Wednesday, 19 December 2012

What's on the box?

Shortly after I launched this blog, one of my readers suggested that it might be useful to comment on the attractions of the forthcoming Christmas week film delights and I have managed to attempt this each year since. However, as I have written previously it becomes harder each year to recommend films that you may not know, especially since virtually all the recent so-called blockbusters that the Freeview channels select to premiere will have been available to you at the cinema, on satellite, on DVD purchase or rental, or on the now frequently available 'anytime' streaming. 

This being the case, satellite premieres apart, there are only two movies being shown over the holiday period which I for one have not already seen, bar sappy Christmas-themed television movies or dubious kiddie offerings like "Dr. Dolittle - Million dollar Mutts"!!! The two films in question are Andrea Arnold's 2011 take on "Wuthering Heights" with a black Heathcliff and Film Four's showing of the Studio Ghibli release "Arietty",  a Japanese version of "The Borrowers" (not unfortunately directed by the incomparable Hayao Miyazaki, but still worth seeing). I shall watch both of these, but I know which I will probably enjoy the more, especially since there is the choice between the English-language version of "Arietty" or the subtitled original version. No prizes for guessing my choice.

While I shall avoid all of the other Freeview premieres, I can recommend the brilliant "Up" on New Year's Day, animations "Shrek Forever After" and "Tangled", Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", "Moon" ("Solaris"-lite), "Secretariat" (not well-rated by the Radio Times, but a very winning film about a very winning horse), and Jim Carrey's 2009 version of "A Christmas Carol" (although Alastair Sim he ain't!). In the 'meh' category fall "Julie and Julia", "Space Chimps", and Russell Crowe's weird take on "Robin Hood". To steer clear of, try not to be tempted by either "Four Christmases" or the dire "Couples Retreat". There is also the first terrestrial showing of "Lady and the Tramp" on Christmas Eve, well-worth a second or tenth look, if you don't own your own family copy.

Channel Four are premiering the films in the Stieg Larssen 'Dragon Tattoo' trilogy, but if you are someone who doesn't 'hate' subtitled films, you have probably seen these previously. They are also showing all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies, but re-watching any of these six films broken up by ads is not really my idea of a Christmas 'treat'.

So now that I've trashed the big guns, is there anything else? Matter of fact there is. BBC4 have a new documentary on "Screen Goddesses" screening on Saturday and are following up with three biographies, although only the Clara Bow one is new to television, Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor being repeats. They are surrounding this with a very skimpy supporting season of only three films: "The Prince and the Showgirl", "Cleopatra", and "One Touch of Venus" on Christmas Day; I shall probably take the opportunity to watch this rarely-screened Ava Gardner starrer from 1948 once more. The channel is also showing a second new documentary titled "Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory" which is probably worth seeing, although again the three supporting feature films are an equally sparing collection.

I shall also be watching BBC2's new drama "The Girl" on the 26th with Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, not a film but certainly of interest to any film buff and an appetizer to the forthcoming feature film with Anthony Hopkins as Hitch. They also have scheduled a reasonable selection of  Hitchcock classics, all worth seeing or re-viewing. The pick of that channel's programming however is a mini Charles Laughton season starting on the 22nd and tucked away in the late night schedules. Laughton remains one of my personal screen heroes and one of the most consummate actors ever. The season includes "Arch of Triumph" (judging by its time slot showing in the restored version), "They Knew What the Wanted" (a particular treat for me since my own copy is flawed), "The Tuttles of Tahiti", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "This Land is Mine" (be sure to set this 1943 gem if you do not know it), and heaven help us "Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd" (hardly a worthy inclusion).

Also scattered throughout the schedules at unsociable hours are gems from Ray Harryhausen, including "Jason and the Argonauts", "Clash of the Titans", "7th Voyage of Sinbad", and "Destination Moon". His stop-motion brilliance is always worth a look and I am only surprised that neither BBC2 nor Channel Four had the foresight to screen the new well-received documentary on Harryhausen.

I shall be away or otherwise engaged for most of the next fortnight, but I'll see you all again in the new year. Meanwhile with best wishes for the holidays and for a peaceful and happy 2013, I remain your cinematic friend Pretty Pink Patty. Bye for now...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Over the years there have been plenty of books considered 'unfilmable', where the movie rights have been snapped up early, only for various ambitious projects to die in creative limbo. However with the continuing refinements in CGI technology, nothing is impossible any longer, if a director has the creative vision to make the written word leap off the page and become a tangible screen reality. Ang Lee has tackled the presumed impossibity of filming Yann Martell's prize-winning novel of a teenaged Indian lad adrift at sea for 227 days with only a ravenous adult Bengal tiger for company. Moreover he has created ravishing images to hold our attention and to challenge our beliefs for over two hours. "Life of Pi" may indeed be, the first 3-D film to become a best picture Oscar winner, and deservedly so.

Having read the source novel and now seen the film, I wouldn't like to debate which is the better -- since they are obviously the same basic story but with different emphases and both experiences remain worthwhile. The backstory is that of a boy raised with his older brother and cultured parents in the French-speaking part of India, where his father has created a beautiful zoo in the park of the local botanical gardens. When financial funding falters, causing the family to emigrate to Canada aboard a Japanese cargo ship together with the unsold animals, the teenaged Pi (named after a Parisian swimming pool, but that's another story) resents being uprooted. However he is even more 'at sea' literally when a deadly storm causes the ship to flood and sink, killing his family, and leaving him alone in a lifeboat with only a wounded zebra, a fierce hyena, and an impish orangutan. They are soon joined by the tiger with the delicious name of Richard Parker, who makes quick meals of the other animals, and with whom the forced-to-be-resourceful Pi must strike a modus vivendi. As Martell wrote, "I had to tame him; it was not a question of him or me. We were figuratively in the same boat". The main theme of both the book and the film is the task of finding harmony in this world with seemingly uncontrollable forces.

First-time teenaged actor Suray Sharma does a remarkable job of filling Pi's slight frame and he has been given the difficult task of making the bulk of the movie move so swiftly. Richard Parker may be computer-generated -- and brilliantly so -- but he becomes as real and believable a character as young Pi, and Sharma makes us believe in their careful coexistence. He is left to hold the film together as the framing story told by the now middle-aged Pi (Infan Khan) to would-be writer Rafe Spall could nearly have been omitted without destorying the film's pleasures. The only 'name' actor in the cast is Gerard Depardieu who has what is at best a minor cameo as the ship's surly cook, but whose character becomes important in the film's denouement. As a schoolboy back in India, Pi was attracted to various religions merging his original Hindu upbringing with tenets from Christianity and Muslim faiths -- and as the adult Pi tells Spall, his is a tale meant to strengthen our own faith and perhaps to gain a better understanding of God. Not all viewers will take this lesson away from the film, but all of us should find our belief strengthened that everything is now cinematically possible.

When Pi eventually washes up in Mexico and Richard Parker disappears into the jungle without a goodbye nod, the Japanese shipwreck investigators do not believe the story of his journey with the tiger nor how they found a toxic island inhabited solely by thousands of nodding meerkats. So he invents another version of the events which had him adrift in a lifeboat with a sailor, his mother, and the murderous cook until such time as he was the only survivor. They buy this story, but we do not, finding it even more difficult to credit that the religion-obsessed, vegetarian boy would turn cannibal to survive. We prefer the first version of his adventure as told in Martell's book and as brought to the screen here, whether this is the real story or not. Some people have put forth a theory that Pi and the tiger are one and the same character, contrasting our humanity and our quest for survival vs. the animalistic instincts that are buried deep in all of us. This is an interesting theory strengthened by the fact that the tiger's original name was "Thirsty" and that there was an earlier scene when young Pi is dared to enter the local Catholic church to taste the holy water, only to meet a priest offering a glass of water, saying "you must be thirsty"!!!  I think I prefer the tale of Pi and the fearsome Richard Parker as told. 

It would be remiss not to comment on Lee's use of 3D. The start of the film which focuses on the various inhabitants of the zoological park is cleverly and amusingly photographed and there are also some beautifully surreal and cool shots of ocean life during the long voyage. However one soon begins to forget that one is watching a 3D film -- which in itself is good and which speaks well of Lee's directorial skills. The film would probably be just as satisfying in its 2D version, since Pi and Richard Parker are such well-drawn characters that we don't need a third dimension to believe in them as rounded realities. 


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

After my initial enthusiasm when I started off blogging nearly every day back in 2005, the frequency has gradually reduced to weekly -- normally on a Wednesday. However, had I done this yesterday, I would have felt obliged to write about the new James Bond movie "Skyfall" which we saw (out of a sense of duty to some extent) last week. However knowing that we would be seeing the above new film from writer-director Martin McDonagh yesterday afternoon, I felt that it would make the more interesting review. 

 I suppose I must write a few words about the Bond anyhow to add to the mountains of praise that it has been receiving from all quarters to say nothing about the heaps of money it's been earning. Yes, it was diverting and largely a fun watch, but I don't buy into the myth that it is a welcome return to the Bonds of old.  I didn't know they had disappeared, since the character has evolved with each new actor taking on the lead. Having said that I still have some trouble accepting Daniel Craig as Commander Bond -- he's a little too rough-cast for my taste. The fabled 'Bond girls' were something of a washout in the latest film, but Judi Dench's M has had her role beefed up for reasons which are soon apparent. Javier Bardem, as always, does well as the camp villain, but he's not half as menacing as he was in his Oscar-winning role in "No Country for Old Men" (2007). There are the requisite number of supposedly hair-raising chases -- some of which seem very derivative -- before Craig bundles Dench off to his childhood Scottish home in the attempt to protect her from the vindictive Bardem. There, aided by his family's old gamekeeper (an unrecognizable Albert Finney) they set up some "Home Alone"-reminiscent 'traps' for Bardem's invading horde. Certainly worth seeing to keep abreast of the 50-year old canon, but not the be-all and end-all of Bond's screen adventures despite the return of a few feeble quips.

