Thursday, 19 December 2013

Christmas on the Box 2013

Only because it is something I have done every year, I suppose I should comment on the movies available on British television over the Christmas period, although I find it harder and harder each year to work up much enthusiasm over the schedules. The Christmas box this year bears little resemblance to an exciting box that you might find under the tree, crammed full of goodies or unexpected pleasures.

As usual there are a plethora of terrestrial premieres, but not a great deal to get excited about. There are actually several films I myself have not seen -- out of goodness knows how many films overall, but only two of which have me experiencing any sort of anticipatory pleasure -- more on those below. To suggest viewing from the remainder is not an easy task, since most of the movies left me underwhelmed when I viewed them. Among the most promising (if you've not already seen them) are "Never Let Me Go" (Channel 4 on the 22nd), both parts of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (ITV on the 26th and New Year's Day), just maybe "Pirates of the Caribbean, on Stranger Tides" -- aka Pirates 4 (BBC1 on the 29th, and three animations: the brilliant "Toy Story 3" (BBC1 on Christmas Day,  "Megamind" (BBC1 on the 27th) and "Kung Fu Panda 2" (BBC1 on New Year's Day). There is also the terrestrial premiere -- believe it or not -- of Disney's classic "Fantasia" (BBC2 on Christmas Eve) -- but is there anyone out there that hasn't seen it or purchased the DVD?

Among the other terrestrial premieres, I suppose some people will want to view "Michael Jackson's This is It" (Channel 5 on Christmas Day), but it's really for die-hard fans only. Others like "Cars 2", "I am Number Four", "The Resident", and "Vampires Suck" are hardly worth your time.The balance of the schedules are loaded with old favourites like "It's a Wonderful Life", "An American in Paris", "The Red Shoes", "Singin' in the Rain", and "The Wizard of Oz" which are all worthy of a second or third or fiftieth view. Mind you, I read a columnist recently who wrote that one should not bemoan the lack of new offerings on TV, when all one really wants after the intensive feasting and boozing of the period, is to lay back and have a snooze while any of the above air.

What distresses me the most is the lack of imaginative planning. There are virtually no 'seasons' of themed films, although BBC4 is showing a selection of Ealing comedies, ITV have planned a run of Harry Potter flicks, and BBC are showing the first two "Toy Story" flicks as a prelude to number three. There is also nothing much in the way of more obscure 'Golden Oldies' (for golden oldies like me), and virtually a complete absence of foreign language movies. Seriously, the thought that goes into the schedules seems more and more unimaginative every year. Even the listing programmes with which Channel 4 used to cram their schedules have degenerated to "Greatest Ever Christmas Movies" (Channel 5 on Christmas Eve) and "50 Greatest Harry Potter Moments" (!!!) (ITV on New Year's Day).

As usual of course I shall watch most of the movies I've not seen previously, but I draw the line at Sammy the animated turtle. Of these I hold out little hope for "Abduction" starring the muscle-bound Taylor Lautner, or Australian killer-croc movie "Rogue", or the animated "Gnomeo and Juliet", or the Black hair-products documentary "Good Hair". I am however curious to see "Drive" on BBC2 to discover why there is all the fuss nowadays about good- actor-morphed-into-hunk Ryan Gosling. I am also keen to see "Sightseers" on Film Four on the 26th, although that channel's premieres are largely uninteresting (I can just about recommend "Troll Hunter" onXmas Day for unfestive viewing!). One's better off sticking with their re-runs of Japanese animations.

As for good old Sky, their holiday premieres include "A Good Day to Die Hard" (something of a disappointment I've heard), "Oz the Great and Powerful" (overblown I suspect), "Wreck-It Ralph" (who knows?), "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" (mildly intriguing), and the money-spinning "Iron Man 3" (which of course I have previously seen and reviewed). Never mind between visiting with family and the aforesaid eating and drinking, there will be more than enough to keep your faithful viewer entertained. And should there be any down time, there are a couple of good Christmas ghost dramas on BBC2 and my ever-growing backlog of unviewed DVDs.

I'm not sure when I shall next put pen to paper (or in this instance fingers to keyboard), so let me take the opportunity to wish you all holiday joy and a super 2014.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Parents (1989)

I have a very soft spot for this sick little film, which while not terribly well-known does have a devoted cult following. In simple terms it is a 'horror' film but not one of 'slice and dice' or 'jump in your seat'; it decants in a scant 80 minutes the horrors of childhood and the fears that mom and dad can instil. Since my copy was barely watchable, I welcomed the recent (and very rare) TV showing courtesy of FilmFour to take a fresh copy. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute!

Surprisingly it is the first feature film as a director from Bob Balaban, best known as a screen actor with some 90-odd credits and a Christopher Guest regular. Balaban has continued directing and writing over the years, but largely for television series and TVMs. So where this gem appeared out of left field is anyone's guess. Set in the American suburbia of the l950s, perfect Mom and caring Dad (adept turns from Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid) have just moved to their new home with only son Michael (a bug-eyed and small-for-his age nervous bundle of fears embodied by Bryan Madorsky in his only screen role). Young Michael is not only plagued by nightmares -- rivers of blood engulfing him, bloody arms disappearing down the waste disposal, and the like, but also dreads family meals (even breakfast) where oozing liver or overly 'blue' roasts are plonked down before him. Even when hiding in the pantry, he believes he is being attacked by strings of fat sausages holding him in a deadly grasp. (Shades of the manic and active cuts of meat cascading in Jan Svankmajer's "Lunacy").

When he asks his mother why all of their meals are described as 'leftovers' and from what are they left over, she replies "From leftovers-to-be, Silly". It soon becomes clear that Quaid who works for the aptly named Toxico Corporation, designing defoliants, has an inbuilt appetite for human flesh, cutting choice cuts from his laboratory's constant fresh supply of cadavers. He brings these home in clean white sacks, telling Michael to keep his hands off the 'laundry'. Enlisting Hurt's help to bring the goodies into the house, she beams "isn't it nice that Daddy picked up the laundry?" When Michael spurns yet another blood-soaked entrée, Quaid becomes the indignant Dad and tells him that he will learn to love their meals -- "your mother did!"

At his new school as each student is asked to describe what they learned over the summer vacation, he horrifies the class with his story of how to skin a cat and suck its bones to become invisible. His only ally is a gal, several heads taller, who has just finished telling their classmates how to mix a Gibson. When asked to draw a picture of his family, his drawing drowned in streaks of red crayon, lands him in the office of the school social worker, a klutzy and chubby Sandy Dennis. "You can't be an adult" Michael tells her -- "you're too nervous". Eventually he confides his beliefs that his parents do unspeakable things down in their basement, that is when he does not observe them making barbaric and juicy love in their bedroom. To put his fears at rest, Dennis accompanies Michael to the fearful basement and sees the blood-soaked chopping board and the chunks of meat hanging to age. Next thing we know, after hiding from Quaid in the same creepy pantry, the family are 'enjoying' a huge barbecue roast and Mom tells Michael that she has cut away all the fat! The film continues in this vein with Quaid telling Michael stories about a little boy who didn't obey his parents. "You're scaring him" says Hurt; "He scares me" replies Quaid -- "He doesn't look like me; he doesn't act like me"... When Michael finally rebels and attacks his parents and their supposedly perfect home, he ends up an orphan in the care of his kindly-looking and wholesome-seeming grandparents. Everything now seems to be looking up for the spooky youngster -- until Grandma brings him a bedside snack!

What I particularly like about this movie, apart from its brilliantly handled theme, is its faithful recreation of 50s' dress, hairstyles, interior decoration, cars, mores, and particularly music. With a score by the very talented Angelo Badalamenti, the composer incorporates pop classics from the period, including "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White", "Memories are Made of This, "Chantilly Lace", "Moments to Remember", and over the end-credits "Purple People Eater" -- all very evocative to me. Balaban has given us a sunny, cheerful and very wholesome period movie about cannibalism! I for one do thank him... 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Down Argentine Way (1940)

When you're having trouble sleeping (which unfortunately does happen from time to time), better than turning on lamps to read and disturbing the rest of the world, sneak off to another room and watch a creaky old flic on DVD, which should be guaranteed to put you back to sleep. Or not, as was the case, with this hokey yet thoroughly enjoyable Technicolor extravaganza from 20th Century Fox.

It's been a while since I last saw this bit of fluff, hoicked together like Frankenstein's monster to showcase a number of the day's talents. The very slim and empty-headed story has Don Ameche sent to Tuxedo Park, New York from their spread in Argentina by grizzled aristocratic dad Henry Stephenson to sell some of their champion horseflesh to eager Yankee buyers. There he meets socialite Betty Grable (talk about unbelievable casting) who is eager to buy his show horse; it's a quickly done deal, especially when he falls for the 'vivacious beauty' (Trademark) at first sight; however, it turns out that she is the daughter of his dad's sworn enemy, and he must renege on the bargain. Miffed as she is, she can't quite forget him and is off to Buenos Aires with her aunt in tow (Charlotte Greenwood, the leggy Aunt Eller from "Oklahoma"). She quickly re-connects with Ameche (who is also hopelessly hooked) and is introduced under a fictitious surname to his father. Soon the pair are conspiring to train Dad's best jumper as a flat race champion, assuming that the horse's success will inspire Dad to overlook all of the lies and welcome Betty into the family. If that was all, I doubt that the film would be fondly remembered today -- but there is so much more to commend it.

