Friday, 29 July 2011

Seraphine (2008)

I had every intention of writing today about "Hobo with a Shotgun", the newly released spin-off from the cod "Grindhouse" trailers.  I know that's pretty lowbrow on my part, but I have a lot of time for viewing gory trash -- I even liked "Machete", and Rutger Hauer remains a favourite actor, even if he has travelled a long way downhill since his charismatic early appearances in Dutch movies like "Keetje Tippel" and "Soldier of Orange".  However when we turned up at the Prince Charles repertory cinema, the movie's only showcase, we found that the showing had been cancelled for technical reasons -- whatever that means.

So for a complete contrast, let me tell you about the above French-language arthouse flick, about as far removed from sewer cinema as it is possible to travel.  I have developed a great affection for the middle-aged, Belgian-born, character actress Yolande Moreau.  Like Gerard Depardieu with whom she starred recently in "Mammuth", she has no 'side' as we say here.  That is she has no false vanity about appearing dowdy or even unashamedly and unattractively naked.  In this film which opens in 1914 and which finishes in the mid-l930s, she plays a low-born cleaner and washerwoman in a parochial French town.  She is very much her own woman without many expectations from life, nor many social skills, or even much intellect.  However after a spell living with the local nuns, she heard a call from a 'guardian angel' ordering her to paint.  She gathers materials from natural plants, butcher's blood, and cathedral candle wax to create her first small wooden panels of vibrant flowers, motifs drawn from Nature -- the fields, streams, and trees with which she feels a kinship.

Living in the area is a German art critic and collector -- amongst the first to purchase Picasso and the 'discoverer' of Henri Rousseau's fauve paintings, Wilhelm Uhde (played by Ulrich Tukur -- the Baron in "The White Ribbon"); he stumbles across her work and recognises a burgeoning, singular talent with primitive power.  He begins to purchase her paintings and to encourage her output, until he must hurriedly flee back to Germany with the outbreak of war. Move forward to the late 1920s and Uhde is back in France, living in a different town.  He makes no attempt to find Serpahine -- assuming her to be dead -- until a chance newspaper article draws him to an exhibition by local artists in her hometown of Senlis and there are two new and more ambitious works by the peasant woman.  Apparently this gap in their relatioship is historically correct, even if it is a little hard to fathom.  Anyhow he soon becomes her patron giving her a monthly stipend to concentrate on her strange paintings which he promotes to the art world.  However, this influx of cash turns an already slightly deranged mind into one craving the trappings of wealth.  Seraphine begins to lose touch with reality -- especially after she is chastised for her unbound spending, and a promised Paris exhibition is postponed by Uhde in the parlous financial times of the early 30s.  These are circumstances that the simple Seraphine is unable to understand and the strain of her perceived rejection results in such erratic behaviour that she lands in a mental asylum for the remainder of her days -- no longer painting, although Uhde does fund her final years when she once again finds some peace in Nature.  He, on the other hand, has continued selling her paintings and finally delivers the so-desired exhibition after her death, launching the powerful works of the now-named Seraphine de Senlis into art history.

This film from writer-director (and erstwhile actor) Martin Provost is slow, but involving.  It is lovingly photographed as we follow the unusual life of Moreau's Seraphine.  She is in nearly every scene and we want so much for her life to take a happier course.  Still, there is pure joy in her simple religious faith as she sweetly sings to the saints while creating her oddly vivid paintings. The 55-year old Moreau gives us yet another powerful performance to savour. 

Sunday, 24 July 2011


If my viewing life was not so blessed with occasional happy surprises, I doubt I would be so obsessive at viewing nearly everything that comes my way nor being as prepared to grant even the most dubious offering an even break.  While this results in my seeing a lot of dreck -- to put no finer point upon it, the occasional gem is found glittering amongst the morass.

