Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Frightfest the 13th - Part One

I hate writing this, but I think I may be coming to the end of an era. After faithfully attending all (or initially part) of this 'horror' fest for the last thirteen years -- and before that when it was a shorter weekend event at the National Film Theatre -- I may have reached my satiation point.  I still thrill to discovering an inventive horror or fantasy movie, but I no longer have the stamina to sit through an assortment of dross in search of the odd gem.  My weary old bones have started to rebel.  Last year we decided to stay at a nearby hotel in order to see the late-night selections without a mad rush to catch the last train home, but were rather disappointed with them -- apart from the increasing difficulty of keeping our eyes, ears, and brain open.  So this year we decided to 'limit' our viewing and only managed to see 19 films over the four and a half days.  I suppose that's still pretty impressive going, but unfortunately too many of the movies failed to warrant the time. So next year, who knows...

Unfortunately those nineteen included three of the worst films I have ever forced myself to sit through, eight which I thought so-so at best, leaving only eight that I found more or less praiseworthy.  Of these, there were a mere three that I would choose to watch again. I will attempt to write something about all of them over this and the next entry, and it will not be difficult for you to work out which were the bummers, which were the tolerable, and which were amongst the best:

I had been actually looking forward to "Nightbreed: The Cabal Cut", since the 1990 release of Clive Barker's fantasy was amazing albeit confusing viewing.  A couple of bright boffins decided to locate all of the fabled missing footage to pad out the theatrical print to better reflect Barker's original vision before it was hacked about by the studio, with the original 97 minute movie spun out to 153 minutes! It's a pity that they did this by inserting barely watchable video footage (in fact much of it looked like fourth generation footage) into the existing film.  I was under the impression that it is now possible to clean and sharpen videotape into something approaching modern standards, but this was not done here, leaving me with headache-inducing viewing, none of which made the storyline any clearer or more convincing. On the one hand I wish them well with what now seems an unnecessary restoration, but there is much to be done before they have a worthwhile or even viewable conclusion to their quest.

Frankly, I've had it up to here with scratchy found-footage films. The 'World Premiere' of the Irish film "The Inside" was both bad and painful to watch.  A bunch of gals celebrating their friend's birthday at an abandoned warehouse (why???) decide to document the evening on videocam and face violent vagrants and satanists in the next hours -- at least I think that's what was going on as the camera recorded the unmerry mayhem in the dim light.  Then there was the UK premiere of the much-hyped U.S. compendium "V/H/S", consisting of intermingled video footage by six varyingly "talented" directors, none of which was particularly scary, gory, or gruesome. After these three there was no way we could bring ourselves to watch the Spanish film "(Rec)3 Genesis", which again views the action through the eye of a camcorder.  Having seen the first two films in this series, I know well that I am in no rush to see this third entry, despite reviews claiming that it is rather more humorous than the preceding flicks.  I just may see it in due course -- but not this time around.

