Wednesday, 28 November 2012

From the Godawful to the Gorblimey

I have seen more than a dozen films since I last wrote, if I count largely forgettable Christmas movies made for television. Of the 'proper' movies viewed, I shall pick out three which range between "unbelievably bad" through "better than expected" through "an unexpected gem".

At the dire end of the spectrum is Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill" (2011). I know Sandler has a large fan base made up largely of pubescent boys, but I have found his humour too jejune for my taste -- although there have been the occasional laughs despite myself. He proved that he can indeed act in the splendid "Punch-drunk Love" (2002), but that was the exception to his self-indulgent shtick. This film has Sandler playing twins, Jack a very successful but not terribly likeable TV-ad producer and his fraternal twin Jill who has festered back in the Bronx looking after their now departed mother. This gives Sandler the opportunity to cross-dress in a fat suit and adopt a whiney Noo Yawk accent, producing a totally unattractive woman who looks exactly like Adam Sandler in drag.

She comes for a Thanksgiving visit which extends and extends itself, driving Sandler to tears, but he finds that he needs her help when his largest client demands that he engage Al Pacino to present a kooky coffee ad. As luck would have it the twins meet Al at a hockey game and the latter is enchanted with Jill, who reminds him of his 'roots', and he pursues her relentlessly. When a recent poll here produced a list of the greatest film actors ever, Pacino came top of the pile -- much to my amazement, so you may well ask why he agreed to appear in such dreck. On the one hand his role here is little less than horribly embarrassing, yet I must admit that he brings unexpected warmth and pathos to her rejection of his advances. Jill is presented as a first-class ignoramus and the running joke is that she keeps referring to well-known film scenarios but continues to reject their correct titles when proffered. She also meets Johnny Depp, seated next to Al at the game (again, why the heck did he agree to the cameo?) and doesn't even recognise him, running off to accost some Z-list television personality. Enough already -- naturally we get a 'happy' ending with the twins realising how much they really love each other and regressing to their juvenile private twin-talk. And Jill actually wins a man too -- although she is not going to become the next Mrs. Pacino. At least we were spared the participation of Rob Schneider!

The 'middling' film of the week was "The Big Year" (2011) whose premise sounded pretty dire, with Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin portraying competing twitchers (bird-spotters). Wilson holds the record for spotting the greatest number of native birds in the U.S. for the previous year, and the other two, Black playing one of life's losers and Martin playing a big-shot industrialist, are out to take away his title. Wilson plays against type in his ruthless pursuit of the championship, alienating his loving wife Rosamund Pike in the process. Black can barely afford the competition but a growing friendship with Martin and some help from his mother sees him through. His father played by a frail-looking Brian Dennehy knocks his obsession until an unexpected spotting finally bonds them. The movie proved rather more satisfying than expected with its well-rounded characters and far from conventional or predictable conclusions. A strange idea for a movie perhaps, but not a waste of time by any means.

How many films from Peru have you seen? Nor me! The week's big surprise was writer-director Javier Fuentes-Leon's "Undertow" (2009). Set and lovingly photographed in a picturesque but poor provincial Peruvian fishing village, it is part love story, part ghost story, and part social drama. Miguel is a local fisherman whose wife Mariola is heavily pregnant and he enthusiastically awaits his first child. However he is also carrying on a long-standing affair with Santiago, the rich blue-eyed artist from the City who is vacationing at his childhood summer home. When Miguel refuses to leave with his lover, the latter drowns -- whether intentionally or not is beside the point; however, his very solid ghost -- visible only to Miguel -- lingers on. Until his body can be found and be buried at sea according to local traditions, he can not rest.  Even when Miguel finds the corpse, he does not rescue it, wanting to keep his forbidden lover close by.

Meanwhile the deeply homphobic villagers have their suspicions about Santiago's leanings and force Miguel to pretend that there was never anything 'like that' between them.  When a slew of slightly pornographic paintings of Miguel are discovered at the cottage, they all turn against him and even his loving wife finds his dalliance nearly inexcusable.  However this is far more than another 'gay' film, but rather something more humane. Miguel must own up to his wife, his neighbours, and to Santiago's family, who have come to claim the body when it eventually ends up in the fishing nets, and find the integrity to be a man. He knows that his lover's spirit will never be free until he receives the traditional local funeral rites. The funeral that Miguel arranges for him reminded me greatly of the scene from the great John Ford's "The Sun Shines Bright", where the formerly hostile townsfolk gradually join an outcast's funeral procession.  As with the Ford film every time I watch it, my eyes teared over here.

I can not recall many (if any) previous films from Peru, but this one certainly deserves a worldwide audience to discover its charms. Ironically, the three main roles are taken by a Bolivian, a Mexican, and a Colombian, so there you have it.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Uncle Boonmee... (2010)

The full title of this film from Thailand is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives", which is quite a mouthful, although not as much of a tonguetwister as the name of its director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He is highly regarded among so called film cognoscenti, but I can not quite understand this adoration.  While most of his previous output were shorts, I have seen two of his earlier movies ,"Tropical Malady" (2004) and "Syndromes and a Century" (2006). Both of these were glowingly reviewed, but left me scratching my head at their pretentiousness.

