Sunday, 29 May 2011

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

For someone whose favourite films date from 'ancient times', I seem to have been reviewing a ridiculous number of modern movies in recent weeks.  Therefore to remind myself that "they don't make them like that anymore", I chose to revisit this film which is something of a cross between a Christmas staple and a classic 'screwball' comedy.  It's not exactly one of the all-time greats, but it's as pleasant a way of wiling away the time as many.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a women's magazine columnist, sort of the Martha Stewart of her day, whose homey recipes and glorious tales of her husband, baby, and farm are loved by millions of housewives.  The trouble is she is not a wife nor a mother nor a farm-lady, and she can't cook.  When her pompous and irascible publisher, Sydney Greenstreet, involves her in welcoming a recovering war hero into her home for the Christmas holiday, she can't get a word in edgeways to escape this impossible situation.  To make matters worse, he also invites himself.  Fortunately, her persistent beau -- a full-of-himself boorish architect played by Reginald Gardiner -- has a gentleman's farm and can provide a borrowed babe that his housekeeper (Una O'Connor) looks after while its mom in on her war-factory shift; he'll save her job for her, if she is finally prepared to marry him. As for the cooking, there is her Uncle Felix, a Hungarian emigre and restaurant owner (S.Z. Sakall), who has been providing most of 'her' recipes anyhow.

When the young sailor, played by Dennis Morgan, arrives early, it is lust at first sight, and excuse after excuse must be found to avoid the marriage ceremony in front of the judge who has been stashed away in the library; meanwhile she and Gardiner must pretend to revel in domestic married bliss.  Although Morgan -- never an A-list leading man, but always an adequate player -- was 37 when the film was made and Stanwyck 38, they both seem much younger and have terrific screen chemistry.  In films since she was 20 and never a 'glamorpuss', Stanwyck is always down to earth and believable as a strong woman. Although she wasn't usually called upon for comic roles, she could show a fine comedic sensibility in films like "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire" and her touch here is beautifully light.  She gets great support from the rest of the cast.  Morgan has the opportunity to show off his fine Irish tenor.  Sakall, or "Cuddles" as he was affectionately known in Hollywood, plays his usual scatty and amusing European.  O'Connor and Gardiner (his idea of romance is to drone on about heating pipes) also contribute to the farce.  However, it is Greenstreet who provides the cherry on top.  For someone who did not appear in movies before his 62nd year and who was pushing 300 pounds, he provided some indelible and highly memorable characterisations in what was only an eight-year career.  At one stage Sakall refers to him a 'the fat man', a cheeky look back to his 1941 film debut in "The Maltese Falcon". 

This film is remembered with fondness by many movie buffs, so it came as something of a shock when it was remade for cable in 1992, directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people.  (Fortunately he did not take any of the main roles and only appears in an unbilled cameo).  However Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Tony Curtis in the Greenstreet role were pallid substitutes for the original players.  I now learn that a remake is in development for 2012 with Jennifer Garner in the lead -- and I think once again, why can't these people leave well enough alone.  As Sakall's Uncle Felix might have exclaimed, this is NOT "hunky dunky"!!   

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Given the god-awful reviews this fourth entry in the franchise has received, you might well wonder what possessed us to go to the cinema to view it.  Well, for starters, we did enjoy the first three movies, largely because of Johnny Depp's great likeability with his camp rendering of Captain Jack Sparrow, and we could see little reason not to expect more of the same jolly hijinks.  Also I was curious to discover whether 3D would add anything to the entertainment equation, since all blockbusters now seem duty-bound to embrace this technology.

