Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Our Hearts were Young and Gay

It's strange sometimes how two films within a single week's viewing complement each other by throwing a different light on the same theme.  The contrasting films here are the highly-considered "A Single Man" (2009) directed and written by the designer Tom Ford and the Italian flick "Loose Cannons" (2010) directed by the Turkish-born, Italy-based Ferzon Ozpetek.  Both concern the life choices of gay men, but they could not be more different in their approach to the subject.

Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, it has taken me a while to get around to watching the Ford film, for which lead actor Colin Firth was Oscar-nominated.  It portrays one day in the life of his buttoned-up academic, a day on which he contemplates ending it all, having been in mourning for the past year for the sudden death of his lover of sixteen years in a motor accident.  He goes about his daily routine at the university, but takes time out to write a number of suicide notes, arrange documents concerning his assets in tidy piles, laying out the clothes for his funeral including specific instructions on the correct knot for his tie, and practices different angles for best shooting himself.  After a boozy evening with good friend and neighbour Julianne Moore, he postpones the final act by going to a local bar, where he again encounters one of his students, Nicholas Hoult, with whom he had a cryptic conversation earlier in the day.  Hoult was first noticed in the Hugh Grant starrer "About a Boy" (2002), but now at twenty has matured into a singularly pretty young man.  This does not go unnoticed by Firth, who takes him back to his ever-so-modern and chilly house, puts aside all the suicide paraphenalia, and then promptly SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER drops dead with a heart attack, just as the possibilities for a renewed love of life have presented themselves.

There is something ever so cold, calculated, and clinical about the entire movie.  While beautiful to watch and with an immaculate performance from Firth, the film remains, like its creator, a designer triumph, but cold and bloodless with it.

"Loose Cannons" (not to be confused with the 1990 comic cop caper starring Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman) is a slightly messy, but very winning comedy-drama.  I've not seen any of Ozpetek's earlier films apart from his excellent first flick "Hamam: The Turkish Bath" (1997), but I gather his later Italian-made movies often focus on gay themes. Here we follow the story of heart-throb Riccardo Scamarcio (best-known to us for his lead role in the film version of "Romanzo Criminale" in 2005 but also amongst the large cast in the Woody Allen flick reviewed below).  He is the youngest child of an extended family of pasta-manufacturers, living in Lecce, a small city in the Southern heel of Italy.  Having just returned from his business studies in Rome, he comes out to his older brother, saying that he does not want to get involved in the family business, but wishes to return to his friends in Rome to pursue his writing ambitions.  However, at dinner that evening, with the entire family in attendance including his matriarch grandmother and his dotty aunt, his brother uses the opportunity to come out first, promptly giving his homophobic father a mild heart attack and lumbering our young hero with responsibility for the factory -- the older brother now having been disowned and the sister married to a no-goodnik despised by her parents. His parents believe him to be 'straight' especially since the young and beautiful new female executive at the factory seems to fancy him.

Nothing could be further from the truth as we can observe for ourselves when a carload of his Rome friends arrive for a short visit, including his actual own love interest.  They are as camp a bunch as you could imagine, but try to maintain appearances before the staid family -- although grandma, the sister, and even the gorgeous executive can soon see through the charade. The grandmother, beautifully played by Ilaria Ochcini, is in fact the most interesting and modern-thinking character.  The present-day action is cut with her back-story starting with her wedding day, where it becomes appparent that she will proceed with the planned ceremony despite the fact that she is madly in love with the groom's brother.  The implication is that he too is not interested in female company in a sexual way, but the pair remain soulmates throughout his remaining years. Of all the family she is the most tolerant of her grandchildren, regardless of their shortcomings.  In the end (another SPOILER here), she dies after dolling herself up and stuffing herself with all of the forbidden sweet foods forbidden her as a diabetic. At her funeral we can see the first signs of the family finding a way to reconcile their differences, and the end scene of the various characters from both the past and present dancing together and changing partners is joyous to behold.