The film opens with a quote: "Facing the jungle, the hills and vales, my past lives as an animal and other beings rise before me". This may sound a promising premise given the film's title, but the protagonist of this movie, a critically ill middle-aged man, seems preoccupied with the events of his present, haunted by memories from his own lifetime. It is something of a stretch to believe that he thinks he was once the water buffalo that opens the movie in an interminable rummage through the jungle or the disfigured princess of the middle section whom we observe being pleasured by a catfish! He lives on a tamarind plantation upcountry and his sister and her cook arrive from Bangkok to visit her dying brother. Other visitors to the household include the fairly solid ghost of his wife who died nineteen years earlier and his son who disappeared four years after her death and who is now a hairy 'monkey-ghost', having mated with a female of the species and gone to live in the jungle with her and her kind, visible only by their glowing red eyes.

While this may sound like a wonderful example of 'magic realism' the film does seem to plod along before he and his entourage trek to a remote cave where he claims to have been born and where he dies. We observe the routines of his medical treatment, including draining his kidneys, and his daily round amongst the workers on his plantation. He claims to be full of regrets for the many 'communists' he killed as a young soldier and for the many insects he has had to kill since to keep his spread viable. One could read all sorts of symbols and echoes of Thai history into the director's carefully composed tableaux without having any real idea of what he intended. On the positive side some of these scenes are beautifully put together and photographed, but are held for such a long time that I felt like shouting 'get on with it' -- you could call this 'the Bela Tarr effect', if you are familiar with that director's static films.

The ending of the film back in Bangkok after the funeral seems totally unrelated to what has transpired earlier as the sister, an unidentified young female, and one of the brother's helpers -- now a shaven-headed monk -- watch television. The monk then asks to shower, changes into 'with-it' gear, and he and the sister go out for a meal at a karaoke bar -- or maybe they don't, since the last shot shows the pair still lying on the bed entranced by their television viewing. This movie premiered at Cannes and the showing was marked by numerous walk-outs and general puzzlement, yet it was the surprise winner of the Palme d'or. The film would seem to be one of those that is great at dividing its audience, even those not looking for only populist entertainments.

The movie was apparently 'inspired' by a book by one Phra Sripariyattiweti (another mouthful) of whom I know absolutely nothing. I must confess that I was really hoping to love this film, to be captured by its rumoured magic and mysticism; however I would appear to be something of a philistine, dumbfounded when confronted by its slow-moving, inpenetrable scenario. I love movies, but will never be the Susan Sontag of film criticism. Somehow I feel that my heroine, the late Pauline Kael, would also not have succumbed to the film's inflated reputation.  

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

How Old Cary Grant?

Have you heard the old chestnut about the publicist who cabled Grant's agent asking 'How old Cary Grant?' The reply read 'Old Cary Grant fine, how you?' That just about sums up the actor in a nutshell, an unchanging screen presence, always something of the cheeky chappy about him, whilst still retaining a suave sophistication. He remains the archetypal film star, forever playing variations on a single theme, always a very fine Cary Grant. The in-joke of the man born Bernie Schwartz putting on his best Cary Grant accent in "Some Like it Hot" is to baffle us with the idea that he too could be this timeless leading man.

This all sprung to mind after watching a double-disc of two of his lesser-known films. I purchased it to replace my old beta copy of "In Name Only" (1939) and it came with a print of "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942), a film which I had seen previously, but which had struck me as too flawed to warrant owning a copy. Directed by dab hand Leo McCarey, it is a Hollywood stab at anti-Nazi propaganda, but is far too uneven in tone to do the job. Grant plays a news reporter hoping to become a radio broadcaster in Europe on the brink of the Second World War. His leading lady is Ginger Rogers, an actress who has forever troubled me in her non-musical roles. She plays a jumped up ex-stripper from Brooklyn, pretending to be a high-born pukka lady and engaged to marry Walter Slezak's sleazy Austrian baron, one of Hitler's fixers, although Rogers manages to turn a blind eye to his evildoing, even after they marry. It takes persistent attention from Grant to open her eyes and to help her escape from this loveless union into his relatively impoverished arms. Falsifying evidence that she has died in an air-raid, the pair even end up in a concentration camp at one stage (she has given her own papers to her Jewish maid, but kept the latter's original passport in her handbag), where a bunch of religious stereotypes are chanting "Kol Nidre" in the background. Talk about bad taste! As the pair criss-cross Europe en route to passage back to the States, their paths cross a 'French' photographer, Albert Dekker, who is actually an American double-agent, and back once more to the cowardly Slezak. How he is dealt with remains the film's denouement and is like 100% unbelievable.  Even throughout these various shennanigans Grant remains eternatlly Cary Grant and eternally watchable.

