Tuesday, 28 June 2011

With a Song in My Heart (1952)

I wrote recently that 20th Century Fox was not known as a hotbed of musicals a la MGM, and here I am again complimenting them on a splendid musical film -- although this one is really a biopic of a famous singer of the time, Jane Froman, nowadays largely unknown. The popular singer with the contralto voice became swiftly successful on radio and in cluband and she introduced a treasury of the era's 'standard' classic ballads.  Here she is personified by Susan Hayward, Oscar-nominated for the role, but the intense actress does more than just portray Froman; she studied and absorbed her body-language, her song phrasing, and her overall persona with the result that although she is in fact lip-synching the nearly 30 tunes that Froman provides for the soundtrack, you would place bets that Hayward is indeed doing her own singing -- that's how natural it all looks and sounds.  The film's musical director Alfred Newman actually won that year's Academy Award and he was in competition with "Singin' in the Rain".

The story is relatively faithful to the singer's own life.  Encouraged by her first husband, a musician well-played by David Wayne, her career takes off into the stratosphere, while his goes nowhere -- although the film is not any sort of riff on "A Star is Born".  On her first air trip overseas to entertain the troops, the flight crashes and she was one of the lucky survivors.  She was kept afloat by a pilot (played soppily by Rory Calhoun) portrayed here as the 'love of her life'. (They did indeed eventually marry, but soon divorced before her retirement and husband number three).  Despite horrific bodily injuries requiring dozens of separate and painful operations, she kept up her spirits, encouraged by her down-to-earth nurse and companion Clancy, played by the always-memorable Thelma Ritter, and continued to entertain both at home and on the battlefield throughout the 40s, despite the wheelchairs and the crutches. There are two especially touching scenes containing an early role for the young Robert Wagner as she sings to him in a New York nightclub and then recognises him amongst the badly injured soldiers in a European hospital and draws him out of his shell-shocked silence.  In fact the whole end scene with its American Medley celebrating the various hometowns and home states of the cheering GIs is as tear-jerking (in a nice way) as could be.  Irresistible.

A final few words in praise of character actress Ritter: She was one of those players who managed to walk away with their scenes, starting with her first bit part as a disgruntled shopper in Macy's toy department in l946's "Miracle on 34th Street". She was Oscar-nominated both for her work in the above movie and for five other films ("All About Eve", "The Mating Season", "Pickup on South Street", "Pillow Talk", and "Birdman of Alcatraz"), but she never won.   More's the pity, since she was one of those largely unsung actors who make even the most fantastic scenario just that little bit more real.  Cheers, Thelma! 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Bridesmaids (2011)

The big trouble with movies which are hyped to kingdom come is that they often prove to be something of a disappointment when viewed or rather not quite as wonderful as rumours have it. Had I caught up with this film in due course rather than making a special trip to see it at the cinema, I might well have found it slightly more appealing and satisfying.  It is being sold to the public as the movie that finally proves that women can be as "funny" as men, if "funny" is taken in its modern context as being bogged down in fart, vomit and sex 'jokes'.  Coming from the Judd Apatow stable the movie is more or less what one expects from his past productions, only this time seen from the female prospective.  On this level it is a film that might appeal to both young men and young women in its cruder moments, rather than being labelled a 'chick flick', but it is more interesting as a dissection of the meaning of friendship.  Maybe you can accuse me as having had a humour bypass, since by and large I didn't find it particularly amusing (although one or two bits of business did make me laugh) and there was certainly a fair sprinkling of 'walk-outs' in the audience.  There was not, on the other hand, what could even vaguely be described as 'roars of laughter' during its grosser moments.

