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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Like an increasing number of movies featured on Sky Box Office (i.e. pay-per-view), this film never made its way to Sky's Premier Channel and I was beginning to think that it was yet another movie that had fallen through the cracks. I was therefore pleased to see it turning up on Channel Four in an early evening 'kiddie' slot. I was particularly interested in watching this film, not because I am a great lover of updated fairy tales, but because I think its director, Tarsem Singh (occasionally billed as just Tarsem) possesses incredible visual style and flair. His little-seen 2006 movie "The Fall" was one of the most imaginative and beautiful films of the last goodness-knows-how-many years.

As its title implies, this movie is another version of the Snow White story but it had the misfortune to be released the same year as the infinitely more successful "Snow White and the Huntsman", which Sky did deign to show. Perhaps that flick with its trendier casting, including Kristen Stewart, had more box office clout, but it is certainly to my mind the lesser film. "Mirror Mirror" stars Julia Roberts as the wicked stepmother, an improvement I think on the other film's gorgeous but icy Charlize Theron. Roberts seems to be having a ball playing the baddie, hamming it up beautifully, and is not particularly vain about her aging looks. When her younger version in the magic mirror comments on her wrinkles, she retorts that they are not wrinkles, but 'crinkles'. The Snow role is filled by Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, who looks every inch the virginal innocent despite her caterpillar eyebrows, and is certainly more appealing than the downbeat, pouty Stewart. Her Prince Charming takes the hunky form of Armie Hammer, just before he began to loom large in popularity, and he displays an unsuspected ability for mocking self-disparaging humour. Rounding out the cast are comic stalwarts Nathan Lane and Michael Lerner and seven 'proper' dwarfs with three-dimensional personalities -- unlike the other movie's use of actors such as Ray Winstone's and Bob Hopkins' heads on little bodies. 

The respected film critic Leonard Maltin whose opinions I normally trust, especially when it comes to movies for youngsters, writes that this film is a poor excuse for a fairy tale, lacking whimsy, magic, and heart. I must disagree. I found the movie a charmer, enhanced by Tarsem's taste for flamboyant sets and costuming. For a start, having the dwarfs fighting on stylized stilts so that they appear as fearsome giants, is an awesome idea -- this alone is Maltin's whimsy and magic run riot. As for 'heart', Tarsem may adopt a certain tongue-in-cheek approach to his love story, but the players manage it with complete aplomb. The bit where Hammer is possessed by one of Roberts' love potions -- a 'puppy-love' spell as it happens -- and reacts to the world as an overgrown puppy is beautifully realised. The dwarfs do their best to release him from her clutches by various bits of bodily violence, but only Snow's first kiss can do the trick. Roberts withers into the old hag she always was, Snow's 'dead' father is freed from her curse, and everyone can live happily ever after. How much more do you want Mr.  Maltin?

The end credits are fun too with updates on the dwarfs' future lives and with the whole cast doing a Bollywood style song and dance a la "Slumdog Millionaire". Don't knock it, Tarsem Singh is Indian-born after all. This may not be the most brilliant fairy tale rendering of all time, but it certainly is both a lot of fun and beautiful to behold.   

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Splendor (1989)

I probably saw this movie about ten years ago at the National Film Theatre and loved, loved, loved it as a homage to the beauty of cinema. I have been trying to see it again ever since, but it just wasn't available through the usual channels and seemed to be little-known, even amongst the most ardent cinema buffs. Now, courtesy of friend Richard (he of the mini-cinema), I have my own copy and was delighted to have the opportunity of a second view. It was written and directed by the prolific and still active Ettore Scola whose filmography includes a number of remarkable Italian movies, although perhaps one rung down from the so-called 'greats'.

Marcello Mastroianni, one of the most consistently entertaining cinema stars, plays Jordan, who as a youth toured the Italian countryside with his father's mobile movie van, setting up sheets for a screening in rustic town piazzas, which filled with wide-eyed and star-struck locals, sucked in by the fascination of the movies' dream-world. Now an adult he has inherited the small town cinema established by his dad -- The Splendor. When new, it formed the centrepiece of the town's social life, with crowds rushing in to fill every seat to view each new attraction. However over the years the locals have morphed from finding it the biggest event in town to a who-gives-a-damn attitude as television and other activities replaced its appeal. One has only to consider the number of local 'movie palaces' from one's own childhood which have closed down over the years in favour of multiplexes and home entertainment to understand Jordan's concern. Where once he sought to present world cinema as an art form -- a way of broadening the town-folks' experience to a world view -- now his crumbling cinema is being consumed by rising debt and will soon join the dinosaur's graveyard.