Some of the so-called 'movie channels' on satellite television are actually nothing more than an old-folks home for aging television movies and made-for-cable films and mini-series.  Some of these are reasonably watchable, as long as one doesn't apply rigid cinema criteria, and it is always a kick to see no longer available actors, like Lee Remick or Jason Robards, in their small-screen appearances.  However, every so often, what I would term a 'real film' finds its way into the knacker's yard of these minor channels and makes me realise that I have struck gold.

Voices from a Locked Room (1995), aka Voices:  I knew absolutely nothing about this movie and must assume that while not made for television, it never received any sort of distribution in the cinema.  It is a absolutely riveting biopic of the pseudonymous, modern progressive British composer Peter Warlock -- if one ignores the fact that the story being told bears little resemblance to the realities of his own short life. The movie is set in a faithfully rendered London of 1930;  Jeremy Northam plays a respected newspaper music critic, Philip Heseltine, whose bete noir is what he considers the derivative or 'stolen' output of the reclusive, yet fashionable, composer.  It might be considered a 'spoiler' to reveal the twist, although the conclusion soon becomes apparent to the viewer, but Heseltine and Warlock are one and the same person; the protagonist's increasingly violent and irrational behaviour is the product of a bi-polar, disturbed mind.  Heseltine is a wealthy man about town, courting a talented American night-club singer -- a strong role for Tushka Bergen, while Warlock works from a Battersea slum and warns her against the hated critic. They function as two discreet, yet obviously dependent personalities, and each of them indulges in life-threatening ploys against the other.  There is some cockamamie backstory that Heseltine was traumatised as a child when his wicked stepfather set his grand piano alight -- I bet! At any rate, Northam is absolutely brilliant at playing these Jekyll and Hyde characters at war within himself.

Although the film is based on a novel, it is barely factual and a great deal of poetic license has been taken in bringing the source material to the screen.  The only fact that is inarguable is that Warlock/Heseltine died in mysterious circumstances in his gas-filled flat at the age of 34.  However the story of the self-loathing critic and the tortured genius existing in a single body has gifted Northam with an actor's tour-de-force that deserves to be rescued from its satellite graveyard.

Whatever Works (2009):  I am well aware, as I'm sure I've written previously, that Woody Allen is definitely out of fashion, and as each year's offering appears, regular as clockwork, one or two critics will write that he is back to "the old Woody". To those of us who have been faithful fans over the years -- a diminishing breed I think -- each of his movies is approached with anticipation.  Apart from his sub-Bergman period, I have more than tolerated all of his films and found some not-so-elusive charm in most of them.  The only exception I might make is for the dire "Hollywood Ending" (2002) which I saw on an airplane and which has never even had a DVD release in Britain. However, I was in no particular rush to see this one, since Larry David is just a name to me; I have never watched "Curb your Enthusiasm" on TV and have only seen the rare "Seinfeld", so any built-in attraction was missing.

Having said that, however, and remembering that David is not really a film actor, he does a splendid job of inhabiting the misanthropic character of Boris Yellnikoff, a man who considers himself a genius (he nearly won the Nobel Prize!) and most of the rest of the world as cretins. Into his life comes Southern teenaged runaway Evan Rachel Wood in a role totally at odds with the bitchy daughter she plays in HBO's "Mildred Pierce" which I am also currently watching.  Her impressionable and extremely grateful Melody is soon mouthing his sarcastic and bitter sentiments and is convinced that he is the man for her, despite the difference in their ages, backgrounds, and intellectual ammunition -- and so Beauty and the Beast marry to the astonishment of all his friends and Boris himself.

This is not one of Allen's star-packed ensembles, with only Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. being well-known among the supporting cast.  They play Melody's fundamentalist and prejudiced parents, who have separated, and who have each gone in pursuit of their 'missing' daughter.  Horrified when they first find her with Boris, each of them is subsequently transformed by their exposure to the Big City (I should add it is great having Woody back in New York for a change). They each discover the inner keys to the happiness which has eluded them in the past. This movie may be a little alienating at first when the main emphasis is on Boris' intolerant and selfish behaviour, but by the end sunshine and mellowness break through. We are left with an optimistic message:  grab whatever love you can find and everything will 'work'. Fortunately this message comes to us courtesy of Woody's smart and witty scripting.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part Two (2011)

