Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The 84th Annual Academy Awards

The Oscars!  After the mushrooming number of award shows that now precede this annual bash, one wonders whether they still provide any excitement or relevance.  Well, I remain a sucker for the annual show although as returned host Billy Crystal quipped: In this time of economic downturn, is there anything more comforting than watching a bunch of millionaires present each other with little gold statues?  Good point, Billy, and one of the better pieces of shtick in your routine, which despite its occasional excess was an improvement on certain other efforts of recent years. (Hang your head in shame, James Franco).

As usual I have not yet seen many of the contesting movies and performances, although I have indeed seen the three that most mattered on the night: "The Artist", "Hugo", and "Midnight in Paris".  I have however seen enough clips and read enough reviews of most of the remaining features to be secure in my own opinions on the films in general.  Let me say up front that I agree 100% with the awards doled out.  Kate Muir, the recently appointed Times main film critic (who is a fine writer but regrettably a little ignorant when it comes to film history) probably thought she was echoing the zeitgeist when she reported that it is no wonder that movies celebrating cinema history won the main awards, since the majority of the Academy voters are white males over 60.  True as this may be in principle, the films that won big were the ones that deserved to win and her argument is little more than a slightly worn cliche.

I am delighted that Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" took home its five Oscars, since it is undoubtedly one of the most charming films I have seen in ages.  I wouldn't necessarily predict a looming stateside career for either the director or its star Jean Dujardin, but it is fine with me that their brilliant work has received the recognition it deserves.  I would have been happy to see Berenice Bejo take home the best supporting actress award but I can understand the prevailing political correctness in recognizing the black actress Octavia Spencer for what I understand was a riveting performance; I am only glad that this same attitude did not prevent Meryl Streep from receiving her richly deserved third Oscar.  Similarly, honouring the 82-year old Christopher Plummer for best supporting actor was a long overdue acknowledgement of his talent (and he gave, I thought, the most heartfelt and appropriate thank-you speech).

As for the five 'technical' awards won by "Hugo", these were all spot-on as I found the movie one of the most thrilling visual experiences of recent years.  In another year Scorsese and his right-hand editor Thelma Schoonmaker might have reaped even more honours were "The Artist" not providing such stiff competition. Schoonmaker lost out to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" which indeed was awash with some of the flashiest editing of the film year.  Good old Woody Allen won the award for best original screenplay (probably deservedly beating the largely silent "The Artist") and it was indeed a clever and amusing conceit.  Again Ms. Muir gets the wrong end of the stick by writing that anyone who has actually lived in Paris -- as she has -- would dismiss his film as a touristy hotchpotch; bah!!!

I was pleased to see the more-for-adults-than-kids "Rango" take the best animation Oscar, although personal prejudices prevented my warming to its super-scaly creatures.  I have yet to catch up with the short animations or the short and full-length documentaries, so I have nothing to add here.

As for the rest of the show Cirque Soleil provided an energetic mid-evening entertainment, making a change from listening to the nominated best songs -- more of a problem this year since only two were nominated.  What does this say about the general state of things?  I thought that much of the double-presenter introductions should have dropped their comic (and very unfunny) bits of business like Robert Downey Jr. pretending that he was shooting a documentary, Jay-Lo and Cameron D. showing off their backsides, Emma Stone striving to 'make a mark' in her first presenting gig, and Will Ferrell and Zach G. dressed as bandsmen, banging and dropping huge cymbals as they announced the music awards. What's wrong with just getting on with it?

Finally in response to the Twitter hoo-hah now going on about Angelina Jolie's leg, let me just finish by saying that there is nothing wrong with an unbronzed shapely white leg, but the rest of her body looked hideously unhealthy as if she was one of the starving orphans she befriends. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Boring Boring Boring

It's hardly a case of my not having viewed a ridiculous number of movies in the last few weeks or indeed since last posting, but there is virtually nothing among them that encourages me to get particularly enthused.  Often when this is the case, I give you a run-down of most of what has filled my screen, but this week nearly all of it has been just too boring for words.