To get back to the subject at hand, McDonagh's first film, 2008's "In Bruges" was such a breath of fresh air and such an oddball success, that his fans have been awaiting his sophomore effort with panting anticipation. The good news is that it is finally here for our delectation, but the bad news is, despite its entertainment value and its blood-soaked scenario, it seems more of an undeveloped holding excercise than a full-blown or well-thought out successor to the first movie. The basic story is that boozy Irish screenwriter Colin Farrell, now based amongst the kooks of Hollywood, has developed severe writer's block over his new commission. He just can't get into the development of his seven psychopaths screenplay and seeks help both from the bottle and from close friend Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, a failed actor, has a lucrative sideline with his pal Hans (an aging, cravated Christopher Walken, but as good as ever) in dog-napping to claim the grieving owners' posted rewards. However he has independently snatched the beloved shih tzu of Mafia boss Woody Harrelson, to put pressure on the powerful lover of his occasional 'bit on the side'. Harrelson, playing a psychopathic and ruthless gang leader in all other respects, is absolutely dotty about the animal (adorably possibly the best thing in the film) and unleashes a bloodbath to get it back.

It seems to me that McDonagh has possibly tried to overcome his own minor writer's block and has taken various, occasionally half-baked, ideas that have come to him and thrown them at the screen in the hope of achieving an acceptable whole. What we finally have are a series of vignettes in search of a story, with side excursions into the tales of some of the other 'psychopaths' Farrell is considering for the final screenplay, including an Amish minister, a Vietnamese priest, and the current 'Jack of Diamonds' killer who has been busy knocking off minor Mafia goodfellas. Farrell is at heart a peaceful soul and wants the gory first-half of his script to morph into more thoughtful reflections somewhere in the desert; Rockwell baulks at the movie not finishing with a violent shoot-out ("we're not making a f-ing French film" he quips). Soon the main characters and the pooch actually find themselves in the desert on the run from Harrelson and his henchmen where the action grinds to a talky halt before continuing to its murderous end (or not, as the end credits would have it). McDonagh has a wicked way with words and the sharp dialogue mixed with weird-o characters provide ample entertainment. What they do not do is make a cohesive and particularly satisfying film.

The female roles are generally underwritten (a fault screenwriter Farrell is accused of) and Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are totally wasted, falling into the category of cameos, with which the movie is lavishly sprinkled. Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg play hitmen mown down in the film's opening minutes. Harry Dean Stanton just has to stand there glaring to be the Amish 'psychopath'. Tom Waites has a slightly larger role as a rabbit-petting ex-serial killer, searching for his long-lost female partner in crime. 'Precious' Gaborney Sidibe has a few anxious moments as the one responsible for losing the shih tzu in the first place. Some viewers have claimed to see a fleeting shot of a real screen psychopath Crispin Glover and for all I know there may be others.

Given In Bruges's cult success, lots of actors seem anxious to work with the director a la Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, but McDonagh has not given us as much here as we all think he is capable of . However this film will have to do until something more fully realised comes along from his very talented pen.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

From the Godawful to the Gorblimey

I have seen more than a dozen films since I last wrote, if I count largely forgettable Christmas movies made for television. Of the 'proper' movies viewed, I shall pick out three which range between "unbelievably bad" through "better than expected" through "an unexpected gem".

At the dire end of the spectrum is Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill" (2011). I know Sandler has a large fan base made up largely of pubescent boys, but I have found his humour too jejune for my taste -- although there have been the occasional laughs despite myself. He proved that he can indeed act in the splendid "Punch-drunk Love" (2002), but that was the exception to his self-indulgent shtick. This film has Sandler playing twins, Jack a very successful but not terribly likeable TV-ad producer and his fraternal twin Jill who has festered back in the Bronx looking after their now departed mother. This gives Sandler the opportunity to cross-dress in a fat suit and adopt a whiney Noo Yawk accent, producing a totally unattractive woman who looks exactly like Adam Sandler in drag.

She comes for a Thanksgiving visit which extends and extends itself, driving Sandler to tears, but he finds that he needs her help when his largest client demands that he engage Al Pacino to present a kooky coffee ad. As luck would have it the twins meet Al at a hockey game and the latter is enchanted with Jill, who reminds him of his 'roots', and he pursues her relentlessly. When a recent poll here produced a list of the greatest film actors ever, Pacino came top of the pile -- much to my amazement, so you may well ask why he agreed to appear in such dreck. On the one hand his role here is little less than horribly embarrassing, yet I must admit that he brings unexpected warmth and pathos to her rejection of his advances. Jill is presented as a first-class ignoramus and the running joke is that she keeps referring to well-known film scenarios but continues to reject their correct titles when proffered. She also meets Johnny Depp, seated next to Al at the game (again, why the heck did he agree to the cameo?) and doesn't even recognise him, running off to accost some Z-list television personality. Enough already -- naturally we get a 'happy' ending with the twins realising how much they really love each other and regressing to their juvenile private twin-talk. And Jill actually wins a man too -- although she is not going to become the next Mrs. Pacino. At least we were spared the participation of Rob Schneider!

The 'middling' film of the week was "The Big Year" (2011) whose premise sounded pretty dire, with Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin portraying competing twitchers (bird-spotters). Wilson holds the record for spotting the greatest number of native birds in the U.S. for the previous year, and the other two, Black playing one of life's losers and Martin playing a big-shot industrialist, are out to take away his title. Wilson plays against type in his ruthless pursuit of the championship, alienating his loving wife Rosamund Pike in the process. Black can barely afford the competition but a growing friendship with Martin and some help from his mother sees him through. His father played by a frail-looking Brian Dennehy knocks his obsession until an unexpected spotting finally bonds them. The movie proved rather more satisfying than expected with its well-rounded characters and far from conventional or predictable conclusions. A strange idea for a movie perhaps, but not a waste of time by any means.

How many films from Peru have you seen? Nor me! The week's big surprise was writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon's "Undertow" (2009). Set and lovingly photographed in a picturesque but poor provincial Peruvian fishing village, it is part love story, part ghost story, and part social drama. Miguel is a local fisherman whose wife Mariola is heavily pregnant and he enthusiastically awaits his first child. However he is also carrying on a long-standing affair with Santiago, the rich blue-eyed artist from the City who is vacationing at his childhood summer home. When Miguel refuses to leave with his lover, the latter drowns -- whether intentionally or not is beside the point; however, his very solid ghost -- visible only to Miguel -- lingers on. Until his body can be found and be buried at sea according to local traditions, he can not rest.  Even when Miguel finds the corpse, he does not rescue it, wanting to keep his forbidden lover close by.

Meanwhile the deeply homphobic villagers have their suspicions about Santiago's leanings and force Miguel to pretend that there was never anything 'like that' between them.  When a slew of slightly pornographic paintings of Miguel are discovered at the cottage, they all turn against him and even his loving wife finds his dalliance nearly inexcusable.  However this is far more than another 'gay' film, but rather something more humane. Miguel must own up to his wife, his neighbours, and to Santiago's family, who have come to claim the body when it eventually ends up in the fishing nets, and find the integrity to be a man. He knows that his lover's spirit will never be free until he receives the traditional local funeral rites. The funeral that Miguel arranges for him reminded me greatly of the scene from the great John Ford's "The Sun Shines Bright", where the formerly hostile townsfolk gradually join an outcast's funeral procession.  As with the Ford film every time I watch it, my eyes teared over here.

I can not recall many (if any) previous films from Peru, but this one certainly deserves a worldwide audience to discover its charms. Ironically, the three main roles are taken by a Bolivian, a Mexican, and a Colombian, so there you have it.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Uncle Boonmee... (2010)

The full title of this film from Thailand is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", which is quite a mouthful, although not as much of a tonguetwister as the name of its director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He is highly regarded among so called film cognoscenti, but I can not quite understand this adoration.  While most of his previous output were shorts, I have seen two of his earlier movies ,"Tropical Malady" (2004) and "Syndromes and a Century" (2006). Both of these were glowingly reviewed, but left me scratching my head at their pretentiousness.

The film opens with a quote: "Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise before me". This may sound a promising premise given the film's title, but the protagonist of this movie, a critically ill middle-aged man, seems preoccupied with the events of his present, haunted by memories from his own lifetime. It is something of a stretch to believe that he thinks he was once the water buffalo that opens the movie in an interminable rummage through the jungle or the disfigured princess of the middle section whom we observe being pleasured by a catfish! He lives on a tamarind plantation upcountry and his sister and her cook arrive from Bangkok to visit her dying brother. Other visitors to the household include the fairly solid ghost of his wife who died nineteen years earlier and his son who disappeared four years after her death and who is now a hairy 'monkey-ghost', having mated with a female of the species and gone to live in the jungle with her and her kind, visible only by their glowing red eyes.

While this may sound like a wonderful example of 'magic realism' the film does seem to plod along before he and his entourage trek to a remote cave where he claims to have been born and where he dies. We observe the routines of his medical treatment, including draining his kidneys, and his daily round amongst the workers on his plantation. He claims to be full of regrets for the many 'communists' he killed as a young soldier and for the many insects he has had to kill since to keep his spread viable. One could read all sorts of symbols and echoes of Thai history into the director's carefully composed tableaux without having any real idea of what he intended. On the positive side some of these scenes are beautifully put together and photographed, but are held for such a long time that I felt like shouting 'get on with it' -- you could call this 'the Bela Tarr effect', if you are familiar with that director's static films.

