Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Watch them while you can...

I'm still jumping between my regular film watching -- TV, Satellite, DVDs, cinema as often as possible now -- and the amazing rarities I have found on YouTube. One problem with the latter is that movies which are still in copyright rather than in the public domain are often deleted by the powers that be, after complaints from interested commercial bodies. I truly believe that most of these uploads are posted in good faith (the people in question have nothing to gain by breaching copyright or perhaps do not even realise that the exchange of information is far from as free as we imagine or hope), but that does not help their longevity on YouTube.

In the last week I have watched two wonderful foreign language movies that I have long wished to see: "The Revolt of Job" (1983) and "The Crucified Lovers" (1954). The former has never been issued on DVD (and I saw an offer on Amazon to provide a new VHS copy for $999.00!) and the latter is only available on a French DVD at a pretty steep price. Both of them are currently available to view free of charge on YouTube with good quality English subtitles; however these titles are not hard-embedded, so it isn't possible to download them to watch intelligibly offline. Believe me I would if I could. Watching movies on one's computer or other electronic device is hardly the ideal way to see a film, but I would strongly advise making a beeline for these two titles while they are still there!

'Job' really warrants a place amongst the best 'Holocaust' movies ever made and given the number of fine films within this genre, it is amazing to me that it has not been more broadly available, especially since it was Oscar-nominated. Job is a relatively wealthy shepherd in rural Hungary, who like his namesake fights stoically against his destiny. He is an observant Jew and the rumblings of Hitler's armies and racist policies may not have reached his rural community in 1943, but he can see the writing on the wall. He and his aging wife have lost seven children to childhood diseases and he dearly wants an heir to whom he can leave not only his wealth but his wisdom. He goes to a nearby Christian orphanage to 'buy' a son (it was already against the law for Jews to adopt).  He takes home the initially rebellious Lacko, a boy with a 'way' with animals, who eventually comes to love his new mamma and poppa. The child also gradually learns the Jewish traditions that Job cherishes and to naively find God in all small things. When the round-up finally arrives and he sees his 'parents' being carted off to the camps, they pointedly avoid acknowledging the 'son' whom they have housed with former servants. Their heartbreak becomes ours as well. All of the casting is superb, particularly Ferenc Zenthe as Job (later a stalwart of Hungarian television drama) and non-professional Gabor Feder as the winning and inquisitive Lacko. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jews is underlined without resorting to unnecessary violence or histrionics, and it is therefore all the more powerful.

The second film is from the prolific Japanese master director Kenji Mizoguchi, made two years before his death. A fixture of the cinema scene in Japan since the late 1920s, his list of classics is endless and includes "Ugetsu Monogatari", "The Life of Oharu", and "Sansho the Bailiff". Indeed he produced three more late masterpieces after "Crucified Lovers" ("Princess Yang Kwei-fei", "The Taira Clan Saga", and "Street of Shame"). Set in l7th Century Kyoto and based on a drama from the l7th Century playwright Chikamatu) -- hence its Japanese title Chikamatu Monogatari (A Tale from Chikamatu) -- it is a tragic saga of human fallibility and doomed love. Osan has been married off to the older and miserly Ishun, the emperor's master printer, by her mother to provide for her feckless son; Osan's brother continues to beg for funds to prevent the family falling into disgrace. Meanwhile serving maid Otama harbours deep feelings for Mohei, Ishun's creative genius craftsman, while Mohei in turn would do anything to win the heart of Osan. He agrees to help her find the funds to bail out her brother yet again which would involve some financial sleight of hand with Ishun's hoarded wealth. Things come to a head when the plan is uncovered by Mohei's immediate superior who has been lining his own pockets for years.

