Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Marat/Sade (1966)

The full title of this film version of the notorious Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Peter Weiss' German teleplay is "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade."  That's quite a mouthful for any film or play and it is usually referred to by the shorter title above.

It's been quite a while since we last joined friend Richard at his 13-seater cinema in his garden and decided to go for his screening of the above rarely shown film. I knew that I had seen it previously, but frankly had no recollection of it whatsoever. If you look it up on IMDb, you will find a ream of glowing reviews posted by fans of the production. However, having now seen it for the second time, I think it is a clear case of 'the emperor's clothes', since in fact it is a very bad and at times unwatchable movie.  I have no doubts whatsoever that the stage production was a brilliant and memorable event. The RSC was touring the United States in the early 60s, and Peter Brook's production played on Broadway from the end of 1965 for an impressive 145 performances.

Now it is one thing to film a play or an opera without opening it out and for the end result still to be cinematic by a crafty combination of long shots from various angles and judicious use of close-ups. However when Brook attempted to capture the essence of the Broadway staging, he seemed to say to himself, just how clever can I be to make this look like cinema rather than something stagey. The end result is a combination of blurry images, half-chopped off heads, and irreconcilable changes of perspective. At one stage we are the invited audience sitting behind the bars that protect the patrons from the inmates; at other times we are prancing amongst them -- all with little rhyme nor reason. The sound quality is also very poor and while most of the longer speeches are audible, the musical interludes (and there are many of these) by a Greek chorus of grotesques just come across as discordant noise rather than meaning. The cinema version of this Brechtian distancing and 'theatre of cruelty' loses its physicality and much of the probable power it had when seen live.

Against this there are some stand-out performances by actors who have subsequently become well-known indeed and there are a number of other familiar faces behind the layers of offputting make-up that much of the cast wear. Patrick Magee gives a powerful rendering of the decadent De Sade, while an ever-so-young Ian Richardson plays the inmate playing Marat. The gist of the drama stems from the contrast between the idealism of the revolutionary Marat ("what we do is but a shadow of what we want to do") vs. the existential, sybaritic, and nihilistic leanings of De Sade. The latter's point of view is there is no point of a revolution without general copulation and the cast chant this and bring it to bear in the general melee that ends the action. This production was America's first glimpse of the young Glenda Jackson, a narcoleptic inmate playing the assassin Charlotte Corday, and her performance was the start of a meteoric rise. Finally there is an immediately recognizable Michael Williams (Judi Dench is his widow) playing the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets.

At nearly two hours it is a hard watch, especially since much of the dialogue does not register and much of the stylized action goes by in a hazy blur.  The political sentiments were meant to be as meaningful now as they were back in the eighteenth century and as they were to their German author post World War II -- and maybe they are if one could have taken it all in. Am I pleased to have seen the film again? Not really, but I do wish I could have seen the Broadway production back in the day...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Sing Your Song (2011)

In the course of a year's viewing, I see a relatively small number of documentary films. This is not because documentaries are not better than ever -- they are!, but because not many of them end up being shown on the box. It is a little rare for me to see one in a proper cinema setting, unless it is part of a film festival's basic programme. I do however hoover up virtually all biographical programmes on film stars alive or dead -- although I must confess that most of them are no longer with us.

It was therefore on the cards for me to watch the above documentary on the life and good works of Harry Belafonte, a sprightly 83 when the film was directed two years ago by Susanne Rostock, and still active and involved today. I was of course familiar with his very brief film career in the 1950s, running from his first "Bright Road" in 1953 through "Odds Against Tomorrow" in 1959. There have been the occasional cinema appearances since, but apart from a couple in the early 70s, these have been small and forgettable. Of course I was also aware of his parallel career as a singer and showman, but not being privy to American TV, most of these passed me by. Surprisingly one of his was the first million-selling LP album in the U.S. However, I was far from aware of his third and probably most important career as an activist and fighter, not just for civil rights in America, but against poverty and ignorance throughout the world.

A confidante and close worker with Dr. Martin Luther King, he was not afraid to show his continued support for progress in the deep South. However he also reluctantly began to take an interest in African affairs and soon became absorbed by them. He was largely responsible for the first wave of foreign exchange students from Kenya (which incidentally brought the father of one Barack Obama to the States). At a time when no 'person of colour' was admitted to South Africa, he brought the singer Miriam Makeba to the world's attention and recorded an album with her. He was involved with organizing the "We are the World" disc which raised funds for famine in Africa.  Because of his liberal beliefs and do-gooding, his detractors branded him a fellow traveller or a 'puppet of Peking', but this was far from the case. He knew and admired the early black activist and entertainer Paul Robeson, a mighty talent who was more or less ruined with smears regarding his beliefs, who apparently told him 'Sing your song and the world will listen'.