For a start let's briefly consider the dire selection of premiere screenings from Sky.  Big yawn here.  The first up was "Country Strong" (2010) a vanity piece from Gwyneth Paltrow who obviously fancies herself as a would-be country singer.  Here she plays a famous singer attempting a comeback after rehab for drink and various other problems.  It does not end happily!!!  Talking about not ending happily, another offering was an ensemble piece called believe it or not "Another Happy Day" (2011) produced by Ellen Barkin (among some 25 producers) and featuring her as a neurotic female returning with her second family to her parents' home for her estranged son's wedding.  Despite a potentially starry cast including Ellen Burstyn, George Kennedy, Thomas Haden Church, Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth, Ezra Miller, et. al., the problems of this dysfunctional family were embarrassingly dull and what was meant to be a happy day turned into a miserable one both for the family and we viewers.  No one could accuse "No Strings Attached" (2011) featuring mismatched couple Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman of setting out to be boring, but the inevitable ending of their falling in love despite themselves, rather than remaining 'sex-buddies', was predictable from the get-go. (I do wonder sometimes why Portman -- again a producer -- thinks that this kind of candyfloss will add to her reputation).

That leaves two more 'gems' from Sky this week.  The first of these was "Faster" (2010) starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as an ex-con out for revenge, and although I only watched it a few days ago the details have slipped into a memory abyss -- perhaps I really slept through it! Finally there was the Australian concoction with the intriguing (but stupid) title of "Tomorrow When the War Began" (2010).  A diverse group of rural teenagers go camping to a remote beauty spot one weekend and return home to find their families missing, homes devastated, and the country invaded by a ruthless (but anonymous) enemy who need Australia's natural resources.  Yeah, yeah, yeah!  So this mismatched group become freedom fighters, managing to evade detection and sabotaging the enemy's resources. No ending to the film of course, since any final conclusion would be as unlikely as the whole scenario preceding it.

Even recently viewed foreign language films were something of a disappointment.  "Treeless Mountain" a Korean flick from 2008 sounded promising, but was rather uninvolving in its tale of two young sisters dumped on their somewhat cold aunt as their mother goes off in search of her ne'er do well husband, who in turn dumps them on their aged grandparents when the mother who had faithfully promised to return decides that she can no longer look after them. Somewhat better but far too long was the French film "Little White Lies" (2010) about a group of friends who always spend their holidays together going off as usual despite one of their number lying desperately ill in hospital after a motorcycle crash; it ended predictably in tears but was way too long in the telling. Then there was a Swedish vampire film called "Not Like Others" (2008) which was so very bad that I have now given away the recently acquired disc to bore someone else.

OK, there were a few re-views of oldies in the equation which are usually guaranteed to lift the ante.  "Murder He Says" a 1945 Fred MacMurray " 'hillbilly comedy' (a popular if improbable genre once upon a time) retained the odd amusing bit of business but was by and large too dated. "Knight without Armour" paired Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat as a Russian aristo and an Englishman pretending to be a Russian revolutionary back in 1917, well put together with excellent production values, but now largely forgotten. Clint Eastwood is always entertaining in his Dirty Harry persona and continued as such in "Sudden Impact" (1983), the first time he directed himself in this role and featuring his love interest of the time, Sandra Locke (whatever happened to her?).  This is the film in which he first says 'Make my day' -- in fact he is so taken with the phrase that he says it twice!  The best of the bunch was "The Country Girl" (1954) which won Grace Kelly an Oscar for portraying the dowdy wife of alcoholic ex-bigtime crooner Bing Crosby as he attempts a comeback in William Holden's new play.  This was possibly Bing's best dramatic role ever, and although Oscar-nominated, he lost out to Marlon Brando's "On the Waterfront" that year.  If anything his performance was more Oscar-worthy than Kelly's which now seems just a tad over-affected and trying to impress by playing against type.  The whole enterprise based on an Odets stageplay was somewhat overblown but surprisingly popular at the time.

I won't even mention any of the disposable television movies that filled in the remainder of my viewing since none of them are really worthy of mention,  Like I said: BORING.


Wednesday, 15 February 2012

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)

Rumour has it that most Hollywood 'stars' await a sometimes elusive phone call, the siren summons to appear in a Woody Allen film, much the same as they previously coveted a role in one of Robert Altman's marvelous ensemble dramas.  Despite paying well below their expected regular fees, there was always a certain cache to working with these two directors -- however uncommercial the resulting movie.  Consider the main cast in the above London-set film: Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin (looking rather pudgy), Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto as well as a host of highly respected -- if not internationally starry -- British actors.  You would have every reason to expect something special. 

Now if you check back my reviews, you will find that I have always been an Allen advocate, always finding something worthwhile amongst his output even as they have become less and less fashionable.  A critical rallying cry for many of his more recent films has been "a return to form", a standard critique for nearly every other release, e.g. "Melinda and Melinda", "Vicky Christina Barcelona", "Midnight in Paris".    Whereas I have consistently enjoyed nearly all of them apart from the exception that proves the rule: "Hollywood Ending" (2002), a misfire which has just about disappeared off the earth.  However I am sorry to have to add the above film to the very short list of Allen confections which just haven't worked for me.

