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.       

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010)

Absolutely bloody typical -- if you'll pardon my language! I've wanted to see this French film since I first saw it reviewed a few years ago. However if it had a cinema showing here, it must have been a brief one and it has never been issued on DVD in Britain. So when I was in New York a few weeks ago, I managed to source a copy -- which in itself wasn't straightforward. So what happens? BBC4 decides to screen it last weekend. Sometimes you can't win -- or patience is a virtue -- or something.

Anyhow, why was I so keen to see it? Well, historically any film starring Gerard Depardieu has proved to be something worth watching -- even if his personal behaviour grows ever more bizarre keeping pace with his waistline. In this movie he plays a nearly illiterate country bumpkin whose very limited world begins to expand after a chance meeting in the park with a very old lady. The concept sounded irresistible from the get-go and so it was. He is sufficiently popular amongst  his friends in the local tavern -- even if they continually affectionately mock his naivety and gaucheness or view him as the amusing village idiot. He ekes out a living with odd jobs and by selling the luscious vegetables that he grows in the yard of his mother's house (where he resides in a small trailer). He even has a comely young girlfriend (Sophie Guillermin) in local bus driver Annette. However through brief flashbacks we discover how he was derided at school by unkindly teachers and how he always seemed to come second in his mother's eyes as she dallied with a succession of abusive paramours.

Then he meets Margueritte  -- misspelled with two T's as she points out. She resides in a local upmarket senior home, but comes to the park each day to read and to watch the pigeons. There she gets into conversation with Depardieu's Germain who comes each day to make certain that all of the pigeons (which he has named) are present and accounted for. She is played by the extremely spritely Giselle Casadesus, a long-time stalwart of the Comedie Francaise, who was born in 1914. This would make her 95 or 96 when director Jean Becker shot this film and unbelievably she has featured in six films since. She is a retired scientist and bibliophile, caring and articulate, whose books line the walls of her small room; reading aloud now gives her the greatest pleasure. Germain protests that he is not much of a reader himself, but is captivated when he listens to her words each afternoon. What's more he retains what he hears. She compliments him on his excellent 'aural' memory, but he corrects her to say that he just remembers what is said. She gifts him a dictionary to help him explore the richness of words and the magic of literature, but he is frustrated with it; if he is unable to spell he can't find the words for which he is searching and it doesn't seem to have the right definitions. For example, a tomato is defined by its botanical name rather than by the various specific varieties that he grows. It is all very confusing to him, but he comes not only to love the way that Margueritte has begun to expand his horizons but to love her and her passion for life as well.

However everything comes to a turning point when Margueritte confides that she is beginning to lose her eyesight and will no longer be able to read. Germain is determined to perfect his own abilities so that he can fill this gap for her. However when he rushes to the nursing home to share the happy news that Annette is pregnant, he finds that her Belgian relatives who had been contributing to the costs have taken her and her precious books away. He traces them to their faraway home to discover that they have dumped the old lady in a grim, dark government facility. Spoiler here....he has no option but to physically whisk her away, back to the house that he has now inherited from his latterly loony-tunes mother. It turns out Ma cared for him more than she ever showed. And there the tale ends.

The French title for this film, "La Tete en Friche", is rather more apt than its English title. Loosely translated it means the head as an empty, unploughed field. With love and gentleness, Germain's head begins to fill up with the pleasures of literature and learning, much to the consternation of his mates who marvel at the 'big' words he has begun to spout -- not to show off so much as to demonstrate that he now understands them. This storyline could have produced an unsufferably twee film, sickening in its calculating, saccharine sweetness. However Becker with the help of his two wonderful and adept leads has given us a movie that is both sincere and affecting, warm and human. You really can't ask for much more other than to hope that there is never an American remake.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Devil and the Deep (1932)

Having only recently discovered the treasure-house that is YouTube in terms of sourcing early films -- sometimes only clips but often the full movie -- I have been like a child let loose in the candy store. I am saving some of the more delicious treats for future viewing with much of the joy being in the anticipation, but I have also managed to cross off half a dozen 'would-like-to-sees' from my famous list.

