Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Bellissima (1951)

As no doubt I've written previously and as no doubt I shall write again, there is always the danger of some disappointment when catching up with a film that has previously eluded me.  I have wanted to see this third feature from the rather baroque Italian director Luchino Visconti for yonks and while I am more than happy to have finally cornered it, it wasn't at all quite what I was expecting. Yes, it was very good in many ways, but something of an anomaly in the director's oeuvre. His earliest films "Ossessione" (1943) -- the first movie version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- and "Terra Trema" (1948) are rooted in the Italian neo-realistic renaissance, but his later films like "Senso", "The Leopard" and "Death in Venice" display the dramatic flair that this aristocratic scion brought to his famous operatic productions. "Bellissima" on the other hand is something of a transition, a story that is rooted in reality and poverty, but which also makes room for both satire and humour -- not notable qualities of his later sensuous outings.

The Italian superstar and 'earth-mother' Anna Magnani plays a would-be stage-mother, a slave to the empty dreams of movie unreality, desperate, nay obsessed, to push her young daughter into the world of comfort and riches that a screen career would provide. Set in the post-war poverty of Rome, Magnani becomes a force of nature when she goes to Cinecitta, along with hundreds of other pushy mothers, answering an open casting call for a six- to eight-year old girl to star in director Alessandro Blasetti's next film.  In this mob scene, she loses sight of her daughter Maria, a remarkable Tina Apicella in her only film appearance, who has wandered off to play by a pool.  Dishevelled and dirty, she drags the wee mite into the tail end of the auditions, where she recites the 19th Century poem 'Addio a Venezia' in her little-girl voice, contrasting rather notably with the over-trained singing, dancing, and Betty Grable-impersonating of the competition.  The director notices that she is rather small for a six to eight-year old (in fact the actress was only five at the time), but Magnani counters this observation by insisting that her dress makes her look smaller than she is and manages to win a call-back for the lass.

Despite her husband's objections that they can hardly find money for their rent, Magnani squanders her savings on dramatic lessons, photography, special dresses, and bribes to ensure Maria's success. The bribes -- flowers for the director's wife and other nonsenses -- are suggested to her by con-man Walter Chiari who pretends to take a genuine interest in the mother and child, but who in fact wants the money to buy a motor-scooter.  Magnani is not stupid enough to be unaware of his self-interest, but is convinced that she must do whatever is necessary for young Maria's future.  When she sneaks into the screening of the test footage for Blasetti and his minions, the cruelty of the industry is rammed home; the child is unable to blow out the candles on a prop birthday cake, can't quite remember her poem or speak out, and finally bursts into heart-breaking tears.  This reduces the executives into uncontrollable fits of giggles and Magnani's dreams are shattered.  Even when the studio subsequently offers a contract and an unreal salary, Magnani's only concern  is to protect her innocent daughter from the scorn and heartbreak that can follow.

Magnani played an earthy dynamo in nearly all of her films, from "Rome Open City" (1945) through "Mamma Roma" (1962), but is at her best when acting in her own language.  Although she did win an Oscar for her English-speaking role in "The Rose Tattoo" (1955) and has made her mark in other American films, the full force of her personality is slightly stifled when she tries to overcome her language handicap.  In this movie, she is passionate, unbridled and riveting.  Although 43 at the time and looking every year of it and while never one of the screen's great beauties, she looks magnificent here, roping the viewer initially into her determination and ultimately into her realisation and defeat.  Both on stage and on film, Visconti was famed for supporting his actors in every possible way, for always highlighting their talent; the respect in which he holds his star here is manifest and manifold.

With a screenplay from the celebrated female writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico, a frequent Visconti collaborator, who also worked extensively with Zeffirelli and Antonioni, this film has the legs to linger long in the memory.  It was fascinating to watch, yet managed to leave a slightly sour after-taste which I must admit I was not expecting.  Somehow I thought it would all be jollier than in fact it was, as mothers screamed 'bellissima' to get a director's attention, in the vain attempt to point out how very beautiful their generally ungainly daughters were.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Revisiting the 'Classics'

It's just under a year ago that I saw and reviewed "Bridesmaids" (see June 23 '11) which has just made it appearance on Sky Premiere. Since I keep seeing references to the film as 'a modern comedy classic', I thought I should have another look and did not read my blog in preparation.  I really didn't enjoy the re-visit, finding the overall tone bitter, managing only the occasional chuckle, subsequently reading that  I accused myself of having a "humour bypass" the first time 'round. In other words it seems to take very little to land the 'classic' mantle nowadays.  Yes, it was possibly the first time that a largely female cast proved that they could be as raunchy as the lads, and yes both Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy give memorable turns, and yes there is the odd smart line or situation, but on balance it remains an over-long, episodic, hit-or-miss production.  Sorry, fans!

