Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Boy Friend (1971)

Since his death a few weeks ago, the BBC (but not any of the other channels) have shown several films, two of his brilliant musical biopics made for television, and a documentary in tribute to the flamboyant British director Ken Russell.  I have had mixed feelings about his feature films, previously only having acquired copies of "Billion Dollar Brain" (1967), "The Devils" (1971), and "Tommy" (1975) from his best British period, plus two unusual and fascinating movies from his brief flirtation with Hollywood: "Altered States" (1980) and "Crimes of Passion" (1984).  I did, not long ago for curiosity only, acquire a copy of "Lisztomania"(1975) which I found nearly unwatchable.  He remained prolific, against the odds, but unfortunately most of his more recent output, like "Fall of the Louse of Usher" (not a typo!) in 2002, was underfunded and amateurish. However I took the opportunity during the recent showings to revisit "Women in Love" (1969) -- Oscar glory for Glenda Jackson -- and the above film which I'd not seen in years.

Gosh I was pleasantly surprised.  On its release the critics turned against him en masse, accusing him of not only ruining Sandy Wilson's nostalgic, period stage musical (the breakout performance for Julie Andrews), but of singlehandedly jeopardizing the progress of British filmmaking.  It's actually a fine piece of work, as Russell opened out the original script to incorporate his own peculiar tribute to Hollywood musicals in general.  One reviewer on IMDb said that this movie is to musicals as "Blazing Saddles" is to westerns -- a good analogy. The basic story of a fourth-rate seaside troupe in the 1920s performing their cliched drama to a scant audience is supplanted by dreams of the lavish production that it might have been under the eye of someone like Busby Berkeley.  One critic went so far to criticise having Berkeley-like extravaganzas with their synchronised patterns in a period before they were 'invented'.  What nonsense, since Russell's dipping into the Busby heritage is nearly every bit as good as the work of the Master.

MGM originally acquired the rights to the stage show for a straight movie adaptation which was never made and no one was prepared for what the imaginative Mr. Russell could do with the same basic material.  While possibly a little too long with one too many musical numbers (the film was cut by nearly half an hour for its original release -- now thankfully restored), it is vintage and typical Russell with blazing wit and ultimately charm.  He was also criticised for his choice of cast, but model of the day Twiggy is actually remarkably good with a fine singing voice and not overly clumpy dancing when accompanied by the Royal Ballet dancer Christopher Gable, who also did the choreography. The larger than life stage actor Max Adrian is great fun as a has-been pompous performer.  The charismatic (normally villain) Polish actor Vladek Sheybal -- also showcased in "Women in Love"-- plays a visiting Hollywood producer whom the players strive to seduce with their not-so-remarkable talent.  The long-legged American dancer Tommy Tune is here part of the minor cast which also includes a number of British stalwarts, with only 'National Treasure' Barbara Windsor being a grating presence.  Finally as  favour to Russell, having refused a role in "The Devils" Glenda Jackson has a priceless cameo as the injured diva whose accident gives the assistant stage manager cum understudy Twiggy her first stage role.  You know the saying -- "go out there a youngster, but come back a star" or somesuch. 

All of the 30s musical cliches are present and correct, but Russell gives them such a cheerful spin that the movie ranks with his very best.  The man was capable of taking nearly any subject and presenting it in ways that would just never occur to lesser talents.  He may have been somewhat underestimated and dismissed in the past, but I think his creative reputation will continue to grow. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cold Fish (2010)

If you go back in my archives you will find a review in June 2011 for director Shion Sono's previous film "Love Exposure".

I said at the time that I had only previously seen the director's weird 2007 flick "Hair Extensions" about mutant murderous hair (!) and that I really needed to explore his back catalogue, especially the well-thought of "Suicide Club" from 2000.  Well, I never did do anything about this, although I made a point of finding a copy of the above movie which carries on his particular brand of especially Japanese weirdness.  If the story were not loosely inspired by actual events, namely the so-called "Saitami serial murders of dog lovers", one would not begin to believe the perversities on display.

Instead of dog-lovers,  tropical fish enthusiasts have been substituted -- which is pretty strange for starters.  Our so-called hero Shamoto lives with his teenaged daughter and second young wife, whom he hastily wooed and married after his first wife's death; other than fish, his main interest is in the peace and tranquility that the local planetarium provides.  The two women hate each other with a vengeance and periodically come to violent blows.  They live and work in a small tropical fish store which Shamoto's wife faithfully tends, while the surly daughter shows her contempt both for the 'whore' that her father has married and for her dad as well.  One evening they receive a call that the youngster has been caught shoplifting and they hie off to the shop to try to resolve this embarrassing situation.  The shop manager is intransigent that the police should be called, but a persuasive customer called Yukio Murata convinces him to show lenience.  Murata is the proprietor of a rather swish tropical fish emporium and insists that the family, there and then, come with him to view his spectacular new species.  Partly because they are grateful that he has intervened on their daughter's behalf and partly because they are genuinely interested, they go with him.  And so begins a very bloody saga of manipulation and intimidation by the imposing and charismatic Murata.