These include: "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" (1980) a rather saccharine Christmas short which James Stewart made for television in cooperation with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; a somewhat disappointing "Paris is Burning", a black drag documentary from 1990 (I somehow envisioned something even more flamboyant and subversive); "The Killer is Loose" (1956) which has mild-mannered bank clerk Wendell Corey engineering a raid on his own bank, seeing his wife killed in the crossfire when he is arrested, and then escaping prison to seek revenge on police officer Joseph Cotton by killing his wife, Rhonda Fleming; and a pre-code curiosity from 1932 "Thirteen Women" which had half-caste Myrna Loy (she had a lot of similar roles in her early movies for some reason) systematically wreaking havoc on the gaggle of women who had made her life a misery at school. The last of these was fascinating -- not good so much as weird. 

However, the above captioned film has been on my list for yonks; I knew it was available on an U.S. DVD, but had never got around to buying a copy. The reason for its inclusion was that it features a memorable performance from one of my all-time screen favourites, Charles Laughton. It was in fact his American film debut and he is introduced in the front credits as the 'eminent English character actor". "The Old Dark House" was in fact made first, but released subsequently so that commercial hay could be made of his teaming with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant (in one of his earliest films). Laughton plays a submarine commander at a port somewhere in the middle East who is obsessively jealous and possessive of his comely wife. There is obviously no love lost on her part, but whether her flirtations justify his worst suspicions is a moot point. Her first would-be love object is the dashing young officer Grant, so Laughton promptly dismisses him from his post, and he sadly disappears from the story.  Bankhead runs off into the night and meets up with Cooper for a caution-to-the-winds romantic evening; however she discovers on the morrow that he is in fact Grant's replacement on Laughton's vessel, and her husband immediately plots their comeuppance.

When Laughton discovers that she is on board in the attempt to explain matters to Cooper, he launches the sub earlier than scheduled and sabotages the vessel, plotting to put an end to any possible romance between Bankhead and the attractive officer. However, he cripples the vessel so badly that everyone's life is in danger as water pours through the hatches. When Bankhead appeals to the crew that her hubby is well and truly gaga, Cooper mutinies and takes over command. It is then a mad scramble to save the lives of all on board. In a final scene between Coop and Charlie, with the former brandishing a gun and the latter waving an axe, Laughton finally locks himself in a separate compartment, hacks at a photo of Bankhead with his trusty axe, and laughing hysterically all the while finally sinks under the rising water. His is an over-the-top but bravura piece of acting and I can think of no other actor who could have gotten away with such histrionics.

Although she appeared in occasional silent movies between 1918 and 1928, Bankhead was primarily a stage actress. She had a Hollywood fling in 1931 and 1932 when she made six or seven movies of which this was the penultimate, but did not appear in films again until Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944). Never having seen her on stage, I don't know whether she shone more brightly there, but in this film she serves mainly as a spur to the action and a rather elegant clotheshorse. She wears slinky gowns throughout, flattering her slim but womanly figure, and even manages to rise through the water to escape from the sub in a long cocktail dress and high heels! Cooper's role is strangely wooden -- he was certainly capable of more emotive acting later on -- but he plays the requisite tall, handsome hunk adequately. Grant's screen time is so limited that one gets only a small indication of the charmer he would become. Technical credits are excellent and the underwater scenes are both exciting and surprisingly expertly handled by jobbing director Marion Gering.

A big thank you to whoever uploaded this film (albeit in six parts) to YouTube. I enjoyed every bit of the extravagant drama and unexpected casting.


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The RKO Oddities

When I last wrote I mentioned that I was looking forward to three new-to-television oldies from RKO, so I do feel I obliged to comment on them. The first two were "Curtain Call" (1940) and "Footlight Fever" (1941), but for some reason only the first of these found its way onto my hard disc. Never mind! The second was a sequel of sorts to the first movie and purportedly not as successful. Both films star Alan Mowbray and Donald McBride as a theatrical producer-director team and their double act was only sporadically amusing, to the extent that a second pairing might have begun to become annoying. The story was a kind of precursor of "The Producers": in order to salvage their relationship with their prima donna star who is threatening to sign with another company, the pair commission the worst script they can find as her contractual swansong. They hope that it will do such harm to her reputation that she will be obliged to do their bidding.  Unfortunately she thinks it is the greatest play ever and the boys realise that they stand to lose a fortune, especially since the author, Little-Miss-No-Talent-from-the-sticks, refuses to alter a sacred word. 

