeffirelli  provides.  Taylor brings her full-bodied beauty and passion to the tempestuous shrew Kate, while Burton, who was known for his Shakespearian stage performances, creates a towering and crude Petruchio.  Some might find his interpretation over the top or even a little hammy, but the character he portrays, who has come to 'wife it well' in Padua, is certainly meant to be larger than life.  The fire burning in both performances is what makes this movie most memorable, together with its rich design and costuming and a remarkable score from Nino Rota.

No one would argue that Taylor was not a great 'movie star' and an unforgettable presence.  It is a little more difficult to convince people that she was a great actress as well.  She certainly made some very memorable movies, but her standard of acting could be variable.  Certainly she is not one's first choice for Shakespearian dialogue and her occasionally squeaky, little girl voice is hard to temper.  However as a spectacle for the eye, this movie reinforces her screen luminescence, and one barely notices the delivery of her lines when they are surrounded by such sumptuous staging.

The film's other delights include the incomparable Michael Horden as Kate and Bianca's father, Cyril Cusack as Petruchio's crafty servant, and Michael York in his screen debut as Lucentio. The film musical "Kiss Me Kate" may well be the most popular version of the oft-told tale, but this lovingly crafted, lusty version has so very much to commend it.  So, yes, it was a wise choice after all to serve as the BBC's tribute to a Hollywood legend.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

A Couple of Sweeties

While I will always make a point of watching big-budget movies that I have not caught previously, the selection -- despite the various amount of hype which precedes them -- often leaves me with a 'so what' reaction.  This week's choices included the weird Paul Bettany fallen angel flick "Legion" and Sandra Bullock's "Blind Side".  While the latter was reasonably entertaining, if far from brilliant film-making, I did not really see any evidence of why she deserved a best actress Oscar for her role, other than the unkind reaction that it was 'her turn'.

On the other hand sweet surprises manage to arrive with happy frequency; otherwise I might give up my ambition to try to view any and all movies that come my way.  Often these films arrive unheralded and I know little about their cinematic history or even much about many of the featured players.  I read a lot of film reviews and criticism, both in print and on-line, but every so often I discover a totally delightful feature which had not prevously registered in my cinematic mind.  A recent example was "Bunny and the Bull", a little-known and imaginatively presented British flick from 2009, which I will not discuss here, but would urge you to seek out.  Two other films viewed within the last week were equally engaging:

The Rocker (2008): An American outing for director Peter Cattaneo, who was Oscar-nominated for "The Full Monty" (1997) and who has not exactly been prolific in movieland, this movie stars Rainn Wilson as a would-be rock star drummer, dumped by his band -- who have since made it big -- some twenty years earlier.  Pretty much of a deadbeat existence and financial woes land him at the home of his sister, Jane Lynch, and filling in for the 'grounded' drummer of his nephew's garage band at the upcoming senior prom.  Tasting the trappings of a lifestyle so long denied, he forces his continued participation on the other three dubious teenagers and tries to groom them in the wild, wild ways of life on the road.  He is really an over-enthusiastic rocker who has never managed to grow up, but is happy to begin finding everything that he thinks he deserves -- after footage of his nude drumming appears on You-Tube and makes the group an overnight sensation.

Wilson looked vaguely familiar to me, but I could not place him until I discovered that he was the cheeky drugstore clerk in "Juno" -- a small but memorable role.  Two of his three band colleagues, were completely unknown to me -- Teddy Geiger playing the insecure but talented composer-lyricist and Josh Tad as the chubby, socially introverted nephew on keyboard.  The girl member of the group, Emma Stone, has subsequently become something of a 'flavour of the month' after her role in "Zombieland" and she now has a slew of A-list movies on her filmography.  Geiger's single-parent mom is played brightly by Christina Applegate and two-faced manager Jason Sudeikis rounds out the main cast.  There is nothing overly special about the story but it is a good-natured satire on the foibles of the rock scene and the comeuppance of Wilson's previous band is more than a little satisfying.  One of those musicians is played, incidentally, by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Cooper. 

