Wednesday, 28 September 2011

A bit of this, a bit of that...

It's been another one of those fallow periods since I last wrote where I have seen the usual number of movies but haven't found one amongst them to tickle my fancy. (I know that statement could be made to sound rude.)  So let's have a look at some of the 'offenders':

It's been what could be described as "Deficient Dad Week" on Sky Movies Premiere. For a change they have actually screened five films new to satellite rather than the scant four they've been getting away with, but by and large they were a sorry lot.  What was meant to be the best of the bunch was award-winner "The Kids Will be Alright", where Mark Ruffalo was the deficient father, being the sperm donor trying to get to know his progeny after being contacted by the offspring of a happy lesbian couple, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Bening of course won an Oscar for her role, but Moore as the flakier of the pair and the one who succumbs to shagging Ruffalo was every bit as good.  The two teenaged sprogs were also fine, but I always have a hard time warming to Ruffalo who may be a decent enough actor but whose scruffy looks always manage to turn me off.  This drama from lesbian/feminist director Lisa Cholodenko was certainly worthy, but frankly not particularly involving or for that matter entertaining.

Then there were what I would label the 'kiddies' films:  Do the powers that churn out the schedules for Sky truly believe that the peak-time premiere of the week should be something like "Marmaduke", an oversized great dane voiced by Owen Wilson? Here dad's job forces the family to relocate to a dogocentric petfood park, and I ask if we are meant to be entertained by a plethora of CGI-created talking pooches plus one token pussy?  I suspect the answer to both questions is a resounding 'no'. I like doggy-pix as much as the next chap, but this was beyond feeble.  Then there was "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" (which has alreadly spawned a sequel, God help us) and "Ramona and Beezus" based on a popular children's book.  Steve Zahn (enough said) was the wimpy kid's ineffectual dad and John Corbett, another actor who makes me grind my teeth, was the father in the latter -- not a hopeless dud-dad but rather worryingly out of work.  My inner child often finds something to amuse in many movies intended primarily for kids, but both of these were not remotely aimed at an adult audience.  Still I do know one little girl (stand up Lucy) who occasionally seems to watch the 'wimpy' movie on what seems a continuous loop.

Finally Sky 'treated' us to "The World's Greatest  Dad" which has been reasonably well reviewed as a sparkling black comedy from director Bobcat Goldthwait (now there's a comic name!)  It is probably labelled a comedy because it stars Robin Williams who will forever be thought of as a comic actor -- when he is not just being nauseatingly twee - but there was nothing remotely funny about this film.  Williams, an uncharismatic high school teacher and would-be but unpublished author, is the single dad to bolshy and pretty obnoxious teenager Daryl Sabara.  When his son accidentally dies during some autoerotic experimentation, Williams stages a false suicide scene and writes a heart-rendering suicide note to cover the situation.  Lo and behold, suddenly Williams is the popular man of the hour and his awful son, whom nobody much liked, is the centre of a what-a-wonderful-misunderstood-genius-he-was cult.  Of course it all falls apart when William eventually tells the truth.  I suppose there is some latent satire here about society's false values, but there was little that was comic in the telling.  Tragic more like.

Of course there is plenty of viewing outside Sky.  This week's included a couple of oriental period pieces which were OK if not thrilling and a 2008 French flick called "Mark of an Angel" (or its UK title "Angel of Mine").  This one was fairly involving and starred Catherine Frot as a slightly neurotic woman undergoing a divorce from her husband of twelve years and contesting the custody of their son.  Some seven years ago she lost her newborn daughter in a hospital fire and hasn't exactly been stable since.  When collecting her son from a friend's party she spots a lovely seven-year old girl and decides there and then that she is her lost daughter.  (How one is meant to recognise a child last seen as an infant is anyone's guess, but probably many mothers would think this feasible).  So she begins to stalk the girl's family who are about to relocate to Montreal, turning up wherever they are and even pretending that she is interested in buying their house.  The girl's mother is played by Sandrine Bonnaire, another fine actress -- even if she was looking terribly anorexic here.  We are led to believe that Frot really is an obsessed nutter, until we gradually become aware that perhaps there is more to Bonnaire's protective behaviour than meets the eye.  Supposedly 'based on a true story' this movie doesn't just stop dead in its tracks like so many French films, but actually proceeds further than necessary with its resolution, past the point that we need to know. As an acting masterclass the film was fine, but it's not one that is likely to become a classic.