The ending of the film back in Bangkok after the funeral seems totally unrelated to what has transpired earlier as the sister, an unidentified young female, and one of the brother's helpers -- now a shaven-headed monk -- watch television. The monk then asks to shower, changes into 'with-it' gear, and he and the sister go out for a meal at a karaoke bar -- or maybe they don't, since the last shot shows the pair still lying on the bed entranced by their television viewing. This movie premiered at Cannes and the showing was marked by numerous walk-outs and general puzzlement, yet it was the surprise winner of the Palme d'or. The film would seem to be one of those that is great at dividing its audience, even those not looking for only populist entertainments.

The movie was apparently 'inspired' by a book by one Phra Sripariyattiweti (another mouthful) of whom I know absolutely nothing. I must confess that I was really hoping to love this film, to be captured by its rumoured magic and mysticism; however I would appear to be something of a philistine, dumbfounded when confronted by its slow-moving, inpenetrable scenario. I love movies, but will never be the Susan Sontag of film criticism. Somehow I feel that my heroine, the late Pauline Kael, would also not have succumbed to the film's inflated reputation.  

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

How Old Cary Grant?

Have you heard the old chestnut about the publicist who cabled Grant's agent asking 'How old Cary Grant?' The reply read 'Old Cary Grant fine, how you?' That just about sums up the actor in a nutshell, an unchanging screen presence, always something of the cheeky chappy about him, whilst still retaining a suave sophistication. He remains the archetypal film star, forever playing variations on a single theme, always a very fine Cary Grant. The in-joke of the man born Bernie Schwartz putting on his best Cary Grant accent in "Some Like it Hot" is to baffle us with the idea that he too could be this timeless leading man.

This all sprung to mind after watching a double-disc of two of his lesser-known films. I purchased it to replace my old beta copy of "In Name Only" (1939) and it came with a print of "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942), a film which I had seen previously, but which had struck me as too flawed to warrant owning a copy. Directed by dab hand Leo McCarey, it is a Hollywood stab at anti-Nazi propaganda, but is far too uneven in tone to do the job. Grant plays a news reporter hoping to become a radio broadcaster in Europe on the brink of the Second World War. His leading lady is Ginger Rogers, an actress who has forever troubled me in her non-musical roles. She plays a jumped up ex-stripper from Brooklyn, pretending to be a high-born pukka lady and engaged to marry Walter Slezak's sleazy Austrian baron, one of Hitler's fixers, although Rogers manages to turn a blind eye to his evildoing, even after they marry. It takes persistent attention from Grant to open her eyes and to help her escape from this loveless union into his relatively impoverished arms. Falsifying evidence that she has died in an air-raid, the pair even end up in a concentration camp at one stage (she has given her own papers to her Jewish maid, but kept the latter's original passport in her handbag), where a bunch of religious stereotypes are chanting "Kol Nidre" in the background. Talk about bad taste! As the pair criss-cross Europe en route to passage back to the States, their paths cross a 'French' photographer, Albert Dekker, who is actually an American double-agent, and back once more to the cowardly Slezak. How he is dealt with remains the film's denouement and is like 100% unbelievable.  Even throughout these various shennanigans Grant remains eternatlly Cary Grant and eternally watchable.

"In Name Only" is a very definite change of pace both for Grant and his more likeable co-star Carol Lombard. He is in a loveless (again) marriage with uber-bitch Kay Francis, frostily removed from her earlier and more charming roles. She has married him for his money, despite having been in love with another, but has convinced his doting parents that she is beyond perfection. Meanwhile Grant chances upon Lombard, a widow with a young daughter (a darling Peggy Ann Garner) and is smitten. The sister with whom she lives has been badly hurt by her ex and glowers disapprovingly as the romance simmers. Meanwhile Francis gets wind of her new rival and does her best to humiliate Lombard -- she has no intention of giving up her hard-won meal ticket and the prospect of more to come when his dad Charles Coburn eventually kicks the bucket. When finally confronted by Grant, she promises a divorce and swans off to Paris with his parents for several months, having said that she would break the news to them gently. Grant and Lombard now believe that the future can be theirs until they discover that Francis has dug her fangs in even deeper. This leads Grant to booze it up and to catch a deadly bout of pneumonia -- but the film manages a 'happy' ending despite the florid dramatics from all concerned. This role is in complete contrast to Lombard's usual comedic persona, but she is believable and a glowing presence here despite this change. Grant of course remains good old Cary even while he is in a coma.

Grant was only Oscar-nominated once for another of his 'serious' roles in "None But the Lonely Heart" (1944), but never received any kudos from his peers. Never mind; he continues to receive lasting kudos from his many fans -- of which I am proud to admit I am one.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Inspector Montalbano

In case you may be wondering whether I ever watch anything else on television other than films and DVDs, I do. I get 'hooked' on some serials, while others that I try out of curiosity leave me wondering what all the fuss is about.  At the moment, apart from the above, I am watching "Boardwalk Empire" (Steve Buscemi casts some rather repugnant charm), "Homeland" (very well-acted but less complex or involving than its Israeli source "Prisoners of War"), "True Blood" (getting sillier each season), "Romanzo Criminale" (a gritty spin-off from the Italian gangster film), and "Grimm" (greatly inventive and uncelebrated).  I also try to watch any programme about film in general and any biographies of actors, directors, etc.  I am also fond of a late afternoon quiz programme "Pointless", which I watch if I am not involved with other things. So that doesn't leave much time for anything else.

Writing about the above Italian series based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri, is not a complete departure on my part from writing about movies, since each episode -- although the main characters are unvaried -- is complete in itself.  There is none of that 'previously...' at the start and since they run between 100 and 110 minutes (without any ads thankfully), they can really be treated as films, especially since they are well-written and well-photographed, unlike too many made for television flicks.  Set in the Ragusa region of Sicily (which looks so appealing that one yearns to visit and discover its byways), Commissario Salvo Montalbano is in charge of the local police station, but forced to work under the thumb of governmental bureaucrats and the so-called Anti-Mafia Squad.  Played by Luca Zingaretti, he is a charismatic presence, apparently swooned over by many female viewers, despite his bow legs, short and stocky build, and shaved pate. He has a long-standing girlfriend Livia, not seen since the last series, who lives in Turin, and is generally faithful, living in his seaside villa and tended by his faithful daily housekeeper. When not solving mysteries, his main pastimes are long swims each morning in the surrounding sea and relishing hearty gourmet meals. What's not to like?

His main sidekicks are the reliable Fazio, played by Peppino Mazzotta, the irascible 'Mimi, played by Cesare Bocci, who is married with a son but who remains a serial womanizer, and the dippy agent Catarella, played by Angelo Rosso. Catarella is a wonderful comic creation who is overly in awe of Salvo, but who is very clumsy and somewhat dim, always mixing up words and people's names. Despite this he turns out to be something of a computer whiz and shows unexpected acting talent as Judas in the local drama (grammar) club's passion play. Montalbano himself is mentally sharp and expert at managing his overlords and underlings, to say nothing of the succession of tasty female characters who appear as victims and villains. He is not above duplitious subterfuge when questioning subjects, like pretending to be an ardent monarchist to obtain information from a hostile old biddy. He can be irascible, surprising, and brilliant all at the same time, while remaining a macho but very likeable man. The two-sided war of words between him and the local coroner (while they are actually quite fond of each other) is beautifully presented. Among the recurrent female characters is a six-foot Scandinavian beauty, married to an older local man, who finds various outlets for her sexual urges, but remains on the highest of platonic plains with her good friend Salvo.

Nearly all of the films (and there have been some twenty or so) have been intricate puzzles eventually resolved by the team. This Saturday marks the end of the series with its version of the author's most recent work. Actually the last four novels have been dealt with out of sequence, but that is by the by with no damage done. There are rumours that there may be a few more episodes to come in due course and I certainly hope so. In the meantime I will certainly miss the Inspector and his well-fleshed out team. 

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tower Heist (2011)

I've said it before and no doubt I will say it again, but there are times when I am quite happy to park my brains at the door when watching a movie and to just go with the flow. Not that all escapist films will do this for me -- I have yet to give myself over to muscle-bound superhero flicks or to immerse myself in sappy rom-coms.  In fact usually this unsuspected enjoyment of what is actually a pretty dumb film comes unexpectedly -- and therefore affords double the pleasure.

One of the go-to guys in Hollywood for dumb films is Brett Ratner who has carved a megabucks career for himself without divulging a smart set of directorial skills.  He's given us the three "Rush Hour" movies, although for my money it is pretty hard to stop Jackie Chan being an entertaining presence, even if one is stupid enough to pair him with an annoying Chris Tucker. Ratner's "Red Dragon" was the least of the many Hannibal Lector films, but watchable despite his best efforts.  Much the same can be said of the rest of his output: finding the right cast can usually compensate for feeble storytelling or for flights of logic.  The above movie is a good example and I found it vastly engaging despite myself.

Ben Stiller (whom I usually find only marginally more tolerable than Adam Sandler) is the manager of an exclusive tower block in Manhattan, marshaling his huge staff to cater to every odd whim of the wealthy and eccentric tenants. Top of the tower lives Bernie Madoff-like Alan Alda, supposedly a Wall Street whizz, who is about to be investigated for massive fraud, but who is sufficiently confident in his own political connections to believe himself invulnerable. Unfortunately his financial machinations have wiped out the pension funds and life savings of the tower's 'little people', amongst them the doorman looking forward to his forthcoming retirement.  When the latter tries to end it all by jumping in front of a subway train, Stiller along with concierge Casey Affleck and elevator man Michael Pena decide to confront Alda.  They march into the penthouse where he is under house arrest and Stiller attacks the prize possession in his living room, Steve McQueen's immaculately restored racing car. Building supervisor Judd Hirsch promptly sacks the trio, since important residents like Alda, even if they are major crooks, are sacrosanct.