Despite Otama's claiming that she had asked Mohei for the money, everyone is so very honourable that they will not accept any one else's lies. Ishun is furious with everyone,  threatens Mohei with jail, and will not accept Osan's pleas on his behalf. In fact he is now convinced that they are secret lovers (overlooking his own licentious approaches to Otama), despite the fact that they are both completely innocent. The fate of adulterous lovers who dare cross class boundaries is public crucifixion, as we have seen in an earlier scene, and the pair are forced to flee his wrath. Proud and greedy he wants his chattel of a wife back and deploys his minions to track them down; however he does not report the purported adultery to the police. When Osan feels that all is now hopeless and proposes to drown herself, Mohei admits his own long-repressed feelings and she finally falls into his arms. Cue a sorry end for all of the players, including Ishun whose wealth is stripped from him. This is about the only part of the tale that gives one any satisfaction, although it is lovely to see how truly happy the lost couple are together even as they face their own deaths.

I've gone into rather complicated and melodramatic plot detail perhaps unnecessarily, since the drama moves quickly and is surprisingly riveting. I seldom remember the names of many Japanese actors, but the faces remain recognizable over a range of fine films. The actress playing Osan was still active in 1993 in one of my favourite late Kurosawa films "Madadayo". Along with that director, Mizoguchi earns his place as one of Japan's truly great auteurs. Although this is a fairly formal story, fairly formally filmed, the director's eye is that of a true artist. As the lovers are shown fleeing over the water, the picture atmospherically becomes a mobile Japanese etching -- beautiful in its simplicity.

See them now!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Nebraska (2013)

I've now made my second excursion to the cinema this year to see the one movie of the awards season that has really piqued my interest. If you've watched any of the award shows so far, you may have noticed a grey and tousled-hair elderly chap seated amongst all the glitterati. That's good old Bruce Dern who has been Oscar-nominated for best actor in the above film. The flick has five other nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), and Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael). While it would not surprise me in the least if none of the above are honoured, passed over for more popular or worthy entertainments, all of the above are well worth discussing and the film is more than well worth viewing. In fact I recommend it highly.

Dern has been around since the early 60s, starting in television series, and moving on to some well-known features in the late 60s and 70s. Generally few recognised him as much of an actor and he was largely slotted into a variety of criminal, sociopathic, and psychopathic roles in which he excelled. He reached the epitome of creepy evil in the largely-forgotten but still memorable "Tattoo" (1981). Everyone assumed that he must be the archetypal 'baddie' since he is the only actor to have killed the All-American John Wayne on screen in "Cowboys" (1972). Although Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in "Coming Home" (1978) and a fine Tom Buchanan in the l974 "Great Gatsby", his career just toddled along. He worked constantly to date with plenty of small roles in recent movies and television movies, but very little that you might remember. That's until Payne cast him as the lead in "Nebraska".

He plays Woody Grant, a nobody, worn down by life, loss, booze, and the early stages of dementia. When he receives a marketing ploy letter advising him that he has won a million dollars (if his numbers match and he buys various magazine subscriptions), he is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to claim his 'winnings' in Omaha, Nebraska. No longer able to drive he tries to set out on foot along the dusty highway, until the police return him home. His caustic wife (Squibb) thinks he's a nutter and keeps threatening to put him in a home, but his younger son (Will Forte), who has never connected with his Dad, volunteers to drive him to Omaha in a last ditch attempt to win his father's affection. En route they plan to spend the weekend with relatives in Woody's home town in Northern Nebraska and Squibb arrives by bus to join them. Over a few beers Woody casually mentions to the old-timers that he has 'won' a million and soon everyone in town is celebrating his good fortune -- and quite a few of them want a piece of the non-existent bucks.

Squibb whom I really did not know previously steals every scene in which she appears, even though it is still Dern's movie overall. She played the very small part of Jack Nicholson's recently deceased wife in another of Payne's road movies "About Schmidt", but here her forthright manner and no-nonsense approach to life shine brightly. There is a scene in the local cemetery where she has a few choice words for each of the departed that is among the more memorable movie moments of recent times. While not himself nominated special praise should also go to Forte, best known as a comic starting off with his success on Saturday Night Live. There is nothing remotely funny about his role here, except possibly when he and his brother (Bob Odenkirk) try to retrieve a 'stolen' compressor from the wrong farm. He plays it straight, doing his best to protect his deluded Dad, and the movie's denouement arrives as a heart-warming surprise. That comes after he 'decks' local  Stacy Keach, Woody's former business partner and compressor-thief, who demanded most to profit from Woody's would-be wealth (audience cheers!).

