Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Student in Prague vs. One in Chicago

It's not very often that one has the chance to view a film that is 100 years old, so I was thrilled to see "The Student of Prague" (1913) on German television. If you look the title up on IMDb, it is described as a 45-minute short, but in fact the movie has now been restored by a number of cooperating archives to its full 85 minutes. It is often described as the first horror movie and for that reason alone it is of great historical interest, even if it is no great shakes as film art. Co-directed by and starring Paul Wegener who went on to personify the Golem in the 1915 and 1920 films, it is a riff on the German Faust legend mixed with Poe's William Wilson about an impoverished student who sells his soul (in this case his mirror reflection) for worldly wealth, but who subsequently goes mad as he is haunted by his doppelganger. The Germans re-made the story thirteen years later in 1926 with a rather more charismatic Conrad Veidt in the lead and that version is superior in every way, replacing Wegener's static camera with the heyday of Expressionistic angles. I guess there's not much more to say about this century-old treat, other than to thank those responsible for its re-birth.

So today I shall concentrate instead on a more recent movie (only 33 years old!) with a rather younger student; why is it that in so many silent films the young protagonists appear to be middle-aged? "My Bodyguard" (1980) has aged rather better than many of the teen-focused films from the '80s, but is largely and rather unfairly now forgotten. Directed by ex-actor Tony Bill, it follows the fortunes of 15-year old Clifford Peache, played by the excellent but again now little-known Chris Makepeace. He lives with his hotel-manager dad (Martin Mull) and his kooky grandma (Ruth Gordon) in a swanky Chicago hotel and is a new student at an inner-city high school.  With his smart-ass attitude, he is immediately picked upon by the school bully Melvin Moody (impeccably played by a 16-year old Matt Dillon) and his gang of thugs, who have been menacing the weaker members of the student body and extorting their lunch money. Cliff decides not to play ball with this intimidation and tries to enlist the help of big, lumbering school outcast Ricky Linderman as his bodyguard.

Ricky is played by Adam Baldwin (not, let it be said one of the many Baldwin brothers) in his film debut, and while still pursuing a film career, the actor has never been better. He is feared by the other students, as rumours circulate that he has killed his brother or raped a teacher or poked out someone's eye. His shuffling giant may be everyone's idea of a teenaged psychopath, but underneath it all lies a sensitive soul. While he initially shuns Cliff's approaches, they eventually become friends, as they bond over rebuilding the motorcycle that Ricky has been working on for a year. This friendship keeps Moody and his yahoos at bay, until Dillon pays a young tough to be 'his' bodyguard and the gentle Baldwin initially refuses to fight. I won't divulge how the movie finishes, other than to say that it couldn't have been more satisfying.

The movie is also noteworthy for giving early roles to many familiar names: Joan Cusack with a mouthful of shiny metal braces (and the patriarch of her acting clan plays the school principal), director-to-be Dean Devlin, George Wendt, and a recognizable but uncredited Jennifer Beals. The scenes with the high-spirited Gordon are gems as she propositions visiting tourists in the hotel bar (she's old but acts like a kid says her grandson) and threatens her family's tenure at the snobby hotel. That's until her joie-de-vivre seduces visiting staid hotel inspector John Houseman into her web.

All and all this sleeper is a joy to watch and resonates realistically with those of us who well remember the anxieties of being a teenager. I'm so pleased to have seen it again and highly recommend it to all of you both for its nostalgia and its heart.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Leo the Last (1970)

I should be more careful what I wish for! Having been fond of the late Marcello Mastroianni in just about all of his roles, I really wanted to watch the above film again. I knew that I had seen a television screening in the very distant past, but could recall nothing much about it -- apart from a scene in a swimming pool (which I shall return to below). So when I noticed that an extremely rare showing was scheduled at the National Film Theatre, there we went -- only to be horribly disappointed.

Its director John Boorman has made some wonderful films like "Point Blank", "Deliverance", "Hell in the Pacific", and "Hope and Glory", but this must be amongst his worse, although he was also responsible for 1974's unfathomable "Zardoz". To my complete amazement, he actually won a best director award at Cannes for this mystifyingly bad movie. He apparently wooed dear Marcello to take the lead of the crown prince of a dethroned kingdom, who returns to his late father's cul-de-sac London mansion, and the actor agreed to come to Britain for one of his rare English-speaking roles. Professional as ever, he does throw himself into the part of the otherworldly princeling, but he looks more than his bemused character -- it's almost as if he is asking the world "what am I doing in this farrago?"