Given my druthers, this is the film which I would select to promote gay sensibilites, rather than the beautifully-composed but empty world portrayed by Mr. Ford.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

To Rome with Love (2012)

I've said it before and no doubt (hopefully) I'll say it many times again: I have a lot of time and a heightened degree of tolerance for Woody Allen films.  Over the last ten to twenty years, the naysayers have been proclaiming (with the exception that proves the rule, last year's "Midnight in Paris") that his latest movie is his 'worst one ever'.  I can not hope to convince the sceptics, but I know in my heart that his legion of faithful fans perseveres.

His latest film after a run of love letters to London, Barcelona, and Paris, is of course set in the Eternal City, and Allen marks the occasion by giving us beautiful panoramic views many steps above a mere travelogue and also manages to incorporate a medley of Italian musical favourites from "Volare" and "That's Amore" through grand opera.  The film is some twenty minutes longer than his average, uses a vast army of generally unknown Italian actors, and even has the audacity to present a good proportion of the flick in Italian with (horror) subtitles -- which in itself is enough to put off the Allen-knockers. While the film is certainly not amongst his very best, it is still highly entertaining and provides the requisite dose of laughs, particularly when Allen's own character is on screen. 

There are four separate story-lines, each vaguely about love in its many forms, that unexpectedly do not intertwine.  Two of these are completely in Italian and two are in English.  The main tale concerns Allen as a retired opera director who travels to Rome with his psychiatrist wife Judy Davis (never missing an opportunity to throw little digs at Allen's various neuroses) to meet the parents of the left-wing lawyer whom their beloved daughter, Alison Pill, has met, fallen in love with, and plans to marry.  They live in the apartment behind his father's mortuary -- occasioning a run of gags from Allen regarding both his fear of flying and his fear of death.  The meeting is not going too well until Allen hears the magnificent tenor of the mortician as he sings in the shower. He becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing this great talent to an appreciative audience, but when he discovers that his reluctant discovery can not sing outside this familiar setting, he stages an opera where every scene has his lead singing from a movable shower stall.  This is the same director who once staged an opera with the cast dressed as white mice! While the undertaker receives glowing reviews, impresario Allen is described as an imbecile -  which, since he speaks no Italian, he takes as a glowing compliment. While the gag may have been done before somewhere, these scenes are hilarious.

The second American story was to me the least satisfactory, although it had its moments.  Jesse Eisenberg is an architectural student living in Rome with girlfriend Greta Gerwig (a current critic's darling who normally raises my hackles, but who is fine in a subdued role here); her neurotic friend Ellen Page comes to stay and prepares to win away Eisenberg's affections with her non too subtle mix of pseudo-intellectual pretensions and make-believe sexuality.  Alec Baldwin, an older successful architect whom Eisenberg meets, initially as a real character, morphs into a fly on the wall proffering advice and admonitions to Eisenberg who has become the embodiment of his younger self.  A cute idea, but one that would have worked better if the usually likeable Page wasn't so annoying here.

The first of the two Italian story is a semi-homage to Fellini's "The White Sheik" where a provincial couple (they claim to be from Pordenone, home of a famous silent film festival) have come for their honeymoon.  He is to meet some influential cousins who will help his career prospects.  While she goes out and becomes more and more lost looking for a hairdresser, he is mistaken for a client of belle du jour Penelope Cruz, bursting out of her skimpy red dress, who has been gifted an afternoon of her attentions. In burst his relatives and he tries hopelessly to pass her off as his wife. Meanwhile his real wife has fallen in with a film crew making a movie with one of her many film idols and she is tempted into his hotel bedroom by his cajoling flattery. Both of them manage to be unfaithful to the other, in not necessarily expected ways, and decide in the end to return to their boring small-town life.

