Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Big Picture (1989)

My original intention for today was to write about Spaghetti Westerns, having just watched a weird example -- unfortunately and badly dubbed as usual -- called "Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears" (1972) starring the charismatic Franco Nero (star of one of the most violent of the genre, "Django"), Anthony Quinn playing a deaf-mute, and an ageing Pamela Tiffin as one of the town whores.  However, not only was it not terribly good or stylish, with rather poor continuity, I decided in the end that I really don't have much to say about these films in general. Obviously the ones by Sergio Leone are in a class of their own, but most of the others I've seen have morphed into an inseparable vague morass.  As in this film, out-of-work or down-on-their-luck American stars regularly found work in these largely forgettable movies. Were I a little more enthusiastic, it might make an interesting article, but it would require a heap of mind-refreshing.

So I shall comment on the above title which I've not seen for the best part of twenty years and I note from my rating on IMDb that I wasn't all that taken with it the first time around.  Well, either I've mellowed or the film has legs, since this time it struck me as a gentle and largely good-natured satire on the fiendish ins and outs of the Hollywood scene.  It was the first directorial effort from Christopher Guest, whose subsequent mockumentaries have all had a certain charm.  Co-written with Michael McKean and producer Michael Vartel, it traces the early career of would-be director Nick Chapman, as portrayed by the fresh-faced and eager Kevin Bacon.  Bacon was actually over thirty when this was made, but he captures the enthusiasm and naivete of a recent film school graduate whose prize-winning short has garnered some fawning attention from various Hollywood bigwigs.

He acquires an agent in the hilarious shape of an uncredited Martin Short, with unreal dyed red hair and a camp manner, and is taken up by a ruthless producer brilliantly played by the late, great J.T. Walsh.  He has firm ideas about the black-and-white film he dreams of making, but his concepts are gradually whittled away by Walsh and his yes-men.  Instead of the intimate tale of three 40-year-olds, he reluctantly agrees to a younger cast, a completely different story, a score full of pop tunes (rather than a film without any music), and of course technicolor.  As Walsh tells him, a black-and-white movie would get colorized for TV anyhow -- and a background clip from the wonderful "It's a Wonderful Life" proves his point. However the idea of becoming a Hollywood success completely turns his head.  He ignores his best friend and earlier cinematographer McKean, dumps his live-in girlfriend, a charming Emily Longstreth, for the siren charms of an OTT-sexpot Teri Hatcher, and over-extends himself financially.  Then Walsh's producer falls out of favour with his studio, and the entire project and hangers-on disappear in a flash.  Nick is no longer the flavour of the moment and can get nowhere with the power hierarchy, despite grovelling at their feet with increasingly unworkable concepts.  He is reduced to making a living with a series of menial jobs, until his video for kooky pal Jennifer Jason Leigh's pop-group goes viral and he is again in unbelievable demand by the same folk who previously wouldn't give him the time of day.

The producers deny that the movie is based on actual Hollywood players, although it is tempting to put real names to some of the characters, but it is certainly based on actual Hollywood stereotypes. While possibly not as full of in-jokes as "The Player", this film still manages to portray the grasping nature of the Hollywood scene where cut-throat behaviour may well be the norm of the day.  The movie features special cameo appearances from the likes of Eddie Albert, Fran Drescher, June Lockhart, John Cleese, Roddy McDowell, and an uncredited Elliot Gould and manages to remain largely good-humoured despite the excesses on display.  One wonders whatever became of Longstreth, who only made TV movies before and after this film and who has disappeared from the scene since 1994. Maybe she found a real life outside Hollywood!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Same old...

Well it looks like another one of those all too frequent weeks where I have sat through -- rather than enjoyed -- a depressing number of films and there has been no single one crying out for its own review. It's probably just as well that I'm not a newspaper or magazine film critic -- although I probably would have loved the idea once upon a time -- since I would find it increasingly difficult to write several hundred words or more on a movie that has left me cold.  For example, last night we watched a French sci-fi flick that has been gathering dust amongst our DVD backlog, "Eden Log" (2007), and I thought to myself 'Great, there's tomorrow's subject'.  Wrong! A more boring and less coherent waste of 97 minutes can not be imagined: a washed-out colour, virtually black and white, apocalyptic future where our hero, the totally uncharismatic Clovis Cornillac, awakes in a darkened industrial maze and must work out not only where he is but how to get the hell out of there.  I know the feeling!  Nearly unwatchable with constant fades to black, it has now gone into the 'discard' pile.