Accompanied by his gold-digging fiancĂ©e Billie Whitelaw and surrounded by a coterie of protective lackeys, he is only able to view the world through misty windows and his ever-present spyglass. In the basement, his weird major-domo Laszlo, played by shifty-eyed Vladek Sheybal, is marshalling a pack of counter-revolutionaries eager to restore the monarchy. When a soiree is arranged for him, he finds that he is surrounded by greedy guests, gorging and stuffing their faces like a herd of swine. He then discovers that the elaborate mansion is set smack in the middle of a lower-class, largely black slum, and he watches his neighbours' comings and goings much as his twitcher watches the flocks of pigeons that darken the sky. To his horror he learns that his inherited wealth largely derives from his father's having bought up the surrounding streets and that the desperately poor people he is spying upon are his tenants -- shades of the period's Rachmanism. He reluctantly wanders out into the 'real' world, eager to somehow relieve their suffering. His futile attempts to be a do-gooder only tend to make matters worse.

His minders and Miss Whitelaw are horrified that he might give away the wealth that they covet and do everything to prevent his joining the common herd. At one stage she convinces him to attend some sort of New Age meeting in a swimming pool, peopled by a crowd of naked wannabes grotesquely bobbing up and down to the exhortations of their guru. As each of them in turn shouts out that they feel marvellous or reborn, Marcello can only respond that he feels nothing but 'wet'; this was the only amusing piece of dialogue in the entire film! The movie is so very much of its time with nods to flower-power, boho liberalism, and pointless polemic, that it seems more than dated and verges on the unwatchable; none of this is helped by pompous voice-overs quoting T.S. Eliot or by one of the worst musical soundtracks ever.

Among the supporting cast are Calvin Lockhart as a resourceful rebel and 70s singer Ram John Holder as a not very charismatic black preacher; I did not however spot an uncredited Louis Gossett in an early role. Then there's the white rapist Kenneth J. Warren and the object of his lust, trainee-whore Glenna Forster Jones who Marcello tries to redeem. The stand-out performance in the crowd, however, is white busker Doris Clark, who belts out Cockney staples above the noisy melee. In the end the whole mansion comes tumbling down to the cheers of the mob and the mystification of Marcello. I'm sure it's all very symbolic, but goodness knows of what.     

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Collateral (2004)

This entry is probably less about the above film than about its star, Tom Cruise -- "the biggest movie star in the world" (trademark!).  I was watching one of this week's Sky premieres, "Rock of Ages" (2012) and I really began to wonder about Cruise's appeal, popularity, and power. I didn't particularly care for the film since the pop-rock score all sounded much of a muchness to my tin ear. I far preferred the music in another of the premieres, "Joyful Noise", since Gospel is the more emotive sound, but the film itself was nothing very special, despite stellar turns from both Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah. Cruise acquitted himself reasonably as the troubled, heavy metal rock god in the former movie, but I really didn't give a toss for his character. Oddly enough the best thing in the film was probably the abrasive Russell Brand, who normally gets up my nose, especially in his unexpected love scenes with Alec Baldwin's laidback club owner.

However getting back to Mr. Cruise, I know for a fact that I have seen all of his films up to "Rock of Ages", since that's what I do! However despite my mania for collecting any film that appeals to me, I have only chosen to add two of his movies to my collection on the strength of his performance and in both of them "Magnolia" (1999) and "Tropic Thunder" (2008) he took basically OTT cameo roles as part of an ensemble cast. I admit to owning "Legend" (1985) and "Interview with the Vampire" (1994) as entertaining films, despite Cruise, and to also having "Rain Man" (1988) and "A Few Good Men" (1992) as freebie acquisitions. But if I had to explain why most of his films since his break-out performance in his spanking white undies in 1983's "Risky Business" have left me cold, I would have to say that there is something about the man that just puts me off. He is certainly an adequate actor who is not risk-avoidant and who welcomes roles that challenge his abilities, but he comes across as one who believes that he is infallible. How else to explain the recent entry of a mini-Tom playing the 6' 4" Jack Reacher? Apparently he is extremely diligent and approachable on set, but something about him just doesn't feel real, and it probably has a little to do with his scientologist beliefs. He seems to expect success as his due, rather than something that he has achieved through a genuine or unique talent and nearly all of his roles are overladen with cockiness.

