Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Potty Patty visits The Mad Miss Manton

Knowing my penchant for minor films from the 30s, Michael asked if I had a copy of the above 1938 film which was being screened at some ungodly hour over the weekend. The answer was that I had seen it, but was sufficiently unimpressed previously to want a copy. However, I thought, why not have another go, since as the first of three co-starrers with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, it was bound to be something of a charmer.

Well, not quite. It is less of a screwball comedy than a madcap murder mystery, possibly inspired by the success of the Thin Man series. The ever likeable and appealing Stanwyck stars as a wealthy debutante, surrounded by her gaggle of gal-pals. One night she stumbles into an empty mansion and discovers a very dead corpse, but by the time she summons the police, the body has disappeared. Poor go-getter reporter Fonda writes yet another article criticising the childish pranks of Miss Manton and her gang -- prompting a million dollar law suit for libel. Naturally he falls madly in love with her despite himself, while she is more interested in proving to Sam Levene and his comic cops that she is the better detective, finding more bodies in the process. The implausible plot verges on the draggy with a host of interchangeable hangers-on and possible villains popping up; only brief cameos from a host of 'I know that face' character actors like John Qualen, Grady Sutton, Penny Singleton, and Charles Halton alleviate the leisurely pace. However, special praise is reserved for Hattie McDaniel in the standard 1930's black maid role, one year before her historic Oscar win for "Gone with the Wind". As Miss Manton's sassy servant, she dominates the screen on each appearance and even gets to throw a vase of water over poor schmo Fonda. He was never that successful as a comic rather than dramatic actor, although this film serves as something of a dress rehearsal for the wildly entertaining "The Lady Eve" (1941) where the stars are re-teamed.

I still have the film on my hard disc and am contemplating whether or not to keep a copy; the real question being do I want to see it a third time. Despite some zingy dialogue, especially from Levene, much of the movie verges on the silly without being all that entertaining. However I am delighted that the BBC scheduled it, since most channels seem to think that anything pre-Star Wars is only of antediluvian interest. I therefore have very high hopes that the three RKO obscurities from 1934 and the early 40s which they are showing this weekend before most people get out of bed -- all of them new to television -- will continue this trend. One of these days I might actually get to see everything on my ever-growing 'must see' list, although I know how unlikely this is.

On that subject I have made a startling discover, although it will not come as news to those more net-savvy than PPP. I recently bought a new computer which seems to behave itself rather better than the chug-along machine I was using, making watching films on it a more attractive proposition than before. A surprising number of my listed films, including those never available on tape or DVD, have been posted in full on You-Tube and other sites. I was therefore able a few days ago to watch the l936 Russian film "Circus", which was recommended to me by a clever video store clerk in St. Petersburg several years ago; (I'm not really name-dropping here!). It was super fun, even if there were no helpful subtitles. I am now looking forward to viewing the ever-elusive "Dybbuk" (1937), even if I will need make do with one spoken language and a non-English set of subtitles. Fortunately there are some early English-language movies also saved and awaiting my delectation. As I said in the header above, I am potty about movies and I'll continue to seek out every rarity that crosses my wayward path, even if some of them turn out to be disappointments. The pursuit itself is the pleasure.   

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

In-flight Movies Redux

My affection for transatlantic in-flight movies is two-fold. They serve a useful purpose in alleviating the boredom of flying, especially westbound when sleep is unlikely -- although my ideal way to fly would be to nod off just as the flight becomes airborne and to wake a minute or two before landing. Secondly they give me the opportunity to catch up on unseen recent films, especially Oscar-winners and nominees, before they drift down to satellite showings. Mind you as I have written before, one doesn't really 'see' films on a plane -- both the miniature screen and the often inaudible sound mean that one really needs to 'see' the films a second time if they have anything at all to recommend them. Still, in-flight viewing serves as a taster and I soon know whether indeed they should receive a more traditional second view in due course.