Stiller resolves to return to the penthouse to rob the funds which he is sure are hidden there and adds former resident (now evicted for financial failure) Matthew Broderick to his band of merry men. However since they really know nothing about crime, Stiller decides to rope in  a neighbourhood villain, wise-ass petty crook Eddie Murphy.  Murphy is delighted to be able to steal some twenty million, but it turns out he knows little more than his cohorts about cracking a safe.  So Jamaican maid "Precious" Gabourey Sidibe joins the mismatched gang. From this point onward the action gets more and more far-fetched as they manage to effect entry to the heavily-guarded apartment, discover the hidden but empty safe (at which point Murphy reveals that he wants all the loot for himself), and then accidently discover that the McQueen sportscar has actually been reconstructed from solid gold.  Elaborate shenanigans follow as they attempt to get the sportscar down to street level, including trying to load it on a window-cleaning heist and then trying to balance it on top of the building's elevator shaft, with the different 'perps' finding themselves hanging over cavernous spaces a la Harold Lloyd. I could get overly involved with pointing out all of the misuses of the laws of physics in the action, but you have to remember that this movie is a feel-good fantasy and is really just an excuse for amusing thrills.  There is no benefit in trying to work out the logic of the film's denouement, nor how the car ended up where it was, nor how the downtrodden staff eventually got their savings restored. Like old Greek drama, one must just accept the deus ex machina conventions to provide a happy ending for most of the cast and the necessary comeuppance for swarmy Alda.

Stiller was pretty good in this role although he will never be anyone's idea of an action man. He was provided with a budding romance with the female agent in charge of Alda's case, a likeable Tea Leoni. (We've not seen much of her in recent years and like all of us she's beginning to get on, but she's still a delightful actress). Murphy's role is something of an improvement on most of his latter-day outings, but he still seems to be slightly phoning in his shtick. It's always a pleasure too to see Broderick, although his late career is also not a patch on his early roles.  The rest of the players do what needs be done to keep this jolly outing on stream. I must say that  M*A*S*H  funnyman Alda, who always had a sardonic spin on his jokes, makes a convincing villain.  Seeing him getting his well-deserved but unexpected desserts is part of the movie's charm.  This film and its players will never be honoured with any awards for this outing, but it definitely falls into the category of a guilty pleasure for me.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

More Film Festival

And so another London Film Festival becomes history!  Let's have a few (or several many) words about the last three films we watched -- a modern silent classic from Spain and two from the fest's "Treasure" section where old movies are rediscovered or restored.

Blancanieves (2012): The Spanish title translates as "Snow White" and the film is a gothic and hispanic riff on the Grimm tale.  It would be a little glib to describe the movie as this year's "The Artist", but the success of that film possibly created an acceptable environment for another silent gem.  While this entry is neither as nostalgic or ultimately as 'feel-good' as the French charmer, it is a dazzling melodrama, burnished with sumptuous set design and filmed in glorious, crisp black and white. A renowned matador is distracted in the ring by his adored, heavily pregnant wife and is gored, initiating a series of tragic events.  The wife dies in childbirth after giving birth to a daughter, beloved by the crippled warrior. His life is soon dominated by his new, vain, and avaricious wife, the lovely Maribel Verdu, who swiftly plots her husband's death and, in best wicked stepmother mode, dispatches young Blancanieves to be killed by a huntsman. The girl is rescued from near death by a group of bullfighting dwarfs -- six of them as it happens, including a female. They reluctantly take her in and continue to perform at minor fairs and corridas; one day the talent that she has inherited from her father comes to the fore as she saves one her hosts from the horns of a charging bull.  Soon they become a celebrated act, until Verdu comes on the scene with her poisoned apple! Since this is not a Hollywood movie, we are spared the traditional happy ending, but are blessed with a charming and imaginative take on the familiar tale.

The Boys from Syracuse (1940): This film is another from my 'must see one day' list that turned out to be a massive disappointment.  The show with a wonderful score from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a big hit on Broadway in the late 30s.  However when Universal got their grubby paws on it, they managed to dumbdown an erstwhile sparkling gem into a rather dubious production.  The story is loosely based on the Shakespearian "Comedy of Errors" and is set in ancient Greece.  Twins, both called Antipholus, and their faithful twin servants, both called Dromius, have been long separated, each believing the other set dead.  When one pair come from Syracuse to Ephesus to rescue their condemned father, farcical (not) marital mayhem is meant to ensue. Apart from the very chunky script with its feeble attempt at updated humour, the main problem is with the largely B-cast.  Allan Jones, a popular tenor of the day (best remembered now for his "Donkey Serenade") takes on the lead role and makes a relatively good fist of churning out classic tunes like "Falling in Love with Love". However, his sidekick played by one Joe Penner is a total disaster in the role. (No, I never heard of him either, but I gather he was vaguely popular back then and that this was meant to be his big movie breakthrough; it wasn't and he died shortly thereafter). The female cast is led by Martha Raye (always an acquired taste) as the slave's 'wife' and Rosemary Lane (one of the minor sister acts) as Antipholus' 'wife'. There is some consolation in the casting of the minor roles with dippy Charles Butterworth as the Duke -- constantly preceded by a fanfare from his trumpeters -- and Eric Blore and Alan Mowbray as a pair of impoverished tailors. Possibly because of its score, the film has now been preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress, but it is far from a 'national treasure' on nearly every other level.

The Big Gundown (1966): This restored 'spaghetti western' was an unexpected treat.  For a start it is one of the very few in this genre that I have ever seen that was not dubbed, and watching the restored film in its original Italian improved matters no end.  Directed by Sergio Sollima, not quite in the same league as Sergio Leone, it is probably his best film and was previously only available in abridged versions on the international market.  It was one of the first Italian Westerns to move away from the story of an avenging hero riding into town to clean things up to more 'political' concerns.  Lee Van Cleef takes on one of his relatively rare roles as the good guy rather than the sneering villain, playing bounty hunter John Corbett.  He is being encouraged to stand for political office to further the ambitions of a local tycoon, but is first asked to hunt down a rogue Mexican called Cuchillo ("The Knife") who has been accused of raping and murdering a young girl.  This role is taken by the American Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian who soon became a fixture on the Italian movie scene.  As famed critic Dilys Powell wrote at the time, "the real stars of the film are Milian's sparkling teeth" or words to that effect.  He gives a cheeky performance as he continues to elude the determined Corbett, who eventually discovers that he may be pursuing the wrong villain. In the meantime there are some amusing distractions, like Van Cleef rescuing a 14-year old Morman lass from Milian's lascivious intentions, only to discover that she is the not so innocent fourth wife of the wagon train's leader.  With some stunning scenery and majestic photography, the film also features one of Ennio Morricone's most memorable scores.  One of the minor characters is an effete monacled Austrian baron, employed as the tycoon's bodyguard, who tinkles out "Fur Elise" on the ivories during his downtime.  Morricone brilliantly incorporates that theme in his stirring musical dramatics.  

So it was a good ending to the week! Now it's back to the less esoteric pursuits of life...or perhaps not that mundane at all.  We'll see...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An Oriental Marathon

I promised to write about some of the new films viewed at this year's London Film Festival, so here comes the first installment.  For some reason best known to ourselves, we chose to view four Far Eastern movies (actually one Korean and three Japanese) back to back on two consecutive afternoons.  Since each of them clocked in at two hours plus and since none of them proved to be indelibly memorable, this became something of a hard slog.  Or rather, enjoyable in part mixed with 'enough of this' in another part.  So here goes:

Doomsday Book: This was the Korean entry and sounded intriguing from its blurb in the Festival programme -- a three-parter examining the potential end of the world or the death throes of humanity. It began life some years back as two short films by well-known directors Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung, but then sat on the shelf when funds ran out.  Eventually they collaborated to complete the trilogy in its current form -- and while all three films have intriguing concepts, they don't really come together as an intrinsic whole. The first "Brave New World" was something that could have slotted well into FrightFest, a somewhat nauseating riff on zombies taking over the world.  A studious young man is left at home when his family goes on holiday with a list of household tasks to perform in their absence, including recycling the waste and getting rid of the kitchen slop bucket. We then see how all this effluvia works its way into processed foods, turning the population into a ravishing horde of half-dead flesheaters. Double yuk! The second part "Heavenly Creature" is somewhat more cerebral.  In the near future when robots are commonplace, a Buddhist monastery discovers that their creature, purchased to look after the mundane tasks, has apparently achieved Nirvana and become Buddha incarnate. Their quandary is whether this is a defect in its design or a holy miracle, and the technician sent in to investigate has a secret of his own.  The final part "Happy Birthday" is deeply silly.  A young girl steals her billiard-mad uncle's favourite ball and tries to order a new one on the internet; somehow this turns into some kind of galactic mistake as a ten-kilometre wide 8-ball wings its way to earth, threatening to destroy civilisation.  The family retreat to their provision-packed survival shelter on the girl's birthday, to emerge some ten years later to a changed world.

