Friday, 30 December 2011

A review of re-views

Since there was so little new of interest on the box I found myself re-watching a number of previously seen flicks with surprisingly mixed reactions -- some movies seem to age reasonably well (and not just the so-called 'classics') while others are even more boring the second time around.  Let's consider one from each category:

Love Actually (2003):  I asked my house guests if there was any one movie from my sprawling collection that they would like to see and the l2-year old in the party asked for this title which I gather she had seen previously at a friend's house.  It turns out that the film actually has a 15 certificate and should not be viewed by anyone under that age.  Ha!  One forgets that most 12-year-olds nowadays are 12 going on 25...  Incidentally her younger sister put on a pair of earphones to block out the many 'naughty' words.

Anyhow the film has held up reasonably well although in the great scheme of things it could be considered a contemporary movie.  Like so many subsequent and lesser films like "Valentine's Day" and the dreadful "New Year's Eve", it is a compendium of a number of 'love' stories in the broadest sense of the term;  we follow the paths of the various characters as they cross and interact in the run-up to Christmas week.  Some of these stories are far better than others and one or two were so dreary that I had forgotten about them completely like the nude couple pretending to make love in increasingly convoluted positions for a sex education video.  (Not what I would have selected for l2-year viewing).  Some tales verged on the stupid like the sex-starved Australian who decides to spend the holidays in Milwaukee where he thinks all the nubile young American chicks will fall for his 'cute English accent'.  However there were sufficient strands amongst the balance to make happy viewing.

In particular, veteran actor Bill Nighy found a break-out role as a washed-up pop singer trying to flog one of his old hits as a potential Christmas Number One.  Each time his story was picked up smiles were guaranteed.  Then there was the rather sweet tale of writer Colin Firth discovering that his live-in girlfriend has been having it away with his brother, going off to write at a cottage in Provence, and falling for his Portuguese housekeeper -- and she for him although neither could communicate in the other's language.  Amusement too could be found in the strand of  floppy-haired Hugh Grant's newly-elected bachelor Prime Minister falling for one of his staff but appalled to catch her in an embrace with the visiting U.S. President -- Billy Bob Thornton eschewing Bill Clinton.  Then there was another heart-warming tale as recently widowed Liam Neeson bonds with his young son who is desperate to make an impression on a girl in his class who is about to return to America. Not all of the stories were light-hearted: there was Emma Thompson discovering that hubby Alan Rickman has succumbed to the office minx and poor old Laura Linney desperate to connect with one of her co-workers but forever at the beck and call of her mentally ill brother.  On balance, however, this was an inspired choice for all of us -- except probably the children!

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964):  I have never been terribly taken with any of the run of Epic sagas that were spawned in the '50s and '60s as the studios' response to the threat of television.  Their theory was to look to historical subjects on the wide, wide screen, with lush costuming, big music, extravagant set pieces, and a cast of 1000s.  Initially such films did well and were considered suitable viewing for a family day out, but as tastes changed and movie-going gradually became the preserve of the younger generation, the studios began to find diminishing returns.  A notorious example was the out-of-control cost-spiraling extravaganza that became Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" (1963).  The crunch finally came with this movie which cost somewhere between 16 and 20 million dollars (big bucks in those days) and took a mere 2 million at the U.S. box office.

However with a cast that includes Alec Guinness, James Mason, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Plummer, I thought to myself 'how bad can it be?'.  I noted that it was directed by Anthony Mann who was responsible for a wonderful run of James Stewart westerns and normally a very reliable helmsman.  Well, all I can tell you is that it was something of an overblown snorefest.  Despite having one of the largest sets ever built and inhabiting it with a gazillion extras (real people in the days before CGI crowds), it was about as exciting as watching gladiators fight a flock of sheep or goats rather than lions. Added to the distinguished names above whose histrionics ranged from superb (Guinness) to autopilot (Mason and Sharif) to towering over the top (Plummer's new Caesar declares himself to be an infallible god),  we have Sophia Loren substantially out of her depth as the virtuous love interest and the ever-so bland Stephen Boyd as our goody-two-shoes hero, very much the poor man's Charlton Heston (and I even find Heston hard to take).  No point my going into the ins and outs of the story except to say that it took some three hours to relate and left me thankful that the Roman Empire was very definitely about to fall.  Hopefully forever...