Along the way Jordan has acquired a love interest in the curvaceous shape of French actress Marina Vlady (it is not clear to me that they ever actually married) whose shapely form as the Splendor's usherette and ticket-seller was a magnet to the menfolk of the town. Foremost among her admirers is Massimo Troisi's Luigi, who learns the projectionist's art to remain close to her and the movie-house. ( Troisi was the heart of the great film "Il Postino" and he died shortly after it was completed at the terribly early age of 41). In this movie, lured by his obsession with Vlady's Chantal, he also learns to love the magic of the movies along with Jordan and can empathise with the latter's heartbreak in the theatre's closing days.

Throughout the movie Jordan reminisces about times long gone by; the past shot in black and white seems far more colourful than the present-day action's Technicolor drabness. At one point we see him watching the closing scenes of "It's a Wonderful Life" in his nearly deserted theatre, and the tears form in his eyes, not just for the moving film itself but for a way of life fast disappearing. On the day before the Splendor is due to be re-developed into some sort of modern furniture store, the theatre is filled one last time by an audience singing "Auld Lang Syne" just like in the Jimmy Stewart flick, and indeed they and we can feel the tears welling.

This film was released the same year as "Cinema Paradiso" which stole all the kudos. They are both great Italian movies, but are really different kinds of homages to the movies. 'Paradiso' is more of a love-letter to Toto's youth and his love of father-figure projectionist Philippe Noiret, while this movie's melancholy focus is the fleeting loss of the dreams that movies can provide. I'm sure you are all familiar with the charms of 'Paradiso', but this film is well worth seeking out as an appropriate and equally moving companion piece.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969)

I'm sure I've said it before, but that won't stop my saying it again. There are many films that I 'know', i.e. that I can recall having seen and can just about remember the 'important' bits, as opposed to the many, many movies I watch which are increasingly nearly instantly forgettable. The film above is a good case in point, as I have certainly seen it at least twice previously, but would not have suspected that a third viewing would alter my perspective and evaluation. 

It is in fact a very good and in its way a very bitter film from director Sydney Pollack, based on the 1935 novel by Hector McCoy. He extracts the madness of that era's dance marathon phenomena and shapes into not just a haunting portrait of the Depression years, but also an allegory on the America of his own period. In his worldview, the great American Dream is rotten at its core. To readers not familiar with the craze, desperately poor couples would enter the dancehall for the initially important seven meals a day and the ultimate jackpot, here l500 silver dollars -- a fortune in their eyes -- payable to the last couple left standing after a gruelling sixty or so odd days on their increasingly shuffling sore feet, with only ten minute rest breaks every two hours. They are cheered on by a paying audience, each with their own favourites, who have come to enjoy the 'show'.

Among the participants are a hard-faced and disillusioned Jane Fonda, who when asked why she has come to California, replies that at least you don't freeze while you starve. When her obviously ill proposed partner is disqualified from entering on health grounds, she pairs up with drifter Michael Sarrazin (a handsome but slightly vacant actor whose career became less and less interesting). Then there is glamourpuss Susannah York with her Jean Harlow platinum bob and slinky dress, who hopes some passing talent scout will see her and her equally dead-keen-to-succeed seedy at the edges partner and whisk them away to stardom. A young Bruce Dern has entered with his heavily pregnant wife, Bonnie Bedelia, two stockcar drifters yearning for some security for the expected 'bundle of joy'. Red Buttons is an aging ex-sailor and a marathon veteran who is hoping for a last success with his similarly mature partner. The rest of the crowd is comprised of less well-known actors who appear more and more familiar as the days march on and the numbers dwindle.

Overseeing these pairs is the ex-fairground barker Gig Young (who won an Oscar for his role) as the goading MC with his cries of "Yowser, yowser, yowser". He is assisted by a ghoul-faced Al Lewis (formerly Grandpa of the Munsters), a roller-skating steward Michael Conrad (later familiar from Hill Street), and a gaggle of 'doctors' and 'nurses'. To Young and his team the gruelling procedure is far from being a contest, but more a series of gimmicks to keep the punters entertained. Every so often the slow drag of weary couples, usually with one of the pair asleep on the other's shoulder, is interrupted by a frantic 'horserace' around a painted circle with the last three couples across the line to be eliminated. The sick determination on the participants' increasingly strained faces is painful to behold. When any of the contestants fall by the wayside with exhaustion, psychosis, or indeed death, they are carried off by the 'caring' crew and the audience assured that the 'kid' will soon be fine.

