Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Kid Creole (1958)

Elvis Presley goes to the Movies might have been a better heading. Between 1956 and 1969 "The King" made (or was forced to make) an incredible 31 movies, pushed on ruthlessly by his so-called 'Colonel' manager.  I would not like to claim that I have actually seen all of them, although I may have, since the cheap-jack plots are pretty interchangeable. They were churned out relentlessly to coin pots of money, based on Elvis' fame and appeal to pubescent females and other gullible ladies.  It must have been a soul-destroying exercise for the young man.

His first few movies were actually pretty decent, featuring able supporting actors and a sprinkling of classic tunes: "Love Me Tender", "Loving You", and "Jailhouse Rock".  "Kid Creole" was his fourth film and quite possibly his very best -- it was certainly his own favourite among the dreck that the studio vomited forth with their colourful locations, interchangeable leading ladies, and a star that was obviously not enjoying himself.  While one would be hard-pressed to claim that "Kid" is anything more than a competent piece of film making, it is one of the few films in his filmography which suggest that Elvis could actually act and emote, given the chance -- rather than just playing a troubled juvenile who could wiggle his hips and sing.  For a start it was directed by the more-than-able Michael Curtiz of "Casablanca" fame and it boasts probably the best cast of any Elvis flick: Walter Matthau in full-on villain mode (he didn't begin his film career as a comic actor), TV's Morticia Addams, Carolyn Jones as Matthau's troubled mistress and an unsuitable love interest, a very young Vic Morrow as a street tough, Dean Jagger as his pathetic father, Paul Stewart as a seedy nightclub owner who gives the youngster a break, and Dolores Hart (with whom he co-starred in two movies and subsequently a convent Mother Superior) as his more innocent love interest.

The film is based on Harold Robbins' novel "A Stone for Danny Fisher", once considered as a suitable vehicle for James Dean, reset on the mean streets of New Orleans.  Elvis is no Jimmy Dean, but he does throw himself into the story of a young man who rebels against authority, who reluctantly gets involved with Morrow's street gang, who wants to earn money to save his family, and who challenges Matthau's iron grip on both the nightclub scene and sassy Jones. Elvis was 21 when he made his first film and 23 here, but still playing a high school student. However the mixture of a fairly solid screenplay, crisp black and white photography, and the chance to spotlight some of his best-loved tunes make this film a winner and Elvis' character rather more believable than was often the case.  Too often in the later movies he comes across as a surly thug, and when the attempt was made to soften this image, he seems to morph into something of a soppy lunk.  While the later films have their occasional pleasures, if one wants to remember Elvis for his musical talent, one is far better off searching out his various late concert films, rather than sitting through the technicolor glories and insipid storylines of the likes of "Blue Hawaii", "Girls Girls Girls", or "Fun in Acapulco".

"Kid Creole" reminds us that he just might have had a respectable film career had he been given something of a real chance, rather than just funnelled into the next available production-line fancy.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Headhunters (2011)

Having decided to go to the movies, the choice was between the above Norwegian film which has been attracting rave reviews and the new modern horror "Cabin in the Woods".  For various reasons "Headhunters" won the toss, since I have a sneaking feeling that "Cabin" will prove to be less 'smart' than it thinks it is.  Anyhow, being the newer release, we can probably catch up with it next week if we still feel so inclined.

Scandinavian mysteries and dramas have been having a good run here, starting with "Wallander" and of course the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and taking in "The Killing" (not the U.S. remake), "Borgen", and the new "Bridge".  I must confess to not yet having read anything by the author Jo Nesbo on whose thriller the above film is based, but if his writing is anything near as exciting as this film version, it seems well worth pursuing.  The hero of the tale, with the very English-sounding name of Roger Brown, is a corporate head-hunter, played by Aksel Hennie -- a slightly weaselly-looking young Christopher Walken.  He suffers from something of a Napoleon complex by being over-sensitive about his less than average height and compensates by spoiling his extremely tall, blonde Amazon of a wife Diana.  To supplement his earnings from the employment agency, he indulges in a sideline of art thefts to subsidise their extravagant life style. All she really wants from him is a baby, but he procrastinates fearing that she would love any child more than him.