The movie has been described as the breakout role for its star and co-writer Kristen Wiig.  She plays something of a loser, Annie, whose bakery business has failed, whose finances are perilous, and whose love life has come down to a 'fuck-buddy', an uncredited Jon Hamm.  When her last remaining single friend and best friend since childhood, Maya Rudolph, announces her engagement and asks her to be her maid of honor, the stage is set for the somewhat crude comic action. She wants to help make the day special for her buddy, but is not set for the interference created by rich-bitch Rose Byrne's Helen who undermines all of her plans and who wants to usurp the BFF role.  Added to the mix are three other bridesmaids, two of whom bring little to the party apart from some bad language and some unnecessary girl-on-girl sex; the third, the groom's sister played by the massively overweight Melissa McCarthy is a breath of fresh air and very nearly (but not quite) the best thing in the film.

It does remain firmly Wiig's show.  She begins a tentative relationship with a laid-back state trooper (although why this role was given to Irish actor Chris O'Dowd -- charming as he may be -- is a good question).  She 'ruins' the proposed hen trip to Vegas by getting out of the control on the flight through a mixture of drugs and drinks (provided by Helen) with the result that the whole party are ignominously off-loaded en route and taken back home by bus.  She loses her apartment and has to move back home with Mom, a flaky Jill Clayburgh in her last role.  Finally she loses it completely at the Helen-organised over-the-top shower party and falls out with Rudolph.  In the film's most talked about scene her choice of a dodgy restaurant lunch results in all of them bar Helen losing control of their bodily functions (from all ends) in a white-carpeted, hoity-toity bridal salon.  Wiig's script is full of sharp one-liners and potentially amusing bits of business, but the film could have used a steadier hand from director Paul Feig and much tighter editing.  It certainly dragged in places between the 'funny' bits and possibly could have spent more time on the real meaning of friendship which burst through in the end.

I thought the sub-plot of Annie's peculiar relationship with her flat-mate played by the strange British comic Matt Lucas, together with Rebel Wilson playing his fat slag of a freeloading sister, added zilch to the plot and could well have been dropped completely.  This would have cut the over two hours running time to a more manageable and sharper whole.  Finally you might ask if I found any one part of the shambles really amusing; yes, I thought it hilarious when I saw Rudolph modelling her much-vaunted Parisian original wedding dress -- a monstrosity to end all monstrosities.  Maybe my sense of humour is weirder than I thought -- or just not sufficiently potty-based for modern sensibilities. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Rose of Washington Square (1939)

This musical from 20th Century Fox, a studio not particularly associated with the genre, has so much going for it.  For a start it was the third (and last) teaming of two of Fox's most popular stars, Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, after the success of "In Old Chicago" (1937) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938).  Secondly it was the penultimate acting role for its third lead, Al Jolson -- a man not happy with playing third fiddle.  Thirdly it finally appeared after both the studio and its three leads were sued for invasion of privacy or somesuch.  Finally, I should mention that it manages to be very entertaining.

To deal with the scandalous part first, the story of a rising Ziegfield star (Faye) and her criminally inclined, no-goodnik boyfriend (Power) was a barely fictionalised riff on the Fanny Brice/Nick Arnstein love affair more familiar to the modern viewer from Barbra Streisand's "Funny Girl" (1968).  The fact that Faye's character Rose Sargent was translated into an Irish shiksa and that Power was also wasped up into Barton DeWitt Clinton did not prevent Brice from suing all and sundry, especially as her best-known song "My Man" was used in the film's denouement.  No contest --the case was settled out of court.

I could enthuse ad nauseum about my idol Tyrone-baby.  While I seldom get too excited about an actor's looks, normally preferring to notice their talent or general screen appeal, there is no escaping the fact that Power was nothing short of gorgeous -- despite being described as too monkey-like at his first screen test.  His looks coarsened somewhat with age, but he was still strikingly handsome before his untimely death in 1958 at the age of 44. Even in his last full feature, the marvelous "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), he was still a talent to be reckoned with (he was after all a fourth-generation actor) and better looking than most.  In "Rose" he was in his prime, all of 25 years old, and a beauty.  Faye was a year younger and they make a fine couple -- even if he was the better looking of the two.  Her swing singing style was very much her own, even when reprising the Brice classic and she could dance with the best of them.  There is one remarkable number where she and her chorus line puff on cigarettes during their energetic dance, throw them down, and grab new lit ones out of thin air -- all before CGI.