One thing that I've always like about Frightfest is the opportunity to see a number of non-English language films which may never receive any widespread distribution here.  Most of the other films we skip will, I know, eventually turn up on TV or DVD.  Despite the Far Eastern renaissance in horror film production, there was only one example in this year's programme, the jolly-sounding "Dead Sushi" (from Japan obviously) which was in a missed late-night slot and which I must therefore try to get hold of.  We did watch seven other 'foreign' films: three from Italy, one from the Netherlands, one from Germany (the best movie of the festival), one from Spain, and one from the unknown wilds of Chile.  The Chilean film "Hidden in the Woods", despite its exotic provenance was the least interesting of this bunch -- the sordid tale of an incestuous, drug-dealing dad living an 'eat-what-you-can-kill' existence in the wilderness with his two nubile daughters, and spawning a mutant feral son; if this makes it sound better (if this is the right word) than it was, forgive me. The Spanish flick "Sleep Tight" sounded promising and starred the well-known actor Luis Tosar.  He plays a kinky janitor morbidly involved with some of the tenants; he drugs his current obsession Clara to sneak into her apartment each night, with increasingly drastic results. I would classify this film as something of a near miss.  The Dutch movie "Kill Zombie" or "Zombibi" to give it its original title was a load of laughs, despite the hackneyed scenario of a mismatched band fighting off a horde of hungry zombies.  Unusually the four male leads played a pair of Moroccan brothers and a pair of pals from Surinam, with only the tasty female cop looking suitably Dutch. Filled with improbable sight gags and the requisite sprinkling of gore, this was something of a treat in the surrounding desert and a truly droll giggle. The three Italian films included "The Arrival of Wang", a sci-fi fable previously screened at the fest's Glasgow programme earlier this year and a stylish fantasy from the Manetti Brothers.  While waiting for the special effects to be finalised on that film, they shot "Paura 3D" in their downtime.  This was a pretty good example of the medium and followed three mates planning a wild weekend at the lavish villa of of a vacationing Marquis, before he returns unexpectedly and before one of their number finds the naked woman chained in the basement.  The Marquis is not just annoyed by the intrusion but turns inventively murderous as well, creating a number of effective shocks.  The third Italian film "Tulpa" was only completed a few days earlier and was hoping to enjoy a successful World Premiere for this return to the classic "Giallo". Unfortunately the hoots of derision from the audience throughout the screening must have been depressing for the attending director and his cast.  His big mistake was presenting this audience with a dubbed version, full of trite lines spoken by a selection of actors who could barely speak English, contrasting with the intervening scenes played in Italian with subtitles. A pity really since with some tightening and re-editing (all in Italian I would suggest) this black-gloved killer re-run with its occasionally stylish presentation might have become something rather better. That leaves the German entry "We are the Night", a well thought out Vampire story set in the decadence of Berlin.  The 200-year old leader of the all-female pack (they've killed off all the males) has been looking to replace her lost true love and hones in on and 'turns' petty thief Lena. Lena fights her transformation, and despite her new taste for blood and hatred of the light, she can't quite forget the lonely cop that befriended her. Good, slickly filmed, top quality pulp fiction.

Half-way through.  This leaves the nine British and American films of the weekend, which I will try to cover (or dismiss) next time round. In the meantime, watch out for marauding zombies.  Ho ho.        

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Shadowlands (1993)

I can remember not being particularly taken with this film at my first viewing and have barely thought about it over the years,  However a chance second viewing has left me rather more reflective about its merits.  Directed by Richard Attenborough from the play by William Nicholson, I originally found it a little humourless, rather wordy, and definitely 'worthy'. While I was aware of the basic story of the autumnal romance between the Oxford don C.S. Lewis and the American divorced poet Joy Gresham, I do not recall being reduced to tears.  That was then; this is now!

Debra Winger plays Gresham and was Oscar-nominated for her role as the brash woman who manages to locate the heart of a confirmed bachelor and who then inconveniently dies, leaving him to question his faith.  (She certainly had the form for this part from her earlier role of a woman who dies young in "Terms of Endearment".) Winger did not win, but it is a pity that Anthony Hopkins was not also nominated for his turn as Lewis, since he has never been better or more moving, not even in "The Remains of the Day", where he played a similarly repressed character. Set in Oxford in the 1950s, Lewis has a comfortable niche with his fellow academics at his Oxford college, enjoying a pint of beer, and joshing about this and that.  How, they tease him, can he be the author of successful children's books when he knows nothing about children and how they think.  He replies that his brother was once a child, as was he. He shares a home with this bachelor brother, Warnie, touchingly played by Edward Hardwicke, and theirs is a regular and routine existence.

Into this set world arrives an American fan who has been corresponding with the author.  Originally when they meet for tea in London, Lewis brings his brother along, not as a chaperone, but for moral support.  He is ill prepared to communicate with such an open and and uninhibited woman, but is strangely fascinated as well.  He invites her to visit him in Oxford and she asks if she can bring her young son Douglas along as he is a massive Narnia fan. The son is played by Joseph Mazzello who had some major roles in the early 90s.  I have always remembered him in the now forgotten "Radio Flyer" (1992), where his childhood heartbreak and aspirations really said something to me. (I was therefore unprepared to realise that he is now a man and to see him most recently in "The Social Network".) Anyhow the young Mazzello is equally memorable here.  He asks to see Lewis' attic and is immediately drawn to the wardrobe in a far corner.  As he rummages through the musty old coats, you can sense his deep disappointment that they did not somehow lead to the entrance to a magical land.