The Samurai That Night: I don't quite know what I was expecting of this Japanese film, the 'Samurai' in the title having caught my attention, but that was something of a red herring, as the film barely resembled the samurai dramas of old.  Instead we have the rather inept manager of a small ironworks, who dreams of avenging his wife who was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver some five years previously -- that's when he's not involved in listening to her last answerphone message over and over again while stuffing his face slurping pots of ready-made custard. The loutish Kijima has served time for this crime, but is now back on the streets while our unlikely hero sends notes threatening his life on the anniversary of his wife's death. This first film from stage actor and director Maasaki Akahori barely held my attention, and while nicely enough made did not flesh out sufficiently to fill its two hour slot.

For Love's Sake: I always make a point of seeking out each new film from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, although I have found his eclectic approach to filmmaking a mixed bag.  Some of his output has been wildly and weirdly entertaining, while other forays, particularly his take on the spaghetti western starring Quentin Tarantino, have been massive disappointments. Here he adds a pop musical to his bow, setting a Shakespearian tale of doomed romance to the Japanese pop songs of the early '70s when the film is set.  Based on a manga and with an anime preface and tailpiece, the story follows rich-girl Ai who recognises street-punk Makoto as the boy that once saved her during a skiing accident.  She recognises him by the distinctive scar on his forehead; others taunt him that it makes him look like a well-known comic fighter, forcing him to respond all the time with his fists flying.  She wants to redeem him and he wants to be left alone.  She convinces her parents to pay for him to attend her wealthy prep-school where he lasts about five seconds before flattening one of the teachers.  He then is dispatched to a rough trade school full of young gangsters.  The girl-boss is purportedly one gorgon called Gumko (because she constantly chews gum), but in truth the real boss is more deadly.  Miike mixes some extremely delightlful musical interludes -- and all of the cast sing well -- with some brutally prolonged fistfights, where Makoto flattens all comers, be they male, female, old, or young.  While the film starts off entertainingly enough, it does begin to drag in its second half when the fights begin to outnumber the kitschy music, but as a genre-bending piece of bravado, it is largely another success for the mad Miike.

Helter Skelter: This film's director Mika Ninagawa is one of Japan's best-known photographers and this is her second feature after the masterly "Sakuran" released five years ago. She obviously has a photographer's eye (pace: Chris Doyle) and the movie is a visual feast of colour, costume, and set decoration.  Unfortunately these eye-pleasing thrills are wrapped around a somewhat uninvolving tale of top model Lilico, the product of cosmetic modification.  As her manager says, 'All that is hers are her eyeballs, her ears, her fingernails, and her pussy'.  She is worshipped by thousands of wannabes, but fears the up-and-coming competition embodied by a natural beauty.  She abuses and humiliates her all-too-eager assistant, even making love to the former's boyfriend while she watches, and plots to destroy her would-be boyfriend's new fiancee. Meanwhile detectives are trying to build a case against the rogue plastic surgeon who made her and others like her, but who has ensured that continual treatment is necessary to avoid the inherent rot that continually manifests itself. Again based on a manga, this flashy film soon wears out its welcome and contrives to have multiple endings, each of which would have served as a final coda to the action, especially since it is virtually impossible to empathise with its unsympathetic heroine.

Finally for today, and as a change of pace, let me tell you about the next film that we watched, the restoration of a 1920 picture from Norway "Gipsy Anne", regarded as the first indigenous feature from that country.  While of some historical interest, this rustic melodrama of the crossed love between a gypsy foundling, a landed childhood friend, and an older suitor was somewhat dreary and not particularly well-made. Despite starring the famed actress Aasta Nielsen in an early role, she looked far too old for the hard-done-by heroine. The plot contrivance of burning down the farmhouse that her 'love' was building for his rich intended, letting her poor muggins admirer take the blame for her transgression and being sent to gaol, and then going off to America (where all are equal - ho ho) with him on his ultimate release was just too much of a potboiler to swallow. Yet I understand that the movie was a big hit locally on its release -- probably because there was no other local product with which to compare it.

More to come next week...

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Holy Motors (2012)

Following on from my last entry where I wrote that high-brow critics tend to be more glowing than is often deserved for many arthouse productions -- often the more obscure, the more glowing, this new film (his first for 13 years) from auteur Leos Carax is an interesting case in point.  Premiered at this year's Cannes, it split its audience between two camps.  There were those who thought it was a work of infinite genius and those whose boos echoed to the rafters.  As a supposedly surreal movie-going experience and with its many references to cinema history, it sounded just my cup of tea, and off we went to see it.  I find myself now schizophrenically split like the Cannes viewers, between thinking it is something more than remarkable and thinking it verges on being a pile of artificial twaddle.

For some historical background, Leos Carax is the pseudonym of Alexandre (Oscar) Dupont and is an anagram of Alex Oscar. Carax became an arthouse darling in his twenties with three films, all starring his alter ego (or perhaps alter id) Denis Lavant, playing a character called Alex in all of them:"Boy Meets Girl" (1984), "The Night is Young/Mauvais Sang" (1986), and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf" (1991).  This last film while completely absorbing came in well over budget and was a financial flop; Carax made no further films before the little-seen "Pola X" in 1999 (which did not star Lavant).  That actor is back with a vengeance in Carax's fifth feature, here playing the remainder of the anagram, Monsieur Oscar, a protean character with no true reality that one can grasp; Carax gives us nearly two hours of visual fireworks with deliberately, I think, no discernible plot or purpose, other than to emphasize the truism that one man in his time plays many parts.  Carax himself has said that the film is not telling a story nor narrating a life; it is merely showing us what it is like to be alive.  Or something like that!!

M. Oscar is collected from his suburban home and family each morning by a stretch white limousine driven by the elegant and elder Celine, French movie icon Edith Scob (more of that later), who drives him to his various 'appointments' throughout the day.  The limousine's roomy interior is a mobile dressing room where the athletic, muscular Lavant morphs into many different characters during the course of the day's 'work'.  He moves from becoming a female street beggar, ignored by the passing throngs, to becoming a hired assassin to being an elderly man on his deathbed. At one stage he enters a film studio, dons a motion capture suit with lights and engages in a dance of virtual sex with a female partner before the pair dissolve into fantasy apparitions. The most outlandish of his guises is Monsieur Merde, a character reprised from Carax's brief segment in the 2008 portmanteau film "Tokyo!" Here Lavant becomes a grotesque underworld goblin with a glass eye, lanky hair, and filthy long fingernails, who terrorises a cemetery fashion shoot by eating flowers and licking armpits, before abducting the supermodel Eva Mendes and carrying her off to his lair where he dresses her in an billowing burqa.  In contrast some of his other incarnations verge on the boring, including his scene telling a teenaged 'daughter' that she should be more aggressive to woo friends and a seemingly endless scene in a deserted department store where Kylie Minogue in a Jean Seberg wig warbles away before jumping to her death.  At the end of the day M. Oscar goes back to his surburban villa where his family have become a pack of chimpanzees and the stretch limo retires to the Holy Motors garage where it chats with the other parked limos about their respective days, reminding the viewer of a twee kiddy fantasy.  

A movie buff can have some fun picking out the various cinema references, influences, and homages other than the Jean Seberg wig, from the 1000 faces of Lon Chaney through the many Chaplinesque bits of business (falling off a treadmill, applying makeup a la "Limelight") through the several visual interludes featuring early cinematography capturing a man in motion.  Some of these are subtle or subliminal, while others seem overly blatant. For example, at the film's end the elegant Celine wears an Alida Valli shiny trenchcoat and dons an opaque mask to remind us that she was the damaged daughter in "Eyes without a Face"/Les Yeux sans visage" (1960).  Carax himself appears in the opening scene walking through a forested wall and emerging into a cinema (shades of Cocteau here) as if to announce 'this is my world of illusion'.  At times the film seems like the story of the emperor's new clothes all pointless artifice, but at others, like during a musical accordion band interlude, it gives us an unexpected feeling of elation at the thought of being alive and sentient.  When M. Oscar is asked why he carries on being Oscar, he replies that he does so 'for the beauty of the gesture'.  It is this philosphy that underwrites Carax's talents for the audience that can see the forest for the trees, but this is far from an easy exercise. 

It's London Film Festival time again, but a shorter programme than previous years.  I shall only (ha-ha) be seeing eight or nine films during its ten-day span and shall report back about the best of these in the not too distant future.  

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Foreign-language films

A good proportion of my film-watching and indeed my own collection is made up of movies 'not in the English language'.  I would hate to live somewhere like Germany where the vast majority of films get dubbed before they are deemed suitable for local consumption and I have never found subtitles any sort of distraction to my viewing pleasure -- although I know there is a vast world of filmgoers out there who avoid subtitles like the plague. However I have long been puzzled as to why some foreign-language films win a cinema release, however limited, out of the presumably hundreds made each year.  Most of these are only seen by audiences in their own countries or regions; at best they may get festival exposure or at worst they may eventually appear direct to disc or disappear completely. So how do a ragbag of foreign films scrape into our cinemas?

I've posed a question to which I really do not know the answer, although I am grateful for all comers.  However it would appear that local critics are prepared to give non-English language flicks the benefit of the doubt,  far more than they are willing to do for many mainstream movies (granted many of these are pretty dire anyhow!). To illustrate this point, let me examine two films I've viewed within the last week, both of which from memory received glowing critical reviews: "Miss Bala" (2011) from Mexico and "The Maid" (2009) from Chile.  While I was happy to watch both movies, I remain puzzled as to why either should have made the distributors' cut whilst other contenders languish unseen and I was also puzzled as to why their reviewers were so positive.