My Last Five Girlfriends (2009):  This movie was an even bigger unknown to me and I held out little hope for a British indie effort.  The writer-director Julian Kemp is mainly active on TV, making this a rare cinema outing.   However despite its low budget and little-known cast (apart from a couple of high profile cameos, obviously called in as favours), it was an amusingly presented and imaginative riff on the standard rom-com.  Contemplating suicide and downing a packet of pills washed down with vodka, young Duncan composes a note to his last five disastrous girlfriends outlining what has gone wrong with his life.  I had never even heard of actor Brendan Patricks who took this lead, but he portrayed the pleasant, inoffensive, yet thoroughly likeable nerd with verve.  Of his five exes -- very roughly the one who was using him as a stop-gap in her rocky ongoing relationship elsewhere, the unknowable one who forced him to eat some allergenic chocolate with nauseating results, the French one with whom he fell out over a pair of hideous shoes, the longstanding one who shared his inability to commit, and the 'ideal' one who ended up breaking his heart -- I only recognized two of the actresses.  The second ex-flame was played by Jane March, previously known locally as "the sinner from Pinner" after her role in "The Lovers" back in the early '90s and virtually unseen since swimming nude with Bruce Willis in "The Color of Money" back in 1994.  The other known player was the black actress Naomie Harris, who adeptly played Duncan's last, treacherous lover.

However the obscurity of the cast mattered little.  What made this film outstanding was the gentle humour of the tale's presentation.  Duncan's life was represented as a Duncanworld theme park where each bad relationship was shown as a ride that thrilled while it lasted, but then crashed and burned, with the park's customers adding their two cents' worth of sarcastic comments.  There was also Duncan's backstory briefly illustrated by a panorama of Barbie dolls.  Even his would-be suicide was used to create a totally false ending, before showing the viewer the potentially happy one that just might follow.

When you are on a strict diet of uninteresting blockbusters, a couple of sweeties are just what you need to compensate for the bad taste they leave.    

Friday, 8 April 2011

A Bit of This and That

For those of you who have been paying attention, which of course means all of you, when I reviewed "Liliom" (1930) last September, I mentioned that the lead actress, Rose Hobart, had been immortalised in a 1936 avant garde short.  I admitted that I had never seen this eponymous film but said that it sounded fascinating.  Well, now I have seen it -- and it was anything but!  We attended a screening at the National Film Theatre under the pompous collective heading "Collage, Homage and Subversion" where "Rose Hobart" was one of three experimental films being shown. After a seemingly interminable introduction by a nearly unintelligible would-be pundit, this long-sought short was screened and it was not only something of a disappointment, but also a somewhat pointless exercise from the artist Joseph Cornell.  He re-edited her appearances from the B-movie "East of Borneo" deliberately omitting any narrative continuity and altering the soundtrack to suitably portentious music; the result with its very faded print were not at all the experience I had anticipated.

The second film in the programme, "A Movie" (1958) from artist Bruce Connor, was also not as interesting as it might have been, as he cobbled together fairly familiar disaster footage -- collapsing bridges, the Hindenberg, and the atom bomb.  The third film, a slightly longer Italian short from 1965 called "La verifica incerta", did have a certain strange fascination.  It comprised brief clips from recognizable Hollywood scope films (shown elongated in the wrong ratio with noisy Italian overdubbing), intercut in inventive ways -- a series of doors or windows opening or shutting, heroes from one scene interacting with those in another, all done with an underlyingly sly sense of humour.  It was fun in a way to spot Clark Gable, James Coburn, Susan Hayward, and many more in this creative mash-up.  However I doubt I would be tempted to attend a similar programme in the future.