Having said this, I will probably re-view all five (yes, five!) movies I sort of saw on the two legs of my trip -- although only one of them (despite received honours) really grabbed me as being something rather special. So here goes my report with only the sketchiest of reviews:

Argo: I can just about understand how this flick, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, grabbed the high ground at the last Academy Awards. No doubt the Academy voters were influenced by some sort of 'feel good' factor at Uncle Sam's being able to pull the wool over those evil Iranian eyes, with an ingenious plot to free the six Americans who had sought refuge at the Canadian Embassy during the 1980 hostage crisis. Constructed as a combination history lesson and suspenseful thriller, the film mainly holds one's attention. However, I think that it may eventually be relegated to the ranks of those movies that people wonder 'How in the world was that ever voted the best film of its year?' In twenty years time it may seem no better a movie than 1953's dreary winner "The Greatest Show on Earth". Nor really a great classic

Silver Linings Playbook: To me this felt like another severely over-hyped film, audience-pleasing and reasonably well-acted by its ensemble cast, however little more than a minor trifle. As the recently released patient from a mental hospital, Bradley Cooper gives a believably nuanced performance, and he possibly deserved an Oscar nod more than his flavour-of-the-month co-star Jennifer Lawrence, who actually won best actress. I found her whiny voice abrasive and her persona neither charming nor winning. However it was good to see a powerful yet restrained (for once) turn from Robert DeNiro as Cooper's Dad.

Untouchable: After the above two films I had just about given up on the plane's sound system and I watched this French charmer without earphones, relying on the subtitles for coherence. So I definitely need to watch it again, especially since I thought it was the best of the five by a long chalk. Francois Clozet gives a terrific performance as the wheelchair-bound aesthete who finds a whole new meaning to life in the hands of his African carer, Omar Sy. There is more to savour than art and music; there's also women and weed! Rumour has it that there may be an American re-make with Dustin Hoffman hamming it up -- and no doubt someone horrendous like Chris Tucker in the black role. Let's keep our fingers crossed that this will not happen. Force yourselves, folks, to embrace films in other languages...

The Sessions: I had heard good things of this movie about a sex therapist helping an iron-lung patient to lose his virginity. It was remarkably good, although not necessarily a film that demands multiple viewings Helen Hunt gives a brave, Oscar-nominated performance as the therapist, spending much of the film in full-frontal nudity. Nearly 50 when the film was shot, her body is in remarkable shape, while her face is strangely botox-frozen, giving a peculiar dichotomy to the role. John Hawkes is sensational as the paralyzed poet with a sense of humour and it is his performance that really deserved unreceived kudos. William H. Macy is also on top-form as Hawkes' sympathetic parish priest. All in all, a very moving and superior low-budget effort

Flight: I can't say that I really saw much of this movie as I drifted in and out of some needed and pointless-to-resist sleep, but it does seem another winner for Denzil Washington. The film marks a welcome return to live-action features for director Robert Zemeckis after his so-so stop-motion efforts of the last decade. Washington plays an addicted personality (booze and coke) who just happens to be an ace passenger pilot and who manages to prevent a major disaster, despite being high as a kite while high in the air. What becomes of him and the truth as the facts emerge is the dilemma that powers this film, although the ending is a wee bit too tidy. He is strongly supported by Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, and if I'm not mistaken his first 'white' love interest in the shape of Kelly Reilly -- something I've heard he resisted in his earlier films. It's a blockbuster performance which continues to define his position amongst the top talents of his generation, although I must confess to admiring him more than actually liking him.    

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

La Vertige (1926)

Among the somewhat specialised film festivals that come and go over the year is one aimed at the fashion industry and called rather pointedly 'The Fashion in Film Festival'. Since one of their venues is the National Film Theatre, I do receive details of their offerings in the monthly film programme, and have over the last few years been able to view some of their more obscure selections -- particularly as they are very keen on modernist trends in silent movies from the 1920s. The organisers have occasionally more or less spoiled their film choices by interrupting the proceedings with strutting dancers or models. Fortunately this was not the case with the above movie from the prolific but generally overlooked French director Marcel l'Herbier.

In fact he is the star turn at this year's festival which features five of his films from the late 20s/early 30s and attempts to showcase his obsessions with stylised interiors and costuming. He called upon the talents of many of the foremost architects, artists, designers, and couturiers of his day, aiming to synthesise all of these arts and make cinema a showcase for his aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed this film is a feast for the eye. It is, however, also extremely long and tedious; despite being described in the programme as being 90 minutes long, it ran for a full 130!  Ouch! I have seen and reviewed some of L'Herbier's other silents, and looking back on my comments I note that I really liked his "Living Dead Man" (also 1926) but hated his "L'Inhumaine" (1924) which is also being featured in this festival.