There is no denying that the film is something of an overstuffed, bloated, and lazily-scripted mess, but Depp continues to carry the viewer along with his cheeky charm and occasionally improvised jolly quips.  It's a stand-alone entry in the series with the tiresome characters portrayed by Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom in the previous films written out -- and I for one am happy to see the back of them.  The new star attraction is meant to be Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard's daughter and Depp's old flame, but I have never been enamoured of her English-speaking roles (for starters she is difficult to understand -- mumble, mumble) and I do not find her the beauty that some do.  Ian McShane as her ruthless dad with his ship's crew of zombies is a welcome addition, but Geoffrey Rush seems to be coasting in his return as the now respectable Barbossa.  The stretched-out plot is based on a race by the British, the Spaniards, and the various pirates to find the Fountain of Youth; this turns out to be something of a McGuffin, as the mechanics of the tale are nearly impossible to follow. The convoluted story is not aided by the useless mermaid/Holy Joe subplot which is simply filler or mulch, and when I would like to know did mermaids develop vampire fangs!  Depp's role model Keith Richards returns for a welcome cameo, but Depp apart, there is little else to amuse one in all the frantic derring-do.

As for the 3-D, this worked well in the film's exciting opening scenes, as Sparrow escapes the gallows and is chased through London by a horde of redcoats.  In the bright daylight and panoramic background, the third dimensional effects are startling;  they are far less effective in most of the later gloomy settings.  I honestly believe that the movie would have been no less entertaining without the added dimension, but we seem to be lumbered with the technology as something of a 'must' nowadays, and too often it adds zilch.  Meanwhile we are promised at least another two P of C films to come. One can't help but wonder whether Depp will tire of the character before we do or whether he can continue to lure us into his increasingly tiresome adventures. 

When I returned home I watched "Mary and Max", a 2009 Australian claymation (for adults) and found this a far more satisfying and intelligent experience.  Unfortunately, small but charming movies will never find the same wide audience that the charismatic Mr. Depp continues to attract.    

Thursday, 19 May 2011

My Education vs. An Education (2008)

Usually when I have made one of my pilgrimages to the National Film Theatre -- most often to view some obscurity in the furtherance of my cinema education -- I feel obliged to go into some detail and to record my thoughts for future reference.  Unfortunately the film in question is sometimes something of a disappointment, especially if I have been reading about it for years before catching up with it.  Such was the case with the Russian silent "Bed and Sofa" (1927).  Banned here on its release (not that I was around then) because of its amoral subject matter, it is occasionally mentioned as an insightful glimpse into Soviet life of the time.

Its director Abram Room was apparently one of the leading masters of the 1920s, but he has since faded into obscurity -- and no, the name means nothing to me either.  The original Russian title is sometimes translated as "Menage a Trois" which gives you some idea of the film's subject matter. Because of the housing shortage, a married proletariat couple take in a lodger -- an old war comrade of the husband -- who sleeps on the sofa, while they snooze on the (rather small) double bed behind a screen.  When hubby is away on business, the friend inveigles his way into the bed, relegating the husband to the sofa on his return.  An uneasy way of life follows with the husband and friend having a better time in each others' company than the wife and with occasional shifts in their sleeping patterns.  But no, the wife doesn't end up on the sofa with the other two in the bed, which might have been even more shocking for the time.  Instead, the wife becomes pregnant and, without knowing which of the two is the father, is encouraged to go to an abortion clinic (apparently these did a roaring trade then).  Finally she leaves the pair of them in pursuit of the Utopian future promised for all by the country's ideological masters.

Although played broadly as potential comedy, I found little amusing about the tale -- although others in the theatre were chuckling away.  The only really interesting bits were in the scene-setting shots of Moscow, aerial views of the workers hustling about like so many ants in their hill, and some dynamic montage of train journeys.

And so to the British film in which rising actress Carey Mulligan found her breakthrough role, "An Education".  Despite its being hyped to the skies on its release, I had not seen it previously and was not at all certain what I would think.  She plays a sixteen-year old schoolgirl, Jenny, whose upwardly-aspiring surburban parents push her to the academic dream of an Oxford degree.  She has a 'cute' meeting with the much older David, played by Peter Sarsgaard (although not pointedly as an American), and is dazzled by his apparent worldliness.  Together with his mate Dominic Cooper and his louche girlfriend, Rosalind Pike playing a true 'dimbo , she relishes their would-be sophistication with classical concerts, jazz sessions, nightclubs, swish restaurants, and dirty weekends in first Oxford and then Paris.  Mulligan has vowed not to lose her virginity until she turns 17 and David is just the man to oblige.  When he proposes, her parents eagerly encourage marriage to a man of whom they know little and who has pulled the wool over their eyes as well, thinking that this is even better than going to university in terms of securing her future.  Only after she has dropped out of school before taking her exams, does she discover that dear David is a married family man with a run of affairs behind him -- but at least she is not pregnant, unlike several of his former lovers.