As for Jolson, then in his fifties, he was under contract to the studio and Darryl F. Zanuck was anxious to get his money's worth, thus plunking him into his role here of Faye's ex-partner, mentor, and concerned best friend/spurned love interest.  This didn't please him much (nor as reports have it Faye), but it did give him the opportunity to reprise his hit tunes: Toot-Toot Tootsie, Rock-a-Bye your Baby, Pretty Baby, Mammy, and California Here I Come for our delight and the record.  OK, I know that his slightly hammy 'blackface' performances are now considered infra dig, but it was a convention of the 1920s when this film is set and one accepts the historic correctness.

The supporting cast -- always a treat for me in films of this period -- includes such familiar faces (even if you can't recall the names) as William Frawley, Joyce Compton, Hobart Cavanaugh (memorable as a drunken balcony-heckler during a Jolson performance and dragged into becoming part of his act), Horace McMahon, E.E. Clive, and even an early appearance from bandleader Louis Prima.  Add to this a smashing speciality act (often a feature of early musicals) from dancers Igor and Tanya and one must conclude that director Gregory Ratoff -- far better known as a character actor -- was not too shoddy a choice when he convinced his pal Zanuck that he would like to direct as well act.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Happy Guys (1934)

We very nearly didn't go to see this film which would have been a shame.  I bought the tickets when I noticed it described in the BFI's advance programme as the first major Soviet musical, complete with "a manic energy and surreal absurdity that wouldn't disgrace the Marx Brothers".  However on the afternoon of the performance it was positively bucketing down with rain and the thought of dragging our weary bones through the deluge was unappealing.  In the nick of time, the sun broke through and we decided that wimping out was not an option.  And a good thing too!

The film was absolutely wonderful -- a ray of sunshine in itself and I am thankful not to have missed it.  The above title was given in the programme, but the actual title on the print was "Merry Fellows" and it is apparently also known as "Moscow Laughs".  The movie is by the same director, Grigori V. Aleksandrov, and has the same female lead (later the director's wife), Lyubov' Orlova, as Joe Stalin's 'favourite film' which I enthused about last year (   If anything, this one was even better.  A shepherd, played by Russian jazz musician Leonid Utyosov, (very reminiscent of a Danny Kaye type) is mistaken for a renowned conductor and invited to perform at a swank hotel -- one is amazed that such places even existed in Stalin's l930s.  Previously we had seen him musically leading his flock of sheep, goats, cows and pigs and engaging them in a roll-call by their individual names and national affiliations (for some reason 'The English' were a bunch of pigs -- should I be offended?).  When he plays his pipe at the posh soiree, his animals hear his call and soon invade the premises with hilarious results.  This is the first of a number of comic set pieces, all of them endearing, including his again taking the place of the renowned maestro at a concert and inadvertently 'conducting' a wild rendition of Ravel's Bolero, plus a concert performance by his new ragtag band where the instruments have become waterlogged and his bandmates perform their music a cappella, very like the "Comedian Harmonists" who recently charmed me.  Throughout all of the performers were an absolute delight and the 'jazz' music from composer Isaac Dunaevskii was remarkably catchy.

This was the first full-length feature from the director, who as I have written previously started off as an assistant to the great Eisenstein, yet the movie nearly didn't seen the light of day.  In those days all developing film projects has to be discussed by political committees and the director's "Jazz Comedy" as it was originally called was considered subversive and too 'American'.  The Communist Youth newspaper, on the other hand, welcomed it and supported the director's intention to make 'cinema for the millions'.  When accused of not dealing with the 'problematics' of Soviet doctrine, he retorted that he was trying to resolve the problem of laughter.  Eventually Uncle Joe Stalin gave the movie his personal green light, saying "It's a very happy film. I feel as though I have been on holiday for a month. It will be useful to show it to all of our workers and collective farmers".  And so one of the most popular films in Soviet cinema history finally received its debut.  Ironically the man who was in charge of the Soviet cinema industry at the time and the man ultimately responsible for both this film and "Volga-Volga" was executed in the purges of 1938.  So much for pleasing Stalin!