Despite being considered the breakthrough role for Grable -- she was brought in as a replacement for Fox musical diva Alice Faye, it is hard to see just how she became the forces' pin-up during World War II. She is no looker by today's standards and is neither a particularly good vocalist nor great dancer. In fact most of her numbers seem to showcase a clunky-footed hoofer and in her final dance before an admiring crowd of South American peasants, she comes across as the worst sort of cooch-dancer. Even her famously insured legs are rather unshapely and very undancer-like. Ameche is as ever the smooth charmer and if his singing was dubbed as is rumoured, it did not detract from his screen presence; even his 'Latin lover' accent seems possible. His father Stephenson didn't bother with a make-believe accent, but was fine nonetheless. (I would have sworn early on that it was the great C. Aubrey Smith in the role -- but no). Another weird bit of casting was Russian-born Leonid Kinskey in the role of a local tour guide cum gigolo; apparently Cesar Romero was originally considered for the part which would have been rather more believable, if not as goofy fun.

What makes the movie special however are the specialty numbers. It was the first film role for Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda who has three songs. The Technicolor was chosen to spotlight her colourful costumes in all their glory -- pity therefore that she has no costume changes at all! The second bit of stupendous entertainment is courtesy of the dancing Nicholas Brothers, who brought so much amazing energy and entertainment to any number of 40s' musicals, with their amazing gymnastic splits and general flexibility. Other acts, less well-known today, include the cutely named singing group of Six Hits and a Miss, the dancing Dowlings, the Flores Brothers, and Pepe Guizar. With all of that talent on display, including J. Carrol Naish, as Stephenson's horse-trainer (one of his never-ending stream of ethnic roles), the dubious charms of Miss Grable are quickly wallpapered over.

The film was made at a time that the United States was pursuing its 'Good Neighbour' policy and wooing their South American neighbours as potential allies against the Axis powers and the looming world war. The film manages to present Argentina as a gorgeous and colourful picture-postcard destination. Ironically, the movie was ultimately banned in that country, as the powers that be objected to the fact that few locals were employed, that phony accents prevailed, that intimations about the country's class structure were stereotyped, and mostly that spotlighting the 'foreign' Miranda (who of course spoke Portuguese and not Spanish) was the ultimate insult.

Despite this, all of the cast and of course the studio found that they had a popular hit on their hands, giving them all a career boost, and none of them looked back for some years to come.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

While I'm not yet back to regular blogging, at least the gap is decreasing. I am still far from peak fitness, but at least I can get up and down the stairs (upright!) and have even ventured outdoors for some short walks. Will wonders never cease? I don't mean to keep going on about my recovery, since I'm meant to be writing about movies, but forgive the odd moan...

When I noticed the above film premiering on a terrestrial channel, I was sure that I had previously seen it somewhere, since it sounded like the same old familiar, depressing British drama of thwarted love that one has seen time and again. But I was wrong -- it really hadn't been on previously and I felt obliged to have a go, since I could recall some positive press reviews. Based on a play by Terence Rattigan and directed by British national treasure Terence Davis, it boasts an A-list lead in the shape of Rachel Weisz. Set in about 1950, it is indeed another variation on the theme of, yes, thwarted love. Weisz's character Hester is married to the much older Simon Russell Beale, a highly respected Judge, when she falls into lust with ex-World War II flying ace Tom Hiddleston.  Note the not too subtle reference to her namesake from "The Scarlet Letter". She leaves her hubby acrimoniously (he swears he'll never grant a divorce) to move into a downmarket boarding house with her feckless lover. The initial non-stop sex soon develops into hopeless devotion on her part and 'he'll never love me as much as I love him' on the other part. When he forgets her birthday while off on a golfing weekend with one of his drinking buddies, she attempts suicide. She survives but the affair doesn't, despite her nagging and pleading which only push him further away from her neediness. When the Judge hears about developments, he forgivingly offers her a lifeline, but she is too obsessed to reconcile with him. In the end Hiddleston leaves for a new life in Brazil, and in an ambiguous ending Hester will either embrace a scary future on her own or contemplate suicide yet again.

There is no denying that Weisz is a fine actress -- she suffers beautifully. However I do wish she would lighten up in the roles she accepts. Perhaps now that she is married to James Bond/Daniel Craig, she will find her sunny side. Russell Beale is also a superb actor, although little seen in films. As for Hiddleston who has become something of a flavour of the month with his villainous Loki in "Avengers Assemble" and the "Thor" franchise, I don't quite see what all of the fuss is about from his role here; he's not even that good-looking for goodness sake to inspire 'the hots'. The film seems to underline the British mantra of keeping a stiff upper lip and is largely devoid of believable heat and passion.

I have never been a particular fan of Davies' normally low-budget movies, from his "Trilogy" in 1983, through "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (1988) and its companion piece "The Long Day Closes" (1992). He went rather more mainstream with "House of Mirth" (2000) -- an extremely mirthless movie. That was followed by a well-received documentary paean to his native Liverpool "Of Time and the City" (2008), which I have no particular desire to see. While the above movie may boast his biggest budget yet, I remain unconverted. One thing that I will give him however is his brilliant use of popular music to underline the feeling of the periods he recreates in his films, a la Dennis Potter without the lip-synching. Oddly enough Hester describes her plight as being between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but that is not one of the pop songs chosen for the nostaligic sound tract.    

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Movie Update -- and not before time!

This must be about the longest gap in my blogging for quite some time, but there is no one to blame but myself and the lethargy that has overtaken me. To update on my precarious fitness, I am now rid of the god-awful moonboot and begin physio today. Even before that, I am now able to sort of walk about indoors without support and can get up the stairs, if not down them (still bouncing on my backside going down) -- horrible thought! Anyhow I need to rebuild the strength in my somewhat withered-looking leg (another vile thought), so that I can both drive again and get about outdoors on my own. Soon, soon I hope.

What I miss most of all, of course, is not being able to get out to the cinema -- and we will draw a veil over my missing the London Film Festival this year. Since I keep a list of my actual film-viewing, I find -- much to my amazement -- that I have seen 29 movies since I last wrote on 26 October. That is not counting the part-films where I just gave up trying to work up any interest in the proceedings (I sometimes wonder just why certain films are released or who was dumb enough to finance them). Then again 29 in 18 days is well below my peak viewing pattern and that number still includes more than a few dubious titles.

For example, only because they were included in the week's premieres on Sky, I have seen such gems as "Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3 - Viva la Fiesta", "Treasure Buddies", and "Santa Paws 2 - The Santa Pups". I am now well and truly fed-up with talking dogs, monkeys, and cats (all powered by CGI) and wonder aloud, yet again, why Sky Movies think that such films are a treat or suitable for prime-time viewing by any sentient adult. I have also seen probably half a dozen or more television movies, largely with Christmas themes (some channels seem to start celebrating the festive season earlier each year) -- mainly interchangeable and forgettable.

On a somewhat more intellectual level, I have seen three documentaries of varying absorbing worth. First up was "Smash and Grab", an in depth look at highly organised gangs of jewel thieves originating out of the former Yugoslavia. OK, but so what? Next up was the highly praised "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" from auteur Werner Herzog. In all fairness it was probably spectacular in its 3-D glory in cinemas, but it was I thought somewhat underwhelming on the small, flat screen. Finally there was (to me) a fascinating doc called "Celluloid Man" which outlined the achievements of one P.K. Nair (no, not previously known to me either), who single-handedly set up the Indian film archive and saved any number of now classic movies from disintegrating or being stripped of their silver nitrate by greedy chancers. The importance of movies as part of out national and international heritage was forcefully underlined and one must honour such dedicated enthusiasts.

Also in the mix were a couple of oldies: "Carnival Boat" (1932) getting its first television airing with an early Ginger Rogers role, but hardly one of RKO's period treasures, and "Penguin Pool Murder" (also 1932) which I have seen before and which remains great fun with the incomparable Edna May Oliver and James Gleason sparring over the detective tale. There was only one foreign-language movie in the period (although Australian movies usually sound to me like a foreign language), but it was a true gem. "Sant Tukaram" (1936) has been on my 'must see' list for several many years, and I was under the impression that only incomplete copies were extant. This showing was, I believe, of the complete film -- no doubt thanks to the efforts of the afore-mentioned Mr. Nair. It was a naïve yet moving portrait of a simple soul and poor family man, whose devotion and poetry to his God inspired previously unfelt religious feelings in his many followers. In contrast to his holy goodness, we are presented with his would-be nemesis, the local 'cartoon-villain' Brahmin, who continually tries to bring down the poet-saint, ultimately to no avail. With a number of primitive but clever special effects (no CGI back then) the story unfolds beautifully, captivating the viewer with the same child-like wonder. Definitely a 'must-see'.

I also watched some previously-viewed movies which I couldn't quite remember, like my fave Tyrone Power in "Abandon Ship" (1957) -- not a patch on Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" and Paul Newman as the white-boy-raised-by-Indians in "Hombre" (1967) -- quite a decent outing with Frederick March unusually in the villain role. I was also looking forward to a very rare showing of the two-part "Little Dorrit" (1987) which has not been on the air for more than twenty years. I recalled that I 'hated' it the first time around, but wanted to give it a second chance, especially since Alec Guinness is always, always, always worth watching and the supporting cast is also spectacular. So what happened? Part One was absorbing and really reversed my earlier opinion and I was looking forward to Part Two -- the same events but from a different character's perspective. Anyhow, due to some kind of transmission fault, the second part was totally unwatchable with frozen pictures and disrupted dialogue. I have now purchased the DVD of the complete movie, which is some kind of recommendation I think.

Finally there was the usual smattering of A-list movies foremost of which was "Zero Dark 30" regarding the hunt for Bin Laden. It may be well-thought of but it hardly qualifies as any sort of entertainment in my book. I know why it was made -- and Katherine Bigelow is a super film-maker, but I can't imagine that it left a good taste in many viewers' mouths or memories.