Finally what should have been the highlight of the week was actually something of an anticlimax: a reconstructed 1922 silent "The Pharaoh's Wife" from the great Ernst Lubitsch before he left Germany for the States.  The trouble is that much of the original nitrate print seems to have been lost forever and great chunks of the film were merely stills and title cards covering the story.  What has been saved was lovingly restored and one can see the odd example of the famous "Lubitsch-touch" in the faces of some of the characters and the luscious and ornate Egyptian settings.  The Pharaoh is hammingly overplayed by the great Emil Jannings, his maudit love of a Greek slave is actually attractive by modern standards, but her own love interest was unfortunately embodied in a kohl-eyed nerd.  The Pharaoh is about to be betrothed to the hideous daughter of the Ethopian king  (portrayed with his Court as a pack of fuzzy-wuzzies), and his rejection of her for a slave leads to war and ultimately tragedy all 'round.  Although I am being at best lukewarm about this film, in truth I felt privileged to be able to view any cinema remnants from such a great director.  I only wish they had been able to save rather more.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Gainsbourg (2010)

I really had no preconceptions about this biopic of the multi-talented French musician-artist-writer-singer Serge Gainsbourg and like most 'foreigners' I was really only familiar with his scandalous "Je t'Aime" duet with Jane Birkin.  However, after sampling a selection of his other songs during the course of this movie, I am not surprised that his musical style did not translate well outside France. and I did not emerge a converted fan.  However, I was quite taken with the film itself, especially for the first half, before it seemed to peter out.  Much like Gainsbourg's career I suspect.

A first feature by writer-director Joann Sfar's from his own graphic novel, it strives to give the viewer a shortcut into the mind of a man with something to prove, without giving us much idea of the timeline or much understanding of any real accomplishments.  It starts in wartime Paris when young Lucien (as he was then called) and his Russian-immigrant parents manage to survive relatively unscathed, despite the anti-Jewish laws in force. The child actor Kacey Mottet Klein does a fine job of portraying the young boy as a precocious, yet charming troublemaker.  He is sexually aware for his age and brags to his schoolmates of greater expertise than was probably the case.  He has an alter-ego cum imaginary friend to protect him, called La Gueule (the mug) a larger than life Jewish caricature with an oversized semitic nose and huge ears, an externalisation of his own concerns about his appearance.  This shadow accompanies him throughout his life, urging him on to greater and greater excesses and is an imaginative externalisation of his own conflicted mind.  Parenthetically, La Gueule is played by Doug Jones, who has given us a fine line in fantastic creatures in films like "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth".

The adult Lucien-now-Serge is played by Eric Elmosnino who is appropriately homely in appearance, but who does not let his looks stop his ambitions as a lady's man.  Unfortunately he does not project much personality and I found his portrayal less sympathetic than young Master Klein's. I rapidly lost interest in his affairs with Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta -- far too overblown), and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon, rather better looking than Birkin and an unfortunate young suicide during the film's editing).  The man with something to prove managed to charm a number of women, but we have little insight as to why he pursued so self-destructive a course with his smoking, drinking, and womanising and even less insight into what talents he may have squandered along the way.

Sfar's film starts off like a house on fire, enchanting the viewer with his fanciful presentation, but he loses his way half way through and the movie tails off, losing our attention and interest as well. Had he been able to maintain the style of his novel throughout, his subject might have been far better served.  As it is, we are left with a not too flattering portrait of an apparently not too nice man.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Jitterbugs (1943)

The comedy team of Laurel and Hardy has entertained generations of children and adults and will probably continue to enchant many generations to come.  Theirs was a simple world of affection and gentleness, strikingly at odds with the brash humour of modern times.  Their antics and mishaps will carry on raising smiles as viewers continue to succumb to their special brand of silliness.  From their early shorts back in the silent days to their classic features of the l930s, they are undoubtedly cinema greats.  It is therefore a little unfortunate that their later movies do not consistently showcase their great talents, lumbering the boys with a miscellany of distracting co-stars. From 1941 when they did a production deal with 20th Century Fox for the fairly pedestrian "Great Guns", six of their last eight Hollywood features were produced under that studio's auspices and it is fairly clear that the aging team had lost much of their incentive for zany comedy.  As for their very last movie "Utopia" made for a French studio in 1951, the less said the better.  Still there is so much of their output for us to cherish.