The director himself, when asked to base this film on a popular melodramatic play by Charles Mere, protested that the plot was' boring'; he therefore decided to overcome this handicap by creating (in his words) a 'visual sauce' that would counteract the trite action. Unfortunately unless one is au fait with the now largely forgotten creative figures of that period, this is not enough. The rather skimpy plot starts in Russia in 1917 at the height of the revolution. The family of General Count Svirsky cower in their palatial rooms expecting to be eaten alive by the angry peasants. However he does seize this opportunity to murder the dashing young officer Dimitri who has become his younger wife's paramour. Regardless, she stands by her husband and they escape to a louche and luxurious life on the French Riviera. There she catches sight of Henri de Cassel who is the living image (le vertige) of her lost lover. Both roles are taken by the director's muse Jaque Catelain, whom the director treats as the focus and the real star of the movie. I don't know why, but in so many silents the stars look far too old for their roles and in fact Emmy Lynn who plays the Countess Svirska was in her late thirties here and rather stout with it.. It is also something of a problem when the leading man is far prettier than his would-be love. This was the case in spades in the earlier "L'Inhumaine in which Catelain also starred, and it is unavoidedly noticeable here too.

Lynn serves as an adequate clothes-horse for some of the more eye-popping costumes, but it is Catelain who really shines in his double-breasted suits and geometric dressing gown, a beautiful knight out to rescue the fair damsel. However a 'visual symphony' or 'visual poetry' as the film was described on its release are unfortunately insufficient reasons to sit through more than two hours of stilted acting and unrewarding action from some basically unsympathetic characters.

I'm off to the States tomorrow, but will return with some in-flight movie reviews (now that's something I've not done for a while) on my return. See you then...   

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I'm So Excited! (2013)

A new film from Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar is a cause for excitement and enough to get me heading to the nearest cinema showing the work at the first possible opportunity. The flamboyant director always has some new tricks up his sleeve and all of his films since the start of this decade have shown a new maturity, contemplative approach, and a noir sensibility missing from his thoroughly entertaining but often hollow-cored early romps. On the surface his latest movie (which has attracted some of the most lukewarm notices of his career) may seem a throwback to the iconoclastic and empty-headed early farces, but there is far more to the film than that. Even if there were not, it is a joyous ninety minutes full of its own charms.

The original title "Los Amantes Pasajeros" (loosely translated at the Loving Passengers) tells one as little about the movie as the chosen English title taken from the Pointer Sisters' 1984 pop hit -- a rendition of which performed by three more-than-camp air stewards becomes the film's highlight. The action, such as it is, takes place largely on a transatlantic flight of a mythical airline between Madrid and Mexico City. However, in a seemingly unrelated cameo at the start of the film between two of the director's muses (Antonio Banderos and Penelope Cruz), the flight is sent off with a major fault -- its landing gear is compromised. When this becomes apparent, the flight captain radios for help in finding a suitable strip where he can attempt an emergency landing. Nothing seems to be immediately available...

What to do? The passengers and their stewardesses in the cramped economy section are drugged to keep them quiet and to avoid any panic. The panic is largely confined to the three gay stewards who act as the spearheads of the action forming a viaduct between the virtually empty business-class section and the cockpit (and never has that word been subject to more innuendos than in this film). In business class we have seven passengers: a honeymoon couple exhausted after three days of shagging, a failed actress turned dominatrix (Cecelia Roth -- one of the few members of the director's stock company with a major role) who claims to have video evidence of indiscretions by Spain's most powerful men, a famous actor trying to escape from his most recent failed amour, a banker fleeing the aftermath of his financial misdeeds, a shady 'business advisor' who is actually a hitman, and a plain, middle-aged 'psychic' who is desperate to lose her virginity. One of the stewards is the not so secret lover of the married pilot, while the second is panting to pleasure the purportedly hetero first officer, and the chubby third (a memorable Carlos Areces) spends much of his time praying at his portable pop-up shrine.

As the plane flies in circles over Toledo, the seven privileged passengers rattle about in their pastel cabin, exchanging intimacies, at first verbal and then sexual, egged on by the potent brew distributed by the irrepressible stewards --  a mixture of juice, champagne, and mescaline (retrieved from an unmentionable hiding place by the randy groom). Without any inflight entertainment or private telephones, their various secrets are revealed on the one public telephone which provides no privacy, as their conversations are boomed out for all to hear.  In this imminently life-threatening scenario, each of them must evaluate what really matters in their lives and what they must do change things -- should they survive. Eventually they are able to land at the totally deserted 'La Mancha' Airport (shades of quixotic adventures) -- but actually a reference to one of two Spanish 'white elephant' airports built during an expansive boom period and now abandoned in the new age of austerity.