I'll leave it there for now, with many of the 29 unmentioned, but with enough of a sample of what your faithful viewer has been up to on these long, healing days.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Floating Clouds (1955)

Patty gets the boot! To start with an update on my fitness, the cast has finally been removed after nearly seven weeks, but the ankle is not quite oven-ready. So I have been given a surgical boot, a knee-high non-fashion item, which looks like it is more suitable for walking on the moon. I go back to the hospital in a few weeks for the next lot of prognoses. Meanwhile I am able to shuffle about (only with support let it be said) which is not quite the same as walking on the earth or the moon.

Mikio Naruse is one of the least-known in the West major Japanese directors, unlike his equally talented peers Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa. From humble beginnings, he joined a film studio in 1920 as a prop man and worked his way up to directing ten years later. His career spanned 37 years and 91 films, but I must admit to having seen only one of his movies ("When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" - 1960) before this week, although several others were languishing on my famous 'must see' list. Like buses, you wait for one for a long time, and then two arrive together -- the above-captioned film and l954's "Late Chrysanthemums", both of which received television airings within the last week. So now I have seen three and wonder why he is so little known, as his films are both beautifully constructed and socially relevant.

Not for him the Japan of pomp and samurai; during Naruse's peak years (post World War II) he focuses on the depression, disappointments, and hand-to-mouth struggle of a defeated country and the wide-spread ill-treatment of its women. The radiant actress Hideko Takamine who starred in 17 Naruse films plays the young woman who, after being raped by her uncle, takes a wartime secretarial job on a sunny island in Indo-China. There she begins an affair with a married government forestry expert, Masayuki Mori, who promises that he will divorce his wife on their return to Japan and marry her. After Japan surrenders and they are separately repatriated, she seeks him out to discover that he has little intention of leaving his long-suffering wife. Destitute, cold, and hungry, unable to find work, Takamine becomes the mistress of an American G.I., but Mori doesn't baulk at finding her to borrow money and to perhaps spend the night.

It is soon apparent that she is hopelessly in love with him, whereas he is unable to resist both drink and any young, available flesh. The years march on, and even after his wife dies and she falls pregnant, he does not seek to regularise their relationship. She endures indignity after indignity, including having to live with the ex-rapist uncle, who now has a lucrative side-line in phony faith-healing. She steals some 300,000 yen from his 'church' and offers both the cash and herself to the faithless Mori, discovering that he has accepted a two-year forestry contract on a remote and rainy island. She begs to go with him, if only for a few months, promising to finally give him up. 'You'll be happy when I leave', she says; 'There are women everywhere' is his half-joking reply. He adds that romance died when the war ended and that they are now too old to live on dreams. However when she falls ill and finally does leave him, he begins to comprehend what indeed he has spurned and lost. As the end title has it:
     "The life of a flower is so brief, yet it must suffer much grief".

With his unobtrusive camera and minimal sets, the film is still far from static, and one becomes deeply concerned about these flawed, yet interesting characters. The lovely music by Ichiro Saito helps to rouse our emotions, from his incorporation of 'The Internationale' to an oriental rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" as the boat departs for their final rainy world.

"Late Chrysanthemums", a reworking of a 1937 film by Mizoguchi, traces the fates and largely miserable lives of four aging ex-geishas in the years following the war. One is a lonely and hard-faced money-lender, one an incorrigible drunkard, and the other two lead typically hardscrabble lives, watching the ungrateful children they have sacrificed to raise marching off to more comfortable futures. It's far from a feel-good film, but beautifully rendered and another fine example of Naruse's concerns. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Joys (Not) of Being an Invalid

So who's a lazy lady? Pretty Pink Patty, that*s who. I can not believe how all this sitting/lying about has sapped my energy and enthusiasm. I understand when the cast comes off (hopefully in eight days' time), I will not be skipping about like a two-year old but rather flapping about weakly like a new-born kitten. However I am determined not to make a permanent invalid of myself and hope with some serious physio to be back to my fighting weight a.s.a.p.

Despite everything I manage to remain cheerful most of the time and to take in the requisite few films a day. So what, if anything, has impressed me of late? Herewith some movies at random from the last few days which have helped to eke out the hours:

Monsieur Lazhar (2011): This French-Canadian film was nominated as best foreign language film of its year, and while it did not win any American awards, it is really a nicely tuned, small gem of a movie. It's yet another tale of an inspiring teacher getting the best from a class, but with a number of twists on the usual formula. Played by the sad-eyed Mohamed Fellag, his character Bachir Lazhar (translates as 'lucky' and 'tell the good news' he informs his new sixth grade class), has been reluctantly hired after their beloved former teacher chose to hang herself in their classroom during school hours. He pretends that he is a legal Canadian resident with teaching experience back in Algeria, when in fact his request for asylum has not yet been granted and he was previously a restaurant manager. Slowly, however, we learn the details of his flight to Canada and the horrific story of the death of his wife and children.

While he may seem an unlikely substitute teacher for a group of youngsters, still largely traumatised by grief, he manages to reach out to them from the most awkward of beginnings to reconcile both his loss and theirs. The children making up the class are without exception a remarkable bunch of young actors, led by stand-out performances from Sophie Nelisse as the precocious and bossy Alice and Emillien Neron as the troubled Simon, who may or may not have been the cause of their teacher's suicide. This is a modern-day tale in which teachers must refrain from any physical contact with their students, even much-needed hugs. When the truth of Lazhar's resident status and lack of experience emerges, he is promptly sacked, but insists upon one last day with his class to tell them 'good-bye' in his own way through a thinly veiled fable that he has composed. It's an abrupt ending to the film, but thoroughly devastating in its own small way.

Alex Cross (2012): I had no hopes for this film whatsoever since the title character is played by Tyler Perry, a multi-hyphenate actor/writer/director and cult figure amongst black viewers, none of whose films I have ever seen. He usually plays his alter ego Madea, a pistol-packing grandma, in what I believe are largely comic movies. So this was a real change of pace for him, playing a hard-bitten Detroit detective en route to becoming an FBI criminal profiler, in a prequel to 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and 2001's "Along Came a Spider", where the role was taken up by the much older Morgan Freeman with requisite gravitas. This movie was not well-received and in fact was nominated for several Razzies, but it's really not that bad. Cross and his partner, (Ed Burns) get up to some preposterous action after their wife and girlfriend respectively are murdered by a tricky assassin, played with malicious glee by Matthew Fox. Fox is nearly unrecognizable with his shaved head and anorexic frame, but his slimy character is what keeps one watching this nonsense. And then there's Jean Reno thrown in for good measure as a would-be saviour of the decaying city and veteran Cecily Tyson as Cross' Nana Mama. I've seen far worse.

"Merrily we Live (1938): Knowing my penchant for screwball comedies of the 1930s, I caught up with this one on You Tube, but despite the occasional felicity, it is really one of the lesser-spotted variety. Constance Bennett plays the oldest child of a wealthy family (Bonita Granville is her truly annoying younger sister), whose flighty mother (Billy Burke) is always taking in strays and hobos. Her latest project has just absconded with the family silver, but still she promptly employs Brian Aherne (who knocked on the door in tatters after a car wreck to use the phone) as the new chauffeur. Obviously he is not really a 'down-and-out' as everyone assumes and sparks soon fly between him and Bennett. Alan Mowbray is the butler who keeps threatening to quit and Patsy Kelly is the cook, but despite a lot of frantic business with the characters flailing themselves into pratfalls, this film is just trying a little too hard to be a comic masterpiece. It isn't, but it's watchable despite that, and I'm glad to have finally seen it.

More next time, whenever that will be...

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Awakening (2011) + this and that

All this lying about waiting for my ankle to heel (another three weeks until the cast comes off) has left me strangely lethargic. I had planned to get back into my groove last week with my regular Wednesday posting, but you know what they say about good intentions. Had I written then it probably still would have been about the above movie, which was one of the few with any serious possibilities amongst the dross I've been watching. You can tell that I'm not up to scratch, as I've been averaging a mere two films a day, most of them making little impact.  Lackaday!

I had reasonably high hopes for this British flick starring Rebecca Hall, a fine actress but not one usually expected to carry a film. Set in 1921, she plays Florence Cathcart, a woman with a mission, out to debunk phony psychics and to expose so-called ghostly phenomena as the work of con men -- all the while nursing a broken heart for the sweetheart she lost in the War. She has published a popular book on the subject and has made quite a name for herself. When she is approached by Dominic West's schoolmaster to come to investigate a supposedly haunted boarding school in Cumbria, she pooh-poohs his concerns as probably the outcome of schoolboy pranks, despite the fact that a pupil has recently died, but off she goes with him anyhow. Just as well, or we wouldn't have the schizophrenic movie that we have.

What I mean by this is that this is definitely a film of two halves that really don't quite hang together. Initially she is welcomed at the school by its headmaster, matron (Imelda Staunton), and a gaggle of supposedly spooked young boys. But soon she is able to lay the blame for each bump in the night to one or other of the lads -- despite the brief frissons of fear that are meant to make us 'jump'. However, events take a somewhat different path during the half-term break when the only folk left at the school are Hall, West, Staunton, and young Tom (a very fine Isaac Hempstead-Wright) whose parents are in India. Suddenly there can be no logical or rational explanations for the noises and visions that Miss Cathcart begins to experience. Can Tom be the culprit? Not likely says West -- there are NO children at all at the school -- only the three of them!!!  This leads to the awakening of the title. It seems that she was lured there, not to explain any strange current hauntings, but to confront the repressed memories of her own past -- frankly a highly unlikely and somewhat contrived scenario. There follows a convoluted exploration of the previous relationships between her, Tom (who had died many years earlier), and the more-than-a-little involved Staunton, combined with a new sexual relationship with West and a would-be rape by a horny gamekeeper.