Like I said, only mildly amusing before the predictable denouement and a second helping of the same characters would have been de trop. The third film being shown, however, proved to be an absolute gem or perhaps it just happened to tickle my funny-bone. "Sing and Like It" (1934) is a forgotten B-movie from the prolific jobbing director William Seiter, active from the early days, and subsequently the helmsman for such minor pleasures as "Sons of the Desert", "If You Could Only Cook", and assorted Shirley Temple films. In this flick Nat Pendleton and Pert Kelton, normally secondary character actors, are given the leads as an ambitious gang-leader and his moll. She yearns to be on the stage, bored with her pampered life, and he yearns for better quality heists. While he and his gang, dressed to the nines in evening wear, are busy robbing a bank, he overhears a staff amateur dramatic society rehearsal and in particular a rather talentless ZaSu Pitts crooning a soppy paean to 'Mother'. Pendleton is so moved by the sentimentalism (his own dear old mum is serving time) that he forces impresario Edward Everett Horton to star Pitts in his new show, much to Kelton's disgust. Shadows of "Bullets over Broadway" here!

Pitts faithful paramour is played by the always wonderful John Qualen, who only wants to settle down and raise tomatoes, but she yearns for her name in Broadway lights, despite her obvious shortcomings. Horton is terrific as the harassed producer, tearing his hair at the indignities heaped upon him, especially since Pendleton wants to jazz up the script with bad jokes from one of his thuggish sidekicks. However the stand-out performance is from Ned Sparks (a familiar on-screen face, again from the silent days) playing Toots, Pendleton's right-hand man. He acts as a sardonic one-man Greek chorus on the proceedings and his quips and double-takes are priceless. The scene where he pokes a gun in the ribs of the doyen of theatre critics on the show's opening night, to obtain the required cheers, tears, and laughs, is brilliant. As a spoof of the gangster pictures of the period and with enough pre-code double entendres to boot, the movie is tremendous fun, even if one does have to hear the silly 'mommy' song reprised ad nauseam. At a scant seventy minutes, this film never outstays its welcome.

Coincidentally there was also a showing of another RKO rarity "Melody Cruise" (1933) which has been on television previously but which I had forgotten and this proved to be another highlight of my weekend viewing. Directed by Mark Sandrich just before he went on to do five of the Astaire/Rogers confections, this film also relishes pre-code possibilities and combines these with innovative musical numbers and brilliant editing, using the popular 'wipe' technique of the 30s and great photo montages. Good old Charlie Ruggles, the only majorish name in the cast, plays a would-be satyr 'though theoretically faithful to his long-suffering wife, on a solo cruise from the East to the West Coast. After a boisterous bon voyage party in his stateroom, he awakes the next morning to find two scantily-clad showgirls passed out on his sofa, who conveniently 'forgot' to get off the ship; with the help of a mercenary steward (a prancing Chick Chandler) who has cleverly thrown their clothes overboard, he tries to pass them off as his 'nieces' until he can get rid of them. His best pal also on the voyage is played (in his first screen role) by Phil Harris, later better known as a band leader, the husband of Alice Faye, and the voice of Baloo in "The Jungle Book" (1957). He is on board in continued pursuit of European sophisticate Greta Nissen, but is soon entranced by small-town ingénue Helen Mack, despite having promised Ruggles that he will never marry. He posts a letter to his friend's wife, outlining the latter's many indiscretions, 'to be opened should I ever marry' and Ruggles is frantic to prevent that letter ever being taken from its envelope.

The film is an unusual musical insofar as much of the dialogue is in rhyme and most of the 'songs' are actually spoken by the large and anonymous cast, often one word or line at a time such as in the 'He's not the Marrying Kind' number. There is also clever use of various sound effects -- a man sweeping, a whistle blowing -- as part of the music. The only 'sung' song by Harris, is echoed in other languages by Spanish, Italian, and German passengers on other parts of the cruise ship. Even a sub-Busby Berkeley number by a group of ice skaters (after the players have disembarked let me quickly add) has its moments. I'm told that Betty Grable plays one of the stewardesses, but it was obviously a blink-and-you-miss-it role, since I certainly didn't pick her out.

My movie life is full of such little pleasures. Time allowing, I would now go on to rhapsodize about the DVD of the more mainstream "Café Metropole" (1937) from 20th Century Fox starring the beauteous young Tyrone Power, a svelte Loretta Young, a host of my favourite supporting actors, and even two deleted dance turns by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. However, I'm out of time for now.