Unfortunately neither of these movies appear to be available on tape or disc so you would need to be as lucky as I have been to be able to view them.  I would love to be able to see both of them again and can only hope that some enterprising person makes them available for our viewing pleasure some time in the not too distant future.  I wonder if they are on Russian DVDs (without subtitles of course) -- I must investigate, since the physical comedy alone would make such a purchase more than worthwhile.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Not in the English language...

For someone who thinks she has seen or will soon see nearly every English-speaking movie ever made (I'm aware that this is probably a gross exaggeration), I do enjoy delving into foreign-language films as a leavening.  (There is also the factor that as my hearing worsens with age, I can often follow these films more easily with their subtitles, rather than trying to fathom the mumbly, mumbly vocal skills of some modern actors).  We have recently just ploughed through a collection of five Brigitte Bardot movies which has been gathering dust on the ' DVDs waiting to be viewed' shelf.  Ploughed is the operative verb as these movies made between 1955 and 1969 ranged between the tolerably coy and the extremely yawnful -- "Two Weeks in September" felt more like two months.   Fortunately many of the foreign films we watch are far more rewarding; here are two from the last few days:

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009):  This Argentinian movie was the surprise foreign film winner at last year's Oscars, beating the more highly fancied " The White Ribbon" and "A Prophet".  Having only seen the former of those two at the time, I would have predicted that it was unbeatable; however it is not the first time (nor the last I wager) that my preferences were at odds with the Academy voters'. Having finally caught up with this film I am still not convinced that it is the more deserving of the two, but I can confirm that it is a smart, well-written and well-acted movie for an adult audience -- which in itself is refreshing nowadays.  I am familiar with its lead actor, Ricardo Darin, from a number of recent gems like "Nine Queens" and "Son of the Bride" and know him to be a solid actor.  Here he portrays a retired prosecuting attorney, still haunted by an unresolved case of rape and murder from some twenty years previous.  The movie dips back and forward between the mid 70s and the mid 90s, following the story and its consequences on a number of the players touched by this violent crime.  It mixes a detective film with more than one long-running love story with a not so subtle exposure of the miscarriages of justice blotting Argentina's past.  All in all, this is a movie for grown-ups and in the end a worthy Oscar winner.

Love Exposure (2008): This Japanese movie could never have been nominated for many foreign language awards in the West, although it did well on the Far East festival circuit, largely because of its extreme length and offbeat (to say the least) subject matter.  It is more than a little hard to justify any movie that is nearly four hours long and even more so when it is not a complicated historical saga like "Gone with the Wind" or a martial epic, but which spends its time on the perverse lives of three young misfits.  Yet my attention was held throughout -- although I wisely chose to view it in two dollops to pacify the ants in my pants!!  I have not seen any of the director Shion Sono's earlier films other than the strangely weird "Exte" about killer hair, but I now think that his back catalogue is worth investigating.

How to briefly summarise this odd movie?  Our main hero Yu is the young son of a religious Catholic family; when his mother is dying, she gives him a statue of the Virgin Mary and makes him promise to let her know when he has found his own 'Mary' as an adult.  Devastated by his wife's death, his father trains for the priesthood but moves from being a caring pastor to his flock to an unhinged martinet to his son, forcing him to confess daily to crimes he has not committed.  (It does not help that the priest has become venally involved with a ditzy woman who has come to his service).  In order to please his father with real sins, schoolboy Yu takes up with a group of street hoodlums involved in shoplifting and other petty crimes.  He is introduced to a local mobster whose speciality is up-skirt knicker snaps, which Yu masters through grace, cunning, and his growing martial skills, and he trains his gang in this 'art'.  I never cease to be amazed by new Japanese sexual perversions that I stumble across at the movies; I understand that there is as big a market there for this particular fetish as there is for tying up naked ladies in a series of artistically complicated knots. Despite the plethora of arousing photos that he has delivered, Yu is still a virgin and unable to achieve an erection, since he has not yet met 'his Mary'.  All this changes when he lays eyes on schoolgirl Yoko's undies after her skirt blows up in the wind and the front of his trousers bulges up beyond reasonable belief.  I did say upfront that this movie is a strange one...