When Gresham returns to England after her divorce their friendship begins to deepen and she has no qualms asking him to marry her to afford her the opportunity to remain in Britain.  Theirs is a civil ceremony and it is strictly a marriage of convenience with Lewis back in Oxford and she and Douglas in their London basement flat. Then she falls ill with inoperable cancer and all bets are off.  Lewis, who lectures to hat-wearing matrons, giving comforting talks about man's place in God's plans, and who teaches his students that the most intense joy is not in the having but in the desire -- as pain is God's way of perfecting us, must leave his own 'shadowland' -- the landscape that man inhabits before finding the light. A woman called Joy Gresham really teaches him what 'joy' means. They have a religious marriage ceremony in her hospital room and, during a brief remission, a delayed honeymoon.  However this happiness is short-lived and she soon dies. The penultimate scene of Lewis and young Douglas falling into each others arms with uncontrolled tears in front of the fabled wardrobe is too moving for words.  I must have had a heart of stone the first time around.

I understand that the author first told his story as a television drama with Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland in the leads.  I have not seen this, but somehow I think I might have liked Bloom more than Winger; there was just something about her performance that seemed a little cold and calculating and, dare I say, unlovable. However while Ackland is also a fine actor, I doubt he could have given the complex Lewis character the same intellectual depth and genuine anguish that Hopkins brought to the table.

Guess what Folks?  It's FrightFest yet again so that's me out of general circulation for the next five days.  All things being equal, a more or less full report will follow....eventually!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

George Sanders

I wasn't joking when I wrote last time that my Olympics viewing was really cutting into my film viewing. However, now that it is all fading into several many happy memories, I can get back to the business at hand. Looking at what I did manage to view over the last fortnight, there is not a lot that deserves anything but the briefest of comments.  I was surprisingly rather taken with a Ted Danson-Mary Steenburgen TV two-parter from 2002 called "Talking to Heaven", where he convincingly played a reluctant psychic helping to solve a series of youth killings, but there's not much to add to that summary. Then there was a rather nasty British 'horror' that I skipped at Frightfest a few years back called "Panic Button" that proved that it was indeed a missable movie.  Zoe Saldana was certainly watchable playing a dedicated assassin in the preposterous "Columbiana", but it was one of those movies that painlessly fills the time and can then safely be forgotten.

What got me thinking about George Sanders is the fact that BBC2 has been filling its daytime schedules during the past fortnight with a selection of films from RKO's 'Saint' and 'Falcon' series from the early 1940s.  Although I have seen them all before, I thought I would like to take copies of some of them which starred Sanders, an actor for whom I have always had a soft spot.  He was never a leading man in A-films, but lent a certain indelible suavity and sophistication to all of his supporting roles. He had a distinctive, slightly disdainful, voice and never lost his clipped English tones (despite being born in St. Petersburg -- Russia, not Florida-- to English parents).  Unlike the current crop of Brit actors who have 'gone Hollywood', he never made any effort to disguise his origins and therefore was a natural choice for the roles of cads, Nazis, and miscellaneous villains.  He started as a chorus boy in London, but swiftly moved to Hollywood where he appeared in more than 100 films peaking with a best supporting-actor Oscar for "All About Eve" (1950).  His numerous subsequent appearances were in a number of not so memorable movies, but he was certainly the best choice for voicing Shere-Khan in 1967's "Jungle Book" and his turn as a cross-dresser in one of his last roles, "The Kremlin Letter", must be seen to be believed. In the end he committed suicide, leaving a note reading "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.  I feel that I have lived long enough,  I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.  Good Luck."  A rather sad and flip ending for a famous, oft-married womaniser and romantic.

Anyhow getting back to these shortish 1940's films, they were great fun, well-written, and rather jokey mysteries in which Sanders is undoubtedly the best thing in them.   He did not actually originate the Saint role in films -- that honour was Louis Hayward's -- but took over from the second in the series, for a total of five films before he moved to the first Falcon film "The Gay Falcon" (not a title that could be used on the marquee today!) On many levels the two series seem indistinguishable, especially since the same RKO supporting actors could be seen playing different supporting roles in the next release. Most notable amongst the regulars are Wendy Barrie as his most frequent love interest, James Gleason (not fat Jackie G) as a dim-witted inspector (shades of Sherlock Holmes), and  Alan Jenkins as sidekick "Goldy" Locke; but the films are redolent with familiar faces.  And long before James Bond became known for his clever comebacks, Sanders' gentleman detective was chucking these about with dry wit.

