Wednesday, 30 May 2012

La Traversee de Paris (1956)

I shall never forget the first time I saw this film, also known as "Pig Across Paris" or "Four Bags Full" as it was titled at the repertory cinema called The Juliet just off campus from my rather select girls' college.  However it wasn't this remarkable (and now classic) movie that stayed in my memory, but the second feature (those were the days) shown with it -- Sacha Guitry's "Pearls of the Crown" (1937). That weird confection haunted me for years and you can read about it in my archives:

While I have managed to watch "Pearls" several many times over the years and at long last have my own copy complete with subtitles courtesy of the Criterion Guitry box set, a visit to the BFI last week provided only my third viewing of the above film and I must confess I had forgotten how grand a flick it is. It draws in its black and white cinematography, especially effective in portraying Paris by Night, a warts-and-all portrait of life in the city during the German occupation of World War II.  On its release it was reviled by many Frenchmen since it neglected to show a population made up of heroic and patriotic resistance fighters, but rather a subdued people trying to make the best of rationing and the bleak conditions of life.  The tale concerns an out-of-work taxi driver, cunningly played by the French comic actor Bourvil.  (Parenthetically here, I have always been fascinated by the vast number of French cinema actors and actresses who forged a career using a single name;  originally a music hall entertainer, Bourvil chose his stage name from the region of Normandy where he was raised).  Struggling to make ends meet and to look after his jealously-guarded wife, his character, Martin, contracts with a black market grocer to transport four suitcases containing a freshly-slaughtered pig to a restaurateur across the city. With his usual accomplice nicked by the gendarmes, he hones in on a scruffy chap in the local bistro to take his place. This chap Grandgil, played by the magnificent Jean Gabin, describes himself as a painter -- and Martin assumes him to be a down-and-out house-painter.  Grandgil agrees to the expedition and proceeds to bully the miserly pig-provider -- a small but telling role for another classic French comic actor Louis de Funes -- into paying over the odds as he casually begins to destroy his hoarded stock of groceries.

And so their six-mile trek begins as they are harassed by nosy policeman, a growing number of sniffing mongrels, and the German patrols, a journey initially told jocularly but eventually becoming more serious as their actual liberty becomes threatened.  Towards the end of the evening they call by Grandgil's rather luxurious flat, where Martin discovers that his companion is actually a very successful artist -- although I personally thought that most of the paintings cluttering his studio resembled a selection of forgeries, done in a variety of recognizable styles.  It becomes clear that while the weasly Martin is smuggling the pig meat for much-needed money, Grandgil is doing it for kicks and has no qualms at savagely attacking wherever he senses hypocrisy.  This role is something of a revelation for Gabin, who throughout his career played larger than life characters and who always brings a daunting presence; however he could never be described as a comic actor.  His treatment of the finally fraught situation here, after the pair are picked up by the Germans, makes one feel sorry for the half-cringing, half-cocky Martin, and less sympathetic to Gabin's unsympathetic toughness. Before its final coda, the film appears to end with Martin's being rounded up for a concentration camp together with other locals after an officer is murdered, while Grandgil's fame saves him from the same fate courtesy of a fawning German commandant.  A final scene is tacked on to show that Martin luckily did survive the war, but the class distinction between him and Grandgil is more obvious than ever.

Nicely directed by the prolific Claude Autant-Lara from an original novel by Marcel Ayme, I have only recently discovered that the director and his screenwriters drastically changed the tale's ending. In the original, Martin apparently kills Grandgil in his studio, fed up with Gabin's arrogance and swagger, and is subsequently arrested for his murder.  I do prefer the version on display here, with its not-so-faint air of vinegar, anger, and desperation.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Dark Shadows (2012)

Being a fan of both Johnny Depp and his frequent director Tim Burton, I had high hopes that, despite the lukewarm notices their new collaboration has received, I would be charmed by the above film. Well, 'charmed' is far too strong a word, and while this movie certainly had its moments, it is unfortunately deeply flawed and poorly constructed.  Based on the cult 'soap' of the same name, which ran in the States between 1966 and 1970, one would have thought that this tale of a family-oriented vampire who has lain buried for two hundred years before returning to a new and different world might have been right up Burton's Gothic alley and would elicit yet another highly-stylized performance from Depp.  Instead, we have something of a dog's dinner.

Although I have never viewed the TV series, I have seen one or both of the television movie spin-offs ("House of Dark Shadows", "Night of Dark Shadows") and had an idea what to expect. The film starts off OK with the background story leading to Depp's 200-year burial (some folderol about losing his one true love after spurning the advances of a local witch who placed a spell upon him) and morphs neatly into his coffin being disinterred by local workmen.  He returns to the ancestral pile to the strains of a 70s pop track and meets the current remnants of his family (their fortune faltering). He is also taken aback by the technological changes during his absence. Unfortunately none of this is as camp or as broadly played as the story demands and Burton's disastrous attempt to include virtually all of the series' plot-strands into a single story falls well-short of producing a coherent film.  The fault lies squarely with the script which is lazily put together and muddled by pointless twists.