The film finishes with a big question mark as well and can be read in one of two ways -- a perfectly straightforward happy ending or yet another instance of ghostly spectres taking centre stage.. Take your pick.... The film is competently put together by director Nick Murphy with a high standard of acting and good production values, but in the end I did not find it a terribly satisfying viewing experience.

Mind you, it was a whole lot better than much of what I've seen this past month. For example I just finished watching a film called "Borderline" (1950) which was receiving its first television showing in 63 years. Starring Claire Trevor and Fred MacMurray, it was not the finest hour for either, since both could claim more prestigious productions in their respective filmographies. They play narcotic cops sent South of the Border to expose drug honchos; each is unaware that they are on the same side of the law and each suspects the worst of the other. She's gone to get the goods on literally 'heavy' Raymond Burr and thinking she is Burr's moll, Fred forces her to play his 'wife' as he pretends to take contraband back to the States. Trevor was a good 40 when the film was made and it is a little disconcerting for her to constantly be referred to as "the girl", to say nothing about her clunky chorus-girl dancing as one Gladys LaRue in the attempt to attract Burr's lecherous interest. Of course she and MacMurray fall in love despite thinking that each of them will end of shopping the other. Wow, what a yawn, but it goes to show that there are still plenty of films out there that I've neither seen nor heard of.  

Friday, 13 September 2013

FrightFest the Last Part 2

So much for my saying I would continue my review shortly -- we never know what the powers that be have in store for us! Since writing last I have been in hospital flat on my back with a badly fractured ankle. What fun! I'm home now and will work up some enthusiasm for continuing this entry within the next few days. Maybe... Believe me when I say, take care.

                               *         *         *         *        *         *         *

Wednesday, 18 September: Pretty good going PPP - three weeks to the day since I started this summary and I now find myself without the necessary energy to persevere, but persevere I shall, however scantily. So back to FrightFest Sunday and it is telling indeed how little has stuck in my mind about some of the programme:

Missionary: First up was this US would-be shocker about one of those nice Mormon boys who occasionally turn up on one's doorstep who tips over the edge into obsession after being seduced by a sexy housewife. She soon regrets the lapse but he now covets his own all-American family with murderous results. Shades of the infamous case some years back of the young lady who waylaid another missionary to keep as her sex slave.

Hansel and Gretel Get Baked: Despite a terribly low rating on IMDb this sounded something of a hoot and probably preferable to another new British director outing which was the alternative. I probably made the wrong call since this was hardly memorable despite a turn from the now little-seen Lara Flynn Boyle in full hag make-up as the resident witch at the suburban Gingerbread House where Hansel (Cary Elwes) goes to score some drugs. Girlfriend Gretel to the rescue!

Dark Tourist aka Grief Tourist: Another American entry which has faded into the murky depths of memory. Michael Cudlitz plays the loner who chooses to vacation each year visiting places associated with a serial killer's crime spree -- an interesting concept, but one more than a little muddled in execution. Along the way he encounters Melanie Griffith's waitress and the tranny prostitute in the next door motel room. Pretty forgettable tosh devoid of much in the way of shocks.

The Desert: We chose this Argentinian movie over yet another found-footage outing and it was an acceptable, extremely low-budget fantasy. Three survivors -- a lass and two fellas -- of some unnamed holocaust have set up a household together in the barren landscape, only emerging occasionally to scavenge for supplies. Unfortunately one day the guys bring home a pet zombie as well... Things do not bode well for this fragile ménage a trois!

The Last Days: This Spanish entry from the directing Pastor brothers was, I thought, one of the best films of the fest. We're back in the realm of some inexplicable epidemic called 'The Panic', but rather than facing zombies, folk just keel over and die if they leave the safety of the indoors -- agoraphobia with a vengeance. Survivors are trapped in their homes or offices, and can only venture afield via underground sewers, subway lines, basements, and tunnels. Our hero must find a way to get to his heavily pregnant girlfriend half-way across Barcelona together with his hated ex-boss and a failing GPS device, avoiding feral gangs, falling mortar, and a ginormous bear in an abandoned church. Very exciting, well-paced and blessed with a brilliantly conceived denouement.

This brings us up to the final Monday and I will now whizz through the day, which is a little easier since we decided to have a lie-in and skip the first movie of the morning. We arrived in time for:

Banshee Chapter - 3D: We might as well not have bothered. For a start the overall concept of the film was one big yawn -- the CIA has been secretly testing strange drugs on a sampling of unsuspecting Americans. So what else is new???  Secret underground chambers hold all sorts of unspeakable horrors, that is, if any viewer could see much in the gloomy desert research centre. And don't movie directors/producers know by now that 3D filming is a complete waste of time and money in dark, dismal environments?

Odd Thomas: I confess I have read all four so-far published novels in this series from prolific writer Dean Koontz and I was curious whether I would enjoy the first film to emerge from the works. Frankly if I were not already familiar with the character of the strangely-named young man, here played by Anton Yelchin, I probably would not have gone on to read the books. He has certain clairvoyant gifts to predict looming disasters, a talent already utilised by his friend the local chief of police, but all his 'psychic magnetism' can't save his truly beloved from the dark forces he can see impending. No franchise here I suspect.

We Are What We Are: This is the American re-make of a Mexican movie that premiered at FrightFest in 2010. I was not taken with the original movie where a family of urban cannibals had to find a modus vivendi after the sudden death of their father and provider. The concept has been somewhat expanded here to provide historical grounds for the family's proclivities (and the death of a mother here), but despite the higher budget and polished production, I was no more involved in what would become of the dysfunctional family than I was of their Mexican forbears.

Big Bad Wolves: Whew! I'm finally down to the last review. This Israeli film from the directors of 2011's very watchable "Rabies" is something of a master-class on the incipient sadism that we all conceal. A grieving father kidnaps the schoolteacher-cum-paedophile that he suspects abducted his brutalised daughter. In a remote hideaway basement he tortures the man aiming to get at the truth regarding the latest missing child, aided and abetted at times by a rogue cop who also suspects the teacher and the man's own father who stumbles upon the trio. I wonder what the Israeli authorities would make of the father's statement that the army of his day trained its soldiers in ways to get their prey to reveal all. Nothing ends well and the final image reveals another totally unexpected horror. Pretty strong and good stuff.

So that's FrightFest in its current form for very probably the last time...but only real time will tell. Meanwhile my recovery period from my current ailment together my extremely limited mobility means that I will have to forgo the annual London Film Festival for the first time in many a year. Quel dommage! Never mind, I have been studying the programme and I know which films I will need to seek out over the months/years to come -- and I will do my damned best to see them all. That you can count on...   

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

FrightFest 14 aka FrightFest the Last

I know I wrote last year that I was having serious doubts about continuing the long weekend marathon that FrightFest has become, but we decided to put ourselves through the wringer once again this year. I'm not sure it was the right decision and again, I have real reservations about buying the weekend pass next year. Perhaps the time has come to evaluate the proposed programme and to opt for tickets for selected movies only. That would provide less wear and tear on our weary old bones and might also result in less fighting to stay awake during some of the less involving offerings. Apart from anything else, the big screen at the Empire Cinema is being split in two later this year, and the organisers will then be forced to rethink the whole layout of the fest weekend. Mind you an increased selection at smaller screens might avoid something of the current mob scene which is one of the weekend's lesser appeals.

With all of the above bitching, you would be right to conclude that I was somewhat less than enchanted with the whole shooting match. We did manage to take in twenty films over the four and a half days, which is only six less than we could have scheduled, but it was still something of an effort and, dare I say, a disappointment. Having decided in advance to skip the five late night showings (in terms of getting home each evening while transport was still running), to try to limit the usually amateurish first-film offerings from British directors, and to studiously avoid any movie reeking of 'found footage' (we had our fill of it last year), there were still technically enough options left to make for an entertaining weekend. Why then were there so few films that really left me enthused? I will try to capsule each film that we saw, but there were only a few which I have any desire to discuss at length:

Opening night: "The Dead 2: India" - Never having seen the first offering from the British Ford Brothers, I gather that this movie is more of the same, but on a larger scale. A British engineer with a cute tyke in tow has to ward off hordes of white-eyed zombies (over and over and over) to get back to his rather hideous and pregnant girlfriend. Super!
                           "Curse of Chucky" - The fifth entry in the malevolent doll series still features the voice of Brad Dourif and its somewhat strained scenario references the previous films. Chucky remains a reliably scary entity and at least Jennifer Tilly appears in a cameo at the film's end, but I think Chucky has now had his movie day. Until someone decides to "re-imagine" the whole deal of course!