For a start he convinces the pair to let the daughter come to live and work at his emporium together with an assortment of scantily-clad wayward young girls, looked after by his own attractive and nubile wife Aiko.  He next not so much seduces but rapes Shamoto's ripe wife, who it turns out actually likes a bit of masochistic violence. He tells her that he can make her husband rich if he becomes a partner in his enterprises, and eager to please her, Shamoto arranges to meet with him. At his office he finds Murata's slimy lawyer and a would-be client whom they convince to give them 10 million yen for a very exotic specimen.  Although the client is dubious, he is impressed with Shamoto's appearance and earnestness and hands over the dosh; no sooner is this done than Aiko brings in a poisoned drink and the four of them stand by and watch the punter slowly die in agonising pain.  Shamoto is horrified, but he is too weak a character and too intimidated by Murata's threatening behaviour, that he not only does not contact the police, but timidly helps to wrap the body, load it in his car, and drive Murata and Aiko to their family cottage in the woods (loaded inexplicably with Christian religious statuary and icons).  There he watches in horror as the two of them joyfully dismember the corpse in rivers of blood, strip and burn the bones to ash, and cut the flesh into meat-size chunks (a treat for gore-whores) to feed to the fish in a nearby stream -- making the corpse "invisible" according to Murata, who adds that this is the 58th time he has done this.  

Worried for his wife and daughter he is truly at Murata's beck and call, and again assists with the disposal of the murdered lawyer (he had become too greedy) and his driver, who are dispatched after Aiko lures the fat and ugly man into an extended session of kinky nooky which the driver is ordered to watch. On the return journey -- after feeding the local fishes -- Murata forces Shamoto to have sex with Aiko. As he climaxes, something snaps and he stabs her in the neck, then turning the force of his repressed fury on her husband.  He returns the wounded woman to the cottage to dispose of this new corpse in the usual bloody way.  He goes home a changed and violent man, forcing himself on his wife knowing that she has been with Murata and bashing his daughter about, before telling the police to meet them at the cottage for the film's thundering and gory denouement.

I was not at all familiar with any of the actors, but they all gave themselves over to the perversities called for with apparent abandon.  I have never seen so much gratuitous nudity in a mainstream film and somewhat unusually both of the lead actresses were more generously endowed than one expects Japanese ladies to be and the director merrily exploited their buxomness.  I do not think that this movie could have been made in anything but its Far Eastern setting, so a Hollywood remake is thankfully unlikely. However, I must confess that the film certainly worked its perverse charm for me, despite its leisurely running time.  I really MUST look more closely at the director's other work... 

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Hereafter (2010)

One hardly knows what to expect from a Clint Eastwood-directed film.  The 81-year old director seems to have no trouble keeping up his incredible pace of roughly one new movie per year -- but unlike his earlier output of westerns and thrillers, he now seems eager to try his hand on a surprising variety of subjects.  Since his geriatric comedy "Space Cowboys" in 2000, he has given us the impressive Pacific war diptych of "Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima", a Nelson Mandela biopic "Invictus", and now this meditation on mortality -- possibly not a surprising subject for a man of his years.  It has, however, proved to be something of a disappointment to his faithful fans, being a leisurely and somewhat flawed examination of the afterlife,  presented with a minimum of mysticism and a maximum of matter-of-factness.

The film reunites Eastwood with one of his previous film's leads, the ever-so-busy Matt Damon, who plays blue-collar worker George in San Francisco, running away from his previous notoriety and troubling career as a pyschic able to communicate with the past and the deceased.  Meanwhile in Paris, we have hotshot television  journalist Marie, Cecile De France, becoming increasingly troubled by her miraculous escape from death during a Far Eastern tsunami while on holiday with her lover/producer, where she experienced visions of near-death.  While in London we have the sad tale of devoted young twins Marcus and Jason, trying to avoid being taken into care as they scheme to protect their beloved drug-addicted mother.  When Jason -- the more voluble of the two -- is killed by a car trying to escape from a street gang after his mobile phone, Magnus is placed with foster parents.

Meanwhile back in San Francisco George is made redundant and is pressured by his brother, Jay Mohr, to resume his lucrative career as a psychic.  In Paris, Marie is encouraged to take leave from her stressful job to write a book -- purportedly on Mitterand but ultimately on her fascination with life after death.  And in London poor little Magnus wants to reconnect with his dead brother, but finds no help from the psychic charletons that abound.  About the only thing that keeps this film moving is wondering how in the world the three strands of the tale will ever merge, and Eastwood certainly takes his time doing this -- which is where he lost so many of his viewers who found the procedings tedious.  For example, we follow George's attendance at a evening-school cookery class where a potential romance with fellow student Bryce Dallas Howard becomes something of a McGuffin after she pesters him for a psychic reading and he reveals parts of her past which she would prefer to forget. Marie becomes totally absorbed in her research, driving off to Switzerland to interview Marthe Keller's clinician, and ultimately finds that her publishers are not the least bit interested in the book that she has produced and that her boyfriend has found a new squeeze in the meantime.  And Magnus who keeps running away from his foster home, finds himself narrowly escaping a bombing on the London Underground when Jason's hat which he has taken to wearing blows off on the crowded platform and in his need to retrieve it just misses getting on the fatal carriage.