The most interesting movie in the two series is "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942) which is based on Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", remade a mere three years later as an A-list production starring Dick Powell in his first non-musical role.  In the Sanders version, Moose Malloy (later a memorable Mike Mazurki) is played by John Ford regular Ward Bond and he cuts an equally menacing presence.  The film also provides meaty roles for Anne Revere, George Cleveland, Edward Gargan, Hans Conreid, and Turhan Bey (naturally playing a turbaned mystic.) Eventually the jaded Sanders, who seemed to become easily bored, became fed up with playing Gay Lawrence and was written out of the series by gifting the role to his real-life brother Tom Conway in "The Falcon's Brother".  Conway isn't a patch on Sanders but proved surprisingly popular, going on to don the Falcon suit for another nine movies.  He continued appearing in a variety of minor films until drinking himself to death some years before brother George decided that he'd had it with the world and found his answer in an overdose of barbituates. All very sad, if you ask me. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Visions of Eight (1973)

In case you've not noticed (or have been visiting outer space over the past few days), the Olympics are taking place in London. Most of the population here appears to have gone bling-mad as we crow over each new gold medal, but it's not altogether surprising considering this country's investment in the Games and the boost that home crowd support can give athletes. I too have been watching with interest, cutting into the time that I would normally be watching films, although some of the disciplines have yet to entice me -- handball, archery, shooting to name a few.  Still there are enough other awe-inspiring sports on offer to keep me glued to the set.

With all the Olympic hype that has been on display here, I am rather surprised that the television programmers -- especially those not involved in the BBC's wall-to-wall coverage, have not siezed the opportunity to screen one of the many Olympic-themed films in their back catalogues.  It is of course too much to hope for the best and grand-daddy (or grandma) of them all, Leni Riefenstahl's "The Olympiad" (1936), to be shown, since she has become persona-non-grata because of her Hitler connection; but if truth be told, it is one of cinema's landmark films.  However other possibilities were similarly ignored.  I found a showing of the above movie, which I have seen previously a long, long time ago, on German television, and I set it to refresh my pretty favourable memory.

It is a compendium film with eight different directors of eight nationalities giving their impressions of various facets of the Munich 1972 Olympics -- the one that is best remembered now for the murder of eleven Israeli participants.  This is perhaps not the legacy for which the Munich city-fathers would wish to be remembered, but seven of the eight manage to ignore this event completely. The film opens with Russian Yuri Ozerov's "The Beginning", which gives a brief overview of the setting and the athletes, with tantalisingly brief glimpses of legend Olga Korbut and the oft-seen image of multi-medalled swimmer Mark Spitz. The next section by Swedish actress-turned-director Mai Zetterling is titled "The Strongest" and focuses on the heavyweight category of male weightlifters.  I too find their feats amazing -- this is well illustrated by a shot of five German soldiers straining together to move the fully-loaded apparatus off the floor -- but the contrast between then and now is really noticeable.  Then they were a bunch of burly, sweaty mammoths in their singlets and shorts, letting it all hang out as it were; now, in their one-piece body suits and belts they seem nearly svelte in comparison. 

Rapidly going through the next five contributions, Arthur Penn's "The Highest" (concentrating on the pole vault) and Kon Ichikawa's "The Fastest" (the short sprint runners) show the Riefenstahl legacy by deconstructing the athletes' movements into a slo-mo medley.  Never before or since has the 10-second 100 metres (even faster now) become a seemingly endless fifteen-minute ballet, using 34 cameras and an original 20,000 feet of film. (Incidentally Ichikawa also directed "Tokyo Olympiad" glorifying the 1964 games, another film not broadcast this year.) Michael Pfleghar (a German TV director unknown to me) contributes "The Women" with a flattering look at some of the beauteous ladies on display (mainly the Germans let it be said) and captures the grace of one of the Russian gymnasts -- not ironically Korbut with her perfect 10 scores. We then move to Milos Forman's "The Decathlon" which has little to do with this event, but which takes a jokey and pretty irreverent approach by intercutting the athletics with kitschy images of buxom bell-ringers, beefy yodellers, an oompah-pah band, and a full-fledged symphony orchestra pounding out their 'Ode to Joy'. Claude Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") follows with "The Losers" focussing on the heartbreak of not winning, which occasionally became a display of bad-losing.  Once upon a time we're told, it was the taking part that mattered.  Try telling that to the various jingoistic nations today -- we know who you are!

