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 entrĂ©e, 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.