Did you honestly think for one moment that I would not be going to watch the eighth film in the most successful franchise of all time on the big screen?  We were having lunch down West yesterday and decided to pop over to the Warner's flagship cinema for the afternoon showing.  The line for tickets wasn't enormous, but it seemed to be moving at a snail's pace and when we got to the front, we discovered that they were charging the best part of £20 per ticket -- 3D glasses extra!  So we turned tail and went to our local multiplex just in time for one of their multiple screenings of the day.  They weren't exactly giving the tickets away (and the auditorium wasn't exactly full), but I felt better at not over-contributing  to Warner's already enormous profits.  Yes, the films have been a moneyspinner for all concerned; I don't begrudge this, since they have given so much pleasure to so many -- and not just those children in the age range that grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

However, you probably don't wish to know any of the above, but rather what I thought of the movie.  I have been a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the series and had read all of the books before watching the films, which is just as well, since I think any non-believer coming to this last film cold would be lost trying to follow much of the action.  It is still a slam-bang production, full of imaginative sequences, which could entertain the casual viewer, but much of the nuances of the saga would be lost .  As is, bringing the final story to the screen did scrimp on some of the storytelling.  Even being familiar with the book, I could not recall the relevance of the new ghostly character played by Kelly Macdonald.  In particular, I felt that the sad, true story behind Alan Rickman's villainry as Severus Snape was muddled in its presentation, leaving the viewer to wonder why Harry would name a future son after him or claim that he was the bravest man he ever knew.  Rickman has been one of the many continuing treats of the series (along with Maggie Smith) and his fate just didn't have the impact or gravity that one would have hoped.  Similarly disposing of arch-villains Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes by having them appear to dissolve into a cloud of confetti seemed anticlimactic after pitched confrontations.  The deaths of some of the other much-loved characters during the Battle of Hogwarts were skimmed over and  not given the respect due them.

Still this final film is a vast improvement on Part One of the Deathly Hallows which was too leisurely by half.  Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have produced an action-laden finale for the fans and have made certain that nearly all of the beloved characters from over the years are given their brief curtain calls.  The only character who is actually given more to do in this final film is Matthew Lewis, who has been playing inept sidekick Neville Longbottom in a fatsuit for some years, but who emerges as one of Hogwarts' truest heroes in this installment.  As for the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, they continue to be likeable and have grown into their roles without any problems; however, they are still a little light on thespian talent.  It  will be fascinating to discover where their respective careers go from here. All of them are so financially secure that they would need a deep love of the profession to persevere with acting and to fight the fact that they will probably be forever typecast.  By the way, the long-awaited first kiss between Ron and Hermione, coyly shot from behind his back, comes across as a definite non-event here.

I suppose I should comment on the 3D technology, which was fine, but which didn't really add to the film's entertainment value in any meaningful way.  The movie would have been just as satisfying to its fans in the 2D version.  The eight Potter films may be the biggest financial success of all time, but this has not been reflected in Oscar nominations or wins.  Of course there is the legacy of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy where all of the possible awards were garnered by the last film in the series.  Despite some probable nominations, I would be very surprised to see this movie following suit as Best Picture, etc. Award-laden or not, many of us have enjoyed this saga of the "boy who lived" and will miss his adventures, his friends, his teachers, and his many acquaintances.  The series may have gone out with a bang, but it will not be easily forgotten.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Confession time: I am not one of those movie buffs who believe that the elusive director Terrence Malick is the best gift to cinema and the world since sliced bread.  I really loved his first film "Badlands" (1973) and have watched it many times since.  His second "Days of Heaven" (1978) was beautifully elegiac, but just didn't hold my attention.  There was then the famous twenty year gap before 1998's "The Thin Red Line" which completely alienated me, but then again I've written before that war movies -- however poetic they may be -- turn me off.  That film was followed by "The New World" in 2005, a beautifully filmed,  historically realistic, yet dreary Indian 'love' story made for an unknown audience.  Now we have this year's Palme d'Or winner from Cannes, rapturously received by many and demanding to be seen on the big screen.