The second and possibly more successful Italian strand stars Roberto Benigni who can be one of the most annoying screen clowns of our era.  However his role here fitted him like a glove and had some piercing comments to make about the nature of celebrity.  He is your average Joe jobsworth, living a quiet life with his dowdy wife and two children.  Out of the blue and for no discernible reason, he leaves his house one day to a crowd of photographers and interviewers who seem determined to follow him everywhere and hang on his every word as something of profound wisdom.  What did he eat for breakfast? What kind of bread? Was it toasted? Does he wear boxer shorts? and so on, as if these replies would seal the fate of the world.  At first he shrinks from this unwanted attention and the glittering invitations he receives, to say nothing of the hordes of glamorous females who suddenly crave his body, but he soon takes it all for granted. Then one morning his crowd of admirers spot another nonentity in the road and switch their attentions to him. Having tasted undeserved fame, Benigni soon misses all the attention and his usually hyper personality works well in this parable on the emptiness of modern-day celebrity.

Carry on making these confections, Woody!  Long may you wave!  I know I am not alone in waiting to discover how you next will tickle our funny bone.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Albatross (2011)

Before I get to the topic at hand, I find that I've some undone business; I also find that I am no longer able to count from one to ten!  After my first FrightFest review, I wrote that there were nine films left to consider, but I somehow only managed to mention eight of them in my second column. So what did I miss? Only one of the more unforgettable screenings, although to my warped perception not necessarily one of the best, namely the Soska Sisters' "American Mary".  These two young Canadian sisters (twins actually), Jen and Sylvia, are revered in certain quarters for their first feature "Dead Hooker in a Trunk".  This is something of a cult item for self-appointed pundits like Eli Roth; personally I found it a pile of unwatchable, juvenile rubbish.

Their most recent production, which has now been taken up by one of the major studios for distribution, is the story of medical student and aspiring surgeon Mary Mason, played by the "Ginger Snaps" break-out actress Katharine Isabelle.  Plagued by financial problems and after being doped and raped at a party hosted by her previously revered instructors, she falls into the shady world of body modification surgery.  There is apparently a parallel population of weirdos who are prepared to pay big money for unthinkable alterations to their flesh.  Isabelle embraces this underground world with a kind of insouciant nonchalance which is amusing at first, but which soon becomes tiresome. Among her clientele are the Soskas themselves who wish to exchange body parts -- an arm for an arm as it were.  No doubt this film will also attract a cult following, but I'm afraid that I won't be among them.  And just out of curiosity why is a Canadian-made film by a pair of Canadian sisters and starring a Canadian actress called "American" anything?  Are we to assume that Americans by definition are more prone to freakdom than their sober Canadian neighbours?

Back to the present.  I had originally intended to write about "One Day" (2011).  The book by David Nicholls, which I have read, was enormously popular here; it follows two Edinburgh University acquaintances, Emma and Dexter, who hook up on their July 15 graduation day for a non-sexual encounter and it then focuses on their respective lives on the same date for the next twenty years or so. Their individual successes, failures, foibles, and attempts to find love are well-charted, and the reader waits for the day when the two finally realise they are hopelessly in love and emotionally bound to each other.  The author himself adapted his book for the screen, but the rolling years and events had a bitty feel to them. Emma is played by the American actress Anne Hathaway, presumably for box-office potential, and her slipping Yorkshire accent is less of a problem than the relative lack of chemistry between her and the male lead Jim Sturgess.  If you've not read the novel, the film is possibly an acceptable alternative, but a far lesser pleasure.