So what else have I been up do?  For a start I have been working my way through a Gloria Swanson box-set and I still have a way to go.  Although she is one of the 'great' names from the silent era, I was not as familiar with her output as I thought I was.  I had previously only seen some of her dated shorts when she began filming as a teenager, the truly remarkable but incomplete "Queen Kelly" shot by Von Stroheim, and the rediscovered 'lost' film "Beneath the Rocks" (1922) which was frankly a little tedioso.  Of course I was more familiar with some of her talkie flops in the 30s and her most iconic role of all in Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950), which will guarantee her immortality.  Anyhow I have now watched three of her movies from 1919 ("Male and Female", Don't Change your Husband", and "Why Change Your Wife") and "The Affairs of Anatol" (1921) -- all produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. I am now a little mystified by her silent super-stardom: she was neither a great beauty nor the intuitive comedienne that legend suggests; she was quite adequate in all four films but her performances fell short of taking my breath away.  Far more interesting were Thomas Meighan in the first of these film's riff on "The Admirable Crichton" and the ill-fated Wallace Reid as Anatol (he died just over a year later from morphine addiction at the age of 33).  In fact in all four movies Swanson came across as the spoiled and petulant woman that she quite probably was in real life.  I'm happy to have watched these DeMille lightweight, racy-for-the-times sex romps and will persevere with the balance of the box set, but I am not convinced that Swanson deserves her place in the Hollywood pantheon -- "Sunset Boulevard" apart. 

Of course the above is just the tip of the iceberg since I last wrote and I have also seen "Hot Tub Time Machine" (a waste of time from the normally reliable John Cusack), "From Paris with Love" (another forgettable outing for the bumptious -- nowadays -- John Travolta), and "Agora" (a strangely plodding story of old Alexandria with Rachel Weisz).  We also managed at long last to clear from the backlog the 1979 Russian epic "Siberiade" -- 260 minutes of Soviet history seen through the eyes of two feuding and eccentric Siberian families, quirky, fascinating, and generally more than a little strange.  And that's not all....but let's leave some of it for next time.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

For some time now we have been hearing about 'chick flicks' -- movies designed to lure young and older gals back to to the pictures, to which boyfriends and husbands must be dragged screaming. You know the sort of film; they are meant to attract 'wimmin' without those hallmarks of modern cinema -- bodily functions, coarse humour, and the flashy pyrotechnics that appeal to the current mainstay of cinema-goers: pubescent teenaged boys. I think the best name for their movie preferences would be 'dick flicks'. "Sucker Punch" illustrates this in spades. It is an adolescent male's wet-dream feminist fantasy -- hot girls kick ass.

 The lead female Emily Browning (a little-known Australian actress with very limited emotive skills) plays a young woman called Baby Doll (think back if you can to Carroll Baker's classic character of this name), whose wicked stepdaddy has had her committed to an institution for the 'mentally insane' so that he can usurp her fortune. As she waits for her upcoming lobotomy -- a common practice of course nowadays! -- her mind fills with fantasies. Of course all of the other patients are nubile young totty and Baby Doll makes friends with girls with the equally unlikely names of Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber. These roles are taken respectively by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, "High School Musical's" Vanessa Hudgens, and TV actress Jamie Chung. Now Cornish is quite a decent versatile actress and Malone is no mean slouch either, but all five ladies, as well as the other inmates, are fetishized into lust objects with low cut tops, skimpy skirts, and mid-thigh stockings. The roles could just as easily have been filled by a selection of playmates of the month.

 Director Zak Snyder has attracted some following with his successful films "300" and "Watchmen", but working here from his own original material he has created a big-budget slice of schlock. Browning's method of coping with the impossible situation in which she finds herself is to create worm-holes into various dreamworlds, where she and her pals battle an assortment of giant samurai, robot monsters, and zombie Nazis -- all of these straight out of the playstation of Snyder's mind. I will admit that these sequences are both imaginative and fairly well done, but they in no way compensate for the fact that the director has failed to provide us with a coherent screenplay or story or much in the way of acting talent.

 Carla Gugino dressed like a brothel's madam, with a phony eastern-european accent, embarrasses herself as the facility's leading therapist, and a weathered Scott Glenn as the guru of Browning's escape fantasies is too laid back for words. It would be a mug's game to argue that the action is really very profound and meaningfully symbolic, as some of the movie's fanboys would have it. It is truly a case of not caring about the fates of the sleazy ciphers on display; the denouement (such as it is) with its offhand deaths, brutal mutilation, and a single escape makes as little sense as the preceding flights of soft-core fancy. Of course this grade-Z movie will probably make a load of cash -- but that's what 'dick flicks' are all about.