However at the time of their meeting (when he is incidentally protecting her from being attacked by a gang of yobbos), he is in drag-- the result of losing a bet with his mates as to which of them has recently captured the best up-skirt shot.  With his long black wig and sexy slouch hat, he introduces himself as Miss Scorpion (a homage to the four vigilante 'Scorpion' flicks from the l970s) and Yoko fancies herself in love with her 'female' saviour.  To make matters worse she has become the would-be ward of the same very promiscuous woman who previously tempted Yu's father and who is now back in his life; Yu and Yoko are expected to live as brother and sister while he is besotted with her and she desires her would-be lesbian lover.  (There is also Yoko's backstory of having severed her own father's member after years of abuse, but I won't go into that now).  Into the tale comes our third main character, an immoral young woman who has been following Yu's photographic activities and who works as a temptress for a cult religion.  She is looking for a nice Catholic family to bring into their fold for propaganda purposes and Yu, Yoko, the priest and his floozy fill the bill nicely.

And so it goes on for the best part of four hours...  You don't quite need the patience of a saint to  sit through these shenanigans (it is hardly Bela Tarr slow deadliness), since the movie manages to be amusing as well as outrageous.  However a good dose of tolerance for the perversities of the world and a somewhat off-kilter sense of humour would serve you well.  And do give yourself your own intermission halfway through!

Friday, 3 June 2011

Those Wonderful Movie Cranks (1978)

No, there is not a film named in honour of Pretty Pink Patty and her like!  There is however this somewhat obscure Czech movie from actor-director Jiri Menzel.  Good old friend Richard (the one with the small cinema in a shed at the bottom of his garden) does occasionally turn up gems that were previously unknown to me -- and this is a rather sweet case in point.

Menzel who is probably best known for his "Closely Observed Trains" (1966), is one of the few well-known Czech directors who has not ventured further afield, i.e. 'Gone Hollywood'.  While he has not directed any films since 2006's well-received "I Served the King of England", he still makes frequent appearances as an actor.  In this lovingly conceived movie he creates a billet-doux to early cinema and its pioneers.  The movie's alternate title is "Magicians of the Silverscreen". Set in 1907,  the film's hero is a man who scratches out a living with his travelling picture-show, projecting his one-reel films on bed-sheet screens and thrilling his provincial audiences with 'moving photographs'.  His dream is to open a full-time cinema in bustling Prague -- an ambition which everyone believes is doomed to fail, even if he could raise the necessary money and obtain the necessary permits.  Somewhat of a lecher at the best of times, he pins his hopes on wooing and wedding a randy, rich widow.

Not only has Menzel created original one-reelers which capture the frantic pace and slapstick humour of the early, primitive flickers, but he has also shot the surrounding film in tones of sepia, thereby reconstructing a ravishing backdrop for the period.  The director himself plays a young photographer with no economic ambitions, but a man who wants to capture his Prague of the present for posterity.  I was not familiar with any of the cast, although the lead, Rudolph Hrusinsky, did indeed look familiar to me; apparently he has appeared in some 144 roles, so that's not too surprising.  However most of the cast were charming, including the hero's long-suffering young daughter who provides the music for his showings, another fetching young lady whom he promised to look after following her father's death (who is foisted upon Menzel's character), and even the fusty widow-lady.  There was also an actress protraying a grande dame of Czech theatre whose classic performances our hero wants to immortalise on film, a la Sarah Bernhardt, to make the medium appear more respectable -- even if no one can hear the histrionic speeches she is mouthing. 

Unless one is willing to accept the film's nostalgic charm or is interested in cinema's origins, it would be difficult to recommend this movie to the average cinemagoer. There is not a great deal of action to involve the viewer -- and of course it is not, as far as I know a readily accessible title anyhow.  However should the opportunity arise to view Menzel's labour of love, this movie is well worth knowing.