Day One: "The American Scream" - A mildly entertaining documentary on how some obsessed families in one small New England town plan all year to turn their homes into houses of horror to celebrate Halloween. Certainly no reason to give it an 18-certificate however.
                  "Dementamania" - Billed as 'The Fly meets The Office' this film chronicles the meltdown of an uptight City worker when he steps on a wasp after his morning shower. Both the day and his mental state deteriorate rapidly, until he (and we) no longer know what is really real. Reasonably well-done but somewhat forgettable.
                  "Sadik 2" (I gather there was never a "Sadik 1) - We usually try to include as many foreign language movies as possible on the grounds that they are less likely to ever receive a British release. This French one follows a group of six friends who are off to a rented cottage for their annual New Years Eve reunion, little realising that they are scheduled to be picked off one by one by the crew shooting a snuff movie in another part of the building. A surprising twist after a somewhat leisurely start, but ultimately not much cop.
                   "Haunter" - A professional turn from young Abigail Breslin, far removed from her "Little Miss Sunshine" days, where she plays the rising 16-year old daughter of a dead family doomed to repeat each day a la "Groundhog Day" until their spirits can be freed. An interesting spin on the boundaries between the dead and the living from the interesting director Vincenzo Natali.
                   "Wither" - We chose this Swedish film over the popular choice of "V-H-S 2" since nothing could encourage me to watch the parent movie a second time. This was yet another variation of the "Sadik" scenario where a group of friends on a holiday jaunt meet bloody deaths. It was engagingly made with plenty of gore, but just went on too long to avoid being overly repetitive.

Day Two: Arriving too late in the morning to secure any of the alternate selections, we were 'stuck' with the main screen programme:
                  "The Hypnotist" - I must confess that I had high hopes for this Swedish film after "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" premiered here some years back. This one is not in the same involving category and is more akin to the Scandinavian made-for-television series that have been gracing BBC4's television screens most Saturday nights for the past years. Although the film was Sweden's entry in the Oscar race -- the story of a disgraced doctor using his hypnotic abilities to unlock the memories of the teenaged survivor of a family massacre -- it's an adaptation of a popular novel that might have been more at home on the small screen.
                   "Frankenstein's Army" - Russian soldiers in the last days of World War II stumble upon a secret Nazi laboratory where a mad scientist is creating unstoppable new soldiers from the body parts of the dead. While the monster creations are very visually imaginative, the film is something of a hard watch since all of the cast are speaking in 'funny' accents. It's a movie that may well find a cult audience in due course. Anything is possible!
                   "No One Lives" - We skipped the middle film of the afternoon ("Hammer of the Gods"), since I had no desire to involve myself in gratuitous Saxon violence; I had my fill of that with "Game of Thrones". This next film on the programme from the now US-based director Ryuhei Kitamura was a somewhat muddled affair. Some time after the massacre of fourteen students, a gang of toughs hijack the car driven by the slaughter's perp and his comely hostage, whose father has posted a substantial reward. The resulting bloody mayhem as psycho faces off against psycho left me a little baffled, as the two lead actors looked remarkably interchangeable.
                   "R.I.P.D -3D" - I had read several pretty negative reviews of this film, but hoped that the combination of an engaging premise and the presence of the ever-watchable Jeff Bridges would be sufficient compensation. The title stands for 'Rest-in-Peace Department', a posse of deceased cops from various eras, who police the after-world against marauding mutants, all very derivative from the Men in Black series, but less imaginatively envisioned. Bridges plays a gentlemanly Western type (very definitely hamming OTT) who is teamed up with a new recruit, the slightly boss-eyed Ryan Reynolds who has been dispatched by baddie Kevin Bacon. They must battle to save the world from a deadly scheme that will erase the boundaries between heaven and hell. When they return to earth they are seen by earthlings in different forms -- Bridges as a voluptuous blonde and Reynolds as a dweeby elderly Chinaman. That's the level of the so-called humour. The 3-D effects added virtually nothing and seemed to be out of proportion much of the time. The film could have been a whole lot better I reckon and it is apparently one of the many flops of the Stateside tent-pole summer.

I had intended to cover the entire week-end in one blog entry, but this has rapidly fallen into the 'too-long-to-read' category. I will therefore return to the subject, hopefully well before my regular Wednesday entries, to deal with the last two days. I should be able to drum up some enthusiasm for the task since the two movies I liked best (and really liked) were shown on days three and four respectively. That's it for now...  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Woman in Black (2012)

Forget about "The Conjuring" (see below). If you want to see a really scary movie, try this one:

Frankly, I was in no rush whatsoever to see this film, despite a young lady of my acquaintance (stand up Mara!) repeatedly asking me if I had a copy. Probably because I knew that the stage play has been running here for the best part of twenty-five years and because I had seen the 1989 television movie which left me distinctly underwhelmed, I decided in advance that the movie starring a grown-up Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) would be nothing special. I was so wrong.

The play, the TVM, and this film are all based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel which I've not read. However where all previous versions have been effectively a two-hander, with the aged Arthur Kipps relating the strange experiences of his past to a young actor, crafty screenwriter Jane Goldman has opened the story out to encompass a large cast and some very spooky scenery. Set in late Victorian times, Radcliffe plays a young solicitor, not in his firm's best books, who is sent to a remote village to sort out the affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow. Her sprawling and isolated mansion, Eel Marsh House, is set on salt marshes at the end of Nine Lives Causeway and is totally inaccessible at high tide. While it is a little hard not to associate the Potter persona with Radcliffe, he makes a convincing young widower and devoted father to his four-year old son, anxious to secure his job. What he is not prepared for is the hostility of the local villagers, all of whom encourage him to turn tail and return to London on the next train. The exception is a local gent played by Ciaran Hinds who befriends the young man, although he too has suffered the loss of a young child, in common with too many others in the community. They have all heard of the infamous woman in black, whom Kipps reports as having seen at the supposedly empty house, and they believe that her vengeful spirit has carried away the village youngsters. Kipps' own beloved son is due to arrive with his nanny later that week to spend a 'jolly' weekend in the country with his dad.

As he valiantly wades through the tons of paperwork he finds at Eel Marsh, he learns that Mrs. Drablow had been raising a boy as her own son, who was actually the offspring of her mentally unbalanced sister; the lad drowned in the surrounding marshes and his body was never recovered. His real mother hanged herself in sorrow, and it is apparently her restless spirit that has been seeking revenge, appearing as the black-garbed ghost. Kipps witnesses the horrifying deaths of some more local kiddies and develops a theory that if he can find the missing body and place it in the mother's grave, reuniting her with her lost son, the curse will be lifted. This gives rise to some harrowing scenes where, with Hinds' help, Radcliffe dives in and out of the muddy swamp to find the boy's amazingly preserved corpse. However, in a denouement which is radically different from previous versions, the fearsome lady is still not at rest. Without spoiling the movie, let me just say that the finale is a strange mixture of a startling and depressing event, which could in its way be read as an acceptable happy ending.

Director James Watkins, in his sophomore outing (he previously wrote and directed the beware-the-children shocker "Eden Lake"), makes sparing use of the regular horror clichés, unlike "The Conjuring" which tries to include them all. What the film creates is a lurking apprehension -- nothing seems quite right. So when the jolts appear -- strange noises, the brief apparitions, the self-rocking chair, the scary old toys acquiring a life of their own -- the viewer readily jumps. There are no guts or gore, and unusually no attempt is made to stop our seeing the all-too-solid spectral wraith. As one of the first productions from the newly-revived Hammer Studios, home of classic British horrors of the 50s and 60s, this is a superb example of how to modernize horror effectively for our times.

Talking about horror, FrightFest has rolled around again and will be filling my days from tomorrow through Monday evening. I know I've said previously that I should really give up these marathon days, but we've purchased the week-end pass yet again.  Maybe next year??? Anyhow you can expect to read the first reports sometime next week.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Frankenweenie (2012)

I wrote last week that there are some films that I just can't wait to see on their release and the above stop-motion animation from quirky director Tim Burton was one of them. However, somehow I didn't get around to seeing it in the cinema, although I knew in my heart of hearts that it was a movie that I would love. I finally caught up with it a few days ago and found it a joyful viewing experience, but I can understand why it was not the runaway success that it deserved to be.

By way of background, Burton started off his career as an animator at Disney, and during this period he turned out two short films. The first was a brief and macabre stop-motion animation called "Vincent", narrated by Burton's hero and mentor Vincent Price and the second in 1984 was a 25-minute oddity called "Frankenweenie". Unlike the above movie, it was actually a live-action feature, starring Shelley Duval, Daniel Stern, Joseph Maher, and even a 14-year old Sofia Coppola (in a blonde wig). The story is of young Victor Frankenstein, played by Barret Oliver, whose best pal Sparky is killed while chasing a ball. The boy brings his beloved dog back to life by experimenting with lightning a la his namesake's 1932 film, much to the horror of his neighbours. They pursue the animal to a windmill on a miniature golf course which is set on fire, trapping the boy and the re-animated dog, but good old Sparky drags the lad to safety at the expense of his second life -- to their chagrin. Understandably Burton and Disney soon parted company, as his stories and outlook were a little too 'dark' for their candy-coated world of the time.

So it is a satisfying twist of fate that Disney has backed Burton's remake of a story that obviously he has treasured over the years. Choosing to film in black and white as an homage to the horror classics of the 1930s and not using the bright colours and 3-D effects that have taken over recent animations, it is easy to understand why this film lacks an immediate appeal for today's children and why it was not a sure-fire hit. It is however a real treat for the adults who might have accompanied them and indeed for any of Burton's fans. To my mind, it is not only a labour of love (stop-motion being one of the most time-consuming modes of picture-making), but also a work of real genius. Burton has opened the story out, although much is a recreation of the original short -- especially the reanimation scenes in young Victor's attic lab and the ending where the formerly vindictive neighbours circle the dead doggie with their cars and try to revive him with their battery power.