Into their lives comes corporate big-shot Clas Greve, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the spitting image of Aaron Eckhart), a Dane who has sold his Dutch-based surveillance corporation and who has inherited his grandmother's Oslo flat.  He tells Brown's wife that his inheritance includes a missing Rubens stolen by the Nazis during World War II and given to granny by an old lover  This is far too big a temptation for Brown and his  low-life accomplice, thinking that one big score will set them up permanently -- and so a trap is set, since Greve, it transpires, has other fish to fry.  Add to the equation evidence that the Dane has also been enjoying sexual trysts with Diana.  Brown's paranoia escalates when he finds his sidekick 'dead' in his car, pierced by a poisoned syringe obviously intended for him; however when he tries to dispose of the body in a nearby lake, the live 'corpse' bounces back to the surface.  From this point to the film's final denouement we are treated to 'edge-of-one's-seat' excitement, as the crafty Greve murderously pursues his prey.  Meanwhile our poor anti-hero Brown is subjected to a variety of degradations including being covered all over by the contents of a disgusting outhouse, being savaged by a scary dog, being framed for a murder he did not commit, and surviving a crash off a cliff engineered by the wily Dane.  Greve seems to be everywhere he turns and he no longer knows whom to trust.  The fascinating part of this chase is that one reluctantly begins rooting for the little worm to win; dislike becomes sympathy.

The story is full of unexpected twists and turns and the viewer, like Brown, does not know whom to trust.  Is Diana in cahoots with her lover?  Is Brown's own rejected mistress part of the plot?  Can one determined man outwit a highly-trained and resourceful villain?  While one could argue that one or two bits of the plot don't quite hold together, the film that directer Morten Tyldum has crafted is a tightly-knit entertainment and one well worth viewing.  But do it fast before the inevitable Hollywood remake; Mark Wahlberg has bought the rights and like "The Killing", I fear it will be a very different animal   

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Law and Disorder (1940)

I have always had an extremely soft spot for the eccentric Scottish character actor Alastair Sim.  Although he appeared in more than 60 films, less than half of these are classics. However, his lugubrious presence, with his great bald head, lidded eyes, and gangling gait added a memorable presence to even the worst of his movies -- nearly making each of them worth watching just for his turn.  His best years known as his 'green period' were bookended by "Green for Danger" (1946) and "The Green Man" (1956); he also made his mark during these years in "Geordie", "Laughter in Paradise", "Hue and Cry", "The Happiest Days of Your Life", the unflappable Miss Frinton in the original "The Belles of St. Trinian's", and of course as the absolutely definitive Scrooge. Early indelible roles included the incompetent police sergeant in the "Inspector Hornleigh" films and he was still a wonder to behold as the batty bishop in 1972's "The Ruling Class".

When I noticed that the National Film Theatre had unearthed the above little-known film from its archives for a single showing, I immediately booked tickets. The movie is so obscure that the Halliwell film guide cross-references it to the 1939 B-flick "Spies in the Air", which has the same writer and director and much the same cast, but in which Sim definitely does not appear.  We were surprised to find that the largest of the NFT's three screens was jam-packed (mainly, let it be said, with a rather elderly audience -- who obviously hold Sim in as much affection as we do). Pity that the film wasn't better!!!  Despite the fact that his name was prominently above the title (the film was re-released in 1951 when Sim's was a name to reckon), he is only a supporting player here.  The main lead is one Barry K. Barnes, a 30s' matinee idol, with whom Sim had appeared earlier in "This Man is News" (1936).  Barnes plays the junior partner in Sim's law firm. He and his wife (Diana Churchill) have a joshing relationship, with is very sub-Nick and Nora Charles, as he tries to unmask a nest of German spies by representing them in court appearances.  Sim only gets to act flustered,  be flirtatious with a dumpy female client, and protestingly land up behind bars on trumped up charges (Barnes believes his partner's life is in danger and has done this to protect him -- none of which made much sense.)

The film was directed by David Macdonald, known only for the so-called 'quota quickies' with nothing terribly distinguished in his filmography.  The screenplay by Roger MacDougall was also not much cop, although he did go on to scribe "The Man in the White Suit" (1951) and "The Mouse that Roared" (1959). The playing of most of the cast was both dated and stilted, and without Sim's support the movie would have been a complete waste of time, although the actor playing police inspector Edward Chapman's side-kick was mildly amusing (not that I have any idea who he was) and one of the spies provided an early role for Leo Genn who went on to a much more distinguished career.  This is a film that only completists need seek out.

The evening, however, was not a complete waste of time since the showing was preceded by a fifteen minute short from the BBC's archives from a series called "Speaking Personally".  Here Sim delivers a monologue to the camera concerning the difficulties of delivering a monologue to camera.  We were regaled with fifteen minutes of his wonderful body language, his array of wry faces as he demonstrated camera poses, and his absolutely deadpan humour.  Wonderful!