The movie is neither funny enough nor gory enough with Depp's unchained blood-lust rearing its ugly head gratuitously at the least appropriate moments.  He not only tears out the throats of the workmen who find his coffin, but also feels obliged to eat some hippy campers that befriend him.  Most of the best gags have been over-exposed in the trailers, and the only line that really made me laugh was when Depp describes Alice Cooper as the ugliest woman he has ever seen.  (Mind you why the singer was even featured in the film at all is something of a mystery).   As for the rest of the cast, it is all again a mixed bag.  Michelle Pfeiffer (apparently a fan of the original series) registers strongly as the matriarch of the modern-day family and Eva Green is appropriately sexy and malicious as the 1970's personification of the original witch.  However the obligatory part for Helena Bonham Carter -- looking horrendous with bright red hair -- is a non-starter as the family's resident psychiatrist who craves Depp's immortality.  Jackie Earle Haley as a drunken retainer under Depp's spell, Johnny Lee Miller as a thieving relation, and especially Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen-aged werewolf (don't ask) are all pretty wasted as events unfold.  There is even a completely pointless cameo from genre hero Christopher Lee. Finally Bella Heathcote, an obscure Australian ingenue, as the current reincarnation of his lost love is appropriately fey-looking but given rather little to do, despite the ghost from the past that hovers by her.

Some of the special effects are mildly amusing as Depp re-explores the creepy mansion and as he has literally off-the-walls sex with Green, but these do not serve to pull together what is basically a poorly directed and often incomprehensible story.  Depp strives to give us yet another of his rather weird character creations, but often looks as bemused by the mechanics of the plot as we the viewer.  I just wish that both he and Burton could have had rather more fun with this movie; they obviously both set out to capture the spirit of the original, but seem to have lost their way in the process. Incidentally, the original lead Jonathan Frid, who died a few days ago, can be glimpsed briefly among the guests at the Collins family 'ball'.  The movie ends with a hook for a possible sequel, but on the strength of this showing, that is hopefully unlikely.

In closing let me tell you about another film I saw immediately after the above with the unlikely title of "Nude Nuns with Big Guns" (2010), a stupid piece of Mexican (I think) crapdoodle.  It would be tempting to write that I enjoyed it rather more than the Depp/Burton farrago, but that would be a big, fat, unbelievable lie!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Surprise, Surprise...

Since I now average only one new entry per week, I have rather more films to choose from, compared to the early days when, in my initial enthusiasm, I was blogging nearly every day.  One advantage of this increased choice is that it allows me to select from the available candidates the best of the bunch or the most esoteric or occasionally the most pleasant surprises.  The past week has been one of those fortuitous ones where the box office big hitters left me either cold or indifferent, but where I found some pleasure amongst the least likely candidates. Let's look at two of them:

Sister Mary Explains it All (2001): This cable movie distributed by Showtime was a complete unknown to me, but certainly the sort of film that one either loves or hates.  Directed by Marshall Brickman (responsible for the classic Woody Allen scripts for "Sleeper", "Annie Hall", and "Manhattan" amongst others) and starring Allen's erstwhile muse Diane Keaton, it is a viciously satiric look at traditional Catholic doctrines written by the author of the original stage play.  Keaton plays a bigoted, by-the-book nun, who has given the same (more or less) lecture every Christmas Eve to a congregation of brainwashed ex-students and current students.  She stridently outlines the meaning of heaven, hell, and limbo and keeps a record-book of those bound for damnation, including Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, and many more.  She uses a cherubic seven-year old student to fetch her water and cookies and to parrot out his catechism when instructed, for which she may occasionally reward him with one of her half-eaten cookies like some kind of pet monkey. 

Into this year's 25th anniversary lecture come four former students in costume; we first met them as youngsters performing a nativity play -- Mary, Joseph, and a two-humped camel.  Now in their thirties, they need to return to let Sister Mary discover just how messed up their lives have been as a result of her strict teachings and her sadistic meanness.  The two men are played by TV actors Brian Benben and Wallace Langham, an unhappily married father of two and a open but happy homosexual respectively.  The two women are Laura San Giacomo who has had two abortions and Jennifer Tilly an unmarried mother.  As they paraphrase Sister Mary's teachings and how these have left them unfit to cope with life by her inflexible standards, Keaton reacts with horror and the four of them begin to regress into the children they once were. The audience does not at first understand the damage she has inflicted, not only on these four and but on them themselves.  Without giving too much away, the movie finishes with two of the four dead and Sister Mary lost in the throes of religious ecstasy.