OK, it hasn't been all bad.  I did see three properly black and white films from the 50s that were new to me: "Imitation General" (1958) with Glenn Ford pretending to be a slaughtered general to inspire his fellow soldiers, "The Blue Gardenia" (1953) an earlyish-noir and probably one of Fritz Lang's least impressive films with Anne Baxter convinced that she has murdered masher Raymond Burr whilst in a drunken stupor, and "Backfire" (1951) with the rather weird cast of Virginia Mayo and Gordon Macrae (in a non-musical) trying to clear buddy Edmund O'Brien of a murder charge.  While I was pleased to catch up with these films, particularly the last two, none of them were sufficiently stylish or involving to warrant repeat viewings.

Then there was this week's dire premieres from Sky.  While I admit that at least two of them could boast some pretensions, I remained unimpressed.  Firstly there was Rachel Weisz in "The Whistleblower" (2010) as a peace-keeper in Bosnia exposing the trade in cross-border prostitution to the indifference of just about everyone else with vested interests (ho hum).  Then there was the third in the "Paranormal Activity" series which I believe was a box-office winner Stateside;  I was singularly bored by the first two films with their video-eye footage and the third had at best two minor scares, lost in the middle of its rather humdrum proceedings. A TV movie "Cupid Inc" (2012) was impossibly obvious in its heroine's coy quest for Mr. Right, having ignored the obvious contender in her own office, and something called "Formosa Betrayal" (2009) put me to sleep ( it must have since I can recall nothing about it).  Finally what should have been the gem of the week, the Iranian film "A Separation" (2011) which took home the best foreign film Oscar this year left me mystified as to why it won this trophy.  I think I have seen just about all of the highly-thought of Iranian films that have made it to the West and can't think of a single one that I would wish to add to my own collection.  Perhaps that says more about me than about the films in question.  In this one a couple have separated since she wishes to immigrate with their 11-year old daughter and he refuses to leave his Alzheimer-suffering father.  He hires a pregnant day-carer and is accused of causing her to miscarry; he therefore faces a murder charge unless he pays the necessary blood money.  We know that he may have pushed her, but that other circumstances are the culprit.  As yet another insight into a culture alien to us, this film was little more than 'worthy' and like so many similar movies, I was annoyed by the too open ending.  The film just stopped at the moment that we began to care whether the family could indeed be reconciled.

What else?  A two-part miniseries from 1995 "Love and Betrayal" with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen clones acting out their ten-year relationship and ultimately bitter split, complete with Andre Previn and Frank Sinatra clones in the back-story.  A television movie from 1979 "Champions, a Love Story" -- yet another tale of a female figure-skater finding a male ice hockey wannabe to partner her to the championship.  The only difference between this and umpteen other similar tales is that he is killed in an airplane crash before that goal can be reached.  Finally, there was the old stand-by: re-watching favourites from the past.  This week included "Things Change" (1988), a sweet yet slightly strained story of elderly shoe-shine man Don Ameche being hired by the mob to take the fall in a murder case and being baby-sat for the weekend by Joe Mantegna in Lake Tahoe, where the simple, Italianate Ameche is taken for a Mafia bigwig. Then there was another outing for "Absurdistan" (2008) which I have favourably reviewed previously, an enchanting peasant fable shot in Russia (and in Russian) by a German director.  Finally I am having a mini Josef von Sternberg season (formerly known as Joe Sternberg) re-watching his three great silents.  I've viewed "The Last Command" (1928) a major success starring Emil Jannings,  and"Underworld" (1927) with his pet actor George Bancroft -- considered the first film to look at crime from the criminal's point of view. That leaves "The Docks of New York" (1928) to complete the trio which is on today's programme.

I sometimes think I should restrict myself to only watching old favourites together with the best of the current crop and those oddities languishing on my 'must-see' list, but that wouldn't be PPP. I have this weird compunction to watch anything I've not seen previously and therefore find myself with' blah' results like some of the above.  I don't suppose I'll ever learn! What's the saying about old dogs and new tricks? 