There have been indications throughout that Sarsgaard and Cooper are less than they seem, upper class 'wide boys' involved in art swindles, Rachmanism (dubious real estate fiddles), and more.  However, Sarsgaard's David seems nearly as plausible to us as he does to Jenny and we are almost as unpleasantly surprised as she when the truth emerges.  He has 'educated' her in the fripperies of the high life, but he has also shown her the meanness of the real world.  Her loss of innocence is turned into an old-fashioned morality play.

The sharp script was adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by leading journalist Lynn Barber.  The fact that she wrote this while her aging parents were still alive does suggest something of a mean streak on her part, since her submissive mother and her bumptious but unsure father, wonderfully nailed by Alfred Molina, come off as grotesque characters,  The caricature of her bigoted headmistress, an unworthy role for Emma Thompson, is not any kinder.  Only her spinsterish teacher, played by Olivia Williams, whom she had previously disparaged, comes off with any grace.  All in all this is a solid film, probably worth viewing, but far from a great one.  

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Kanchivaram (2008)

 Although I bill myself as something of a film buff, there are certainly some great gaps in my cinema Indian movies for starters.  Yes, I have seen many of the 'classic' films like "Mahal" (1949) and "Mother India" (1957) and I probably know all of Satyajit Ray's output.  In addition I have viewed a number of the 'breakout' sagas of recent years that have received widespread distribution outside their own niche market, but I couldn't begin to discuss competently modern Indian cinema, its stars, and directors, and I have quite probably never seen a 'Bollywood' film on the big screen.  Therefore when Channel Four does one of its occasional Indian film seasons (normally in the wee small hours to schedule the usually lengthy flicks), I try to watch a selection of these -- to watch them all might be more than even I can manage.

In the past few weeks I have notched up three of their offerings.  The first was "3 Idiots" (2009), a rather jolly 'where are they now?' comedy of prankish school chums meeting after some years (and apparently one of the highest-grossing Indian films.)  The second was the lushly lensed "Raavanan" starring ex-Miss World beauty Aishwarya Rai as the wife of a ruthless police detective kidnapped by the roguish bandit that he has been pursuing.   However it was the above film, quite unlike many that I have seen, which left the most lingering impression.

For a start, unlike most Indian movies made in one of the major languages of the country (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali -- don't expect me to me any more knowledgeable) this one was scripted in Tamil, one of 22 recognized languages in the country and the first to be declared a classical language.  Since it is spoken in a relatively small area of the subcontinent, the film received only a limited release.  However, after it won the national awards for best film and best actor, Prakash Raj, it was finally scheduled for country-wide release.  The title refers to a local city, formerly the center of the silk-weaving trade, where Raj's character Venkadam is one of the best artisans for the local bigwig.  He and his colleagues normally receive only seven rupees for one of their intricately patterned saris which might in turn be sold for a thousand times that price. 

Set in the period from the late 20s to the end of World War II, the film focuses on the statement that most Indians of the period coveted silk vestments twice in their lives -- for the bride when they marry and for the shroud when they die.  However their labour was so exploited that they could never save sufficient to fulfill these dreams.  Even Venkadam's father who was so masterful that he received  commissions from a local king, was buried with only a small strand of silk connecting his big toes to ease his journey to the next world.  When our hero brings home his bride, the villagers gossip that she wears only a cotton sari.  Then when a daughter is born to them, he pledges (to his wife's dismay) that he will ensure that she is clad in silk on her wedding day.  He explains to her that he has been scrimping and saving small coins all his life to prepare for the next wedding, but this is soon lost when his feckless brother-in-law implores a loan with the threat that he might otherwide need to return his wife to the family.  So Venkadam begins stealing small skiens of silk (concealed in his mouth through the daily body searches) and spends his evenings in his barn -- off-limits to wife and daughter because of mythical snakes -- weaving the bridal sari to be.