It was left to John Schlesinger's "The Longest" to create the most meaningful and heartfelt section.  Ostensibly he was concentrating on an English marathon runner, showing his lonely ritual in training on empty English roads for a race that he would not ultimately win. When asked about the Israeli team, he appeared totally indifferent (or focussed one might allow), complaining that to him it only meant a 24-hour postponement of his Olympic marathon participation. The director then cuts to the closing ceremony with a quick shot of the jubilant Israeli team marching in at the opening and another of a Jewish group mourning, while Avery Brundage rabbits on about good will and brotherhood being the Olympic tradition.  He also includes a shot of a single African runner, still plodding Munich's streets in the pouring rain, some hours after the other athletes have finished, to finally arrive exhausted into the stadium.  This was a lovely image, reinforcing the original Olympic ideal that participation and doing one's best are the hallmarks of success.

While fascinating to revisit this film, I must admit that it is actually something of a parson's egg with no coherent overall flow or success.  Still it was an interesting time capsule between then and now.  Minor observations, once one gets over seventies' afros and whiskers, are the streamlining of team uniforms to the extent that most of the female athletes now seem to be racing in bikinis (!), the growing preponderance of tattoos, and the virtual disappearance of hairy armpits amongst all of the female participants and a surprising number of the male participants as well.  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Help (2011)

You'd think by now that I wouldn't decide in advance whether a film is really worth seeing, especially when I normally end up viewing all of them -- the good and the dross -- anyhow.  It is true that I was in no hurry to view the above movie, despite the generally good notices it received. I decided -- unfairly as it happens -- that it would be too worthy and preachy for words.  I also thought that having a virtually all female cast (the male roles are minor at best) that it would have only chick-flick appeal.  Well, folks, I was wrong on both counts. This is a largely marvellous, intelligent, and engrossing film.

Set in Mississippi in 1963 when the civil rights movement was beginning to gather steam, especially after the murder of Medgar Evans, the cast is mainly made up of the rich, spoiled, vapid, and bigoted women of the town and their downtrodden black maids, and what a cast!  While the entire ensemble deserves credit, among the stand-out 'white' performances are: Bryce Dallas Howard as the ringleader rich bitch, crusading for separate toilets in each house for the maids to use to avoid contaminating the family with all their well-known diseases (!); Jessica Chastain (Oscar-nominated) as the white-trash gal who has dared to wed one of the local good-old-boys that Howard once fancied; Sissy Spacek as Howard's outspoken and slightly senile mother whom she dumps in a nursing home; Emma Stone, proving her non-rom-com skills as the local bachelorette who wants to tell the maids' true story, with her mother, Allison Janney, harping at her full-time to get a boyfriend and flying the flag for the traditional values.  The black cast is led by a feisty Viola Davis (also nominated) as the first to begin to tell her tale to Stone, Octavia Spencer (a deservedly-memorable Oscar winner) as the force of nature falsely fired and accused by Howard when she stands up to her and finally hired by outcast Chastain, and a small but memorable part for veteran actress Cicely Tyson, who tells us more with a single heart-broken glance then could be conveyed in a hundred words.  In fact all of the female casting was nothing short of first rate, down to the smallest part.

The director and screenplay writer Tate Taylor has little in his background as a minor actor and would-be director (only one previous little-seen big screen outing) to suggest that he could put together so skilful a film.   It turns out that he was a childhood friend of the original novel's author, Kathryn Stockett, which may explain why he was chosen to give form to her story.  At any rate, he has done so masterfully.  While one might carp that the basic premise is slightly simplistic, given the advances that blacks have made over the last fifty years, it is undeniably beautifully done with believable drama and a strong streak of humour.  Witness the recurring theme of Spencer and her fabled chocolate pie! Davis who partially narrates the action drives home the point of how a caring woman can raise even the homeliest child of an uncaring mother to believe in herself ("you is kind, you is smart, you is important") yet be mystified how the same loving children can morph into intolerant adults. Stone may be the catalyst that ultimately shakes up the community, with even her mother finally won over and admitting that "courage sometimes skips a generation", but one is aware that her primary motivation is to prove herself to publisher Mary Steenburgen in New York and to swan off to a career in the Big Apple. Meanwhile,the black 'help' who have given her this opportunity by reluctantly confiding their stories have little in the way of new opportunities and possibly only reciprocal hostility to anticipate in the short term.

Yes, I was impressed.  The film was nominated for a best picture Oscar, which it did not win, but it certainly deserved to be considered among the best of its year.