To stretch the story from 25 to a 80-odd minutes, Burton has young Victor's school class competing against each other in a science fair, inspired by their spooky teacher Mr. Rzykruski, a puppet created as the spitting image of the late Vincent Price. When a classmate, one Edgar E. Gore, spies the resurrected Sparky, he blackmails Victor into showing him how to bring a dead goldfish back to life, although the experiment doesn't quite work. He in turn spills the beans to the class' precocious oriental know-it-all and his mates. Before you know it, they are all trying to work Victor's magic and we soon have a were-rat, a colossal hamster, packaged sea-monkeys that morph into gremlin-like humanoids, a fat-cat Mr. Whiskers that fuses with a dead bat that he has dragged in (a cat-bat?), and the class genius' dead turtle Shelley turning into a giant Gamera-like monster. Victor must not only help to save the day, but must also protect his dear Sparky from the wrath of his neighbour, the town's mayor Mr. Burgomeister!!! 

Burton cheerfully incorporates so many familiar images from the old movies, even including Sparky's love interest, the next door giant black poodle, developing an Elsa Lanchester white streak in her carefully coifed coat. He has also selected an excellent voice cast with Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short taking on multiple roles, his Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) voicing the teacher, and reuniting with Winona Ryder from "Edward Scissorhands" as the voice of the mayor's niece, Elsa Van Helsing. For a change, however, no Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter join the fun. I had a whale of a time with the film and I think Burton also enjoyed the opportunity of introducing his early brain-child to a wider audience.

The only thing I've never understood is the title -- I get the 'franken', but why the 'weenie' for the patchwork Sparky? Never mind, it's a wonderful movie in my book.      

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

When I think about it, there sometimes seems little rhyme or reason about which current movies we choose to see at the cinema, rather than waiting for their release to DVD or for satellite transmission. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to be given preview tickets (which in turn means we sometimes watch films that we are actually in no hurry to view). Most often we go to see movies which we really, really want to see as soon as possible -- either because they are part of a continuing franchise, e.g. the Harry Potter films, or because we didn't get to see them at one or other of our regular film festivals, or because the reviews make them sound a good match to our sometime weird tastes.

In this instance we went to see the above 'scare' movie, not because of the positive vibes the reviewers have given it, but because we promised ourselves we would do so. When we queued at some length late June to get our weekend pass for FrightFest later this month, we could have seen a preview of this movie, a regular 'treat' from the fest's organizers for those faithful souls who attend each year. They call it 'the lazy Q' since some regulars will camp out all night -- needless to say we do not go to that extreme -- and a free show is the regular award. In truth, we have never availed ourselves of these showings for one reason or another, but seriously considered it this year. To ease our conscience, we decided to see the movie on its release instead and our resolve was underlined by the aforementioned positive hype.

I can agree that it is a very well-made and well-cast film, a sign that the director of the "Saw" franchise, James Wan, has matured, since the copious gore of his 'torture porn' movies has been replaced here with carefully orchestrated big 'boos'. Yet I can not agree with those who have written that it is the best horror film of this century or alternatively the best thing since sliced bread. It is competently put together and purportedly -- like so many modern movies -- based on 'true' events. I do not doubt that the ghost-hunting team of Lorraine and Ed Warren (played here by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) really existed nor that they actually did investigate the strange happenings at the home of Lily Taylor, her husband (a nothing special Ron Livingston), and their five daughters back in 1971. However I suspect that the events have been somewhat enhanced to create the 'jump' movie Wan has given us and like the 'Amityville' series, a healthy scepticism needs be retained.

Anyhow, this working class family are delighted to move into the big, old house (one of those houses that seem twice as big on the inside than on the outside) that they have purchased at auction, but strange events soon begin to dent their happiness. Wan throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix and given time we would probably have discovered that the sink was haunted as well: slamming doors, stopping clocks, spooky toys, secret passages, a cobwebbed cellar full of old furniture, a history of sordid past events, a beloved pet that won't cross the threshold, birds flying to their deaths against the walls, sleep-walking, levitations, and subliminally brief spooky apparitions. Just about every cliché of the horror genre is present and correct, although to give Wan his due, they are presented with an air of freshness;  creeping dread gradually morphs into terror. The film is something of a slow-burner, supposedly on the grounds that the first half of the movie allows us to get to know the various players, but in fact we have little insight into their psyches. A rather bland Wilson is super-protective of his sensitive and perceptive wife who has been scarred by previous supernatural encounters, and Farmiga gives a fine performance as the fighter who refuses not to do whatever is necessary to 'save' the tormented family. Similarly Taylor out-acts herself as the mother who adores her children but who is possessed by a being that wants to harm them. According to Farmiga, objects are not innately evil (and they have a museum of artefacts at home from previous cases), but act as a conduit for hostile entities who want to inhabit a human vessel; once these spirits have established a foothold in someone, leaving the premises does not cure the problem, only exorcism will do the job. Eventually, Taylor's possession has become so extreme (she has just about turned into Linda Blair!) that the unordained Wilson performs the ritual himself since they can't afford to wait for the necessary Vatican sanction. Clever chappy! Happy ending!

Given all the positive vibes the film has generated, I must confess to being a little disappointed with it. It is far from a classic in my book, but probably because I have seen a hell of a lot more scary movies than most. However in its favour, despite all the equipment that the Warrens and their assistants set up, it was not -- thank goodness -- any kind of 'found-footage' movie, and for that I sincerely thank Mr. Wan.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Now that Ben Stiller is about to bless cinemagoers later this year with his take on the classic Danny Kaye film, I thought it would be a good time to have another look at the original. I confess to having been a fan of sorts (of Kaye, not Stiller) over the years, even if some of his output has aged badly. One remembers that Kaye, popular as he was in the 40s and 50s, ended his career horribly, warbling "Thumbelina" in second-tier nightclubs.

I'm pleased to report that the above movie still packs an entertainment punch and is quite possibly Kaye's best performance, although I shall remain faithful to "The Court Jester" as a real contender. Based on a James Thurber short story first published in the New Yorker in 1939, Mitty is the ultimate fantasist, a milquetoast of a man, literally fed soggy milk toast at a dinner party by his domineering mother (Fay Bainter). His life is further plagued by his nagging fiancée (Ann Rutherford) with her spoiled mutt Queenie, her pushy mother (Florence Bates), a boss who appropriates all of Mitty's best ideas at the pulp magazine publishing company where he works (Thurston Hall), and a so-called best friend who enjoys nothing more than humiliating him with practical jokes. As an escape from his humdrum reality, he tunes out these oppressors with fantasies of being an ace wartime pilot, a sharpshooting cowboy, an immensely skilled surgeon and the like. In all of his daydreams, he is worshipped by his dream woman (his frequent co-star Virginia Mayo) and the ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa soundtrack of various machines. Kaye is at his comic best in all of these idealised roles; for example, he operates on a hopeless patient using the miscellany of the items demanded by his mother on her daily shopping list for him, telling Mayo at the end of the procedure, "Your brother will play the violin again; I have just grafted new fingers".

Ironically Thurber hated the entire project and apparently Kaye as well, and offered producer Samuel Goldwyn $10,000 to abandon the film. His main objection was that it was unfaithful to the spirit of the original, with the scriptwriters opening out the action to create a plot where Mitty helps a real character (also played by Mayo) retrieve a little black book outlining the wartime hiding place of the Dutch crown jewels and other art treasures. He is told that his life is in danger: "The Boot wants the book" -- and his natural coward is forced to deal with a bevy of villains including Konstantin Shayne as Mayo's duplicitous uncle and Boris Karloff in full Frankenstein mode without the make-up. Space was also created for two of Kaye's trademark patter songs, which do indeed slow down the preposterous plot, but without which it would be less of a Kaye extravaganza. The public did not agree with Thurber and it was another big hit for Kaye and Goldwyn -- and it is still fine entertainment.

The two show-stopping numbers, "Symphony for an Unstrung Tongue" and "Anatole of Paris" (inspired by an overly camp hat designer whose show Mitty attends) were penned for him by his wife Sylvia Fine. Ironically the second song ends with the words "I hate women" -- rather ironic in the light of rumours that have subsequently spread about Kaye's predilections.

Sam Goldwyn himself was another Hollywood legend -- a poor immigrant made good. Losing control of his own company shortly before it was incorporated as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, he created his own mini-studio which he successfully ran for some 35 years and churned out a variety of great movies. Stars under contract to him at various times included Ronald Colman, Eddie Cantor, Gary Cooper, David Niven, and of course Mr. Kaye. He also created his so-called Goldwyn Girls, a home over the years for dozens of aspiring actresses -- some of whom like Lucille Ball, Paula Goddard, and Jane Wyman went on to forge successful careers, but most of whom existed only to decorate Goldwyn's films, dating from "Roman Scandals" in 1933 right through "Guys and Dolls" in 1955. The producer is also famous for his many so-called "Goldwynisms": 'Include me Out', 'In two words im-possible', and others generated by his fractured understanding of English.

His son, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. is also a successful producer, and perhaps the greatest irony of all is that he is producing the Ben Stiller re-make soon to 'grace' our screens. RIP, Sam Sr!!!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pattes blanches/White Spats (1949)

Every so often I am tempted by seasons featured in the British Film Institute's monthly programme to check out directors with whom I am not overly familiar. This month they have been featuring a series of films directed by Jean Gremillon, a well-respected auteur in France, but not terribly well-known outside. I have one or two of his films on my famous old list, but think I have only seen his "Remorques" (1941) starring the incomparable Jean Gabin. So I researched some of the other films in the season and chose one that sounded among the more interesting, as a taster if you will...and indeed it was a tasty morsel.