The Mexican film, like Warner Brothers used to boast in the 1930s was 'ripped from the headlines', and was apparently inspired by an actual instance of a local beauty queen being arrested with an assortment of drug-war villains. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura a young Tijuana lass, who together with her best friend wants to enter and win a local beauty pageant to become "Miss Baja California" as an escape from their drab existence. The night before the contest the pair are caught up in a shoot-out in a local nightclub and when Laura tries to find her pal the next day, the friendly local (corrupt of course) cop hands her over to the mob From there things go from bad to worse for her as she is used as a drug mule and sexual toy.  However although she has missed the deadline for the contest's heats, she is allowed back into the competition and is eventually the actual winner, despite her being far from the best looking or most vocal contestant.  It is quite clear that her win is the product of the mob's pressure on the organisers, rather than any particular talent on her part. However she is still too involved with the local crims to relish her win and rather passively I felt continues to go along with their demands.  Part of this is her genuine fright and her understandable desire to protect her younger brother, but she is too willing a dupe to become a sympathetic character. 

When she is asked to prostitute herself to a local bigwig whom the mob want to murder, she avoids being raped by telling him that there is a plot against his life.  For her trouble she gets beaten to a pulp by his aides and ultimately arrested with the rest of the villains.  Perhaps this is a true picture of the current Mexican scene just south of the border, where no one can be trusted and where no one really cares for those lives blighted in passage, but it was hardly the kind of entertainment that the average cinema-goer would choose for a good night out.  In the end Laura is turned loose, still handcuffed, to await whatever new fate might befall her.

The Chilean film was somewhat more involving with a strong central performance from Catalina Saavedra as the plain fortyish frump Raquel who has worked for the same upper-class family for the past twenty odd years. She has no life whatsoever outside the family home and truly believes that they could not manage without her and that their large brood of children, whom she has raised and whom she continues to look after, love her like a mother. However she is not one of them -- she eats her meals alone in the kitchen, is too shy to join them at table when they want to celebrate her birthday, and has become more and more estranged from the eldest daughter.  In addition her health is not what it was -- she has fierce headaches and fainting spells, and while her mistress would not dream of sacking her, she is keen to bring a second maid into the household to lighten Raquel's workload.

This is unthinkable to our heroine.  When a young Peruvian lass is hired, she makes her life a misery by grumping at her non-stop and by making her feel like a dirty intruder, disinfecting the bathroom whenever she has a shower! She soon departs and is replaced by an older dragon, recommended by the wife's mother.  This one is subjected to the same cold shoulder, but fights for her place -- so the maid just locks her out of the house.  When she climbs back in via the roof, fists begin to fly as the two come to blows, managing to trample the model ship that the man of the house has spent the last year creating.  Bye-bye helper number two.  The next to arrive is plain but vivacious and capable Lucy who, when the locking-out-of-the house technique fails, chooses to sunbathe topless on the front lawn until our grumpy heroine lets her back in.  Slowly the newcomer breaks through Raquel's cool reserve and defenses and they become friends; she even invites the lonely woman to join her boisterous family at Christmas -- the first time the maid has spent the holiday apart from the household. On their return there is a sea-change in the sour old Raquel and she gets the family to help her plan a surprise birthday party for Lucy.  However Lucy announces her intention to leave as her Christmas visit home reminded her just how much she misses her own family -- and Raquel is devastated.  However the last scene shows her going out for an evening jog, just as Lucy used to do, perhaps leading us to believe that at long last she realises that there is more to life than waiting hand and foot on a family that is not one's own.

The writer-director Sebastian Silva has created a well-drawn portrait of the maid's empty existence, but it is frankly a far less well-rounded and less entertaining picture than the recent American film "The Help".  This takes me back to where I started.  Why were these two films given their chances amongst recent releases? Why in their potential appeal to the art-house crowd were they given a green light while others, probably equally as good or possibly even better have fallen down between the cracks unlikely to ever see the light of day outside their home markets?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Our Hearts were Young and Gay

It's strange sometimes how two films within a single week's viewing complement each other by throwing a different light on the same theme.  The contrasting films here are the highly-considered "A Single Man" (2009) directed and written by the designer Tom Ford and the Italian flick "Loose Cannons" (2010) directed by the Turkish-born, Italy-based Ferzon Ozpetek.  Both concern the life choices of gay men, but they could not be more different in their approach to the subject.

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, it has taken me a while to get around to watching the Ford film, for which lead actor Colin Firth was Oscar-nominated.  It portrays one day in the life of his buttoned-up academic, a day on which he contemplates ending it all, having been in mourning for the past year for the sudden death of his lover of sixteen years in a motor accident.  He goes about his daily routine at the university, but takes time out to write a number of suicide notes, arrange documents concerning his assets in tidy piles, laying out the clothes for his funeral including specific instructions on the correct knot for his tie, and practices different angles for best shooting himself.  After a boozy evening with good friend and neighbour Julianne Moore, he postpones the final act by going to a local bar, where he again encounters one of his students, Nicholas Hoult, with whom he had a cryptic conversation earlier in the day.  Hoult was first noticed in the Hugh Grant starrer "About a Boy" (2002), but now at twenty has matured into a singularly pretty young man.  This does not go unnoticed by Firth, who takes him back to his ever-so-modern and chilly house, puts aside all the suicide paraphenalia, and then promptly SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER drops dead with a heart attack, just as the possibilities for a renewed love of life have presented themselves.

There is something ever so cold, calculated, and clinical about the entire movie.  While beautiful to watch and with an immaculate performance from Firth, the film remains, like its creator, a designer triumph, but cold and bloodless with it.

"Loose Cannons" (not to be confused with the 1990 comic cop caper starring Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman) is a slightly messy, but very winning comedy-drama.  I've not seen any of Ozpetek's earlier films apart from his excellent first flick "Hamam: The Turkish Bath" (1997), but I gather his later Italian-made movies often focus on gay themes. Here we follow the story of heart-throb Riccardo Scamarcio (best-known to us for his lead role in the film version of "Romanzo Criminale" in 2005 but also amongst the large cast in the Woody Allen flick reviewed below).  He is the youngest child of an extended family of pasta-manufacturers, living in Lecce, a small city in the Southern heel of Italy.  Having just returned from his business studies in Rome, he comes out to his older brother, saying that he does not want to get involved in the family business, but wishes to return to his friends in Rome to pursue his writing ambitions.  However, at dinner that evening, with the entire family in attendance including his matriarch grandmother and his dotty aunt, his brother uses the opportunity to come out first, promptly giving his homophobic father a mild heart attack and lumbering our young hero with responsibility for the factory -- the older brother now having been disowned and the sister married to a no-goodnik despised by her parents. His parents believe him to be 'straight' especially since the young and beautiful new female executive at the factory seems to fancy him.

Nothing could be further from the truth as we can observe for ourselves when a carload of his Rome friends arrive for a short visit, including his actual own love interest.  They are as camp a bunch as you could imagine, but try to maintain appearances before the staid family -- although grandma, the sister, and even the gorgeous executive can soon see through the charade. The grandmother, beautifully played by Ilaria Ochcini, is in fact the most interesting and modern-thinking character.  The present-day action is cut with her back-story starting with her wedding day, where it becomes appparent that she will proceed with the planned ceremony despite the fact that she is madly in love with the groom's brother.  The implication is that he too is not interested in female company in a sexual way, but the pair remain soulmates throughout his remaining years. Of all the family she is the most tolerant of her grandchildren, regardless of their shortcomings.  In the end (another SPOILER here), she dies after dolling herself up and stuffing herself with all of the forbidden sweet foods forbidden her as a diabetic. At her funeral we can see the first signs of the family finding a way to reconcile their differences, and the end scene of the various characters from both the past and present dancing together and changing partners is joyous to behold.

Given my druthers, this is the film which I would select to promote gay sensibilites, rather than the beautifully-composed but empty world portrayed by Mr. Ford.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

To Rome with Love (2012)

I've said it before and no doubt (hopefully) I'll say it many times again: I have a lot of time and a heightened degree of tolerance for Woody Allen films.  Over the last ten to twenty years, the naysayers have been proclaiming (with the exception that proves the rule, last year's "Midnight in Paris") that his latest movie is his 'worst one ever'.  I can not hope to convince the sceptics, but I know in my heart that his legion of faithful fans perseveres.

His latest film after a run of love letters to London, Barcelona, and Paris, is of course set in the Eternal City, and Allen marks the occasion by giving us beautiful panoramic views many steps above a mere travelogue and also manages to incorporate a medley of Italian musical favourites from "Volare" and "That's Amore" through grand opera.  The film is some twenty minutes longer than his average, uses a vast army of generally unknown Italian actors, and even has the audacity to present a good proportion of the flick in Italian with (horror) subtitles -- which in itself is enough to put off the Allen-knockers. While the film is certainly not amongst his very best, it is still highly entertaining and provides the requisite dose of laughs, particularly when Allen's own character is on screen. 

There are four separate story-lines, each vaguely about love in its many forms, that unexpectedly do not intertwine.  Two of these are completely in Italian and two are in English.  The main tale concerns Allen as a retired opera director who travels to Rome with his psychiatrist wife Judy Davis (never missing an opportunity to throw little digs at Allen's various neuroses) to meet the parents of the left-wing lawyer whom their beloved daughter, Alison Pill, has met, fallen in love with, and plans to marry.  They live in the apartment behind his father's mortuary -- occasioning a run of gags from Allen regarding both his fear of flying and his fear of death.  The meeting is not going too well until Allen hears the magnificent tenor of the mortician as he sings in the shower. He becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing this great talent to an appreciative audience, but when he discovers that his reluctant discovery can not sing outside this familiar setting, he stages an opera where every scene has his lead singing from a movable shower stall.  This is the same director who once staged an opera with the cast dressed as white mice! While the undertaker receives glowing reviews, impresario Allen is described as an imbecile -  which, since he speaks no Italian, he takes as a glowing compliment. While the gag may have been done before somewhere, these scenes are hilarious.