So how does this all pull together after some 100 minutes of exposition?  George escapes from his greedy brother's scheme and uses his redundancy money to visit London, it previously having been established that he is a big Charles Dickens fan.  Claire finds an English publisher for her manuscript and goes to London to promote the volume at a major book fair, which George is also visiting to hear Derek Jacobi read Dickens.  And poor old Magnus is dragged to the same venue by his foster parents to see one of their previous foster children who is now a successful author; there he recognizes George from the photo on his defunct website and follows him back to his hotel, standing outside in the cold until George takes pity on him, touches his hand, and gives him the will to carry on living without Jason.  The grateful child uses his computer skills to find out where Claire is staying in London, having observed that George was very taken with her at the fair, and sets up the final action for a boy-gets-girl happy ending -- all something of a dramatic contrivance from the writer of the original screenplay, Peter Morgan.

While it is largely an intelligent movie, which held my interest despite its longeurs, on balance it seems like something of a misfire from Eastwood, who also composed the film's not so special music. He makes interesting use of the locations in the three cities, particularly in London, although he slightly ruined the reality for us natives by fabricating a non-existent entrance to the tube station at Charing Cross -- which incidentally was not one of the stations hit by terrorist explosions.  After some impressive early scenes of the devastating tsunami (played out in French with subtitles!), the action slows down to a leisurely stroll into the problems of our three geographically separate protagonists and I can understand why only the more forgiving viewer would stick with the slow plod toward the movie's denouement.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Having seen the original Swedish film from 2009 twice, as well as the two sequels, and having read all three books, I expected David Fincher's American remake to verge on the superfluous.  I must confess, however, that he has made a thoroughly enjoyable film.  I have liked but not gone overboard on his previous films, with the possible exception of "Benjamin Button" in 2008, but he has brought a professional gloss to this remake which was somehow lacking in the Swedish original.  The first film was very involving and completely entertaining, but as I said at the time not exactly a particularly fine example of moviemaking -- rather more like a long and definitely superior television movie.  What Fincher has accomplished is to bring his cinematic skills to the tale's exposition, as well as providing a product for those cinema-goers who either don't like reading or who definitely don't like reading subtitles.

His version often benefits from having more recognizable actors in the main cast.  Frankly, while he does a perfectly adequate job, Daniel Craig -- despite his James Bond popularity -- brings nothing new to the lead role of Blomkvist the disgraced journalist hired to solve the Vanger family mystery.  Rooney Mara, on the other hand, gives a daring spin to Noomi Rapace's excellent punk hacker Lisbeth Salander -- not that she was widely known before this role -- and it should be a career-boosting performance.  It is with the major supporting roles that familiarity helps, particularly with Stellan Skarsgard's snarling villain, as well as starry turns from Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and Joely Richardson.  Interestingly enough Fincher chose to film the flick in its original Swedish setting, rather than moving the action Stateside, and the bulk of the supporting cast are indeed Swedish, although there is little consistency amongst the large cast as to who would and who would not speak the dialogue accented.

Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian have taken certain liberties with the original text, which need not upset the purists in the audience.  In particular they have ignored the fact that Blomkvist is awaiting a prison sentence for libel.  Secondly they have included some add-nothing scenes with the daughter from his dissolved marriage -- apparently as a result of discovering that one of the actresses on set was the real daughter of the original lead Michael Nyqvist.  Most importantly they have changed the ending of the mystery, although surprisingly this does not seem to detract in any way.  They could also be accused of having glammed up the locations -- the Millennium magazine offices in particular are a heck of a lot swisher than the rather basic original setting.  They have also included some rather more explicit sexual scenes than are perhaps needed, but together with the flashy cutting between scenes of the ongoing action, these keep the viewer riveted to the exposition. The only complete misfire was the strange attempt to link the serial killer's victims to anti-Semitism, since not only Jewish females have biblical-sounding names.

I understand that the movie has been doing patchy business in the States and may not be considered sufficiently successful to warrant the two sequels.  In a way this is a shame, since Fincher has done a commendable job at liberating the story from its arthouse audience.  Part of the problem seems to be that the movie was released during the run-up to Christmas, where less black and more family-friendly films are the popular norm.  It is also possibly too long for holiday viewing and suffers from an absence of big marquee names to draw in the punters.  A different release date might have found the wider audience that this movie definitely deserves.