This documentary which opened the Sundance Festival in 2011 draws lavishly on archive material which sits better on the small screen than it would when incorporated in a wide-screen showing. Belafonte's own words are joined by various talking heads both black and white -- Sidney Poitier, Tom Smothers, Marge Champion, Belafonte's children, and so many more. He tried to live his own life as an example of protest against intolerance, ranging from his own experiences when touring in the segregated South through trying to enter the casino hotel where he was appearing in Vegas through the front door. There is a particularly lovely story about his turning up at that hotel's swimming pool and skillfully diving from the high board into the now empty pool, watched by sinister looking thugs on the hotel's balconies; however the pool soon became crowded with parents and their children who wanted their photo taken with the popular performer. He was crucified in the press for holding hands with Petula Clark when he appeared on her television show, but the lady refused to cut this when the broadcasting 'suits' plied on the pressure, unlike his mild protest trio with the Smothers Brothers (making them Tom, Dick, and Harry) where CBS cut out the whole section and inserted a 10-minute election plug for Richard Nixon.

He has lived a good and productive life and is still active in fighting injustice, most recently with protests at the jailing of youngsters, mainly blacks, as a new form of segretation. He appears to say to himself each morning, 'What do you do now?'. I would like to close with a quote which best represents the Belafonte credo: "I believe that my time was a remarkable one. I am aware that we now live in a world overrun by cruelty, and as our earth disintegrates and our spirits numb, we lose moral purpose and creative vision. But still I must believe, as I always have, that our best times lie ahead and in the final analysis, along the way we will be comforted by one another. That is my song". What a remarkable man!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

When I read last year that this film had been Oscar-nominated as one of the year's best, my initial reaction was "huh?", since I had never heard of it and I didn't think it was even released in Britain at that time. I therefore assumed it was some sort of 'makeweight' to find the requisite number of suitable movies to nominate for best film, much as "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" was for some unknown reason included in the Golden Globes this week.

I have finally caught up with this Stephen Daldry-directed flick and am still a little puzzled at its inclusion, although it is certainly the kind of schizoid movie that will split viewers firmly down the middle between those who 'get' its somewhat buried message and those who see it as some sort of 9/11 exploitation. Nearly the entire film focuses on nine-year old Oskar, played by Thomas Horn in his first screen role. Oskar could be described as suffering from 'Autism Spectrum Disorder' or compulsive behaviour or borderline Asperger's -- no matter he is certainly not a 'normal' or remotely loveable child with his brash, abrasive manner. Tom Hanks briefly plays his father, a jeweller, who together with his maternal grandmother, is one of the few adults who can get through to him; he has always planned 'adventure puzzles' for the two of them to pursue and solve, especially the mystery of the sixth missing New York City borough. Unfortunately a meeting takes him to the 106th floor of the Twin Towers on that fateful day (referred to as "the worst day" by Oskar throughout the film), and all the lad has left of his father is a series of increasingly panicky messages left on the home answering machine. As a part of his strange behaviour, Oskar has replaced the machine with a duplicate, keeping this memento of his father from his mother -- played by an initially unrecognizable Sandra Bullock.

A year after his father's death (when all the family could bury was an empty coffin), Oskar ventures into his dad's closet and finds a strange blue vase hidden on a shelf. He accidently smashes it to reveal a key in an envelope with 'Black' written upon it and decides that this is one last puzzle that his father has set for him. He then makes elaborate charts and itineraries and sets out to visit every 'Black' in the New York telephone directories, bringing him into contact with a variety of friendly or hostile residents, none of whom knew his father. He takes photos of each of them on an old camera that supposedly belonged originally to his father's father, who has been 'missing in action' throughout their respective lives. Initially he makes his visits on foot to even the furthest reaches of the city since he is afraid of the risks on public transport. However when he recruits a mute old man into his quest -- a 'renter' in his grandmother's flat -- he is forced onto the subways. The aged gent is played by screen icon Max von Sydow, who was nominated for a best supporting male Oscar, despite having not a single line of dialogue -- shades of John Mills in "Ryan's Daughter" albeit a far less grotesque character. He alone is allowed to hear the first five of the six answerphone messages from the dead Hanks, until he signals 'no more' and urges the boy to give up the search. He also promptly packs up and moves away, confirming Oskar's belief that he is indeed the missing grandfather.