"Jitterbugs" is one of their last movies to showcase them at their best with memorable bits of shtick and a relatively reasonable supporting cast.  Despite the nominal 'romantic' lead of one Bob Bailey -- a very minor mainly radio actor, there are excellent turns from "The Maltese Falcon's" Lee Patrick as a would-be femme fatale, an early showcase for the then fresh-faced singer Vivian Blaine (who shall forever be the somewhat harder Miss Adelaide of "Guys and Dolls"), and in one of his 326 (!) film roles hissable villain Douglas Fowley.  The boys play a travelling two-man jitterbug band with a Rube Goldberg assortment of instruments, who are roped into fronting for con-man Bailey's 'magic tablet to turn water to gas' during wartime rationing.  They, of course, are far too innocent to work out that he might be a fraud.  When Bailey becomes enamoured of small-town beauty Blaine and discovers that her dear old mum has been conned out of her house by a band of tricksters, he vows to help expose the villains and drags the boys into his scheme.  Ollie is passed off as a wealthy Southern gentleman (a role not unlike his own background) to set up a situation where the baddies will be hoist with their own petard.

So we are treated to a scene of Ollie dancing with and romancing George, ever so beautifully graceful for a large man.  We have the supposedly teetotal Stanley getting more and more sloshed as he hides under the lovers' chaise lounge, catching the seat of his trousers on a dislodged spring when he springs to escape.  We also have one of Stanley's classic turns in drag as he poses as Blaine's 'rich aunt from Boston'. The film is far from Laurel and Hardy's finest, but it has enough memorable moments to make it worthwhile viewing.  There is perhaps one number too many of Miss Blaine's warbling padding out the 70 minutes running time, but one advantage of DVDs is that you can fast-forward through the dross to get back to the misadventures of our sweet mismatched pair. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Room and a Half (2009)

Had you told me in advance that I would be spellbound by a two-hour plus Russian language film by a director I don't know, starring actors unfamiliar to me, and being a biopic of a Nobel Laureate for literature whose name only rings vague bells, I probably would have told you to 'sit on it'.  To prove how wrong preconceptions can be, this is one hell of a fascinating movie.

It's the first feature film from 70-year old director Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, better known as an animator and documentary filmmaker, who brings all of his skills to creating the world of poet/essayist Joseph Brodsky.  It ends with the warning: "This film is fictional. Any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental".  However this is something of a conceit, since Brodsky was a very real person, constantly at odds with the authorities; he was first exiled within Russia, sentenced to 5 years' hard labour and then 'invited to leave' Russia at the age of 32. The authorities refused to recognize him as an 'officially-registered' poet and he was charged with 'social parasitism' (and the great crime of being Jewish as well).  He went to the States where he was a visiting professor at various universities, became a naturalized citizen, won the Nobel Prize for his book of essays in 1987, and died in New York in l996 at the age of 55.

The film is 'fictional' in the sense that the director has taken certain artistic liberties in recreating his childhood and his relationship with his doting parents, his prurient teenaged and young adult 'bohemian' years, and the yearning of his later years.  Khrzhanovskiy has done this by mixing black and white real footage and colourful dramatic reconstructions, with monochrome silhouette and conventional animation.  Brodsky is represented as a lascivious cat (meow-talk was a running joke with his father) and his parents as two black crows, such as the two that he says suddently appeared in his garden after each of their deaths. The actors playing his parents (both of whom give wonderfully warm performances) do not age throughout -- since this is obviously the way he remembered them during his long overseas exile in America.  In his childhood on his walks through St. Petersburg, his father would regale him with the histories of each elegant building and the stories of the families who lived there before the revolution.  At the same time, his family is forced to move from their bourgeois flat to a communal apartment (the room and a half of the title), and threatened as Jews with iminent deportation to the Far East. An animated fantasy of their piano and other cultural musical instruments floating away to the East, as the barbarians flourish, is brilliantly conceived.

The adult Brodsky, again embodied as an unchanging middle-aged man, always wrote and dreamt about returning to St.Petersburg, but never did.  He wrote, "Poets always come back, whether in flesh or on paper.  I like to believe both." His parents, who claim never to have understood his poetry, can only watch the Nobel prizegiving on their small black and white TV (normally tuned to ice skating); they have tried in vain to get permission to visit him overseas, but are constantly told that "your journey is inappropriate".  There is a touching scene near the film's end when the three of them are reuinited around the small table in their old flat in what is now obviously contemporary Russia, long after their respective deaths.  They catch up on all the news and gossip, but they do understand that they are all dead -- or they could not be sitting together.  The film's final dedication is "In Loving Memory of Our Parents".

This is a wonderfully warm and witty film and a bravura example of the filmmaker's art.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar's eighteenth film is a more than watchable fable, but one that finds the flamboyant director in a more solemn mode.  Reuniting with his favourite 'chico', Antonio Banderas, twenty years after their last collaboration (of five), l990's "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down", Almodovar revisits his familiar themes of sexual identity, passion, and revenge, but with a new and unfamiliar restraint.  Gone are the gaudy colourways and histrionic performances; in their place are opulent but cold settings, underplaying, and overly-controlled hysteria.

