Thursday, 27 March 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

It is absolutely bizarre when one considers the facts rationally for a fully mature young woman of 24 years to play a child who turns eleven during the course of the movie. However that is exactly what Mary Pickford does in this film and you just about find yourself believing and enjoying every minute of what should be a complete farce.

Pickford had played 'young' earlier in her long career, but never this young, and she was convinced that the film would be a flop and that it would put an end to her appeal. On the contrary, it proved to be a colossal hit and so popular with audiences of the time, that she was 'forced' to continue playing much younger than her years until she was well into her thirties. Bizarre is definitely the right word.

I have seen a number of her films over the years and generally didn't really think about the illusion one way or another, but she is totally believable here. She plays the pampered yet ignored only child of distracted parents who expend rather more effort on their social life and business respectively than they do on their daughter. Instead of their attention or affection, she is relegated to a lonely life with only a raft of servants and tutors for company. From her window she can view the thrill of childhood as she watches the neighbourhood kids, but it is a world away from her own experience. She tries to emulate their joie de vivre by inviting in an organ-grinder and a visiting plumber -- Mr Pipes -- for an impromptu dance or by trying to engage in a mud fight with some of the street children. Apart from Pickford's projecting herself into the body and spirit of the girlish Gwen, the illusion is enhanced by the skill of the film's director, Maurice Tourneur, a Frenchman specialising in fantasy pictures. Although a diminutive lady (I believe she stood under five foot), she seems even smaller here by Tourneur's employment of large scale sets and props, carefully-chosen tall actors, and clever camera angles.

The movie is also one of the first to employ actual dialogue rather than just descriptive scene-setting in the title cards, deftly created by the ground-breaking female screenwriter, Frances Marion. When some of the servants overdose young Gwen with a sedative so that they can go out to the 'theayter', Tourneur provides one of cinema's most inventive and surreal dream sequences as the girl hovers between life and death, finally to mommy's and daddy's concern. Her delirious mind visualises overheard phrases so that she can actually see 'the big-eared' and 'two-faced' servants or understand what it means for her mother to have a social bee in her bonnet or for her father to be at the mercy of Wall Street bears. It is all done in so charming a manner that one forgets that one is viewing a silent movie that is approaching its hundredth birthday. Of all her many films, this one is probably the best introduction to Pickford's enduring skills.

When as a punishment for throwing all her fine dresses out of a window, Gwen is forced by her father to dress for a while as a boy -- he can recall the reverse punishment when he misbehaved as a lad (again, how bizarre!) -- she totally delights in being able to mix with a local gang. With her long curls tucked under a cap, it is amazing how reminiscent of her successor, Shirley Temple, Pickford becomes. Temple did in fact star in a movie of the same name in 1936 which was pleasant enough on its own terms, but apart from the title, the two movies have little else in common and nowhere near the same spirit of invention. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

When I wrote last week that a film needs to be something pretty special for me to go to the cinema on its first week of release, I did not allow for the exception to that rule, i.e. it's a movie that the person I am with wants to see. This was certainly the case here, although I must confess to some curiosity,  given the amount of recent hype this picture has received.. Michael read the source novel by Michel Faber some years ago, which he liked, and wondered how it could possibly be turned into a clear and comprehensible film. I have no doubt that a secondary interest might have been seeing the delectable Scarlett Johansson in her nudest role ever, which might also account for the disproportionate number of men on their own at the matinee performance we attended.

Miss Johansson's jiggly bits apart (actually they are quite solid and not particularly jiggly), what can I tell you about the film? Well, one local reviewer wrote that she "hated, hated, hated" the movie and it is definitely a potential audience splitter. I wouldn't say that I 'hated' it, but I did find it slow, largely incomprehensible, and definitely pretentious. It is the third film from the British director Jonathan Glazer, whose debut movie was the well-thought of "Sexy Beast" in 2000, a film which left me rather indifferent. He followed it up in 2004 with the Nicole Kidman starrer "Birth" which I thought a load of old codswallop. It took him another nine years to make the above dream project and I think that more people will be put off by the movie than will champion it.

It is no spoiler to tell you that Johansson plays an alien dressed in a human body, and a very sexy human body at that. She drives a white van around the thronging streets of Glasgow, picking up as many single men as she can. With a looker like she, it is no mystery that so many are tempted to accept a lift on a journey with no return. She does not, however, want them to satisfy her own sexual desires; rather she is being used as 'bait' or a 'lure' by her alien co-conspirators to acquire human flesh to draw into their alien morass -- or whatever. This bit is as clear as the mud into which her prey are dragged before dissolving into nothingness. For the first hour of the movie, the viewer struggles to understand what the heck is actually going on and we never do discover many whys and wherefores. None of this is helped by the lack of coherent dialogue -- her own lines are few and the thick Scottish brogue of most of her victims really needs subtitling. She is the only 'name' actor in the cast.