While this film is probably more likely to be of interest to those who 'suffered' a parochial education themselves, it is definitely worth seeing for Keaton's amazing turn.  Her performance verges on being well over the top, but she creates such a horrible gargoyle of a character that her every word and movement is transfixing.  In a long and varied career, this is surely one of her most accomplished roles.

Everything Must Go (2010):  I won't go on at the same length about this movie, except to say that as a Will Ferrell starrer I was expecting to hate it, since I have had little tolerance for most of his films that many people find hilarious. However to draw an analogy with those people who say they like Woody Allen's 'early funny' films, I must confess that I personally prefer Ferrell in a serious mode.  I thought he was wonderful in "Melinda and Melinda" (2004) and especially in "Stranger than Fiction" (2006).  In both of these and in the movie in question, he proves that he is a versatile actor -- not just a clown.  Here he plays a relapsed alcoholic who, on the day that he is fired from his lucrative job, returns home to find his wife decamped, the locks changed, and all of his possessions dumped on the front lawn. How he copes with the loss of status, money (his credit cards have been stopped and his bank account frozen), home life, and ultimately his material possessions, is the meat of this movie.  It is a surprisingly sour and depressing scenario, but is certainly not the comedy that one associates with this actor, despite its eventual hopeful and upbeat ending.  Ferrell is well supported by Rebecca Hall as a new neighbour, Laura Dern as a long-lost high school friend, and young black actor Christopher C.J. Wallace, as the 'fat' kid that helps him pick up the pieces of his fractured life.

There was one other 'surprise' that I would like to mention briefly, although I doubt that it is widely available: "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008) is a brilliant, colourful, psychedelic piece of animation from Nina Paley, based on the Indian saga "The Ramayana" and featuring jazz vocals by Annette Hanshaw. If ever it comes your way, don't miss this unique treat. 

Finally in closing I must report that I re-watched Sidney Lumet's "The Group" for the umpteenth time.  Although it is based on a different generation of Vassar graduates than my own, there was so much that resonated.  As my 'brother' Oli wrote on the flyleaf when he gave me a copy of Mary McCarthy's novel: "When I saw the pennant on the wall I asked her 'If you went to Vassar what are you doing in a whorehouse?' 'Just lucky I guess' she replied."  Cheers, Oli   

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Berkleys of Broadway (1949)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers left an indelible mark on 1930s cinema with the nine films they did together, from their unforgettable second billing in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio" through "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939).  In fact Fred only appeared in one other movie during their six-year collaboration, 1937's rather jolly "A Damsel in Distress" (a far more entertaining confection than Whit Stillman's new "Damsels in Distress"). While rumours abounded that they didn't really get on together, they managed to create some truly magical moments still remembered by many.   The partnership broke up when Fred's financial demands were considered over-excessive by RKO and Ginger craved the opportunity to prove that she could make it as a 'serious' dramatic actress.  She actually won a best actress Oscar in 1940, but I have never been too keen on her in most of her subsequent roles, whereas Fred appeared in a variety of OK musicals with a selection of different partners, some memorable, some not.

By the mid 1940s, Fred was just about ready to retire from the film business when he was asked to replace an ailing Gene Kelly in "Easter Parade" with Judy Garland in 1948.  That pairing was so successful that plans were made for them to star together again in the above movie.  However, as luck would have it, her own health problems precluded her taking the role of Mrs. Berkley, and Fred and Ginger ended up together again, their tenth and final film together, after a gap of ten years.  Produced by the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, it was their first film in colour and proved an enormous hit with the public, largely because of their accrued good will.  However I must disagree with the movie's many fans and mark it as something of a disaster -- or perhaps something of a 'Parson's Egg', with a few tasty bits outweighed by some embarrassing business.

In an occasionally witty script from ace writers Comden and Greene, they begin the film as a rather mature and highly successful married couple (something they never were initially in their 30s' films) top of the pecking order in their musical comedy stardom.  However Dinah Berkley always feels that Josh Berkley is too much of a perfectionist and occasionally too critical of her prowess.  When she meets a French playwright-director played by Jacques Francois (an actor with a long but not particularly distinguished career in French cinema), he encourages her dramatic aspirations in his new play about young Sarah Bernhardt and the couple split.. Now part of the problem with this movie is that Rogers is no longer the fresh-faced ingenue from their original films and she is certainly too old to play the young Sarah.  Also pairing the now slightly hard-faced actress as a peppy dancer slightly strains credibility; Astaire on the other hand always looked older than his years, but remained lithe and dapper with it, and although 50 here to Rogers' 38 he is definitely the more likeable.