In the end the key is found to have a very real purpose, but was never intended for Oskar. The film is quite hard going, since virtually all of the action is seen from the boy's point of view, and as I wrote above, it is a nearly impossible task to empathise with the abusive lad who is so very different from your average run of movie tykes. The film however should not be accused of any maudlin use of the 9/11 tragedy, since it is really only a vehicle for one strange young man's attempt to deal with his grief and to make sense of events that he is unable to fathom. The film is based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, who is reputedly not an 'easy' writer to appreciate; however a surprisingly entertaining film was released in 2005 of his novel "Everything is Illuminated" -- also a strange and unusual tale -- and the movie version above is probably as close as one can get to his written word. This is certainly not to say that it is a particularly well-made film, although Daldry has a history of movies featuring troubled young men ("Billy Elliott"), and there is no arguing the fact that young Master Horn does a consummate job as Oskar. The large cast also includes Viola Davis in a key role and again a hard to recognize John Goodman in a small role as the apartment house doorman. The movie could be accused of being a little too diffuse and certainly a lot too long, but it does leave us with a worthwhile message if we can try to find ourselves inside the unusual brain of a singularly unusual child.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

It's not quite two months since I last wrote about 'old' Cary Grant, and here we go again. Especially since he is paired here with one of my all-time favourite actresses Katharine Hepburn. They made four films together, three of which are classic screwball comedies: "Holiday" (1938), "Bringing up Baby" (1938), and "Phildadelphia Story" (1940). However their first joint venture is not only little-known, but often either dismissed as a silly trifle or barely remembered as germane to their filmographies. Made during the period when Hepburn was regarded as 'box-office poison' and Grant had not quite morphed into the epitome of the sophisticated leading man, this film is actually not only essential viewing for their respective fans, but a great deal of fun as well.

The film opens in France where small-time embezzler Edmund Gwenn (eventually to become everyone's favourite Santa Claus) is on the run from the police with daughter Hepburn in tow. To prevent the cops searching for a man travelling with a young girl on the cross-channel ferry, Sylvia chops off her hair and becomes young Sylvester, spending the first half of the movie in cross-dressing drag. On the ship they meet Cockney con-man Grant, who shops the lace-smuggling Gwenn to the Customs authorities to distract from his own underhand activities. Chastened and broke, Gwenn and his young 'son' Sylvester are at their lowest ebb, before Grant saves the day with some cash and plans for future joint scams. These include trying to pass off the fluent French-speaking Sylvester as a young and abandoned waif, milking the crowd for their spare change, to looking up an old girlfriend Maudie, a maid in the home of a cruising rich couple.

There the vulgar young woman (Dennie Moore, surprisingly uncredited in a pivotal role) is encouraged to dress up in her mistress's best togs and jewels which Grant plans to purloin, but she also catches the eye of amorous Gwenn (who also uses the occasion to dress up in her master's velvet court togs and prance about). Hepburn still playing a gormless teenager, gets roaringly drunk but manages to shame Grant into returning the swag. From here, the storyline gets even more bizarre as the four decide to go off to become a seaside entertaintment group, the Pink Pierrots (!), travelling the countryside in a caravan and performing their very old-fashioned act in small holiday resorts. In their Harlequin and Columbine costumes, the quartet seem to be enjoying themselves hugely, and one must remember that Grant first went to the States as part of a knockabout comedy vaudeville turn. Here, he plays the piano and sings in a way a million miles away from his usual screen persona -- and very charming he and his colleagues are too as they set out to entertain us all.

At one seaside gathering artist Brian Aherne, watching with his rich young friends, heckles the act and is shamed into apologising by the feckless Sylvester. Aherne is enchanted by the pretty young lad and wants him to pose for him, while Hepburn discovers the first stirrings of love, despite the artist's obvious affair with Russian emigre Natalie Paley (real Russian royalty and also uncredited). So she steals a dress and bonnet from a seaside changing-room (actually a cave!) and reveals herself to Aherne as the young woman she really is. Grant and Moore are also taken aback by her transformation, especially as the latter had jokingly attempted to make out with the would-be youth.  And so the story goes on to its ultimate and not so obvious conclusion, which sees Hepburn paired off with the elusive Aherne and Grant doing his best to put the flighty Paley in her place.  Having already told us of his attitude to women in general -- basically love them and leave them -- it is rather refreshing that he and Hepburn are not paired off after Gwenn's and Moore's disappearance from the action.