The film is purportedly based on the French novel "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet, which I am about to read, but noting the back-cover blurb plus Almodovar's own comments on his film's source, it would appear to be a totally different tale to the one that he has written for the screen.  The only common factor is that Banderas' character, Dr. Robert Ledgard, is an eminent surgeon, obsessed with finding a synthetic skin, even if this involves Frankenstein-like tampering with animal/human fusions.  His initial motivation was brought about by his beloved wife's severe and life-threatening burns after a motor accident, which ultimately led to her suicide when she became aware of the full extent her disfiguration.  In an upstairs locked bedroom we have the 'good doctor's' latest project -- the lovely Elena Anaya's Vera, in a full bodysuit covering up her creamy perfection. We learn that she has been there for six years since the suicide of his fragile daughter after a would-be rape, but to reveal Vera's true background would be too much of a spoiler here.  It is enough to mention that what began as straightforward, if twisted, revenge by Dr. Ledgard has evolved into irresistible sexual yearning for the object of his tampering, especially after she has been raped by his criminally-sociopathic half-brother (decked out in a tiger suit for the local carnival).

Both the doctor and the 'tiger' are the illegitimate sons of housekeeper Marilia, portrayed by an Almodovar regular from earlier movies, now older and less glamorous, Marisa Paredes.  Incidentally, she is not a character in the original novel.  She loves both of her sons and tries to overlook the fact that both have become madmen in their separate ways.  Talking about 'less glamorous', Banderas too is not the fresh-faced lust-object from the director's films of the l980s, but rather now an aging, leather-faced psychological cipher.  Apparently, at the director's urging, he was instructed to play his part as expressionlessly and unemotionally as possible; unfortunately the net result of this underplaying is that his motivations become less and less understandable.  His chosen life and work remain much of a mystery to us.  As for Anaya who may be Almodovar's new muse after his five films with Penelope Cruz, she is the perfect choice for the captive Vera, lithe yet sensual; Cruz would have been a too lush-bodied presence for the role.

In many ways this is a cold film; while certainly an interesting one, taking its place in the canon of 'mad doctor' movies, it is difficult to get overly enthusiastic about it.  Almodovar has made better and more entertaining movies and I am not too certain about the change of pace that is manifested here. However I suspect that it may grow on me -- like a second skin?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

FrightFest 2011 Part Two

Alright, Pat, take a deep breath and get on with the second half of this report -- although it's actually rather more than half, since there are still thirteen films left to plough through:

Compendia:  There have always been worthwhile examples of multi-part horror movies going back to the superb 1945 "Dead of Night" and including a number of scary horror compilations from the 1970s.  However the conceit of asking a variety of directors to contribute shortish sections to a single movie too often results in a severe case of the Parson's Nose -- the non-horror film called "Aria" (1987) being a good example.  FrightFest scheduled two of these films this year, both in late, late night slots, and neither worth the effort to stay awake: "The Theatre Bizarre" and "Chillerama".  The former was the brainchild of seven (!) directors including Richard Stanley, Buddy G, and F/X maestro Tom Savini, all held together by a weird framing narrative featuring the iconic Udo Kier as a human puppet.  It was something of a mishmash and only the eerie story of a tourist being seduced by a lusty witch in provincial France could be described as 'not too embarrassing', while the final tale of death by gross overeating verged on the nauseating.  The other film 'boasted' only four directors and was potentially the more imaginative example of bad taste. However after the idiotic story of a giant spermatazoa terrorizing the neighbourhood and a silly beach-party musical featuring gay lust, I gave up in the middle of the black and white, holocaust-set, 'Diary of Anne Frankenstein'.  Sometimes enough is too much -- especially at 2 a.m.

Jokey horror:  For some bizarre reason this sub-genre of gross-out splatter tickles my funnybone. "Deadheads" was amusing, but the least appealing of the three examples; we follow the cross-country roadtrip of a 'zombie' who is able to talk and reason, together with his new also-rational zombie bestfriend, and their strong-armed mute zombie muscle, as they go to find the sweetheart that he left behind.  A second American entry in this category was the very clever and extremely chuckleful "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil".  This film took the premise that all country bumpkins must be homicidal, redneck murderers and turned it on its head. Two relatively bright hicks, who only want to enjoy their new fixer-upper vacation cabin in the boonies, have to contend with a bunch of smartass college kids who fear the worse from these tame hillbillies and who largely end up as dead meat through their own stupidity. The third movie was the British "Inbred", which was not actually meant as a comedy; however the story is so far over the top in its gross-out effects that it squarely belongs in this grouping.   Four teenaged offenders and their two care workers head out to the countryside for a community service weekend in a remote hamlet.  So remote that most of the denizens appear to be their own grandpas and are largely inbred mutants, deriving their local entertainment from mutilating passers-by in gorily inventive ways.  They congregate at the local pub called The Dirty Hole (the sign reads 'NOT meals served here') and one can foresee the dire consequences likely to follow.  We're led to believe that there will be the usual survivors, but...