"In Name Only" is a very definite change of pace both for Grant and his more likeable co-star Carol Lombard. He is in a loveless (again) marriage with uber-bitch Kay Francis, frostily removed from her earlier and more charming roles. She has married him for his money, despite having been in love with another, but has convinced his doting parents that she is beyond perfection. Meanwhile Grant chances upon Lombard, a widow with a young daughter (a darling Peggy Ann Garner) and is smitten. The sister with whom she lives has been badly hurt by her ex and glowers disapprovingly as the romance simmers. Meanwhile Francis gets wind of her new rival and does her best to humiliate Lombard -- she has no intention of giving up her hard-won meal ticket and the prospect of more to come when his dad Charles Coburn eventually kicks the bucket. When finally confronted by Grant, she promises a divorce and swans off to Paris with his parents for several months, having said that she would break the news to them gently. Grant and Lombard now believe that the future can be theirs until they discover that Francis has dug her fangs in even deeper. This leads Grant to booze it up and to catch a deadly bout of pneumonia -- but the film manages a 'happy' ending despite the florid dramatics from all concerned. This role is in complete contrast to Lombard's usual comedic persona, but she is believable and a glowing presence here despite this change. Grant of course remains good old Cary even while he is in a coma.

Grant was only Oscar-nominated once for another of his 'serious' roles in "None But the Lonely Heart" (1944), but never received any kudos from his peers. Never mind; he continues to receive lasting kudos from his many fans -- of which I am proud to admit I am one.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Inspector Montalbano

In case you may be wondering whether I ever watch anything else on television other than films and DVDs, I do. I get 'hooked' on some serials, while others that I try out of curiosity leave me wondering what all the fuss is about.  At the moment, apart from the above, I am watching "Boardwalk Empire" (Steve Buscemi casts some rather repugnant charm), "Homeland" (very well-acted but less complex or involving than its Israeli source "Prisoners of War"), "True Blood" (getting sillier each season), "Romanzo Criminale" (a gritty spin-off from the Italian gangster film), and "Grimm" (greatly inventive and uncelebrated).  I also try to watch any programme about film in general and any biographies of actors, directors, etc.  I am also fond of a late afternoon quiz programme "Pointless", which I watch if I am not involved with other things. So that doesn't leave much time for anything else.

Writing about the above Italian series based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri, is not a complete departure on my part from writing about movies, since each episode -- although the main characters are unvaried -- is complete in itself.  There is none of that 'previously...' at the start and since they run between 100 and 110 minutes (without any ads thankfully), they can really be treated as films, especially since they are well-written and well-photographed, unlike too many made for television flicks.  Set in the Ragusa region of Sicily (which looks so appealing that one yearns to visit and discover its byways), Commissario Salvo Montalbano is in charge of the local police station, but forced to work under the thumb of governmental bureaucrats and the so-called Anti-Mafia Squad.  Played by Luca Zingaretti, he is a charismatic presence, apparently swooned over by many female viewers, despite his bow legs, short and stocky build, and shaved pate. He has a long-standing girlfriend Livia, not seen since the last series, who lives in Turin, and is generally faithful, living in his seaside villa and tended by his faithful daily housekeeper. When not solving mysteries, his main pastimes are long swims each morning in the surrounding sea and relishing hearty gourmet meals. What's not to like?

His main sidekicks are the reliable Fazio, played by Peppino Mazzotta, the irascible 'Mimi, played by Cesare Bocci, who is married with a son but who remains a serial womanizer, and the dippy agent Catarella, played by Angelo Rosso. Catarella is a wonderful comic creation who is overly in awe of Salvo, but who is very clumsy and somewhat dim, always mixing up words and people's names. Despite this he turns out to be something of a computer whiz and shows unexpected acting talent as Judas in the local drama (grammar) club's passion play. Montalbano himself is mentally sharp and expert at managing his overlords and underlings, to say nothing of the succession of tasty female characters who appear as victims and villains. He is not above duplitious subterfuge when questioning subjects, like pretending to be an ardent monarchist to obtain information from a hostile old biddy. He can be irascible, surprising, and brilliant all at the same time, while remaining a macho but very likeable man. The two-sided war of words between him and the local coroner (while they are actually quite fond of each other) is beautifully presented. Among the recurrent female characters is a six-foot Scandinavian beauty, married to an older local man, who finds various outlets for her sexual urges, but remains on the highest of platonic plains with her good friend Salvo.

Nearly all of the films (and there have been some twenty or so) have been intricate puzzles eventually resolved by the team. This Saturday marks the end of the series with its version of the author's most recent work. Actually the last four novels have been dealt with out of sequence, but that is by the by with no damage done. There are rumours that there may be a few more episodes to come in due course and I certainly hope so. In the meantime I will certainly miss the Inspector and his well-fleshed out team.