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.     

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