Perhaps I should have mentioned sooner that the film is in black and white. Papamichael's camera work is nothing short of magnificent, capturing the bleak and desolate landscape of middle-America with its soulless and deadening roads and towns. It just wouldn't have worked in colour. Payne has made only a few movies but all of them interesting, the first of which ironically starred Dern's daughter Laura (Citizen Ruth in 1996). In this movie with its spot-on casting, he assembles a cross-section of monosyllabic and occasionally imbecilic characters who seem to personify the drab and largely uninteresting story of Woody's world. Some shots, like all of his male relatives gathered around the ballgame on the goggle box, would translate beautifully into remarkable stills of a world that modern technology has bypassed and time has forgotten. It's a grey, small-minded, and generally hopeless life.

I last saw Dern seated in the stalls at the recently televised BAFTAs and no, he and the film didn't win any awards. I expect the same scenario at next week's Oscars, but the movie truly deserves every one of its nominations and more.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My Dream Movie

There I was lying in bed trying to get back to sleep, when I started thinking about the film that I would write about today. I decided to start by saying that I was tempted to write 'they really don't make them like that any more'. I would then go on to rave about the inky blacks and dazzling whites of the cinematography and the sophisticated production design, costuming, and banter. I had to keep reminding myself what movie I was thinking about before drifting off, and could not quite keep the title in mind. Can you guess why? The answer is that I viewed no such film in the last week or so, although this daydream speaks volumes about my fondness for so many movies from the 30s and 40s.

So what have I been up to? Well I am still having a ball with the infinite treasures available on YouTube. There one can find nearly all the Mary Pickford films that have managed to elude me and a host of other rare silents from Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and other long-departed geniuses. I have now saved so many movies to 'watch later' that my down-time is spoken-for for months to come, especially since I need to slot these in with my regular pattern of satellite and terrestrial showings, the DVD backlog, and now the occasional cinema outing. YouTube is also providing the opportunity for me to find other titles that have been loitering on my 'must see' list and in the last week I have been able to cross out "Street Scene" (1931) -- very dated from the award-winning Edgar Rice play but still fascinating, "Pitfall" (1948) and "99 River Street" (1953) -- moderately entertaining noirs, and "Baby Love" (1968) -- a fairly vile British exploitation movie wasting a good cast as foils to Linda Hayden's nymphet.

I have also been busy burning copies of those films which are either sufficiently rare or personal favourites to add to my collection, and  I have a number which I have yet to view. Did I hear someone mention the word 'obsessive' again? Two of these that I have managed to watch are "Destiny" (1920) and "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925). The former, also known as "Der Mude Tod", is a Fritz Lang film which I saw at the National Film Theatre some years ago and which I thought I would never be able to view a second time. It's a bitter-sweet tale of a young girl who loses her beloved fiancĂ© to Death and begs Him to reunite them. They make a bargain that if she is able to prevent the deaths of three people whose 'candles are flickering low', her wish will be granted. We then move to three tales set in Arabia, Venice, and China, where a loved one can not be saved.  Brilliant stuff! As for 'Windermere', one of those stories that continues to be re-made, from 1916 right up to the modern-day "A Good Woman (2004) with Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson, the 1925 version directed by Ernst Lubitsch (he of the famous 'touch') is notable for an early role for the ever-dashing Ronald Colman. As luck would have it, he also starred in another of this week's movies, the early talkie "Condemned" (1929) with the gorgeous, but soon to be forgotten star, Anne Harding. As a further coincidence, she also appeared in 1935's "Enchanted April" -- one of her last pictures as a leading actress, a hoary chestnut of a movie remade to better effect in 1991 with Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson, and another of this week's entertainments. What a happy bunny I should be...and am!

In closing I must offer my R.I.P. to darling Shirley Temple who brought joy to so many, not just back in the Depression era, but who still charms viewers today. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

I discontinued updates on my mobility after my fracture, when I decided that these were really only of interest to me (like a lot of the stuff I write about I suspect). However, going to see the above film was actually something of a landmark. It's the first time I've been able to get to a cinema under my own steam since FrightFest at the end of August. So that was something of a red-letter day for me -- and I shall now cease and desist with all things medical.