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

I wasn't able to schedule a cinema visit when this sweet movie was released some six weeks ago, but managed to catch up with it in repertory at the Prince Charles.  Although his output has hardly been prolific, I have really liked the films (with the possible exception of "The Darjeeling Limited" which was just a bit too twee, even for me) of the Texas-born auteur Wes Anderson -- not to be confused with the Newcastle-born hack Paul W. S. Anderson.  His output is quite probably insufficiently action-filled for contemporary tastes, but his individuality and sly humour shine in films like "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", and even the stop-motion "Fantastic Mr. Fox".

This fable of childhood is set on the mythical Cape Cod island of New Penzance in 1965, some four years before Anderson himself was actually born; yet it is intended, I am sure, to recapture the feelings and emotions of adolescence as he himself remembers it. The main protagonists, young teens Sam and Suzy, portrayed by Jared Gilman and Kaya Hayward, both making their big screen debuts, carry the picture and the A-list supporting cast are not actually given a great deal to do.  Sam is an orphan being raised by a foster family and is spending his second summer camping on the island with the 'Khaki Scouts'.  Suzy, whom he first saw at a church performance of "Noye's Fludde" a year before, is the eldest child of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, an intellectual but unloving couple.  Suzy rattles around in their big house, alienated from her three much-younger close and clone-like brothers, and listens to Francoise Hardy while reading gothic literature.  She and Sam decide they are in love and arrange to run away together.  They follow an old Indian trail and find the idyllic, untrodden Moonrise cove of the title, where they establish their camp for the three days they are on the run. Suzy's parents insist that she must have been abducted and the search is on led by lonely local police chief Bruce Willis and scout-leader Edward Norton with his pack of young charges (none of whom can stand Sam).  However when the young lovers are caught and separated, the scouts decide to support the pair's escapade, just as a mighty storm approaches the island, along with 'Social Services' in the form of Tilda Swinton who is flying in to take Sam to an orphanage (after his anti-social behaviour has alienated his foster family).  Needless to say, all eventually ends satisfactorily, even after the young couple go through an illegal marriage ceremony performed by another scout-leader on a neighbouring island.  All of this may sound a little convoluted and contrived, but believe me when I tell you, that it all falls sweetly into place, without over-stretching one's credibility.  I could however have done without Anderson's killing off a cute little dog in the melee.

Despite the high-powered cast names mentioned above, there are also roles for Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, and Jason Schwarzman. However none of them, with the possible exceptions of Willis and Norton -- both very likeable here -- make much impact.  No doubt Bill Murray is in the cast as Anderson's 'lucky charm' since he has been a 'given' since 1998's "Rushmore"; however he is not asked to demonstrate much other than his usual laid-back charm.  Harking back to the trauma in his own life when his parents divorced, Anderson seems to be trying to recapture both the innocence and passions of childish dreams and possibly his own remembered formative years; his two young leads do all the work for him.  

The film is quirky and poignant, mercifully short and very bittersweet -- a slight trifle full of yearning and nostalgia.  Anderson's regular composer Alexandre Desplat makes good use both of "Noye's Fludde" (forecasting the impending storm) and "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" in creating the compelling background score to this fantasy of a child's memories.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Shirley Temple....again!

I know I've written about child-star Shirley Temple several times previously, usually when I need a speedy antidote to an attack of the blues.  Her ability to cast a ray of sunshine into people's drab existence is what made her the top-grossing movie-star in the dark days of the l930s Depression.  However it was not a sudden case of the glumps that inspired me to write about the two following films from 1934, but rather the unusual fact (for me) that I had not previously viewed either of them.  Because they were both made on loan-outs from her home studio Fox (a situation never again repeated when her financial worth was realised), they tended not to be as readily available for television, video, or DVD viewing as her other films until relatively recently.  Both movies are fascinating, both in their own right and in contrast to her other pictures from the period:

Now and Forever:  One of Shirley's least-known films, it is unusual for its starry leads -- Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard.  Cooper in particular is atypically cast as a weak-willed grifter, living the high-life abroad with Lombard, relying on his wits and speedy evasive action to avoid their creditors.  In passing he mentions a daughter from a previous marriage -- conveniently never mentioned earlier -- whom he hopes to flog for $75,000 to the stuffy relatives that have been looking after her since his first wife's death.  When he goes back to Connecticut to get the dough, he finds himself charmed by the tyke, who obviously is not exactly having much fun or much of a life in her cloistered environment -- and off he goes with her to meet up with Lombard in Paris, raising the cash by selling a mythical gold mine to an old duffer, played by Sir Guy Standing, who turns out to be as big a con-man as Cooper.  Temple is rapturous about having a Daddy and fond of Standing's Uncle Felix who is escaping the law on the same ship, but wary about Lombard's sharing her father's affections.  She gradually warms to her, especially when she sees her new mother encouraging her father to take a job and live a more sedate life like real families.

However, thirty-five dollars a week from a real estate company doesn't go far in maintaining their lifestyle, especially when they want to send Shirley to a posh school; Cooper is soon reduced to stealing a necklace for Uncle Felix to fence from a wealthy dowager who has taken an interest in the winsome child.  Things end badly with Felix shot, Cooper wounded, and the old lady agreeing to take over responsibility for the child.  This is not the sort of happy scenario which usually forms the centre of a Temple film, although director Henry Hathaway manages to hold our interest in the brief 79 minute running time.  Shirley has no dance numbers and only one song "The World Owes Me a Living" (shades of Cooper's philosophy here) which while cute, is rather less fetching than her usual 'Good Ship Lollipop' repertoire.

Little Miss Marker:  Although I hadn't seen this version of Damon Runyon's tale before, it felt as if I had, since I have certainly seen the later versions: Bob Hope's 1949 "Sorrowful Jones", Tony Curtis' 1962 "Forty Pounds of Trouble", and Walter Matthau's 1980 take on the Sorrowful character (back to the original title and also featuring Curtis in a different role).  The basic story is therefore well-known and is clear from the alternate title "Girl in Pawn".  Here the usually dapper Adolph Menjou plays bookie Sorrowful Jones, known by his lowlife associates as a shabby tightwad.  When a little girl's father, desperate to place a bet, leaves his daughter as security, Menjou reluctantly agrees.  The 'sure-to-win' horse (a con initiated by Charles Bickford's Big Steve Halloway and agreed to by Menjou and the mob) loses, and the distraught father commits suicide, lumbering Sorrowful with little 'Marky'. Bickford skips town for a while leaving Menjou to register the horse in question in Marky's name before their plans to dope him and probably kill him in his next outing.  He also leaves his girl friend, a torch singer (Dorothy Dell) for Menjou to keep an eye on.  Her supposedly hard surface is touched by the youngster and she grows fonder of both the child and Menjou, finally smartening him up.

Several things make this version of the story rather different than the subsequent ones and again substantially different from Shirley's other 30s films.  Again this is not an all-singing, all-dancing role for the youngster, and while she starts off the film as a little sweetie, charming all in sight, full of fairy tales and magic, she soon becomes a tough-talking little cookie under the influence of the Runyonesque supporting cast.  In an attempt to recapture her innocence, Dell and Menjou get all of the gang to dress up as characters from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and bring in her faithful 'charger' (the horse in question).  I must say I don't recall anything like this in the later versions!  Anyhow, Bickford returns to the scene, causing Shirley to fall from the horse gravely injured.  Move to the hospital where a renowned surgeon is press-ganged from his wedding to operate on the tyke, but none of the mob have the right type blood for the necessary transfusion.  That is until Bickford is tested and complimented on his 'strong blood', saving the day.

Point of interest: like me you have probably never heard of Dorothy Dell.  It's not surprising since she made only a few films before dying in a car crash at the age of nineteen.  Her character 'Bangles' Carson comes across as a lot older with her trampy dress, torch singing, and the fancy apartment of a kept-woman complete with the requisite black maid.  She's excellent here and probably would have continued with great success, but we'll never know.  Talking about token roles for black actors in early Hollywood, amongst the support in this film is friendly, jivey janitor Willie Best, keeping a watchful eye on little Shirley.

Finally it is probably worth noting that both of these Temple vehicles just about fall into the pre-code period and are therefore somewhat blacker than the movies that would later rake in the big bucks for 20th Century Fox.