I was not expecting anything too special from "Albatross", one of Sky's premiers of the week which fell into the category of 'Where do they find them?', since it certainly made no impact at the box office. It was however something of a pleasant surprise, a quirky coming of age story, with a remarkably starry cast.  Julia Ormond (she who was quickly killed off two reviews ago) is married to German writer Sebastian Koch (immediately recognizable from "The Lives of Others" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book").  He had a major publishing success at an early age, the proceeds of which purchased the seaside bed and breakfast establishment that Ormond runs, but he has struggled with writer's block ever since, spending most of the day masturbating in front of his laptop.  They have two daughters, 17-year old Felicity Jones (who has been having her own break-out success recently) who is studying hard, hoping to enter Oxford, and a bratty, precocious 6-year old whom Ormond is trying to thrust into show-business to compensate for her own earlier glory days as an actress.  Into their lives as a chambermaid comes young 'Selena Molina the Cleaner', real name Emilia Conan-Doyle, who believes she is the great-granddaughter of Sir Arthur and that she has writing in her blood. Emilia is played by Jessica Brown Findlay in her first big-screen role and steals every scene from the more experienced cast.  She is apparently one of the stars of the television series "Downton Abbey", but since I have never watched this, she was a revelation.

She befriends the young and inhibited Jones, helping her to break out of her introversion, manages to consistently tick off the shrewish Ormond, and unthinkingly starts an affair with Koch who is theoretically helping her learn to write.  While she obviously has some talent, she delights in copying passages from the works of well-known writers for him to critique and delights in his pretensions in managing to negatively criticise all of them.  Her flaky mother who encouraged the Conan-Doyle connection has committed suicide and she lives with her grandparents, a dementia-suffering grandma and grandpa the lovely Peter Vaughan.  After the former's death, he finally admits that her long-gone father was indeed called Doyle, but the rest of it was a figment of her mother's imagination, and that the baggage we each carry is our own albatross.  All hell finally breaks loose when Ormond thinks Jones is pregnant -- all part of Emilia's bad influences -- and the Emilia-father affair becomes known to the rest of the family.  Dad is thrown out of the house and Emilia becomes persona-non-grata all round.  But as Koch prepares to drive Jones up to Oxford, and as we realise that Emilia has now successfully penned her first novel, a glimmer of grown-up realisation softens the faces of both girls.

The film is a quite well-done, an amusing yet serious study of family relationships and the pains of facing the adult world.  It is however geographically confusing; meant to be set in a small mainland English resort town, it was actually financed by the Isle of Man Film Board or whatever and shot on that island with its distinctive, majestic scenery -- not that this detracted from the tale. All in all, however, well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Frightfest the 13th - Part Two

Only because I said I would, I am now committed to finishing my recollections of FrightFest, even if one or two of the movies have now slipped into the 'I wonder what that was all about' category. Anyhow let me deal with the remaining four British films first.

The organisers, quite rightly I suspect, feel they must give some prominence to British entries in their horror-cum-fantasy selection.  If the truth be known, we often avoid watching these if there is an alternate possibility in the Discovery sidebar theatre.  I'd be hard-pressed to explain this prejudice.  It's partly because they often seem less original than other countries' output and partly because I know, realistically, that many of them will soon receive a cinema or TV release here and that it will therefore be easy to catch up with them. In fact two of the remaining four have already been released this week.

The opening film "The Seasoning House" falls more into the category of a horrible storyline rather than straightforward horror. The directorial debut of make-up and splatter guru Paul Hyett, the tale is set in a Balkan brothel during war-torn days. It is populated by kidnapped girls kept in a drug-induced stupor and forced to endure continued sexual violence from both soldiers and civilians.  Our little heroine is a mute orphan who has seen her family slain and who is treated as something of a pet by the cruel head pimp.  In a breakthrough role, young actress Rosie Day scuttles in the crawlspaces of the house, tending to the girls, watching, learning, and planning her escape -- but not before meting out her own form of justice to the nasty group of soldiers, led by Sean Pertwee, who massacred her family.  Harrowing and rather unpleasant stuff, with a unhappy sting in the tail.  The closing film "Tower Block" was also some distance from a horror film pure and simple.  It concerns the residents of the top floor of a soon to be demolished government block of flats, waiting their turn to be rehoused, being picked off one by one by an unseen sniper.  Our feisty heroine is the ubiquitous Sheridan Smith, who seems to be flavour-of-the-month here, as she leads their diminishing number down to the ground floor and safety. The role enables her to flex her would-be action muscles, but the whole scenario and its ultimate explanation verged on the unbelievable. 