One of the criteria by which I measure my enjoyment in the cinema is not looking at my watch. This cross between a noir thriller and a gothic fairy-tale really held my attention and time flew by. The title refers to the mocking name given to the down-at-the-heels local laird by the children of the small fishing village whenever he ventures into town. It refers to the knee-high white leggings he affects and translates literally as 'white paws'. He is a figure of fun and barely tolerated by any of the villagers, a legacy of his late father's overly-free use of the local women in better days long gone. He is played by Paul Bernard who also played a squire in the director's earlier "Lumiere d'ete" (apparently one of his best films), but although I have probably seen him in several other movies, he is not an actor I know. Here he makes a good fist of combining an air of superiority with the lonely hand-to-mouth existence he leads.

The other main characters are Fernand Ledoux playing the local innkeeper who has brought sexpot Odette from the Big City passing her off as his 'niece'. She is played Suzy Delair, who is ready to milk her lover for whatever she can, and who comes across with the air of slightly over-ripe fruit (she was 33 when the film was made).  Delair has had a varied career playing Jenny Lamour in the classic "Quai des Orfevres", as well as appearing in the Italian "Rocco and his Brothers" and the late Laurel & Hardy flop "Utopia" (aka" Robinson Crusoeland"). Here she flaunts her fading yet lush charms to seduce not only the stand-offish White Spats but also his illegitimate and jealous half-brother, played by Michel Bouquet -- now a doyen of French cinema but appearing here in one of his earliest roles. The fifth protagonist in the drama is young Mimi, played by the 22-year old Arlette Thomas -- again, not well-known to me but the heart and soul of the film. She is the hunchbacked servant at the inn, charged to wait upon Delair's every whim.

However she alone protects White Spats from the jeering children and secretly nurtures an unrealizable crush on the haughty aristo. When she seeks his friendship, he casually gives her an ancient ball-gown from his castle's mouldering closets, and she is totally smitten, dancing with the wonderful garment in her bare attic room. However she is unable to protect him from the mechanics of desire, as Odette uses her sexual prowess to bring down the brooding Bernard and to assist the intense Bouquet (a far better lover it seems) to reap revenge on his disdainful sibling. Events come to a head on Odette's wedding day to the slobbering Ledoux, and as the assembled guests dance the evening away, the other four play out their tragedy on the cliffs.  Poor Mimi is left to sort out the ruins of four lives; however, the feeling that the fairy tale may yet have its happy ending prevails.

The film is adapted from a play by Jean Anouilh who had intended to direct as well before realizing that he was not up to the task. Gremillon was his late choice, picking one of the best-considered directors from France's so-called Golden Age. Lovingly filmed on the Normandy coast by Philippe Agostini, the stark landscapes provide a wonderful contrast to the burning passions that consume the players. Perhaps on another day this movie would have seemed something of a potboiler, but I was seriously absorbed by its brooding romance and the inevitability of disaster that the characters unwittingly bring upon themselves.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Half Naked Truth (1932)

Over eighty years old and fresh as a daisy! This film which has been on my list 'forever' was not a YouTube discovery, although they have a clip of one of its scenes ballyhooed as the 'greatest musical number ever'. Rather the movie received its first television showing according to my records in the early morning hours courtesy of BBC2, who seem to have unearthed some RKO pre-code rarities as I exalted a few weeks ago. I just hope there are more to come.

This film is a 1930's product with a vengeance, not just because of its risqué moments (more of that later), but because its director and male and female leads all did their best work in that decade. The director, Gregory La Cava, came into his own during these years and went on to helm "My Man Godfrey" (1936) and "Stage Door" (1937), both Oscar-nominated. However a fondness for the bottle and some notorious drinking companions resulted in a series of so-called 'recurrent illnesses' and he only made three films after 1940. Lupe Velez the petite and fiery Mexican actress is now best remembered for her series of Mexican Spitfire comedies. She was married to the screen's best Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, but was a suicide by age 36 after her marriage ended and her popularity waned. Lee Tracy, unlike the other two, went on working for many years and he even received a best-supporting actor nom as the President in 1964's "The Best Man". His early career success never recovered after he was fired by MGM over a drunken incident in Mexico during the filming of "Viva Villa". He was the epitome of the fast-talking, wise-cracking hero so prevalent in the early 30s -- he even spoke more rapidly than Cagney. However, his shtick definitely feels a little dated now, and even then audiences began looking for rather more sophistication and charm in their favourite stars.

Tracy's character is purportedly based on stories, both true and apocryphal, about the master publicist Harry Reichenbach, who always found a gimmick for promoting his latest attraction.
Here his current love interest is cooch-dancer Velez, billed in their two-bit carny as La Belle Sultana. Business is bad so he spreads a rumour that at the end of tonight's performance she will reveal who, among the local  hayseeds, was responsible for impregnating her mother some years ago. A dozen guilty secrets are reflected on their erstwhile respectable faces, and Tracy's sidekick Eugene Pallette playing supposed strongman Achilles goes through the crowd collecting hush money. However like Jeanne Eagels, Velez has her heart set on appearing on the New York stage, and off the three of them go to the Big Apple. Tracy promotes Velez as a genuine princess, Princess Exotica, and cons his way into a free stay at a swanky hotel. Cue here for Franklin Pangborn to do one of his wonderfully swarmy hotel clerks turns. He tells the thronging reporters that a artsy Ziegfield-type showman (beautifully played by Frank Morgan) will be featuring her in his next big show and he hires a rather seedy lion and 30 pounds of fresh meat to be delivered for her 'pet' to their hotel suite to ensure more publicity. Incidentally he explains away Pallette's role in their entourage as the former eunuch of the harem from which the Princess has escaped. The word is never used but furtive glances at Pallette's nether regions make this clear.

Morgan tries to frame a tasteful number for the exotic 'princess' but the audience is bored until she sheds several layers of clothing and reverts to her standard bump and grind routine to the strains of her favourite song "Hi, Mr. Carpenter". Just imagine a set of lyrics full of innuendos reminiscent of the cliched porn film theme of a visiting plumber inspecting the lady of the house's pipes and you'll get the picture. Velez is eventually dropped by the amorous but married Morgan after some hilarious blackmail attempts by Tracy, involving pictures of the impresario feeding her an olive mouth-to-mouth. By now, however, Tracy has found his next would-be sensation, chambermaid Shirley Chambers (possibly the original 'dumb' blonde); he claims to have discovered her amongst a cult of nudists living in Central Park, led once again by good old Achilles with a paunch and a fake beard.

The film is a scant 74 minutes, but that's 74 minutes of brilliant performances, fast-paced and bright repartee, and loads of good, not so clean, fun.  Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Night Tide (1961)

And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -- my darling -- my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea

The above lines from Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" are supposed to have provided the title and inspiration for this peculiar, low-key feature film debut from writer-director Curtis Harrington, previously associated with experimental film-makers like Kenneth Anger. In his first starring role Dennis Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a skinny, callow and naïve young sailor on shore leave in Santa Monica, trying to make time with any of the local ladies in a swinging jazz club. 24 or 25 when this was filmed, Hopper is reserved and awkward, a gawky pretty-boy in his skin-tight sailor suit -- a far cry from the 'mad man' roles he would later inhabit. He is immediately smitten with the exotic-looking Mora (Linda Lawson) who lives in an apartment over the ornate carousel on Venice Pier. She works as a 'mermaid' (the 'Lovely Siren of the Deep') at a local attraction, decked out in a fake fish tail and reclining in a water tank. However there is definitely something 'fishy' about her, if I may be allowed this cheap pun. She breakfasts on fresh fish and has a strong affinity with the sea.

Her erstwhile guardian, the attraction barker Gavin Muir, a collector of oddities including a severed hand in a glass jar, found her in Mykonos as a child and has looked after her ever since. He attempts to scare off Hopper by saying that she is dangerous to know -- a rumour reinforced by Luana Anders, grand-daughter of the carousel proprietor. It seems that two previous boyfriends have washed up on the shore with water in their drowned lungs. Hopper begins to believe that perhaps she really is a mermaid and has visions of her legs turning into a tail and dreams of being strangled by her octopus-tentacles. These visual fantasies are well-done but inconclusive. Less explainable is the mysterious woman who watches her from the shadows and who speaks to her in a strange tongue. Perhaps she really is one of the lost tribe of Sea People who are doomed to kill their mate at the full-moon, a siren luring each unsuspecting lover to his death.

Much against his better judgment the besotted Hopper agrees to go deep-sea diving with her, and yes she does try to tamper with his air tank. The gasping, bare-chested Hopper (an unlikely piece of cheesecake) manages to reach their dinghy, but there is no sign of mermaid Mora. When he returns to the sideshow some days later, her drowned corpse inhabits the tank. Muir reveals all to the police, confessing that he fed her fairy tales to keep her close to him and that he killed her previous boyfriends. However the viewer is left with too many unanswered questions and tantalizing possibilities. Never mind, young leading man Hopper will be OK -- he's about to taken on by the eager Anders.

Harrington went on to make a number of successful low-budget horror features like "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" and "How Awful about Allen", but "Night Tide" deserves a wider audience for its poetic insolence. It is nearly on a par with Jacques Tourneur's classic "Cat People" in its suggestion of the everyday horrors lurking around us, but perhaps would have benefited from a few more jolts to the system.

I'm pretty sure I've viewed the above movie before, although I can not recall when, unlike "The Juggler" (1953) which also has been a long-standing inhabitant of my famous list. I finally managed to view that film yesterday, but was disappointed by Kirk Douglas's hammy overacting; if the truth be known I have always found him a little hard to take despite the fact that he has appeared in some very good films, a number of which I actually own. Here he plays a refugee of the camps who arrives in Israel in 1949, but who can not reconcile his treatment under the Nazis with the 'let's build a new tomorrow' approach of the Israelis. He attacks a policeman and is on the run, landing up in a kibbutz and the arms of Milly Vitale. I was tempted to extract a scene where he entertains the children in clown make-up, but I thought better of this, since even there he appeared to be emoting "look at me and see how manly and wonderful I am!" Where would I be without my deep-rooted film likes and dislikes?