Directed by George Cukor, it is not surprising to learn that this film was another of Hepburn's 'flops' and the leaps in logic of its storyline did not find many takers amongst the moviegoers of the day. However as a period piece and as a stepping stone in the development of its two leads, the movie is an undemanding and unexpected pleasure. We are more used to men dressing as women a la "Some Like it Hot" than women passing themselves off as men a la "Victor/Victoria" but drag turns from both sexes have a long and honourable history in film. Katharine Hepburn here is enchanting as both a young girl and a young man and that's just fine with me. As for Cary Grant, I've yet to see a film where he is anything less than priceless, and "Sylvia Scarlett" deserves its shining place in developing his longterm career. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Muppets (2011)

It's official! Christmas television viewing has finally turned my brain to mush! Why else, of the various films I watched (including appreciated re-viewings of "They Knew What they Wanted" and "One Touch of Venus) should this 'new' Muppet Movie -- the first for twelve years -- be the subject of today's blog?

Up front let me admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the film as a successful exercise in nostalgia, an undertaking definitely meant to appeal to the puppet group's now aging fans. However I suspect that it will not attract many new converts to the traditional Muppet mayhem, and indeed, many youngsters may well be bored with the company of this pack of 'has-been' characters. The film is a labour of love from self-confessed Muppet-fan Jason Segel, who stars in the movie which he co-wrote with Nicholas Stoller, the director of his breakthrough role in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (2008). He plays a small town 'lad' who has been dating girlfriend Amy Adams for ten years, but who is equally attached to his muppet younger brother, Walter (don't ask!). When the three go on holiday to Los Angeles, the highlight of their vacation is meant to be to be a visit to the famous Muppet Theatre, scene of many magical well-loved and well-remembered shows. However they find a derelict site, about to be acquired by greedy moneyman Tex Richman (think about it) who is personified by a sneering Chris Cooper. He and his evil Muppet henchmen wish to tear the old place down and drill for oil beneath the site, making Segel and company anxious to find Kermit and the gang and to launch a rescue plan. It's the old 'let's put on a show' scenario dating back to Andy Hardy -- and of course also the plot of earlier Muppet spin-offs -- and the race is on to round-up all the familiar faces who have scattered to the winds.

A depressed Kermit reluctantly agrees to help our three new heroes and eventually all of the troupe are brought together from Fozzy Bear through the Great Gonzo through Animal and even eventually diva Miss Piggy (who has taken leave from her job as editor of French Vogue!). It is not just the old theatre that is at stake, but also their very identities which Cooper threatens to absorb and gift to a ragtag tribute troupe. Can they raise the necessary million dollars in time and is there really anyone left who cares about these 'forgotten' friends? What do you think? They are given a two-hour TV slot for their telethon, when a station's star turn implodes, and manage to kidnap the necessary 'celebrity host' in the solid shape of an uncredited Jack Black, who remains trussed up and silent during the new show, as they struggle to revive the old acts and watch the donations trickle in. They are running out of content and must rely on their latest recruit Walter to 'find his talent' and save the day. Meanwhile Cooper tries various dirty tricks to thwart their efforts. When all seems lost and they emerge apparently defeated, they find hordes of loyal fans ready to contribute to their continued existence -- shades of the last scene of "It's a Wonderful Life" it would seem. Happy ending; smiles all 'round.

The film is loaded with dozens of blink-and-you-miss-them cameos from the likes of Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, and even Mickey Rooney, but unlike earlier Muppet movies these appearances add very little to the plot and they are largely shadow characters or filler. It would seem to be their way of telling the world 'We love the Muppets too' and adding their voices to the group's still viable fanbase count. Some old favourite Muppet songs are revived and new ones added by the Flight of the Colchords team; new number "Man or Muppet" even managed an Oscar gong, as Segel muses that he risks losing sweetheart Adams over his Muppet obsession. The puppets' new voice cast are virtually undetectable from the old ones and we can still hear the familiar gruff, dulcet, and squeaky voices that we remember so fondly. Unlike some commentators, I hardly think that Jim Hensen is spinning in his grave.

All in all it was a welcome return to the big screen -- more of a tribute movie that an exciting adventure in itself (although I believe a sequel is somehow in the works). It's not a patch on the first and best "Muppet Movie" of 1979, but it is certainly an improvement on the last one "Muppets from Space" (1999). As I said earlier, this love letter to the old favourites may not attract a host of new fans, but in the hope that it finds even a few new converts, all is not lost. So thank you, Mr. Segel.