The film can easily be read to symbolise the state of the Spanish nation -- the unconscious and helpless majority in the cattle car blissfully unaware of long-range problems, while the privileged few find themselves in a holding pattern, without really knowing how to find the right answers. As a metaphor for Spain's financial woes, one might rate this movie a downer. However all troubles recede to the background in the irreverent hands of the stewards' wonderfully choreographed gay Greek chorus. Without them the film would be just a loosely-knit collection of mildly diverting vignettes, but their infectious joie de vivre in the face of catastrophe makes this movie a wonderfully entertaining trifle. Almodovar examines the state of his nation with a deft and irreverent hand, and while possibly a lightweight outing, this film is far, far from a failure.     

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Iron Man 3

The critics have been lavish in their praise for this third instalment in the Tony Stark saga, but the fanboys have been having a bit of a moan. Never having been a teenaged comic buff myself, I approached this outing with a fairly open mind and can side with the critics: this film provides fine slam-bang action along with a cheeky and charismatic turn from the ever-likeable Robert Downey Jr.

I have always reckoned Downey and admired his acting chops, even when his personal life was a drug-fuelled mess. That he has cleaned up his act to become one of Hollywood's biggest money-spinners and the star of this Marvel franchise is pretty great in my book. While the first two Iron Man films were directed by Jon Favreau, who has only a quirky cameo in this film before spending the remainder of the movie in a coma, the first sequel was a real let-down.  The new director, Shane Black, has lent his fine comic hand to this third outing. Black starred Downey (at about the time he was turning his life around) in his debut feature "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (2005), but before that he was one of Hollywood's best 'go-to' writers for comedy-action flicks, penning all of the Lethal Action movies and two of the Bruce Willis actioners. In other words he has a finely-honed sense of the ridiculous and Downey is more than adept at handling his throw-away one-liners, which is to my mind a large part of the film's appeal.

The nay-sayers seem to think that superhero films don't need lots of drama, only non-stop action. Black's outing has action in spades -- possibly a little too much and too exhausting to watch for my grown-up taste -- but he also has time to deal with meatier personal issues. The main gripe against this film is that writer-director Black has taken Iron Man's greatest nemesis from the comics, The Mandarin, and turned him into a big joke. That's sacrilege in their book! As this deadly enemy who Stark challenges and who all but destroys his home and his hubris, (Sir) Ben Kingsley provides a sparkling menacing and then cravenly hilarious embodiment of would-be evil. The real villain it emerges is Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian who has used scientist Rebecca Hall's findings to create an army of self-regenerating ex-cripples (or something like that). His actual motives are far from clear as he gleefully embraces his nutty world-conqueror ambitions, although he obviously nurses a snub from Stark in his nerdy days thirteen years earlier.

Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts is back as Stark's very definite love interest and takes a big part in the strange storyline, obviously enjoying being able to showcase her rock-like 40ish abs. Also returning to the series is Don Cheadle as Iron Man's military pal. With William Sandler as the kidnapped President, Miguel Ferrer as an untrustworthy Vice-President, and Paul Betthany lending his superior, dulcet tones to Jarvis (the butler of the suits), the film is smartly cast. However most appealing of all is young actor Ty Simpkins as a techy sidekick who helps Stark when he is at his lowest.

There was perhaps too much jokiness about the supposedly indestructible metal suits falling apart willy-nilly (another no-no from the fans), but this was probably as much to do with creating 3-D effects in the film. Quite honestly, after a while I stopped noticing that the movie was in fact shot in three dimensions and it would lose very little in its 2-D version. This in fact speaks well for Black's opting to combine a bit of serious soul-searching with the all-out action. Otherwise 130 minutes would have been more than I for one could handle.

The film's ending (which I won't reveal) was a strange one, insofar as it does not really set up the action for further sequels, although no doubt Iron Man is contracted to appear in the next "Avengers Assemble". It will be interesting to discover whether Iron Man will remain a fairly satisfying trilogy or whether a new kink will be found to continue with Downey in the role. Of course this is well before some bright spark decides to 'reinvent' the character somewhere down the future pike.