On the other hand I have just watched "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) for probably the fifth or sixth time and enjoyed all two and a half hours of this courtroom classic -- and I use the word 'classic' advisedly.  It is long because it remains possibly overly faithful to the original novel by John D. Volker, aka Robert Travers, based on an actual case and court records in his part of Northern Michigan where he was County Prosecutor, and little of the Court procedure is omitted in the telling.  The trial is that of a soldier (Ben Gazzara) who is accused of killing the man who purportedly raped his wife (Lee Remick).  For the defence is country lawyer James Stewart's Paul Biegler and for the prosecution is another local lawyer assisted by a hotshot mouthpiece from the State capitol (George C. Scott). Sitting on the bench is real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch whose moment of glory occurred when he defended the Army in the McCarthy hearings.  Rounding out Stewart's team are his faithful, sardonic secretary Eve Arden, whose salary is well in arrears, and his somewhat drunken legal pal -- a brilliant Arthur O'Connell, one of several Academy nominees for this film and the second or third best thing in it (in a movie where even the minor cast members were excellent: John Qualen, Murray Hamilton, and Kathryn Grant -- later Mrs. Bing Crosby -- among others).  Finally add a fine jazz score for the jazz-loving Biegler from the great Duke Ellington, who appears in a brief cameo as 'Pie Eye', and all of the ingredients are in place for a viewing treat.

The film is probably director Otto Preminger's masterpiece (some people think it was Stewart's as well, although I maintain that he is nearly always marvellous in all of his roles.)  The film was infamous in its day for its frank discussion of rape, provocative behaviour, and whether it is right to wear 'panties' rather than a girdle. (The very young and extremely nubile Remick knows how to wiggle her wares here).  However controversy was nothing new for Preminger whose 1953 movie "The Moon is Blue" (not a film that has held up well) shocked the Censors' Office with its use of language like 'virgin' and 'mistress'.  It may take a lot less to shock the modern viewer, but this film remains something special because of its wonderful cast and extremely adept script. While a contemporary of two other courtroom dramas "12 Angry Men" and "Witness for the Prosecution", both masterly films and personal favourites, "Anatomy of a Murder" has the master mix of courtroom cleverness married to well-rounded and cleverly played characters.  In his traditionally laid-back style, Biegler is well aware that information and questions subsequently over-ruled by the Judge, can not really be forgotten by a jury who know what they have just heard.

Spoilers are probably less relevant when writing about older films (but look away now if you've never seen this beauty).  Having tutored his client in claiming his innocence by pleading temporary insanity -- a fleeting irresistible impulse -- Biegler is hoist with his own petard at the film's end when the cleared Gazzara and his sexy wife use the same excuse to decamp without paying their legal bills.  "Never mind" thinks the easy-going Stewart and his now more sober sidekick O'Connell, there's the dead man's estate to manage.  Now that's classic film-making however you slice it!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Red (2010)

Let's face it tastes do change.  One can go right off film stars once treasured -- Meg Ryan comes to mind with her latter day trout-pout and gratuitous nudity.  On the other hand, bete noires can morph into favourites -- like good old baldy Bruce Willis.  When he first came to the fore in the television series "Moonlighting", I couldn't stand the bumptious twit.  I also saw him again recently with a full head of hair in 1987's "Blind Date" with an out-of-control Kim Basinger, and didn't much reckon him there either.  But he has certainly mellowed with age -- as I suppose I have.

I can't say better about the above film other than it is great fun -- not particularly wonderful film-making, logically constructed, or even believable, but one doesn't worry about little things like that when one is enjoying a great cast who seem to be enjoying themselves as well.  Willis plays a retired CIA agent whose file is listed as "RED" (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) and his even older ex-cohorts and adversaries include Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Brian Glover (as an ex-Russian spy still besotted with Mirren.) Willis and the first three find themselves on the current Vice-President's 'hit list', as he needs to cover up some naughtiness from their joint past before announcing his presidential ambitions.  So they find themselves on the run from young CIA operatives Karl Urban and Rebecca Pidgeon and their armed hordes.  Add to the equation Willis' new love interest, Mary-Louise Parker, with whom he has, in his loneliness, struck up a telephone flirtation, unwittingly including her in the would-be purge.  Introduce to the ensemble a treacherous Richard Dreyfuss, a cameo from the now 95-year old Ernest Borgnine, and a blink-and-you-might-miss-it appearance by James Remar (Dexter's ghost-dad!) and the veteran casting is a delight.

Where to start?  Firstly it was great to see Parker again; I know she has been doing well in the TV series "Weeds" which isn't shown here, but it's been a while since I've seen her on the big screen.  I always think of her as one of the many 'double-barrelled' starlets that graced the 1990s: Mary-Stuart Masterton, Catherine-Mary Stewart, Penelope-Ann Miller, and even Sarah-Jessica Parker, whom I used to muddle one with the other, but she holds her own with the superb cast in this movie.  The film is full of shoot-outs and double-dealing, and it is enormous fun to see 'The Queen'  Mirren handling a sub-machine gun.  However greatest praise must be reserved for Malkovich who plays a goofy brain-fried die-hard and who is far more relaxed here than he was in his more serious, early 'actorly' roles.  Finally, Willis remains good value as he marshals his cohorts and bristles when Urban refers to him as 'Grandpa'; there's plenty of spunk in the old guy yet.  It's a geriatric romp to savour.