Despite the sparkling cast with their master-class acting, the movie is unusually cynically sour, very low on any sort of joy factor.  Gemma Jones plays wealthy Hopkins' discarded, but financially well-off wife, who finds her only comfort in the advice proffered by quack fortuneteller Pauline Collins.  He in turn is striving to recapture the virility of his youth by exercise and diet and is easily roped in by Lucy Punch's uncultured and scheming golddigger.  Their daughter Sally (Watts) is married to one-trick author Brolin who is unable to repeat the success of his first novel, forcing the couple into a hand-to-mouth existence, subsidised by Jones.  Watts works for established art gallery supremo Banderas whilst dreaming of opening her own gallery and possibly creating a spark in her boss' heart as well.  Brolin meanwhile becomes obsessed with the woman in red (Pinto) who has newly moved in across the block and works to establish a relationship with her although she is engaged to be married shortly; he also appropriates the scintillating manuscript that only he has read, written by a close friend 'killed' in a car accident, planning to pass it off as his own brilliant breakthrough.

Spoiler alert: everthing goes disastrously wrong for all of them bar Jones, as one by one their dreams are smashed.  Jones does not meet the tall, dark stranger promised by her guru, but she does meet a dumpy, widower who shares her interest in the occult and they eventually get it on once he has received approval from beyond the grave from his late wife.  Pinto breaks her engagement after falling for the soon-to-be successful Brolin who then discovers that his friend isn't in fact dead, but about to emerge from a coma.  The now separated Watts learns that Banderas isn't at all interested in her, but ready to divorce his wife for her close friend Anna Friel, and that Collins has advised Jones not to invest any money in the gallery her daughter demands.  Poor old Hopkins who sorely wants a son to replace one that he lost, soon discovers that his new bride may be pregnant but that the baby she is carrying is unlikely to be his.  He now realises what he has lost in Jones and begs her to take him back to provide the comfort he needs in his final years -- but too late, for she has found her own soulmate.  Yes, it's all about hopes and relationships, but the unusually bitter Allen seems to take pleasure here in smashing everyone's dreams into increasingly small smithereens.

This leaves the elusive, and I understand purportedly dreadful ,"Cassandra's Dream' (2007) as the only Allen movie I've not seen.  However, I have every confidence that each of his next annual releases will continue to rekindle my affections for a very long time to come.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Five Pennies (1959)

It's probably a lifetime since I last watched this movie and I had forgotten what an effective combination of joyous music and tear-wrenching drama it is.  While it is almost certainly a bowdlerised biopic and not just a loosely-based recreation of the life of musician Loring 'Red' Nichols, it makes for a more than enjoyable film.  Now nearly totally forgotten, Nichols' touring jazz band in the 1930s furnished the first major gigs, if the movie is to be believed, for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and many more legendary performers. However, at the height of his success, he packed it all in, while his former bandmates went on to great and enduring glory.

Nichols is played by Danny Kaye, one of moviedom's memorable clowns with his double-talking verbal facility and happy persona, but more is expected from him here.  We meet up with him as he arrives in New York from the wilds of Utah, his golden cornet at the ready, and his vaulting self-belief and ambition.  He marries the showgirl chanteuse Bobbie (actually called Willa with a mother in Brooklyn) played by a pert and resourceful Barbara Bel Geddes and seeks to support her by taking part in a number of novelty radio quartets -- gypsy, Russian, Hawaiian -- each of which he disrupts with his irrepressible musical talent.  Then he forms his first band and goes on the road with his now pregnant wife.  When their daughter Dorothy is born, she too joins the travelling circus with its late-night poker games and unsettled home life.  Eventually the couple reluctantly decide that she would be better off in a boarding-school while they continue their vagabond existence.  The net result is that birthdays and Christmas celebrations are missed and the sad little girl pines away.  One rainswept evening she runs into the school garden and becomes ill, developing polio (a child-killer with a vengeance back then).  Red and Bobbie are racked with guilt and rush to her side; over her iron lung doctors say the prognosis is poor and that even if she does recover, she will never walk again.  Red dissolves the band, stressing to his manager Tony (Harry Guardino) that nobody should be told the facts of the matter, and on a bridge he commits musical suicide by casting his beloved cornet into the murky waters below.