Yes, it is a film that deserves to be seen, but one which will sharply divide its viewing audience.  There are those who will take away its amazing images and who will discuss its meaning ad nauseum.  Then there will be those who will find it difficult to sit through 138 minutes of non-story, mixed with at times nearly inaudible dialogue and voiceovers.  The film focuses on the O'Brien family of mother, father, and three young sons living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s.  Dad, played by superstar Brad Pitt (here looking drabber than ever as a period paterfamilias), is a frustrated musician crushed by his 9 to 5 work, and a disciplinarian and martinet; he loves his boys, but is unable to maintain a loving relationship.  He represents Nature in the Malickian canon while their mother, an ethereal turn from little-known actress Jessica Chastain, represents Grace.  She is treated as some Holy Mother, an Angel of Mercy, and features in Malick's occasional magic realism, floating through the air or being seen in a glass coffin a la Sleeping Beauty.  The film moves forward and back between its images of idyllic childhood days and the embittered memories of the now-grown eldest son, played by Sean Penn, who looks down from his office eyrie into the chasms of Dallas' tall towers and mourns the loss of his middle brother and his innocence.

Some twenty minutes into the film it switches from the story of these folk into nothing less than a visually striking explosion, exploring the evolution of the universe and life on earth, including some wonderfully rendered dinosaurs.  These visual effects designed by retired FX master Douglas Trumbull and magnificently photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are nothing short of gobstopping to use the vernacular.  However all too soon we return to the fragments of childhood of the O'Brien brothers.  Mixed with lovingly shot vistas through the branches of majestic spreading trees, we view their days of endless summer, spacious lawns, and boys being boys.  Just before the film's end we see the Penn character walking on what must be meant as the sands of memory, with the hundreds of characters from his life aimlessly promenading past, as he seeks his own redemption.

There is a good argument, but probably one that Malick would deny, that the film is a compilation of memories from his own childhood, scraps of remembered joy, love, loss, and forgiveness from his own years with his own brothers and his own parents in '50's Waco.  The viewer is then urged to read what we wish into the conundrum of how any mundane family's dynamic meshes into the majesty of creation.  Some critics maintain that his movie requires multiple viewings to discover and appreciate its many layers, but at this point my feeling is that once was enough and I really don't need to sit through this strange mixture of nostalgia and wonder a second time. I must say that I find it heartening that such a personal and in many ways incomprehensible movie can be commercially released to the unsuspecting public.  I fear, however, that few of them will find it the consistent masterwork that its proponents loudly proclaim. 

Friday, 8 July 2011

Arlington Road (1999)

Every so often since I began blogging some six years ago, I have written that Jeff Bridges remains one of the greatest underrated Hollywood actors.  Perhaps this is no longer the case with the recent Oscar nods that he has had for "Crazy Heart" and "True Grit", and he has certainly been a cult favourite since 1998's "The Big Lebowski".  However, one can look back on his roles since 1971's "The Last Picture Show" and he has never been less than outstanding.  He brings a genuine sincerity and believability to each of them and the above movie is another fine example.

I don't think I have previously revisited this one in the twelve years since its release, but it remains a gripping essay on our continued fear of terrorism and our growing paranoia.  Bridges plays an academic, teaching his university class the facts of life about extremism.  This is a particularly fraught subject for him, since his FBI wife was killed in the line of duty whilst investigating a 'flagged' suspect, devastating him and his young son.  He is only just beginning to piece things together with a new young girlfriend, Hope Davis.  Driving home one afternoon, he sees an injured boy staggering down the road towards him; it is only when he has taken him to hospital that he discovers that it is the son of his new across-the-road neighbours, who have been there for a few months but whom he has made no attempt to greet or meet.  Enter Tim Robbins and his screen wife Joan Cusack, who appear to be the perfect suburbanite family with their model home and their three young children.