Ping please

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Best of the Bunch

As seems to happen more and more frequently, I find that no single film watched within the last week manages to ascend to the top of the list and demand its day in the sun review-wise and that most of the week's so-called attractions have been disappointments at best. However rather than my commenting on a bunch of feeble (and now largely forgotten) movies, let me delight you with three winners:

Gribiche (1925):  I missed the first showing of this restored silent on the French/German arts channel Arte last August and they have at long last programmed it again.  It's an interesting, if not dazzling, offering from the Belgian director, Jacques Feyder, who worked largely in France, but who also had productive employment in the States (the Garbo vehicles "The Kiss" and "Anna Christie" -- 1929 and 1931)) and Britain (the rather strange anti-revolutionary drama "Knight without Armour" pairing Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich in 1937).  He is probably best-known for the Foreign Legion flick "Le Grand Jeu" (1934) and especially the period romp "Carnival in Flanders" (1935). There is nothing particularly special about "Gribiche", but it is a competent and involving drama which doesn't seem over-long even at two hours plus.  Like most of Feyder's films it stars his wife Francoise Rosay as a war-widow, scraping a living to look after her growing son known as Gribiche, and putting off any commitment to her latest suitor.  A chance meeting in a department store brings the boy to the attention of an American-born do-gooder, now acting the role of Lady Bountiful in Paris, when he returns her lost purse and refuses a cash reward.  She decides that she will adopt the lad and tutor him in the knowledge and manners of a gentleman.

His mother is horrified at the suggestion that she 'give away' her son, but the boy readily agrees, both as a way of bettering his lot and also to allow his mother to find some happiness with her beau.  He is introduced into the hothouse atmosphere of the grande dame's mansion, and given a non-stop timetable of lessons, sport, grooming, and etiquette.  As her new pet project, the lady brags to her friends about her largesse, and each time she tells the tale, the boy's background poverty and deprivation become more and more exaggerated.  Finally the lad rebels and craves a night out -- having fun, as boys will -- at a local carnival, but the lady resents this sign of independence and decides to forego the experiment.  Ultimately it all works out with both mother and benefactress satisfied and the boy's return to his bourgeois milieu is symbolised by his tucking into a plate of snails with his napkin tucked firmly into his collar -- 'like what' the lower classes do!

Millionaire Tour (2011): I will probably never stop complaining at the dearth of interesting movies that come to the Sky Premiere Channel each week.  Especially annoying is when they cut back from five new films to four on the dubious grounds that one of these is so very good that it deserves to be shown twice a day.  This week's 'gem' was the barely watchable "Honey 2" (2011) which was exactly like every other dance competition film ever shot and didn't even cameo the delectable star of the first "Honey" (Jessica Alba). On the other hand, every so often, a dark horse sneaks into the line-up and produces an interesting treat.  "Millionaire Tour" is so very new that it is not even yet rated on IMFb (which suggests that it did not get a Stateside cinema release).  It is the first feature from writer-director Inon Shampanier and is co-produced by and stars Dominic Monaghan of hobbit and "Lost" fame.  The supposedly simple story revolves around businessman Jordan Belfi (very good in his first non-TV role) who accepts a cut-price offer from taxi driver Rick Gomez at the airport.  The vehicle is soon hijacked by Monaghan and his sidekick Agnes Bruckner, who decide to take Belfi on a tour of cash-points, forcing him to draw the maximum that each of his credit cards can provide, before delivering him to a gangster known as 'The Roman' who wants revenge on the renegade businessman.  The trouble is that they have picked up the wrong fellow (Belfi claims to be a holy water salesman, believe it or not) and the taxi-driver comes across as too much of a coward to help him escape. Bruce Davison has second billing as Mr. Big and his screen time amounts to about ten seconds and one line of dialogue! However, the film snakes on with a satisfying combination of twists and turns and an unexpectedly happy -- if not just -- ending.

Time of Your Life (1948);  Finally a few words about this James Cagney starrer which was a treat for me insofar as it is one of very few of his movies that I had not seen previously.  It was the first feature from his own production company, run with his brother, and it was also their first box-office flop.  Based on a wordy script taken from a play by William Saroyan, it features Cagney in an atypical role as a good-natured Joe who holds court in a local tavern run by William Bendix.  There he gets involved in being some sort of 'deus ex machina' to the bar's regulars, including Wayne Morris as his sidekick cum stooge who pines after a local lovely (played by sister Jean Cagney).  The film also gives meaty parts to cops Broderick Crawford and Ward Bond, lovelorn youth Jimmy Lydon, and Tom Powers as a menacing tough.  Although Cagney finally uses his fists to sort out the latter, his is primarily a very gentle and whimsical role here.  I understand that he was very proud of the production, even if the general public chose to ignore it.