On a cheery note, let me close with my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year with a lot of more satisfying movie-viewing to come.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Killer in the Family (1983)

In my neverending attempt to view any movie not previously seen I get through a silly number of films made for television.  However even I can't face the myriad Christmas-themed movies being flogged at this time of the year on dedicated so-called 'Christmas Channels', although I will make an exception for the delightful Doris Roberts in the Mrs. Miracle flicks. And while many TVMs are pretty disposable, occasionally one finds something really worth seeing like the above title.

For a start back in the 80s, established old-time film stars did make the occasional small-screen film appearance and there are some wonderful television movies starring the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and James Cagney. This film was one of a few TV outing for the iconic tough guy Robert Mitchum, which in itself is a sufficient recommendation, but it was also fascinating to discover early outings for recognizable faces who would become more and more visible on the big screen in the years following.  Like many a TVM this is based on a harrowing true story and I gather the producers stuck pretty close to the facts.

The film opens with a family picnic -- Mitchum, his loving wife, and three late teenaged sons enjoying their afternoon outing.  It is only when the camera pulls back that we realise that the family are eating together on the Arizona State Prison grounds during visiting hours.  Mitchum plays Gary Tison, a career criminal who has spent much of the previous twenty years inside and who has little hope of early parole.  So he spins a song-and-dance line to the boys that his life is in danger from another inmate, convincing them to help him break out and flee to Mexico. Two of the sons are James Spader and Eric Stoltz (the third Lance Kerwin is unknown to me -- but you can't expect breakout success for all TV actors).  They take guns and other paraphenalia with them on their next visit, hold the guards at bay, and allow their dear dad to escape with his pal Stuart Margolin ('Angel' from the iconic James Garner TV series "The Rockford Files".)

Nothing goes according to plan and the five of them find themselves on a frantic run from pursuing lawmen, constantly having to find new vehicles and to camp out in the wild.  The boys, especially Spader the eldest (previously a promising law student), rapidly discover that Dad is not the loving father he feigns, but a cold, selfish and hard-hearted psychopath, who was in no danger whatsoever from the other inmates who indeed feared him.  This all becomes blatantly clear after Mitchum and Margolin coolly assassinate a young family of four whose car they want to appropriate.  The boys, while technically good people, are now accessories to murder and Spader is unable to convince the other two to escape while they can and hand themselves over to the authorities. Stoltz in particular can not fathom that Mitchum is not the beloved parent he imagined.  The end credits let us know just how awful the outcome actually was for the doomed five. Needless to say, Mitchum doesn't need to stretch his acting chops to play a cool killer.  Screen acting was always so easy for him that the nuances in his many performances are often overlooked. 

In addition to the above-named actors, the keen-eyed viewer can also spot Arliss Howard as the father of the murdered family and Catherine Mary Stewart as Spader's college sweetheart before all hell breaks loose for him. There are also juicy roles for veteran actresses Salome Jens and Lynn Carlin.  All in all an involving scenario, even if an ultimately unpleasant tale.

I did sort of promise last time to make some Christmas viewing recommendations from the boring UK terrestrial schedules, where the premieres on offer include such crud as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua"!  OK, if you've not seen it, "Tropic Thunder" has its moments, but "Young Victoria", "Bruno", "Defiance" and "Step Brothers" didn't shake my world.  Apart from some minor animations, there is repeat after repeat after repeat -- which is only fine if you haven't seen the films in the first place or are eager to see them again.  (And chances are if you like them that much you might even own your own copy!)  The best bets are actually some black and white oldies from director Fritz Lang and some splendid B-chillers from producer Val Lewton.  Finally on Christmas Eve Channel 5 is showing the best Scrooge of all time, Alastair Sim, in, it is rumoured, a colourized version of this classic.  Watch his definitive performance by all means, but turn the colour down! I'll be back some time before the New Year...meanwhile, Seasons Greetings to all.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Vive la France

It sometimes feels as if the majority of the foreign language films I view are French, but this is really not the case, since I also seem to be attracted by many Far Eastern movies in a variety of languages plus a fair assortment of flicks from other nations.  The French factor is also slightly on the wane at the moment since the CineMoi channel that I have raved about previously has not managed to premiere more than two new offerings since the summer -- and yes, I have had a moan at them for their very boring schedules.  However today I shall be considering two wonderfully entertaining French films made, as it happens, some eighty years apart!