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jeanne Eagels (1957)

Besides being an obsessive collector of films (despite the figure in the sidebar to the right, I was up to 5273 at the last count), I also have an impressive collection of film-themed books. Some of these have been read cover to cover, others I regularly consult for reference, a few have been comprehensively skimmed, while others sit glaring at me from their shelves daring me to digest them. I guess I am something of a hoarder. Perhaps if I live to be 150 and retain all my senses (fat chance!) I will actually read them all, to say nothing of finally seeing all the elusive movies on my famous list and re-watching the pick of my collection. I must be a hopeless romantic...

One book that I certainly have read and enjoyed is titled "Lost Films of the Fifties" by Douglas Brode, published in 1988. The purpose of his selection is to showcase movies that were popular in their day, but which have become little known subsequently, overshadowed by those films of the decade which have come to be considered 'classics' -- even if they were not then the more successful films of their time. The above title is one of many that he includes and there are a surprising number of others that even I, the so-called film buff, have not seen; most of them are no longer shown on television nor have they been considered sufficiently worthy for release and reconsideration on disc.

"Jeanne Eagels" is the highly-fictionalised biopic of a real-life star of the early 20th Century, who has been forgotten as well. It features two of the most popular actors of the 1950s, Jeff Chandler and Kim Novak, in a tawdry version of Eagel's life. Although she was born into poverty, she was something of a child prodigy and appeared in Shakespearian productions from age eleven, touring with a travelling theatre company. She made a run of shorts and early features between 1913 and 1919, before conquering the Broadway stage in the 1920s. She originated the role of Sadie Thompson in "Rain" in 1924 and played the part for an amazing 648 performances. However a combination of drink and drugs eventually undermined her career, and after a last silent movie in 1927 with John Gilbert and two early talkies, she died young. Her performance in "The Letter (1929) earned the first posthumous Oscar nomination.

Instead of this largely illustrious life-story, this film opts for a seamy scenario and features Novak as a hoochie-coochie dancer in Chandler's travelling carnival, yearning to be a 'Becky Sharp' on the New York stage. When he joins his brother at his Coney Island enterprises, she bullies a famous acting coach, played by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead, into getting her an understudy role; of course she emerges as a budding talent to be reckoned with. She next grabs the opportunity to  appear in "Rain", the rights stolen from an on-the-skids actress (Virginia Grey) who has sought her help and who subsequently commits suicide. Despite being madly in love with her, Chandler can not easily forgive such self-serving behaviour and he is pushed further aside when she ups and marries a famous Princeton football star to better herself. As that relationship descends into a flurry of drunken orgies, Eagels increasingly needs 'something to calm my nerves' before taking the stage. Her flighty behaviour and her new nickname of 'Gin Eagles' cause Equity (which she had always refused to join) to ban her appearing on Broadway and it's back to Chandler and Coney Island. Naturally, as the movie would have it, she manages to fight her demons and stages a comeback -- although there is a swarmy Murray Hamilton waiting in the wings with his handy flask. The last shot is of a tearful and still adoring Chandler watching her charm a cinema audience with her latest hit musical -- a film she never made. The author of the book describes the movie as "irresistible trash" and I can not disagree with this very accurate description.

Kim Novak was never much of an actress but rather a beautiful object to be adoringly photographed. Even in her best-known movies, both comedies and dramas, she never seems quite real or shows much nuance. In this film she demonstrates her sexual, screen appeal, but it is only in the over-acting silent film sequences that she shows any real attempt to emote, albeit well over the top. Chandler died young and his Westerns and action movies are now largely forgotten too; he is probably best remembered for his role as Cochise in 1950's "Broken Arrow". I never thought of him as anything more than a 'hunk' of the period, but in this film he manages to show a surprising sensitivity and likeability. Mind you, the movie is all sheer schmaltz.

Perhaps I should return to Mr. Brode's book and list out some more of his 'lost' films that I've not seen and to discover whether they too can be 'found' lurking in YouTube's vaults.  



Wednesday, 26 June 2013

My Default Mode

Having been away for a long weekend, I find myself in the most unusual position (unusual only for me, let me hasten to add) of not having watched any movies for four whole days. Can you believe it? The shame!!! So I must assume my default mode when there is nothing particularly special to blog about and examine the 'gems' that Sky Movies has bestowed upon its subscribers this week.

On one level it could have been a better week than the average since they actually premiered five films rather than the all-too-frequent four (on the specious grounds that one of them is so marvellous (!) that it deserves to occupy two of the five available scheduling slots). However, 'the BIG 8 p.m. film' this week, "Dark Shadows", I'd seen in the cinema and reviewed some months back, leaving four very minor films for my viewing pleasure -- and 'pleasure' is hardly the right word in retrospect. Let's look at the four culprits:

Lola Versus (2012): There's not a great deal that one can say about this American Indie movie starring the pet Indie heroine of the moment Greta Gerwig. I have frankly never understood her appeal, although she is an adequate enough actress and certainly managed to carry this extremely thin story. She plays a rising 30-year old New Yorker deeply dependent on her live-in boyfriend Joel Kinnaman and thrilled when he finally pops the question. Then in the middle of the wedding preparations, he gets cold feet and dumps her. Can she learn to stand on her own two feet and how can she replace him as a sexual partner (amongst other things). Frankly, who cares? She survives with the help of their mutual best friend, Hamish Linklater, and her BFF Zoe Lister Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Daryl Wein. Her hippie, but long-wed, parents Bill Pullman and Debra Winger also put in their two-cents worth. Guess what, she eventually finds her inner strength. Scottie-wottie-doo-dah-day as we said in my youth.

The Wedding Video (2012): Wedding preparations also loom large in this movie, the first of two Brit flicks in the mix. It is hard enough getting the finance to make British movies to say nothing about the problems of distribution, but this farrago somehow made the cut -- although like so many others, I doubt that it made any money. At first the film seemed little more than irritatingly annoying, but it morphed into something slightly more tolerable with even the occasional amusing moment. Rufus Hound, a very minor British television 'personality' makes his cinema debut as Raif, the wayward brother of Robert Webb (also a British TV stalwart from the Mitchell and Webb "Peep Show"). He returns from his extended overseas travelling to find that brother Tim is about to marry nouveau riche Saskia (Lucy Punch) and he decides to gift them his home-made video showing all of the wedding preparations. At this point of the film he comes across as an even more annoying Ricky Gervais-ish type and I came close to switching off. However the movie managed to provide the occasional mild grin from Harriet Walter's status-mad mother-of-the-bride trying to upstage all of her Cheshire neighbours and Miriam Margolyes as Saskia's plain-spoken grandma. Most amusing of all was Michelle Gomez as the gawky-legged, OTT wedding planner whose behaviour becomes more and more frantic and unpredictable as the big day approaches. Even Punch whose film roles have been on the scatty side manages to display some underlying warmth and comic chops. That she ends up with the Hound, who remembers her from her wild schooldays, rather than with her tolerant fiancé comes as no big surprise, more of a predictable disappointment I'm afraid.

Private Peaceful (2012): This second British film based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo probably received its green light on the success of "The War Horse", but if it ever had a cinema release, I must have missed the reviews. It's a 'heritage' movie in the sense that it tries to recreate the atmosphere of two brothers growing up poor in the class-ridden Devon of the early 20th century before moving to the battlefields of Flanders and the first World War. After their gamekeeper father's untimely death, devoted brothers Charlie and Tommo, their mother, and their backward older brother Big Joe, risk losing their tied cottage to local bigwig Richard Griffith (or 'the old fart' as he is known to the family). They must leave school, work on his land, and when patriotism calls enlist -- even if Tommo need lie about his age. They must also leave behind loving Molly, whom they have both worshipped, now pregnant with Charlie's child. They survive gassing, shelling, and all of the horrors of war, but the more thoughtful Tommo can not escape the venom of their sadistic sergeant played by John Lynch nor the mindless military justice when he is branded a coward. It might all have been reasonably well-done but ultimately this was as depressing as most war movies. Certainly not my cup of lukewarm tea.

This Must be the Place (2011): I suppose this was meant to be the second A-list pick of the week since it stars two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, but I found it nearly unwatchable. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I could barely stay awake, or perhaps my near comatose state was the result of watching this disjointed piece of codswallop. Mind you, it could have been a winner as the first English-language film from the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino whose "Consequences of Love" (2004) I really liked and whose "Il Divo" (2008) I admired. Apparently when Penn was on the Cannes jury that year, he confided in the director that he would like to make a film with him and this is the sorry result. I can recall reading somewhat positive reviews when it was released and it certainly seems to have its supporters on IMDb, but I am not amongst them. Penn plays retired pop icon Cheyenne now living in Dublin, made-up and bewigged like an ugly fifty-year old hag. He returns to the States after the death of his long-estranged father and vows to unearth his dad's concentration camp tormentor, now living the hidden life of a war criminal somewhere in America. He embarks on a tortuous road trip under the bemused eye of his wife Frances McDormand and encounters various helpful or unhelpful personages in this pursuit including Nazi hunter Judd Hirsch and the always laidback Harry Dean Stanton. When he eventually finds the perp, it is another anti-climax in his strange and wasted life. The cinematography was masterful, but the odd visual moment could not make up for the somnolent effect this film had on me. Sorry about that.