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.