All of this is told in flashbacks during the endless journey on a rickety bus from the prison where he has now been consigned. He has been granted compassionate leave for a few days to deal with a family tragedy -- what this is we only learn later and it provides the incredibly sad and tearful twist to the tale.  However the film is first and foremost the history of the weavers' collectives that were formed in India from the late 40s onwards and which still exist today.  The movie is not exactly an apologia for communism -- Venkadam and his co-workers are influenced by a visiting communist scholar who has taken refuge in their community during the period when communism was outlawed in India; our protagonist presents their demands to the intransigent 'master' and leads them into devestating strike action.  Only his daughter's impending wedding forces him back to work-- and back to stealing -- since the promised sari is not yet finished.  The movie is not a whitewashing of the growth of communism amongst these poor villagers, but it makes a strong case for the economic roots that ensured the ideology's appeal.

As I'm sure you know, nearly all Indian films are punctuated with extravagant song and dance numbers (which accounts for the length of these movies).  If I am honest I will admit to you that I occasionally fast-forward through many of these, since my ear is not attuned to the sound.  The refreshing thing about this particular film is that there are no such intervals relocating the action into colourful fantasy.  The only song used is a traditional-sounding lullaby sung by a group of local women at the ceremony marking his beloved daughter's birth and reprised at the film's tragic end.  The movie's director and writer, Priyadarshan, was previously best-known for broad Malayam comedies, ripped off from overseas movies.  This film, whose subtitle is "The Tyranny of Silk", represents a significant change of pace into moving, intelligent drama.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Cedar Rapids (2011)

So there we were in Newcastle with a few hours to kill and the local multiplex cinema beckoning.  The only trouble was that there was virtually nothing being offered on its many screens that we particularly wanted to see.  The above movie which has just opened and which received pleasant enough reviews (if not particularly scintillating ones) seemed to be the least offensive option and did indeed provide a pleasant enough timekiller.  This is not to say that I would go so far as to commend the film to your attention, but if ever you need to kill a few hours, you could do far worse.

The director, Miguel Arteta, has made several gentle films like "Star Maps" (1997), "Chuck and Buck" (2000) , and "The Good Girl" (2002) -- possibly Jennifer Anniston's best movie, which showed potential talent for dealing with flawed and complex characters. This film continues his run.  Ed Helms, whom I only know from "The Hangover" but who came to fame in the U.S. version of "The Office", stars as Tim Lippe, a naive and gormless insurance salesman from the back of beyond burg of Brown Valley. Wisconsin.  He's involved in an energetic sexual affair with the older and more sophisticated Sigourney Weaver (who was his 7th grade teacher).  From his viewpoint she's his potential fiancee and his one true love; from hers, six months after her divorce, he's one of several randy youngsters helping her make up for lost time.  However Lippe is too inexperienced to understand this and totally relies upon her approval.

When the insurance company's best sales rep blots his copy book, Lippe's boss sends him to represent the firm at the regional convention, giving him a long list of 'dos' and 'don'ts', and entrusting him to obtain the Two-Diamond award for their office for the fourth consecutive year.  The conference is being held in the eponymous Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is hardly New York, London, or Paris, but which represents the height of sophistication to Lippe who has never before flown anywhere and who barely knows what a credit card is for.  There he meets his 'roomies' earnest Isiah Whitlock, Jr. and John C. Reilly's sex-mad Ziegler, whom he was specifically instructed to avoid.  Together with their gal-pal from other conventions, Anne Heche, they do their best not so much to lead him astray, but to unwind him.  When the lifelong teetotaller is shamed into social drinking, he frantically scans the available bottles and ends up overdosing on cream sherry.  That is just the start of the hijinks in which they involve him, including Heche-sex (and she's a married lady), drug-taking, fisticuffs, and having to bribe the regional Mr. Big (a supposedly upright and uptight Kurtwood Smith) to retain the big award.  As an indication of how parochial the whole deal actually is, $1600 in traveller's cheques is sufficient to secure the coveted prize.  We're not talking big time anything in Cedar Rapid's bright lights.