Le Million (1931):  This film from director Rene Clair has been on my 'must see' list forever and fortunately friend Richard got hold of a copy for a showing in his wee garden cinema.  As with a number of movies that had become legendary to me without having ever seen them, including previously Clair's silent "The Italian Straw Hat", the eventual viewing was a little anticlimactic. One is expecting so much more than the film actually provides.  This is not to say that it was not a jolly affair and quite advanced in many ways for an early talkie studio-bound production.  The plot concerns a poor artist (Rene Lefevre) beset by his creditors who discovers he has won the lottery, making his creditors his new champions.  Unfortunately he has left the winning ticket in the worn jacket that he has left with his fiancee (Annabella) to mend; piqued by his flirtation with one of his sultry models, she gives the jacket to a crook called Grandpa Tulip who is on the run from the police. And so begins a merry chase across Paris as Tulip sells the jacket to a visiting opera singer who needs the tattered rag for a role.

Clair plays on the merry mayhem that ensues as Tulip and his mignons, Lefevre and his best pal, and an assortment of opera hangers-on chase the elusive jacket, ending up at one stage in a frantic rugby match with the jacket as the ball, reminiscent of a Marx Brothers farrago. Throughout, the various characters break into song without rhyme or reason; there is one lovely bit where the estranged lovers hide in the scenery echoing the words that the opera singer and his Wagnerian partner are spouting in a cod grand peformance -- consistently a virtuoso early use of sound. I felt that the film was slow to get going, but was still enchanted by the opening rooftop scramble, achieved through forced perspective and miniatures, finally focusing on the celebrating dancers below a skylight who relate the night's adventures.  This was a remarkably flowing bit of camerawork, quite uncommon in such an early film.  Despite some clever bits of business, the story is more farcical than funny, but in the end it leaves one with a bouyant feeling of bonhomie.  However, Clair certainly went on to make a number of more interesting films.

I was unfamiliar with all of the cast apart from Annabella -- here a brunette rather than the platinum blonde of her later Hollywood roles.  She started in movies when selected at the age of sixteen to appear in Abel Gance's "Napoleon" (1927) and tried her luck in America in the mid-thirties.  Her 'luck' included marrying my handsome hero Tyrone Power for a while, so she didn't do too badly all things considered.  Clair also settled in America during World War II, a period which produced some of his most memorable movies.

Romantics Anonymous (2010):  Clair actually shot "Le Million" in 1930 and here we have, 80 years on, another charming French trifle.  This movie reunites the lovely Isabelle Carre with Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde -- last seen together as Carre's estate agent finds a flat for serial killer Poelvoorde in an earlier film.  Here they play emotionally stilted chocolatiers, bound together by their love of chocolate-making but tongue-tied and socially inept in romance.  Their mutual attraction is blatant, but each of them does their best to avoid commitment.  In one scene on their first dinner date, Poelvoorde excuses himself every ten minutes to change his sweat-soaked shirt for a fresh one from a suitcase that he has stashed in the mens' room, re-appearing at one stage in a frilly dress shirt completely at odds with his earlier garb.  The movie plays with their romantic constipation to the extent that Carre attends a self-help group of other emotional cripples.  However the viewer knows full well that these two charmers will find a way of getting it together by the end of the movie.  Mind you the film's final shots let us know that their way will never be quite the expected way of coping with life.  All in all this was a slight but throughly enjoyable movie thanks to the sweet playing of its leads (with their believable chemistry) and the strong supporting cast of chocolate lovers.

For the last six years I have tried to give some viewing tips from the Christmas television schedules, but the terrestrial choice is so dire this year that there is not much to say.  If I can raise myself from the despair that they have created in me, I will try to make a few more positive recommendations in my next pre-Christmas entry.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese truly deserves the plaudits that his latest film has been garnering and there is so much that is truly wonderful about it.  However it is not a perfect 10 on my scoreboard.