The little girl still loves her mother but blames her father for her misery, resisting all rehabilitative therapy, until the prospect of their own home -- "with our own towels" -- is promised.   This is where Kaye is called upon to prove that he can be a serious actor; he sacrifices his talent to take any number of ill-paid manual jobs to give his wife and growing daughter security -- but his underlying bitterness occasionally surfaces despite himself.  Mention should be made here of the young actress Susan Gordon, who plays Dorothy between the ages of six and eight; she gives a winning and refreshingly natural performance.  That she grows up to morph into Tuesday Weld as the 14-year old Dorothy is less interesting.  The teenaged Dorothy walks with a stick but is largely recovered and hardly knows anything about her dad's past.

And what a past it was!  The film resounds with renditions of popular hits from the period, although the Oscar-nominated song "Five Pennies" was written by Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine for this movie.  The highlights however revolve around Red's many meetings with Louis Armstrong (here playing himself) and their terrific duets with Kaye miming the sound performed by the real Nichols, but adding his own jazzy voice to his and Louis' verbal duets.  "When the Saints Come Marching In" has seldom been such a happy sound as it segues into "Frere Jacques" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".  Smiles all round!

Eventually Tony persuades Red to try a comeback in a small way, even if he is worried that he has lost his 'lip'.  His new quintet is booked into a small club and it looks like there will be no audience for this forgotten legend.  That's until all the old gang, led by Louis, come marching in -- and Dorothy casts aside her cane.  OK, it's a schmaltzy four-tissue ending, but none the less moving for all that.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The First Born (1928)

The above silent film was recently restored from an old nitrate print in the BFI's Archives fleshed out with missing footage from a George Eastman House 16mm print and it premiered at the last London Film Festival.  We thought about applying for tickets, but our experience with previous similar premieres put us off -- namely waiting for ages while all the invited so-called VIPs drifted in to take the best seats and then suffering through a plethora of self-congratulatory speeches before the film was actually screened.  So we waited for its first subsequent showing at the National Film Theatre.  Even so, the trio providing the music wandered in some many minutes late and we were then 'blessed' by some nearly inaudible remarks from one of the curators, which seemed to go on ad nauseum.  How one must suffer for one's pleasures -- ha! 

Anyhow, how was the film?  The answer is interesting but more than a little flawed despite the hoo-hah on its re-emergence.  The film was co-written and directed by Miles Mander, based on his own novel and play.  Mander was a colourful character who enjoyed a varied selection of careers, from sheepfarming in New Zealand in his twenties, then novelist, aviator, radio journalist, playwright, would-be politician, and actor.  He is probably best known as the latter when he relocated to Hollywood in the late 1930s and took on a number of showy roles often as a somewhat slimy villain. The other two leads in this movie also went on to Hollywood careers: Madeleine Carroll -- here dark-haired but best known as the blonde female lead in "The 39 Steps" (1935) -- and John Loder amongst the more wooden handsome leading men of his day.

The film's co-writer was Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchock, and a flawed case could be made that this movie is on a par with Hitchcock's own early films.  It isn't!  Mander's directing debut has occasional inventive touches in the telling with the odd effective use of the camera, but by and large it is statically lensed in the old theatrical style.  The story concerns wealthy cad Mander married to Carroll; he goes off to Africa in disgust because she has been unable to provide him with a yearned-for man-child and enjoys his liaisons with dusky maidens.  In his absence she begins a flirtation with Loder and is encouraged by a vampish friend to do whatever might be necessary to furnish an heir for Mander and re-win his affections.  As luck would have it, her manicurist is 'in trouble' having been left in the lurch by the fellow who claimed he would marry her and Carroll convinces her to let her pass off the newborn child as her own.  Mander is immediately enthralled with the news and rushes back to the family home. Even after the couple subsequently manage to produce a second son, he is only interested in 'his' first-born.

However he is far from a reformed character and soon begins an affair with their mutual vampy friend, who knowingly hints that he may not be the child's father. Despite his decision to stand for Parliament in the area's "safe" seat, he and Carroll become more estranged and things come to the breaking point just before the election.  His sudden death down an open elevator shaft after an argument with his mistress is just about the only jump-in-your seat moment in this fairly stodgy film.  Carroll still refuses Loder's overtures thinking that Mander did truly love her in his heart of hearts, until the final (not unexpected) twist drives her into his arms.

This was another film-going experience in the category of "glad to have seen it, but once is enough".  One major problem is that despite his many would-be talents, Mander was just too inexpressive an actor to rise to the role he had written for himself -- fine in support, but not good enough for a lead.  Carroll was adequate, if not exciting, in the skimpy role provided, while Loder was well just Loderish.  Stephen Horne who wrote and performed the new score for the film showed his usual talent for bringing the silent screen to life -- except in this instance it was all just a bit too fortissimo and distracting to make the perfect merger of sound and image.