As for the two films which have now been widely released here, my reactions didn't quite agree with those of the local critics.  The first, with the unlikely comic title of "Cockneys vs Zombies" was a patchy business, but not without a certain charm.  When construction workers uncover a sealed ancient burial site, they unleash a subsequent plague of zombies (ho hum).  Fighting the growing horde of the living dead are a bunch of youngsters with little charisma and the residents of an old people's care home (also about to be demolished in the name of progress).  These include such cinema stalwarts as Honor Blackman, Richard Briers, Dudley Sutton, and Alan Ford, whose armed response tickled my old funny bone.  And there was one scene of Briers on his zimmer frame shuffling along to outrun the even more shuffling zombies that is bound to become a classic. The second film and one that I was quite looking forward to was "Berberian Sound Studio", which has been reaping lavish praise all round.  Set in Italy in the seventies when Italian horror and giallo were at their peak, it's the story of a mild-mannered introverted Englishman, nicely embodied by character actor Toby Jones, hired to work on the post-production sound effects on a particularly nasty example of the genre.  Apart from the front credits, we never actually see the movie in question, but its talk about witches, goblins, and extreme sadism begin to turn Jones' sensitive nature into something rather more unstable, as he hacks away at vegetables to achieve the necessary splatter noises and turns up the amps to get more convincing screams. With its not-so-sly references to the Italian horror scene of the time, I had expected something rather more interesting, but watching Jones' psychological collapse just didn't do it for me nor did the film's ambiguous ending.

Italian movie-making of that period was also the theme of the American documentary "Eurocrime!", which dealt with another strand of Italian cinema history, often ignored. Following on from Spaghetti Westerns, crime movies inspired by the like of "Dirty Harry" provided work for many second-string Hollywood actors and also created home-grown stars. These quickie hit-or-miss productions, ripped from the headlines, were filmed with rough bravado and with the actors being asked to do their own dangerous stunts, and were churned out by the dozen. The doc featured surviving talking heads like Henry Silva, John Saxon, Richard Harrison, and Franco Nero and was a fascinating compilation of an all but forgotten genre. I can't now say much about another American film "After", also receiving its UK premiere, since it was yet another story of two isolated survivors from some inexplicable disaster, who must bond together as their fragile world seems to be closing in -- and that's about all that's stayed with me. The programme blurb suggests that it was better than this -- maybe watching it was all a dream!

"Chained" was the latest offering from David Lynch's daughter Jennifer, which while infinitely superior to her first terribly-slated film "Boxing Helena", was again nasty, without being overly graphic, and which again had a frankly unbelievable denouement.  Serial killer taxi-driver Vincent D'Onofrio kidnaps and kills young Tim's mother (a blink or you might miss role for former A-lister Julia Ormond) and keeps the lad chained to pallet in his remote home, where the boy grows to manhood witnessing his tormentor's bloodlust  and helping with the cellar burials-- a path which he is encouraged to follow when D'Onofrio decides that Tim needs some sexual awakening. Finally there was "The Possession" an American movie from the Scandinavian director Ole Bornedal, produced by horror supremo Sam Raimi. The most positive thing I can say about this film was that it was probably the most polished and slickly produced of all of the weekend's movies -- Raimi's experience certainly showed and the slam-bang ending was strictly from his "Drag Me to Hell" school of shocks.  The actual story concerns weekend-father of two Jeffrey Dean Morgan, divorced from wife Kyra Sedgwick, who must face the disruption of a dybbuk when his younger daughter acquires and becomes obsessed by an antique wooden box with Hebrew inscriptions.  It was all rather well done but in the end a little forgettable.

So there we go!  Now the real mystery is whether or not this is my last FrightFest report.  Tune in next year for the answer to this puzzle, although I trust we will meet in the interim.