The second American story was to me the least satisfactory, although it had its moments.  Jesse Eisenberg is an architectural student living in Rome with girlfriend Greta Gerwig (a current critic's darling who normally raises my hackles, but who is fine in a subdued role here); her neurotic friend Ellen Page comes to stay and prepares to win away Eisenberg's affections with her non too subtle mix of pseudo-intellectual pretensions and make-believe sexuality.  Alec Baldwin, an older successful architect whom Eisenberg meets, initially as a real character, morphs into a fly on the wall proffering advice and admonitions to Eisenberg who has become the embodiment of his younger self.  A cute idea, but one that would have worked better if the usually likeable Page wasn't so annoying here.

The first of the two Italian story is a semi-homage to Fellini's "The White Sheik" where a provincial couple (they claim to be from Pordenone, home of a famous silent film festival) have come for their honeymoon.  He is to meet some influential cousins who will help his career prospects.  While she goes out and becomes more and more lost looking for a hairdresser, he is mistaken for a client of belle du jour Penelope Cruz, bursting out of her skimpy red dress, who has been gifted an afternoon of her attentions. In burst his relatives and he tries hopelessly to pass her off as his wife. Meanwhile his real wife has fallen in with a film crew making a movie with one of her many film idols and she is tempted into his hotel bedroom by his cajoling flattery. Both of them manage to be unfaithful to the other, in not necessarily expected ways, and decide in the end to return to their boring small-town life.

The second and possibly more successful Italian strand stars Roberto Benigni who can be one of the most annoying screen clowns of our era.  However his role here fitted him like a glove and had some piercing comments to make about the nature of celebrity.  He is your average Joe jobsworth, living a quiet life with his dowdy wife and two children.  Out of the blue and for no discernible reason, he leaves his house one day to a crowd of photographers and interviewers who seem determined to follow him everywhere and hang on his every word as something of profound wisdom.  What did he eat for breakfast? What kind of bread? Was it toasted? Does he wear boxer shorts? and so on, as if these replies would seal the fate of the world.  At first he shrinks from this unwanted attention and the glittering invitations he receives, to say nothing of the hordes of glamorous females who suddenly crave his body, but he soon takes it all for granted. Then one morning his crowd of admirers spot another nonentity in the road and switch their attentions to him. Having tasted undeserved fame, Benigni soon misses all the attention and his usually hyper personality works well in this parable on the emptiness of modern-day celebrity.

Carry on making these confections, Woody!  Long may you wave!  I know I am not alone in waiting to discover how you next will tickle our funny bone.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Albatross (2011)

Before I get to the topic at hand, I find that I've some undone business; I also find that I am no longer able to count from one to ten!  After my first FrightFest review, I wrote that there were nine films left to consider, but I somehow only managed to mention eight of them in my second column. So what did I miss? Only one of the more unforgettable screenings, although to my warped perception not necessarily one of the best, namely the Soska Sisters' "American Mary".  These two young Canadian sisters (twins actually), Jen and Sylvia, are revered in certain quarters for their first feature "Dead Hooker in a Trunk".  This is something of a cult item for self-appointed pundits like Eli Roth; personally I found it a pile of unwatchable, juvenile rubbish.

Their most recent production, which has now been taken up by one of the major studios for distribution, is the story of medical student and aspiring surgeon Mary Mason, played by the "Ginger Snaps" break-out actress Katharine Isabelle.  Plagued by financial problems and after being doped and raped at a party hosted by her previously revered instructors, she falls into the shady world of body modification surgery.  There is apparently a parallel population of weirdos who are prepared to pay big money for unthinkable alterations to their flesh.  Isabelle embraces this underground world with a kind of insouciant nonchalance which is amusing at first, but which soon becomes tiresome. Among her clientele are the Soskas themselves who wish to exchange body parts -- an arm for an arm as it were.  No doubt this film will also attract a cult following, but I'm afraid that I won't be among them.  And just out of curiosity why is a Canadian-made film by a pair of Canadian sisters and starring a Canadian actress called "American" anything?  Are we to assume that Americans by definition are more prone to freakdom than their sober Canadian neighbours?

Back to the present.  I had originally intended to write about "One Day" (2011).  The book by David Nicholls, which I have read, was enormously popular here; it follows two Edinburgh University acquaintances, Emma and Dexter, who hook up on their July 15 graduation day for a non-sexual encounter and it then focuses on their respective lives on the same date for the next twenty years or so. Their individual successes, failures, foibles, and attempts to find love are well-charted, and the reader waits for the day when the two finally realise they are hopelessly in love and emotionally bound to each other.  The author himself adapted his book for the screen, but the rolling years and events had a bitty feel to them. Emma is played by the American actress Anne Hathaway, presumably for box-office potential, and her slipping Yorkshire accent is less of a problem than the relative lack of chemistry between her and the male lead Jim Sturgess.  If you've not read the novel, the film is possibly an acceptable alternative, but a far lesser pleasure.

I was not expecting anything too special from "Albatross", one of Sky's premiers of the week which fell into the category of 'Where do they find them?', since it certainly made no impact at the box office. It was however something of a pleasant surprise, a quirky coming of age story, with a remarkably starry cast.  Julia Ormond (she who was quickly killed off two reviews ago) is married to German writer Sebastian Koch (immediately recognizable from "The Lives of Others" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book").  He had a major publishing success at an early age, the proceeds of which purchased the seaside bed and breakfast establishment that Ormond runs, but he has struggled with writer's block ever since, spending most of the day masturbating in front of his laptop.  They have two daughters, 17-year old Felicity Jones (who has been having her own break-out success recently) who is studying hard, hoping to enter Oxford, and a bratty, precocious 6-year old whom Ormond is trying to thrust into show-business to compensate for her own earlier glory days as an actress.  Into their lives as a chambermaid comes young 'Selena Molina the Cleaner', real name Emilia Conan-Doyle, who believes she is the great-granddaughter of Sir Arthur and that she has writing in her blood. Emilia is played by Jessica Brown Findlay in her first big-screen role and steals every scene from the more experienced cast.  She is apparently one of the stars of the television series "Downton Abbey", but since I have never watched this, she was a revelation.

She befriends the young and inhibited Jones, helping her to break out of her introversion, manages to consistently tick off the shrewish Ormond, and unthinkingly starts an affair with Koch who is theoretically helping her learn to write.  While she obviously has some talent, she delights in copying passages from the works of well-known writers for him to critique and delights in his pretensions in managing to negatively criticise all of them.  Her flaky mother who encouraged the Conan-Doyle connection has committed suicide and she lives with her grandparents, a dementia-suffering grandma and grandpa the lovely Peter Vaughan.  After the former's death, he finally admits that her long-gone father was indeed called Doyle, but the rest of it was a figment of her mother's imagination, and that the baggage we each carry is our own albatross.  All hell finally breaks loose when Ormond thinks Jones is pregnant -- all part of Emilia's bad influences -- and the Emilia-father affair becomes known to the rest of the family.  Dad is thrown out of the house and Emilia becomes persona-non-grata all round.  But as Koch prepares to drive Jones up to Oxford, and as we realise that Emilia has now successfully penned her first novel, a glimmer of grown-up realisation softens the faces of both girls.

The film is a quite well-done, an amusing yet serious study of family relationships and the pains of facing the adult world.  It is however geographically confusing; meant to be set in a small mainland English resort town, it was actually financed by the Isle of Man Film Board or whatever and shot on that island with its distinctive, majestic scenery -- not that this detracted from the tale. All in all, however, well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Frightfest the 13th - Part Two

Only because I said I would, I am now committed to finishing my recollections of FrightFest, even if one or two of the movies have now slipped into the 'I wonder what that was all about' category. Anyhow let me deal with the remaining four British films first.

The organisers, quite rightly I suspect, feel they must give some prominence to British entries in their horror-cum-fantasy selection.  If the truth be known, we often avoid watching these if there is an alternate possibility in the Discovery sidebar theatre.  I'd be hard-pressed to explain this prejudice.  It's partly because they often seem less original than other countries' output and partly because I know, realistically, that many of them will soon receive a cinema or TV release here and that it will therefore be easy to catch up with them. In fact two of the remaining four have already been released this week.

The opening film "The Seasoning House" falls more into the category of a horrible storyline rather than straightforward horror. The directorial debut of make-up and splatter guru Paul Hyett, the tale is set in a Balkan brothel during war-torn days. It is populated by kidnapped girls kept in a drug-induced stupor and forced to endure continued sexual violence from both soldiers and civilians.  Our little heroine is a mute orphan who has seen her family slain and who is treated as something of a pet by the cruel head pimp.  In a breakthrough role, young actress Rosie Day scuttles in the crawlspaces of the house, tending to the girls, watching, learning, and planning her escape -- but not before meting out her own form of justice to the nasty group of soldiers, led by Sean Pertwee, who massacred her family.  Harrowing and rather unpleasant stuff, with a unhappy sting in the tail.  The closing film "Tower Block" was also some distance from a horror film pure and simple.  It concerns the residents of the top floor of a soon to be demolished government block of flats, waiting their turn to be rehoused, being picked off one by one by an unseen sniper.  Our feisty heroine is the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, who seems to be flavour-of-the-month here, as she leads their diminishing number down to the ground floor and safety. The role enables her to flex her would-be action muscles, but the whole scenario and its ultimate explanation verged on the unbelievable. 