This Coen Brothers' film premiered at Cannes to great critical acclaim and I was eagerly looking forward to viewing it. By and large I have really loved most -- but not all, let it be said -- of their movies and their quirky takes on various genres. Only their re-make of the "Ladykillers" really disappointed me and I'm not too fond of their Clooney/Zeta Jones farce either, but they can normally be counted upon for providing something rather special. I therefore wish that I had warmed more to this latest flick which is being promoted in the ads with adjectives like 'charming', 'delightful', and 'amusing'. It is nothing of the kind, but rather a somewhat bitter look at the latest in their catalogue of losers.

Oscar Isaac plays the eponymous hero, although 'hero' is too strong a word for the sorry fellow. Llewyn is a minor folk-singer, hoping to forge a solo career after the suicide of his former partner. Isaac possesses a more than pleasant voice and makes a good fist of recreating the folk scene in Greenwich village in the late 50s/early 60s. In fact the whole period and shades of the legendary Dave van Ronk are beautifully re-created by the Coens, with indeed some affection for its passing. We see how popular groups like the Clancy Brothers clones on display need make way for new (and more profitable) talents like Bob Dylan. It is clear from the start that Llewyn, as embodied by Isaac, is never going to quite make it. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, bumming a night here and there on acquaintances' couches. As his sometime-friend Carey Mulligan (who he may or may not have impregnated, despite her being the partner of another friend, Justin Timberlake) comments, "You're like King Midas' idiot brother" -- meaning that everything he touches turns to something far more base than gold. Llewyn is an anti-hero firmly set in the Coens' galaxy of life's failures. It's a folk tale about a folk singer, a minor talent doomed to be left by the wayside, bound to fail in a world full of nobodies. The moral being that talent and hard work need not breed success. To make matters worse, Llewyn does not even come across as a likeable chap!

Yet there is something about this movie that is captivating and I suspect that it may well be worth watching a second or third time. The real star of the movie and the best thing in it is a ginger cat that Llewyn finds himself lumbered with after it escapes from a professors' apartment where he has spent the night. He loses it, searches for it, eventually returns it for the best line in the film (it was the wrong sex puss), and finds himself looking after another unwanted moggy. You might say that the movie is something of a shaggy cat story, as the cat becomes a companion on Llewyn's fruitless odyssey. Incidentally the first cat manages to find his way home and it turns out to be called Ulysses. (Yes, the Coens do have something of a 'thing' about The Odyssey). The film does have shades of a mythic, never-ending circular structure, as it starts and finishes with the same scene of Llewyn being beaten up in an alley by an unknown assailant. It seems that he is doomed to plod on the perpetual treadmill of despair.

While nicely cast, there are few familiar names among the players; but some mention should be made of Coens' regular John Goodman. In a few brief but amusing scenes he plays a drug-addled bluesman, half asleep on the back seat of a shared-expense road trip to Chicago, where Llewyn hopes to impress impresario F. Murray Abraham (no soap!). Goodman manages to throw out a number of caustic remarks, belittling Llewyn even further, about folk-singing, Welsh people, and even the best bridge for committing suicide. There's just no hope for our hopeless protagonist.

Some people think that this film was 'robbed' by not receiving Oscar nominations in various categories. I'm not too sure that any would have been deserved given the competition this year. Even the only original song in the movie (the others were all lesser-known traditional ones cleverly culled by T-Bone Burnett), the vaguely amusing "Please Mr Kennedy" did not come across as a suitable contender.

Before closing I must mention a timely oddity that I viewed yesterday courtesy of German satellite TV, "Das Weisse Stadion". Made in 1928 as a homage to the winter Olympics that year in San Moritz, the film was believed lost until 201l, when it was reconstructed from various sources. Lovingly and poetically filmed, it recreated a long-gone world. Did you know that the winter games used to include such competitions as horse-racing on ice or horse-drawn ski- racing? There were also some charming exhibitions of skating prowess, including one from Sonja Henie who went on to Hollywood fame. Great stuff!