For a start, I think his use of 3D techniques in the film's creation is quite possibly the best use of this format ever -- even James Cameron's "Avatar" falls into a close second place.  Unlike so many recent releases where the aim seems to be to throw as many objects at the viewer as possibly, harking back to the ping pong bat in 1953's "House of Wax", Scorsese achieves a majestic flow in his filming.  The opening scenes in the inner workings of the Paris rail station clock where our young protagonist Asa Butterfield lives, is one of the most bravura and realistic sensations of sweeping flight that I have ever sensed in a film.  Occasionally the director doesn't get it quite right with some of the crowd scenes in the station concourse more closely resembling a kiddie's pop-up picture book, but much of the filming is breathtaking.  Of course it is unfortunate that this part of the film's brilliance will be lost to subsequent viewing until such time as we all are 'blessed' with 3D televisions.  (Not that I've seen it but I would guess that the 2D "Avatar" verges on the tedious).

Fortunately the film has much more to commend it.  Much has been made of the fact that this is the first time that Scorsese has embraced a film suitable for children, rather than his trademark gangster movies and literary recreations; however it is not really a movie that all youngsters will enjoy and it is really more like the director's heartfelt love letter to early cinema.  The movie begins as an adventure movie for youngsters, as we learn how young Hugo came to reside in the mechanical innards.  After the death of his clockmaker father, a very brief turn from Jude Law, his drunken uncle Ray Winstone (another mercifully brief turn) abandons him there, to take on the work for which the old sot continues to be paid as he chases bender after bender.  Hugo does his work and lives from hand to mouth by stealing the odd croissant, all the time trying to avoid the unwanted attention of the station's security in the shape of Sacha Baron Cohen, who with his fearsome mouth-snapping doberman, has it in for all orphans.  His main concern is to finish the automaton man that his father was working on at the time of his death, convinced that it will be able to write a final message from his father from beyond the grave.

He also steals mechanical parts from the station's toy kiosk until he is finally caught by the old man who runs it (Ben Kingley) and his precious notebook is confiscated.  He enlists the help of Kingsley's young and sheltered ward (sweet-faced Chloe Grace Moretz -- miles away from "Kick-Ass") to regain it, and the two begin a series of adventures together.  This is somehow where things begin to slow down for the younger viewer, but pick up dramatically for the film buffs in the audience. It turns out that 'Papa Georges' is actually an embittered Georges Melies, one of the great and most imaginative pioneers of early cinema, long believed dead in the
Great War and whose previously popular short films have gone out of fashion.  This gives Scorsese a platform for a subject close to his heart and he uses the film to teach a potted history of moviemaking's first days.  He launches into a tour of Melies' original glass studio and recreates the making of "A Trip to the Moon" and other magical fripperies in a most believable way.  Movie Nirvana for someone like me, but I suspect a little wasted on younger children or older ones expecting continuous action.  Finally through the intervention of an enthusiast played by Michael Stuhlbarg (the only American other than Moretz in the main cast), Melies is drawn out of his self-protecting shell, given the honours due him...and Hugo finds a home.

Based on the graphic novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, Scorsese has wisely shortened the film's title and given us a loving and colourful recreation of Paris in the 1930s. Most of the cast including of course the soulful Buttefield are British and the director has unexpectedly found roles for the always reliable Christopher Lee as a book dealer, Emily Mortimer as a flower-seller (worshipped from afar by Cohen's would-be comic villain), and character actors Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths as a pair of aging, dog-loving romantics.  Even (Sir) Ben -- not the most likeable of actors -- is very good indeed as the disillusioned Melies, quite possibly his best role since his Oscar-winning Gandhi. 