One can argue that it is a brave and gutsy performance from Johansson, even if one wonders what in the world made her accept the role. On the surface she looks gorgeous, but she struggles to feel comfortable in the to her 'alien' human skin. She has trouble balancing on two legs, is repulsed when she tries to eat a scrumptious piece of cake, and is shocked at the feeling when she actually attempts human sex -- to the extent that she grabs a mirror to find out what is going on down below. As her dialogue decreases -- it is almost non-existent by the movie's end -- her feelings of humanity marginally increase. Initially she can not empathise with an abandoned baby, but later on she can not bring herself to destroy a deformed man (one of her cohorts takes care of that). She can not understand human kindness, but in the end is destroyed by human unkindness as she flees from a would-be rapist.

Some of the photography in the final section, as she runs through the sodden woods outside the city, is fairly spectacular with weirdly swaying trees and vast expanses of hostile wastelands, and the final revelation, when we are allowed to discover what is actually under the temptress' outer skin is also a nice bit of how-de-do. Unfortunately these do not compensate for the draggy and generally boring cinematography and deadly slow action that has preceded them.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

If I go to the movies to see a film on its first week of release, you can safely bet that it is one that I have been looking forward to with great expectations. You can also be pretty sure that it is unlikely to become a box-office champion blockbuster. Such is the case with the above new film from the winsome auteur director Wes Anderson. He burst on to the scene with the rising cult film "Bottle Rocket" at the ripe old age of 25 twenty years ago and has been consistently delighting, albeit small portions of the cinema audience, ever since with a dazzling variety of increasingly mature and idiosyncratic movies. This film opened the recent Berlin Film Festival and is now making the rounds, but it is still more akin to an art-house product than a potential fan-boy smash hit.

It thoroughly deserves the generally splendid reviews it has been garnering, but one critic whose opinions I often share dismissed it as mildly entertaining but too 'twee'. Now to my mind that adjective categorises the film as some sort of chocolate box and kittens childish affair, which is really akin to a negative review. This is far from the case as Anderson has indulged his love of the absurd by creating a fantasy Neverland, full of (yes) pink palaces, cut-out landscapes, and a sprawling rococo schloss. Set in a mythical Eastern European country akin to Ruritania and inspired by the quirky tales of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, we travel between various time frames. Much of the action is set in 1932 as Europe braces itself for the coming inevitable war, but we also visit the approximate present and the mid-sixties. At that point the once very grand hotel has shrunk to a run-down Communist pension, although still existing in the shadow of good times and high living now departed, and it is here that the young writer (Jude Law) questions the hotel's shadowy owner (F. Murray Abraham) as to how he came to own the now decaying  property. 

Anderson has a growing stable of regular actors keen to work with him again and again and he finds parts for all of them here -- Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Edward Norton to name but a few -- some central to the action and some no more than fleeting cameos. A newcomer to his stock company taking the lead is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the concierge who ensures that the pre-war hotel runs like clockwork and that all of his aristocratic and aging guests (especially the ladies) are kept satisfied in every conceivable was. The well-spoken classically inclined actor really lightens up here and gives a masterly- conceived and relishable performance in this often black comedy farce. It is rumoured that the role was originally offered to Johnny Depp who, likeable as he is, could never have produced such a well-rounded and delightful performance. The plot revolves around the McGuffin of a valuable painting left to Fiennes after the suspicious death of grande dame Tilda Swinton (made up with absolutely no 'side' as an ancient crone). He is accused by her greedy son (Brody) and his three ugly sisters of murdering the old lady, supposedly as witnessed by her butler (a nearly unrecognizable Mathieu Amalric), and is pursued by Brody's villainous and largely silent henchman, Willem Dafoe. He lands in pokey but manages to break out with the help of his 'Lobby Boy' Zero (Tony Revolori playing the very young Abraham), Zero's fianceĆ© the master cake-maker Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark the shape of Mexico on her face, and a fearsome collection of fellow inmates led by a bald, bare-chested and tattooed Harvey Keitel. His chase to try to prove his innocence takes him across real snowy landscapes, assisted at every turn by the combined know-how of the concierges at the area's grand hotels and an assortment of closeted monks. When he eventually arrives back at the Grand Budapest the place has been seized by the new pseudo-Nazis as their headquarters; Gustave's cosy and pampered world has begun its change for the worse. Nothing ends happily for most of the characters, but then again they probably could never have been happy in this looming new world.

Anderson has made some very memorable movies in the last twenty years, among them "Rushmore", "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", "Moonrise Kingdom", and the remarkable stop-action animation "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". The only one which slightly let the side down was "The Darjeeling Limited" which was overly self-indulgently played by his three main leads. However all of his films have managed to give us a slightly different perspective of his skill in working with large ensemble casts, all of whom live in worlds we can never hope to visit, and all done with an amusing and highly decorative aesthetic. He may be an acquired taste, but my goodness, I find his movies ever so tasty.