Freed places this pair in a overly-contrived and fluffy tale which amounts to 'boy' loses 'girl', 'boy' gets 'girl' back, as Fred pretends to be the Frenchman over the 'phone, coaching Ginger to give the performance that he knows her to be capable of.  A significant part of this movie's lack of charm lies with the musical score from Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin, which is not a patch on the previous nine films with scores from the like of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.  In fact their only successful duet together, capturing a remnant of the old magic, is a reprise of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from 1937's "Shall We Dance".  They 'treat' us to an absolutely horrendous pseudo-accented Scottish "Highland Fling" number which is little short of embarrassing, although nowhere near as cringe-making as Rogers' emoting at her young Sarah audition in the play, where she begins with Juliet's potion speech and segues into an OTT recitation of "La Marseillaise" (in French no less!)  Astaire does have one wonderful number in this film -- let it be said without Rogers: "I've Got Shoes with Wings On". Through the skill of trick photography and Astaire's own imagination, we are treated to a turn where it really does seem that a pair of self-dancing shoes are actually controlling Fred's own feet when he tries them on.  Enchanting! 

The cast is rounded out with Oscar Levant's usual smart-ass turn as the pair's friend and confidante, much like his role in "An American in Paris", and he helps to pad out the film's running time with two of his very able piano performances.  Billy Burke as a flighty society type and would-be patron of the arts is as hard to take as ever.  Gale Robbins as Dinah's understudy looking to usurp her stage role and her role as Mrs. Josh only proves that she is no Ann Baxter from "All About Eve".

Like I said, something of a Parson's Egg. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I said a few entries back that the cinema-going choice was to see "Headhunters" or the above film; the slick Norwegian contender won the day, but as suspected I have now caught up with "Cabin" which seems to have horror buffs (and I must count myself among them) wetting their pants with joy. The movie was actually made in 2009 as a collaboration between Joss Whedon (with his "Buffy", "Angel", and "Firefly"cult following) and his writing partner Drew Goddard (best known for "Cloverfield" which I must confess left me cold). It then sat on a shelf while MGM went into meltdown, until Lionsgate rescued it for a festival premiere at the end of 2011.  Now that it has finally had its widespread release, it had the fans chomping at the bit in anticipation and is being hyped as the ultimate horror experience.

Well, not quite!  Co-written by the pair, produced by Whedon, and directed by Goddard, they themselves have described the film as their 'loving hate letter' to horror movies.  Despite an unusual beginning which introduces jobsworths Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford in their high-tech laboratory jokily overseeing some technological experiments, the film soon morphs into stereotypical horror film territory and we temporarily forget these two boffins.  We are introduced to the five college students who might have migrated from any number of horror genre films into this movie -- the slightly promiscuous co-ed (the whore), the jock, the student, the joker, and the good-girl (the virgin) -- although none of them completely fit into the category into which they've been slotted, and guess what?, they are off to the proverbial cabin in the woods for a weekend of fun and games.  We even have them encountering the standard red-neck gas station attendant en route who prophesises their doom. All of the cliches seem to be in place right through to a game of 'truth or dare' leading the friends into the cabin's spooky cellar.  However, all of a sudden we are back in Jenkins' and Whitford's gleaming lab, with their co-workers betting on which monsters might appear, and we know that we are in the middle of a different sort of horror experience.

Whedon and Goddard are out to play havoc with pulp horror conventions turning expectations on their heads and throwing in just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, leaving the viewer with the sort of overkill that can only be reconciled by the totally unexpected denouement. Reviewers have been careful about not letting spoilers mar new viewers potential enjoyment of this confection and I, of course, must do the same, since the finale when it comes is nearly, if not entirely, out of left field. The film's creators are having fun at our willing expense and have given us a thoroughly entertaining movie, as long as we have remembered to park all logic and rational expectations at the door.  References are made to numerous other films from the genre, and at times it feels as if one is sitting some sort of college entrance exam on horror history. This of course makes the film fun, if not particularly consistently great film-making.  It is largely a mixture of self-aware laughter cushioned by oh-my-god goofiness, the only scary part being not knowing what to expect before the you-must-be-kidding ending.

Apart from a star cameo appearance towards the end (which I won't spoil), the cast are a pretty mixed bunch.  Jenkins and Whitford, as puppet-masters going through their usual boring paces, make the film continuously watchable as a kind of ghoulish Greek chorus, watching gleefully as all possible horror antagonists are unleashed.  Others in the cast will be immediately recognised by Whedon groupies, but only Chris Hemsworth, by his subsequent Thor incarnation, is now well known. However both Kristen Connolly as the spunky (maybe) heroine and Fran Kranz as the stoner fighting zombies with his bong deserve special mention.

This film's eventual release coincides with Whedon's personal journey into the stratosphere with his new Avengers movie, but he has not let down his acolytes in the process.