This is finally a movie of two parts which don't quite synch together.  The children's fable gives way to Scorsese's cinema valentine but offers us assorted pleasures along the way.  His recreations of Hugo's nightmares, including a runaway engine crashing through the station is a genius use of 3D, and another where the boy sees himself turned into another mechanical automaton is imaginatively done.  By the end the movie is chokey, as Melies' sadness segues into a happy ending but I somehow don't know whether the film will have as wide an audience appeal as it deserves.  Finally, as wonderful a filmmaker as he is, I suspect that Scorsese doesn't really possess a strong sense of humour and some of the film's attempts at laughs ring slightly hollow, especially Cohen's usual overplaying. However this is a minor fault in Scorsese's brilliant conception, leaving a thrilling cinematic experience for all of us and especially for your faithful film-fan PPP.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

While the list may vary from time to time, Charles Laughton always features amongst my top five favourite film actors.  While he was never in competition with more 'beautiful' players, his infinite ability to lend shades and nuances to his characters makes him one of the most consummate of the many 'stars' who have graced the silver screen. Unlike many other charismatic actors whose film personae seldom vary, each of his roles is subtly different.  It is therefore possibly something of a heresy for me to write that his role as the fiendish Dr. Moreau is not one of his best.  In his movies, he did occasionally reach the border line between subtle histrionics and hamminess, and his performance here does occasionally overstep the divide.

This is not to conclude that the movie is not worth seeing since it has so much to commend it.  I saw it originally some years ago at a repertory theatre, but it has not been much in evidence on these shores.  In fact, the movie was banned in Britain on its original release like "Freaks" and for much the same reasons. However Criterion have now issued the film on a excellently remastered DVD in the U.S., complete with fine extras, and Masters of Cinema have a UK release planned for the New Year, so there is no longer any excuse for its not being better-known, expecially since it remains a far better film than the two subsequent "Island of Dr. Moreau" remakes (1977 and 1996).

Because of the remakes the story is pretty well-known.  Based on a novel by H.G. Wells (who incidentally hated Hollywood's first take on his tale), it tells of a 'mad scientist' who decides to play God by fusing animal and human DNA to create new humanoid life in his so-called 'house of pain'.  The 1930s were a great time for horror movies and all of the studios tried to have a go after Universal churned out a string of now classic monsters.  This film was Paramount's entry in the genre along with the Frederic March's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and the little-known but atmospheric "Murders in the Zoo" -- not a bad track record at all.  The somewhat oaken Richard Arlen plays a seaman rescued from the wreck of his own vessel, but then cast ashore by the drunken captain of the steamer that found him.  He lands with a cargo of exotic animals and a disgraced doctor, a nice turn from Arthur Hohl, on Moreau's tropical island.  At first he is taken in by the luxurious surrounds and his host's gracious manner, but soon discovers that much is amiss and that Moreau harbours secret plans for his future.

He discovers the population of 'successful' mutants, as opposed to Moreau's 'failures' who man (without being men) the power treadmills, and their leader, the "Sayer of the Law" -- a nearly unrecognizably hairy Bela Lugosi.  It is his job to regularly ask his flock the questions laid down as the island's laws by the unassailable Moreau, who loves to brandish his fearsome bullwhip, to which the final chant is always "Are we not men?".  Well, the viewer can easily see that they are indeed not men thanks to the brilliant make-up effects from the legendary Wally Westmore.  In fact it is rumoured that Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, and Buster Crabbe in early roles are numbered among these animal-men, but I defy anyone to spot them. The only female on the island is the 'Panther Woman' Lota played by one Kathleen Burke who purportedly was chosen from some 60,000 contenders in a contest to win the role, not that she was ever offered more than other exotic roles during her brief subsequent movie career.  Moreau is hoping to be able to mate her with the now stranded Arlen, but help is on the way courtesy of his fiancee Leila Hyams who has hired Paul Hurst's trawler. Once an animal is allowed to kill at Moreau's behest, one of the sacrosanct laws has been broken and the final uprising and revenge are inevitable.

The film's director Erle C. Kenton is not one of the great auteurs, despire having churned out some 140 largely-B titles since the silent days.  However he has done wonders with the material here.  Running only 70 minutes the film is an atmospheric marvel with genuine frissons of fear and dread, with nary a wasted scene. The film retains its power even today; I only wish that I could say as well that this was one of Laughton's best.

I'm hoping to see Scorsese's "Hugo" sometime next week, so hopefully that review will be my next posting.