The film is far from an award-seeking candidate, but it certainly makes for a grand evening out! 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Culture Vulture

Oh how we suffer for our art! One hears about suffering artists, but one can also 'suffer' for one's enthusiasms. Every so often I am tempted to book tickets for a film about which I know absolutely nothing but which sounds like something very special.  So was the case with:

The Tale of Genji (1951):  The hook for this Japanese film is that it is based on "the world's first true novel", written over l000 years ago by Murasaki Shikibu ('Lady Murasaki'), a court lady of the Heian Era. Both the original work and the film derived from it consist of episodes from the life of a bastard son of the Mikado who has been raised as a nobleman, the Genji of the title.  These episodes are largely an account of his erotic adventures at court and beyond -- a sort of Japanese Casanova if you will.  It starts with his pregnant courtesan mother being driven away by the hostility of the Mikado's jealous older official wife, and continues with his country childhood until his mother's early death (presumably from grief), his recall to court, and his seduction of a number of comely wenches, despite having officially married his own jealous wife.  His behaviour continues to anger the original old shrew, and he is temporarily and tactfully exiled to the back of beyond after he manages to impregnate both his wife and his favourite mistress.  There he faces assassins sent by political rivals and falls in love with a local noble monk's daughter, who in fact is in love with another -- not that this stops her licking the blood from his wounds in a notable scene.

Directed by Kozabura Yoshimura of whom I know nothing, Genji is played by Kazuo Hasegura, purportedly a matinee idol of the day. He was meant to be beautiful, graceful, and generally irresistible, but rising 43 years at the time and tending to run to fat, I found the actor decidedly ill-cast.  Nevertheless, this movie was apparently the top-grossing Japanese film to date, as schoolteachers brought students by the busload to view this classic, historical drama.  At well over two hours, all this hothouse romance became a little tedious, especially since all of the women (to my Western eye) looked virtually identical with their formal dress, pale make-up, and incredibly long hair tumbling nearly to the ground.  However as each episode faded to black, the framing scenery emerged beautifully, with each new image resembling a fine artistic print.  Had the film been made in colour, it probably would have been even more remarkable, but the formal artistry of the photography did help to compensate for the melodrama of the story.

Moving literally to the other side of the world, Film Four recently held a mini-African season and I still have several left to watch among my backlog.  However, two of these films are worth mentioning, if only in the briefest detail:

Xala (1975):  The title translates as "The Curse" and is one of the first African films to receive international attention.  Written and directed by Sengalese auteur Ousmane Sembene, it is a sharp satire on the country of the day.  Newly independent from France, the new rulers are shown to be every bit as greedy and corrupt as their predecessors, leaving their first official meeting with an attache case full of crisp, new notes.  We follow the story of one of them who is about to take on his third wife -- completely acceptable in his 'religion' -- who is financing the lavish wedding festivities by selling government-aid wheat to a shady dealer -- not unlike the equal corruption of his cohorts.  However, on his wedding night, he is unable to 'perform' and word soon spreads that he has been lumbered with the Xala of the title.  After insisting that the street near his office be cleared of all of its heart-breaking and crippled beggars, his life goes from bad to worse, especially after the cheque he has given a local shaman to restore his manhood bounces.  By the end of the movie he has lost nearly everything -- he is dismissed from the ruling Council and both his second and third wives decamp -- and he is standing naked enduring the disdain and spit of the beggars who have now camped in his house. The cleverness of this film rests in demonstrating how the new bigwigs are as pretentious as the old, both in their formal garb and by their insistence of carrying on their meetings in French, rather than in their native Wolof language.

"Johnny Mad Dog" (2008): I nearly gave up on this one as the subject matter was so distasteful, especially as told in its documentary-style format.  In an unnamed African country, young boys are  forced into the rebel army, given the choice to kill their fathers or themselves be killed, and taught the ways of looting, murder, rape, mayhem, and intimidation.  Their leader's mantra is "You don't want to die, don't be born" and the youngsters, with their new nicknames, have lost their original identities and follow blindly.  Although played by actors, some of the cast were once such 'soldiers' themselves and it is hard to watch the cruelty that they were taught.  The Johnny of the title eventually sees his own world and promise of riches collapse, as his 'General' is happy to revert to being a supporting lower officer in the new regime, and he is reduced to acting as a guard at a local refugee camp.  There he is brought down even lower by a spunky girl of his own age who has spent the film trying to save her young brother and legless wounded father.  Very strong stuff and far from an easy watch.