My one objection to this otherwise glorious film was the unnecessary use of so-called bad language. I have no objection in principle to as much 'effin' and 'blindin' as you like, but I did feel it was inappropriate here. Fiennes with his trail of personal perfume was playing a character that could never really have existed, a man of such refined sensibilities that he would have shuddered to utter the kind of phrases that one associates with Samuel L. Jackson for one. This I think was a definite misjudgement in the otherwise enchanting movie that Anderson has gifted to us.     

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards

Well, I was 100% correct when I wrote that "Nebraska" would not win an Oscar in any of the six categories for which it was nominated and I am not the least bit surprised. As an independent movie which didn't boast an A-list cast and which didn't benefit from loads of publicity and which didn't set the box-office alight, it never stood a chance. Then again, I read last weekend that the new Lego Movie grossed more in the preceding week than all nine of the Best Picture nominees combined and that 66% of Americans had not seen even one of the nine. So we're all in good company.

As I have written in previous years I myself have not yet viewed most of the contenders, but I have seen enough clips and blurbs to feel that I have. Therefore I have my own pre-formed prejudices sufficient to evaluate the final selections. "12 Years a Slave" may have won best picture (I can imagine the voters choosing not to be politically incorrect), but it was not really the big winner of the night, failing to win best director as well. It did win best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress, although I was a little surprised that popular girl of the moment Jennifer Lawrence did not stumble off with the award, as she did at the BAFTAs. Lupita Nyong'o (the new Red Carpet favourite) quite probably deserved the Oscar for her convincing on-screen suffering, but I'm afraid that will not make me look forward to finally seeing the film. The big winner of the night was "Gravity", taking best director, cinematography, editing, music, and a trio of technical awards. I'll tell you a secret: that's another movie I am not looking forward to seeing.

I'm sure that Matthew McConaughey, who is having a remarkable career renaissance, and Jared Leto richly deserved their awards for best actor and best supporting actor in "Dallas Buyers Club", especially since the Academy seems to look favourably at the physical discomfort of a role and losing vast amounts of weight always seems to do the trick. To be fair, they were probably both pretty good despite their emaciation, and McConaughey's acceptance speech was pitch perfect. As for Cate Blanchett winning best actress for "Blue Jasmine" which seemed to be the most sure-fire bet, I can't help feeling that it would have been lovely for Judi Dench to finally receive this accolade. I don't know whether Blanchett was actually as marvellous as people seem to think, since despite being a massive Woody Allen fan, I missed seeing this flick in the cinema because of my physical limitations during the period of its release. I just love the fact that she crowed that she was "exacerbated" to receive the award from Daniel Day-Lewis, which actually means to make bad things even worse! But at least she had the good grace to thank Woody Allen for writing and giving her the role, despite the current hoo-ha and attempts to brand him a paedophile (again!).

To cover the other awards briefly, "The Great Gatsby" (which I have seen) deserved its gongs for production design and costume design, since these were pretty spectacular, even if the film itself was decidedly overblown and lacking in so many ways. (I still prefer not the 1974 version with Robert Redford, but the 1949 version with Alan Ladd, which is virtually impossible to view nowadays -- although you could ask to see my copy!). It was good to see Spike Jonze winning for best original screenplay for "Her", a movie that I am hoping to catch up with soon. I've not yet seen any of the animated feature, although I understand that "Frozen" was enormously popular and did big, big business; it's just a shame that Hayao Miyasaki, a true giant of animation, was overlooked for what is reputed to be his last feature. As for best foreign language film, I'm sure "The Great Beauty" deserved its award, the most joyous of the five nominations, and the DVD awaits my attention even as we speak. I can't comment on the short subjects -- animated, live action, and documentary -- since I know nothing about any of them yet, but I can express my surprise that "The Act of Killing" (one of two of the nominees that I have seen) did not win best documentary feature, since it was quite extraordinary. However, having read a bit about "20 Feet from Stardom" (the winner), I can see why it was the popular choice.

As for the ceremony itself, I don't feel that Ellen DeGeneres did as brilliant a job as some would have it, although obviously she was a vast improvement on last year's host. She had only one really good joke (at Liza Minelli's expense), and her get-down-with-the audience antics were mildly jejune -- ordering pizza, taking a whip-round to tip the delivery boy, and posing for the much vaulted 'selfie'. It's amusing that one now knows that this was a paid-for bit of product placement by Samsung. That's really typical of Hollywood's ingrained commercialism. The montage clips, this year celebrating various 'heroes' were as always pleasingly nostalgic, even if they occasionally seemed a strange assortment. The homage to the 75th Anniversary of the "Wizard of Oz" was a timely inclusion, but the visuals played second fiddle to Pink's vocalizing. Finally, in a year with the loss of so many great talents, the 'In Memoriam' section was better done than some previous ones, giving each loss near enough the same exposure; and the whole tribute was capped by Bette Midler's beautiful rendition of 'The Wind Beneath my Wings'. Pretty moving stuff...

I understand the U.S. television audience for the show was an improvement on recent years, so that's good news for future years, even if the show is over-bloated and marred by too many commercial breaks. Never mind, I'll be amongst next year's viewers with my usual anticipation.