To test my feelings about him, I decide to re-watch the above movie which happened to be playing this week. In it he plays a cold-blooded, silver fox hitman called Vincent, who effectively hijacks cab-driver Jamie Foxx's taxi, for a night of scheduled killings. Foxx's Max daydreams about someday running his own high-class limo service and is initially intimidated by the vicious gunsel in the back seat, but gradually learns the meaning of courage. The pair play well against each and the film holds one's attention, but it's really not a flick I would wish to own or re-watch a third time. Director Michael Mann does a top rate job of portraying the dark side of Los Angeles by night and uses the musical  underpinnings effectively. However I think he rather over-eggs the pudding, possibly encouraged to do so by his demanding leading man. The movie might have been sharper and leaner with fewer adoring shots of Cruise doing his thing. I also think it would have had a far more effective ending if Mann's camera had gradually drawn away from the now dead Vincent, rather than making us watch the newly heroic Max walking hand in hand into the sunlight with potential squeeze Jada Pinkett Smith.

The film's supporting cast is interesting and includes Mark Ruffalo and Javier Bardem amongst others, but there's no question about whom we are meant to be looking at; Foxx is good, but he is definitely the second lead here. Incidentally Jason Statham has a blink-and-you-might-miss-him role in the opening shot, but no doubt he relished this opportunity to believe that he was now a Hollywood player. Mind you, his is another career that mystifies me, but that's another story for another day.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Trance (2013)

The British director Danny Boyle certainly has his legion of fans and a pretty varied assortment of films starting with the gritty "Trainspotting",  running through the feel-good "Slumdog Millionaire" and the harrowing "127 Hours", but somehow he has never roped me into his fanbase. Of course he is now something of a national hero or even worse a national treasure after his stirring and well-received opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. He apparently shot the above film on his offdays from Olympic planning and has himself described it as a "dark evil cousin" to all of the sweetness and light on the Olympic field. It may well have been some sort of light relief for him to work on this neo-noir, but it is something of a quandary for the viewer -- a breathless roller-coaster of deliberately misleading action and reaction.

James McAvoy plays a fine-arts auctioneer with a penchant for gambling and is deeply in debt. He conspires with professional thief Franck (Vincent Cassel -- playing his usual suave and sadistic persona) to cover his debts by stealing a 20 million pound painting for him.  This action lasts some ten minutes before the front credits and is filmed at a breakneck pace by Boyle's regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The fly in the ointment is that after a blow on the head McAvoy's Simon can't quite recall where he stashed the painting. Enter hynotherapist Rosario Dawson whose job it is to unlock Simon's memory and retrieve the artwork for Franck (or more likely for herself as it emerges). The windy screenplay is full of twists and turns which deliberately muddle the boundaries between reality and wishful thinking and hypnotic suggestibility. In short the film is technically superb but narratively obtuse and in the end 100% unbelievable.

I still find it a little hard to view McAvoy as a plausible action hero -- there remains something of the nerd about his character -- and the transition here between poor shlub and ruthless man of action is too much of a stretch. He can be likeable enough which perhaps explains the career he has had to date, but one can think of any number of actors who might have handled this role as well or even better or for that matter more credibly.  We are deliberately kept in the dark regarding the past relationships among the three main characters and the revelations, when they come, seem too much of a stretch. Dawson acquits herself well in what in the end is an underwritten role. She manages to sexually manipulate both Franck and Simon to achieve her own ends. I should add that there is a certain amount of singularly gratuitous nudity on her part, which adds very little to the logic of the excercise, although there is no denying that she has a magnificent body on display when she removes her kit.

In mitigation of the above lukewarm critique, I must admit that I was feeling singularly under the weather while watching this film and probably indulged in a little fading in and out of the twisty action. I don't know if a second viewing would correct my inconsistent attention span, but somehow I doubt it. I can picture myself getting even more annoyed by the tricks that Boyle and his screenwriters have lying in wait for the unwary audience. Meanwhile, Danny, enjoy your 'national treasure' role -- such fame is fleeting.