The film is mildly entertaining and completely watchable, without being hee-haw hilarious.  Reilly does his usual shtick and helps to carry the action as poor little Tim finds himself getting in over his head. Of course, those of us who are actually good at heart (like him) will see their virtue rewarded in the final reel and the baddies will reap their comeuppance.  One loose end, a sub-plot featuring a local whore Bree, is left dangling, when there was a strong suggestion that she just might be redeemed by our hapless hero.  However this is soon forgotten as the movie wraps up its other strands in its attempt to leave us with a 'feel-good' resolution for its likeable players.  

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

4, 3, 2, 1 (2010)

The above film is the second as a director from actor and writer Noel Clarke.  This 'great white hope' of British entertainment is actually a talented black man who won the Olivier Award in 2003 as the most promising newcomer (for acting) and the BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2009 (for his film work).  He wrote and was one of the main leads in the well-received film "Kidulthood" (2006), which dealt with a panoply of teen-aged problems on London's 'mean streets' and followed this with "Adulthood" (2008), which he wrote and directed, continuing the story of his character on his release from gaol six years on.  Both films were relatively gritty ensemble pieces and were interesting, if not exciting cinema outings, technically with their finger on the pulse of what it is to be young and relatively disadvantaged in the metropolis.

In the above movie he uses a number of actors from the earlier films, giving them new characters, but still largely on the criminal fringe.  However the story technically focuses on four girl friends and the title is meant to represent '4 Girls, 3 Days, 2 Cities, l Chance' which makes it all sound a little more clever than it actually is.  The girls are Ophelia Loviband as the one puzzled by the break-up of her family and trying to find a note that her departed mother has left for her.  Tamsin Egerton plays the rich and spoiled one whose parents have bought her a swish flat (complete with a panic room!), a talented pianist who is supposedly travelling to New York for an audition but who actually wants to use the trip to hook up with a chatroom boyfriend (and who loses her virginity to an impostor).  Shanika Warren-Markland plays the black one in a boisterous white Brazilian family and the supposed free thinker who lets us watch her 'hot' girl-on-girl sex.  Finally we have American starlet Emma Roberts trying to shed her earlier feisty, kooky teenaged roles as the dogsbody of a dysfunctional family who is forced to fill in on the night shift at a local convenience store in the place of her injured stepfather and feckless sister. (Why she is in this movie is something of a mystery).  In the meantime there has been a major diamond robbery in Antwerp, seemingly covered non-stop on British television news, which involves some of the local yobbos, including Mr. Clarke.

Thw film is presented in four sections focusing in turn on one of the girls and rather cleverly wraps up their interaction over the the three days in the final scenes.  However it is all rather a load of codswallop and not really terribly well thought out (or well-written) or convincing.  There is far too much emphasis on the girls in their scanties and some carefully photographed nudity (where there is nothing to see).  The diamond heist is used as a kind of McGuffin and adds to the film's lack of credibility as the stolen gems end up in a can of Pringles and in the hand of the now suicidal Loviband.  All of the girls are OK in their roles but they make an unlikely band of faithful friends.  Also on hand are unexpected and probably unnecessary cameos from Kevin Smith, Mandy Patinkin, and pop singer Eve, creating rather useless and underused additional characters.  

The trouble here is that Clarke is trying to include too much in a way that doesn't fit well with his flashy cutting and has therefore not really succeeded in giving us a particularly memorable movie.  Also someone should tell him that he is now getting too old to play one of the street kids.