Fonda and Sarrazin fall out when she suspects him of canoodling with York and they switch partners. But when the York's would-be superstar boyfriend leaves Fonda for a 10-day offer of work on a Western oater, she has 24 hours to find a new partner or to be disqualified. First she latches on to Button's sailor when his partner falls aside, but is left on her own again when he in turn collapses after one of the gruelling races. Later when York too needs to be carted off after her breakdown under a streaming shower, Young shows a surprisingly understanding and tender streak (despite his having previously 'stolen' her spare dress and make-up to make her seem more pathetic to the audience). So Fonda and Sarrazin are forced back into each others' arms; "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl", crows Young. They decline his suggestion that they get hitched on the floor (to score lots of congratulatory loot from the crowd) and in fact drop out of the 'contest' when they discover that the hard-fought for grand prize will be proportionately reduced to cover Young's many expenses supposedly on the winning couple's behalf. We never do discover which couple 'wins' as they are all losers and the charade goes on and on and on.

The film is slightly flawed in my mind with its flash-forward and flash-back structure. We are aware that Sarrazin has been arrested and tried for some crime, but we don't yet know the whys and the wherefores. Apart from an introductory reminiscence from his childhood, which is important to the narrative, the other short sequences only detract from the picture's continuity. Still Pollack's puppet-master shows great skill in manipulating his large cast, making us feel that we know each of them better than we might wish. Also his use of music -- obviously important in a dance competition -- is wonderfully fluid and timely; it's amazing how many songs of this sad period have become classics in their own right, and how moving they remain. This is a major exercise in motion picture-making and perhaps deserves its own classic status. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Silent Souls (2010)

After a longer than desirable holiday break in posting some new insights into the weird and wonderful viewing that dominates my life, as predicted in the previous entry below, none of the proposed Christmas-scheduled gems really turned me on. Of the proffered titles, I only found "Wreck-it Ralph" of vague entertainment value, largely for its psychedelic images and rather strange story-line, and "The Wonderful Burt Wonderstone" a definite oddity without being overly diverting. I haven't gotten around to "Drive" yet, which is currently languishing on the hard-drive of my Sky Box. However to temper my earlier comments, I must congratulate the usually derided as low-market Channel Five for their selection of classic golden oldies over the period. I didn't watch any of them mind you, since I have my own copies of virtually all, but at least they showed some thought and intelligence in their selection. (And their programme on the 'best' Christmas movies wasn't as bad as I feared either).

So what is the above-titled film? Good question! It has been sitting on a VHS tape (remember those?) for some four months now, having been taped on an upstairs recorder on a night when I had too many overlaps on the Sky Box and it resolutely refused to play on a downstairs machine. (OK, I admit we still have two VHS machines in addition to our various DVD players and recorders -- which we continue to find useful). Anyhow when I was generally living downstairs with my pesky ankle, I put the tape aside to watch upstairs in due course and only remembered it a few days ago. And what a strange and fascinating movie it turned out to be.

It's a Russian film (original title "Ovsyanki) which made the festival circuit a few years back but which probably never had much of a release anywhere. I know nothing about its director Aleksey Fedorchenko, but he and a very talented cinematographer have fashioned a gripping insight into a previously unknown culture. The two leading characters are factory-owner Miron and his employee and good friend, the bachelor Aist; they are descendants of an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe that lost its own language and national identity many centuries ago, but which retains -- almost as a folk memory -- the ancient myths, traditions, and rituals of their Meryan heritage.

Miron's much-loved and much-younger wife Tanya has died, but he refuses to commit her body to the morgue. He enlists Aist to accompany him on a road trip to a distant sacred lake where he spent his honeymoon, for them to cremate the body (on a pyre of axe-handles!) and to then scatter the ashes in the lake. The Meryan tradition is that drowning is the best possible death enabling one to merge with the water, but scattering the ashes therein is the next-best thing. Aist, whose late father was a na├»ve native folk-poet considered somewhat gaga by the local population, also wants to find his narrative voice but has so far been unsuccessful. He also nourished some serious lust for the late Tanya, although a rather promiscuous approach to sexual matters is another feature of their inherited culture. Knowing that he will be away from his home for several days, he takes with him a pair of caged buntings (some drab birdies) which he has just bought. They and the blanket-wrapped body of Tanya on the back seat are the other passengers on their journey. Dialogue is sparing as they pass through the endless barren landscape, apart from 'smoking'; "do you mind if I smoke", asks Miron, which in this context means revealing all of the sexual perversities that he and Tanya have enjoyed.

After the pair have completed the funeral finalities, they seek out the company of two young whores to help them feel more alive, but Miron can really only look forward to the day when he will be reunited with his wife in the holy waters. Without getting into any serious spoilers, I will only tell you that the buntings become the conduit by which the pair are enabled to find their respective ideal destinies. The ending comes as both a shock and a satisfying poetic conclusion to the story of two unusual lives.

Now, that to me was far better viewing than most of the disposable movies on offer over recent weeks....  The movie is available on DVD and is probably worth seeking out.