A series of inexplicable bits and pieces leads Bridges to begin to investigate and to conclude that the pair are not all they are cracked up to be and that they may in fact be dangerous undercover extremists.  Davis thinks he is building mountains out of molehills to suspect such lovely folk, until a chance observation makes her change her mind. As she tries to phone Bridges, in one of the most jump-making sudden appearances in modern cinema, Cusack's friendly but now extremely frightening face hoves into view; it turns out to be the last thing Davis will ever see.  It's a change of pace for Cusack as well as for Robbins, whose usually liberal credentials make him an unlikely villain, but a more chilling one for all that.  The film brings home the message that we never really know our neighbours and that a plausible exterior can hide all sorts of sinister possibilities.  There may not be mere cracks in the American dream, but gaping huge chasms.

One of the interesting questions posed by the film is whether the couple have been targeting the Bridges character since square one to provide the 'fall-guy' for their current plans, to the extent of even harming their son themselves to provide the initial lure.  A previous atrocity in St. Louis where a number of children died (echoes of the real-life Oklahoma tragedy) pinned the blame on a 'single perpetrator' and with his own obsessions, Bridges may well be the perfect patsy tor the next outrage by the unseen extremists who move amongst us.  Not really that far-fetched, but scary stuff.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)

I recently read a pretty rotten review for Rebecca DeMornay's most recent 'leading' role in a would-be horror flick called "Mother's Day", and it got me to thinking how short-lived many film careers are.  Any number of promising stars come to brief prominence due to a showy role (or even a run of good roles) and then slide into some kind of oblivion; they may carry on working, but never seem to shine so brightly again.  One was first aware of DeMornay as the streetwise prositute in Tom Cruise's breakthrough movie "Risky Business" in 1983, and she subsequently appeared in a number of featured parts, but it was as the lead in the above film that she peaked.   Unfortunately it did sans-fairy-bubbletop for her career.

The nominal lead in the movie is Annabella Sciorra, another actress with a good run of movies who continues to work, but whose career faltered in the late 90s.  She plays the mother of a young daughter, pregnant with her second child, who accuses her new paediatrican of inappropriate behaviour.  Other patients support her accusations and, his reputation in tatters, the doctor commits suicide, leaving behind his own pregnant wife (DeMornay) who promptly loses her baby.  In her mind Sciorra is the cause of all of her misfortunes and she sets out to extract her revenge by becoming the nanny for Sciorra's new-born son.  Insinutating herself into the household as a loyal, friendly, and indispensible worker, she strives to alienate the children from their parents, seduce the husband (Matt McCoy, nowadays a stalwart of TV Movie dads), and generally destroy asthmatic Sciorra both mentally and physically.  The other household worker is a mentally-challenged handyman played by Ernie Hudson, a great pal of the family's young daughter, whom DeMornay addresses as "retard" and whom she contrives to discredit as a paedophile after he inadvertently sees her breast-feeding Sciorra's son --an activity she has taken up with gusto, causing the over-full babe to seemingly reject his real mother's milk.

If the truth be told this is really a highly implausible and far-fetched B movie which just happened to find its audience through the combination of a thoroughly evil yet fascinating turn by DeMornay and sure-fired, confident direction by Curtis (L.A. Confidential) Hanson. The viewer is unsettled by and caught up in the nanny's easy malevolence; we can so clearly see her dirty work afoot, but we are unable to scream at the screen to warn the trusting family.  Only the third or fourth female lead (if one allows that child actress Madeline Zima had the larger part), Julianne Moore playing a family friend sees something fishy in the 'perfect' nanny who is actually the nanny from hell; and only she of the entire cast went on from strength to strength for a longlasting career. Mind you, when I first saw this film -- in the cinema as it happens, I thought that Hudson was the best thing in it -- a far cry from his turn as one of the original Ghostbusters in 1984.  He gives a thoroughly likeable performance as the handicapped simple soul, a role that is normally guaranteed Oscar bait, but his performance was totally overlooked.  Watching this film again, I still think it's a bit of bravura acting from the under-rated Hudson.