Miscellaneous American nasties: "Rogue River" was an effective bit of Grand Guignol as our heroine who only wants to spread her late father's ashes at a scenic beauty spot is waylaid by an apparently helpful local who offers a lift after she find that her car has been towed away.  Since this kind samaritan is played by The Devil's Rejects' Bill Moseley we just know that she is in for some torture porn. She goes home with him and meets his equally 'normal' wife but soon discovers the various half-dead earlier victims kept in trunks in the basement.  Still I prefered that film to "The Divide", a post-apocalypse tale of a group of miscellaneous survivors holed up in the basement apartment of their building's caretaker.  It rapidly descends into an adult version of "The Lord of the Flies" as their quest for survival takes less humane turns.  A lot of viewers rated director Ti West's "The Innkeepers" as one of the best of the fest. It tells of the last weekend before closing forever at a historic and possibly haunted New England inn.  For my money it was such a slow-burner that the anticipated scares, when they finally did arrive, came solely as an anticlimax. The best of this lot was Lucky McKee's "The Woman", from the fiendish mind of author Jack Ketchum whose "The Girl Next Door" (2007) remains one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen at FrightFest.  It is the story of a seemingly upright family man (but actually a tyrant to his submissive wife and kids) who comes across a feral female while out hunting, captures her, takes her home, and chains her up for his own fiendish ends. Scottish-born actress Pollyanna McIntosh gives a remarkable performance as this 'uncivilised' creature who can only communicate in her own language of meaningful grunts but who retains all of her animal cunning in dealing with her abusers.

The British contingent:  Quite naturally the fest's organisers feel obliged to showcase new British productions, but traditionally these have been something of a mixed bag.  We often choose to watch one of the 'Discovery' offerings rather than another amateurish version of zombies taking over the countryside.  The four we did view were by and large intended to be the most commercial and professional offerings, but I just can't bring myself to enthuse over any of them. "The Glass Man" starred Andy Nyman as a man who has lost his job, but who can't let his wife into that secret, and who pretends that everything is normal despite his increasing financial concerns. One night hard man James Cosmo appears at his door threatening all sorts of dire violence if he does not come out and help him with his nefarious plans for the evening.  Fine up to that point, but then it becomes just a wee bit too far-fetched and too draggy to really care what is actually going on in Nyman's increasingly unhinged mind.  "The Wicker Tree", only the fourth movie from legendary writer-director Robin Hardy who gave us 1973's classic "Wicker Man" was a complete disappointment.  Even reuniting him with that film's classic villain Christopher Lee (in all of a 90-second cameo) didn't make this new story of the 'old religion' in rural Scotland a patch on his first film.  What next for him?  The Wicker Shrub?  The Wicker Bedding-plant?  Then there was the most over-hyped movie of the fest "Kill List", which has just opened here and which has been garnering rave reviews as a 'new British cult classic'.  Balderdash, says PPP; this muddled story of two buddies, supposedly ordinary suburban layabouts who are actually vicious hitmen, rapidly descends into a totally unbelievable satanic denouement.  Apart from anything else, the film is unlikely to make ten cents in the States unless it comes with subtitles.  I've lived here for most of my life and couldn't make head nor tail of the thick Yorkshire accents. Which brings me to the closing movie this year "A Lonely Place to Die", starring Melissa George, and I'm sorry to report another overdone and generally unbelievable thriller.  It starts with her and her buddies climbing in the Scottish Highlands and discovering a foreign little girl trapped in an underground chamber.  We later learn that she has been kidnapped for ransom and that two vicious killers are on the trail of George and her friends, gradually picking them off.  Also in pursuit is a negotiator and his tough bodyguards employed by the girl's probably criminal tycoon of a father.  It descends into a major bloodbath, but the screenplay's leaps of logic hardly kept this viewer on the edge of her seat.  Then again, we all know that I'm something of a fusspot.

So, that's all folks, for another year -- although at this stage I am seriously considering giving the next marathon a miss.  However a lot can happen in twelve months...