As for the two films which have now been widely released here, my reactions didn't quite agree with those of the local critics.  The first, with the unlikely comic title of "Cockneys vs Zombies" was a patchy business, but not without a certain charm.  When construction workers uncover a sealed ancient burial site, they unleash a subsequent plague of zombies (ho hum).  Fighting the growing horde of the living dead are a bunch of youngsters with little charisma and the residents of an old people's care home (also about to be demolished in the name of progress).  These include such cinema stalwarts as Honor Blackman, Richard Briers, Dudley Sutton, and Alan Ford, whose armed response tickled my old funny bone.  And there was one scene of Briers on his zimmer frame shuffling along to outrun the even more shuffling zombies that is bound to become a classic. The second film and one that I was quite looking forward to was "Berberian Sound Studio", which has been reaping lavish praise all round.  Set in Italy in the seventies when Italian horror and giallo were at their peak, it's the story of a mild-mannered introverted Englishman, nicely embodied by character actor Toby Jones, hired to work on the post-production sound effects on a particularly nasty example of the genre.  Apart from the front credits, we never actually see the movie in question, but its talk about witches, goblins, and extreme sadism begin to turn Jones' sensitive nature into something rather more unstable, as he hacks away at vegetables to achieve the necessary splatter noises and turns up the amps to get more convincing screams. With its not-so-sly references to the Italian horror scene of the time, I had expected something rather more interesting, but watching Jones' psychological collapse just didn't do it for me nor did the film's ambiguous ending.

Italian movie-making of that period was also the theme of the American documentary "Eurocrime!", which dealt with another strand of Italian cinema history, often ignored. Following on from Spaghetti Westerns, crime movies inspired by the like of "Dirty Harry" provided work for many second-string Hollywood actors and also created home-grown stars. These quickie hit-or-miss productions, ripped from the headlines, were filmed with rough bravado and with the actors being asked to do their own dangerous stunts, and were churned out by the dozen. The doc featured surviving talking heads like Henry Silva, John Saxon, Richard Harrison, and Franco Nero and was a fascinating compilation of an all but forgotten genre. I can't now say much about another American film "After", also receiving its UK premiere, since it was yet another story of two isolated survivors from some inexplicable disaster, who must bond together as their fragile world seems to be closing in -- and that's about all that's stayed with me. The programme blurb suggests that it was better than this -- maybe watching it was all a dream!

"Chained" was the latest offering from David Lynch's daughter Jennifer, which while infinitely superior to her first terribly-slated film "Boxing Helena", was again nasty, without being overly graphic, and which again had a frankly unbelievable denouement.  Serial killer taxi-driver Vincent D'Onofrio kidnaps and kills young Tim's mother (a blink or you might miss role for former A-lister Julia Ormond) and keeps the lad chained to pallet in his remote home, where the boy grows to manhood witnessing his tormentor's bloodlust  and helping with the cellar burials-- a path which he is encouraged to follow when D'Onofrio decides that Tim needs some sexual awakening. Finally there was "The Possession" an American movie from the Scandinavian director Ole Bornedal, produced by horror supremo Sam Raimi. The most positive thing I can say about this film was that it was probably the most polished and slickly produced of all of the weekend's movies -- Raimi's experience certainly showed and the slam-bang ending was strictly from his "Drag Me to Hell" school of shocks.  The actual story concerns weekend-father of two Jeffrey Dean Morgan, divorced from wife Kyra Sedgwick, who must face the disruption of a dybbuk when his younger daughter acquires and becomes obsessed by an antique wooden box with Hebrew inscriptions.  It was all rather well done but in the end a little forgettable.

So there we go!  Now the real mystery is whether or not this is my last FrightFest report.  Tune in next year for the answer to this puzzle, although I trust we will meet in the interim.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Frightfest the 13th - Part One

I hate writing this, but I think I may be coming to the end of an era. After faithfully attending all (or initially part) of this 'horror' fest for the last thirteen years -- and before that when it was a shorter weekend event at the National Film Theatre -- I may have reached my satiation point.  I still thrill to discovering an inventive horror or fantasy movie, but I no longer have the stamina to sit through an assortment of dross in search of the odd gem.  My weary old bones have started to rebel.  Last year we decided to stay at a nearby hotel in order to see the late-night selections without a mad rush to catch the last train home, but were rather disappointed with them -- apart from the increasing difficulty of keeping our eyes, ears, and brain open.  So this year we decided to 'limit' our viewing and only managed to see 19 films over the four and a half days.  I suppose that's still pretty impressive going, but unfortunately too many of the movies failed to warrant the time. So next year, who knows...

Unfortunately those nineteen included three of the worst films I have ever forced myself to sit through, eight which I thought so-so at best, leaving only eight that I found more or less praiseworthy.  Of these, there were a mere three that I would choose to watch again. I will attempt to write something about all of them over this and the next entry, and it will not be difficult for you to work out which were the bummers, which were the tolerable, and which were amongst the best:

I had been actually looking forward to "Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut", since the 1990 release of Clive Barker's fantasy was amazing albeit confusing viewing.  A couple of bright boffins decided to locate all of the fabled missing footage to pad out the theatrical print to better reflect Barker's original vision before it was hacked about by the studio, with the original 97 minute movie spun out to 153 minutes! It's a pity that they did this by inserting barely watchable video footage (in fact much of it looked like fourth generation footage) into the existing film.  I was under the impression that it is now possible to clean and sharpen videotape into something approaching modern standards, but this was not done here, leaving me with headache-inducing viewing, none of which made the storyline any clearer or more convincing. On the one hand I wish them well with what now seems an unnecessary restoration, but there is much to be done before they have a worthwhile or even viewable conclusion to their quest.

Frankly, I've had it up to here with scratchy found-footage films. The 'World Premiere' of the Irish film "The Inside" was both bad and painful to watch.  A bunch of gals celebrating their friend's birthday at an abandoned warehouse (why???) decide to document the evening on videocam and face violent vagrants and satanists in the next hours -- at least I think that's what was going on as the camera recorded the unmerry mayhem in the dim light.  Then there was the UK premiere of the much-hyped U.S. compendium "V/H/S", consisting of intermingled video footage by six varyingly "talented" directors, none of which was particularly scary, gory, or gruesome. After these three there was no way we could bring ourselves to watch the Spanish film "(Rec)3 Genesis", which again views the action through the eye of a camcorder.  Having seen the first two films in this series, I know well that I am in no rush to see this third entry, despite reviews claiming that it is rather more humorous than the preceding flicks.  I just may see it in due course -- but not this time around.

One thing that I've always like about Frightfest is the opportunity to see a number of non-English language films which may never receive any widespread distribution here.  Most of the other films we skip will, I know, eventually turn up on TV or DVD.  Despite the Far Eastern renaissance in horror film production, there was only one example in this year's programme, the jolly-sounding "Dead Sushi" (from Japan obviously) which was in a missed late-night slot and which I must therefore try to get hold of.  We did watch seven other 'foreign' films: three from Italy, one from the Netherlands, one from Germany (the best movie of the festival), one from Spain, and one from the unknown wilds of Chile.  The Chilean film "Hidden in the Woods", despite its exotic provenance was the least interesting of this bunch -- the sordid tale of an incestuous, drug-dealing dad living an 'eat-what-you-can-kill' existence in the wilderness with his two nubile daughters, and spawning a mutant feral son; if this makes it sound better (if this is the right word) than it was, forgive me. The Spanish flick "Sleep Tight" sounded promising and starred the well-known actor Luis Tosar.  He plays a kinky janitor morbidly involved with some of the tenants; he drugs his current obsession Clara to sneak into her apartment each night, with increasingly drastic results. I would classify this film as something of a near miss.  The Dutch movie "Kill Zombie" or "Zombibi" to give it its original title was a load of laughs, despite the hackneyed scenario of a mismatched band fighting off a horde of hungry zombies.  Unusually the four male leads played a pair of Moroccan brothers and a pair of pals from Surinam, with only the tasty female cop looking suitably Dutch. Filled with improbable sight gags and the requisite sprinkling of gore, this was something of a treat in the surrounding desert and a truly droll giggle. The three Italian films included "The Arrival of Wang", a sci-fi fable previously screened at the fest's Glasgow programme earlier this year and a stylish fantasy from the Manetti Brothers.  While waiting for the special effects to be finalised on that film, they shot "Paura 3D" in their downtime.  This was a pretty good example of the medium and followed three mates planning a wild weekend at the lavish villa of of a vacationing Marquis, before he returns unexpectedly and before one of their number finds the naked woman chained in the basement.  The Marquis is not just annoyed by the intrusion but turns inventively murderous as well, creating a number of effective shocks.  The third Italian film "Tulpa" was only completed a few days earlier and was hoping to enjoy a successful World Premiere for this return to the classic "Giallo". Unfortunately the hoots of derision from the audience throughout the screening must have been depressing for the attending director and his cast.  His big mistake was presenting this audience with a dubbed version, full of trite lines spoken by a selection of actors who could barely speak English, contrasting with the intervening scenes played in Italian with subtitles. A pity really since with some tightening and re-editing (all in Italian I would suggest) this black-gloved killer re-run with its occasionally stylish presentation might have become something rather better. That leaves the German entry "We are the Night", a well thought out Vampire story set in the decadence of Berlin.  The 200-year old leader of the all-female pack (they've killed off all the males) has been looking to replace her lost true love and hones in on and 'turns' petty thief Lena. Lena fights her transformation, and despite her new taste for blood and hatred of the light, she can't quite forget the lonely cop that befriended her. Good, slickly filmed, top quality pulp fiction.

Half-way through.  This leaves the nine British and American films of the weekend, which I will try to cover (or dismiss) next time round. In the meantime, watch out for marauding zombies.  Ho ho.