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Friday, 25 April 2014

Another week....

I wish I knew why some week's viewing leaves me bereft of enthusiasm. I've seen at least fifteen films in the last seven days (it's actually higher but my attention waned sufficiently during some lesser television movies to omit them from the count). It wasn't a bad selection, although hardly a vintage one, but none of them inspired me to put pen to paper metaphorically speaking. So let's examine a few of them, just for the heck of it:

We'll start with the 'scintillating' four new movies on Sky Premier -- don't get me started on when they had a minimum of five new films each week. It's beginning to annoy me no end that a ridiculous proportion of movies that they offer on a pay-per-view basis never make it to the free Premier channel and that some of them, including some fairly A-list films, just seem to disappear forever. Instead we are usually fobbed off with one 'big-deal' movie, one suitable for five-year olds, and two films which never received any kind of broad release -- to the extent that one thinks, 'where did they dredge those up from?'.

The 'big' premiere this week was Zack Snyder's Superman re-interpretation "Man of Steel" starring some who-is-he? called Henry Cavill. What a drag! Virtually the entire nearly plot-less movie focussed on our hero fending off the evil General Zod who has pursued him from his doomed home planet, whilst taking advice from the apparition of his dead father Jor-El in the shape of Russell Crowe (who kept cropping up every few minutes). Ironically Marlon Brando was paid a fortune in the 1978 movie for a brief appearance as Jor-El; here Crowe didn't even have the good grace to stay dead. Lois Lane (the always lovely Amy Adams) knows from square one that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, yet the film's finale has him arriving for the first time at the Daily Planet with his trademark glasses-in-disguise -- presumably setting us up for further CGI-enhanced adventures to come from Snyder and Cavill. Goody!

As for the other three films, there was an adequate animation called "Epic" which had our teenaged heroine shrunk in size to join the 'leaf-men' and other eco-denizens of the forest to keep us all green. Yawn! The remaining two were moderately interesting but very minor. In the Australian flick "Adore" middle-aged best friends Naomi Watts and Robin Wright begin affairs with each other's teenaged sons with ultimately unsatisfactory results all round. In a British movie from a few years back "Ashes", Jim Sturgess busts out Ray Winstone from the institution where he has been hospitalized with a violent form of Alzheimer's, by pretending to be his long lost son, having been sent on this errand by a vicious gangster who wants revenge. OK, reasonably well-done and something of an acting stretch for Winstone, but hardly a special treat for us faithful Sky subscribers. If I came across this movie in a late-night slot on another channel, I might have been impressed, but not for prime-time fun and games.

My YouTube viewing for the week was an equally mixed bag. This included the 1934 oddity "Crime without Passion", with its remarkable montage intro and other nifty camerawork throughout, as hot-shot lawyer Claude Rains tries to get away with killing his mistress. "Give out Sisters" from 1942 had the ever-tuneful Andrews Sisters dressing up and pretending to be three old stuffy biddies who didn't want their ward to become a nightclub entertainer. (I know, they couldn't make them like this any more.) 1959's "The Devil Disciple", based on a Shaw play and filmed in England with the frequent pairing of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Colonial rebels was  pretty mundane, but I did want to see them mix it up again with Laurence Olivier's General Burgoyne. Finally I tried Costa-Gavras's highly rated "Stage of Siege" from 1972, set in an unnamed South American country and exposing evil-doing on all sides of the fence; worthy, worthy, worthy but ultimately so depressing that I gave up on it. Just what sort of a film critic are you, PPP?

As for the rest of the week's films, only two bear mentioning. First there was Stifler, i.e. Seann William Scott playing a slightly dim but definitely loyal hockey team member in "Goon". The ex-bouncer has only been given a contract because of his skill in beating up the opposition -- mainly in the unlikely form of Liev Schreiber. I actually found this movie remarkably sweet-natured, despite the violence, as Scott falls in love with 'slut' Alison Pill (who I just didn't recognize at first with short dark hair). And talking about violence -- non-stop in this instance, I watched the DVD of 2011's "The Raid", an unlikely popular hit from expatriate Welshman Gareth Evans who turned out this Indonesian (!) bash-'em-up. With its sequel now in cinemas, I was curious to see the original and its martial arts hero Iwo Uwais in action. Not much of a story admittedly, but bloody fisticuffs galore if that floats your boat.

Let's see what next week brings...

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

I have a kind of love/hate reaction to the writer-director Peter Greenaway, whose movies are very definitely not for everyone. By and large I have found his films beautiful to behold and usually quirkily involving, but too often a little too 'precious' for words, too self-consciously arty for my taste. I was not terribly taken with the above movie when I first saw it many years ago, but had promised Sian a copy should it ever be shown on television. (Shamefacedly I must admit that I put a copy on my hard disc last Christmas and then proceeded to delete it in error.) Fortunately FilmFour scheduled it again in the recent wee hours. I needed to re-watch it to edit out the ads and was hoping that I would be sufficiently taken with it this time around to keep a copy for myself as well -- but more of that later.

The basic story is of three women of three generations, all named Cissie Colpitts, who decide to do away with their unsatisfactory husbands by drowning them -- in a bathtub, in the ocean, and in a swimming pool respectively. Drowning of course is the classic way of disposing of rats! The three are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. I have seen them described as grandmother, mother, and daughter (which seems a little unlikely), as mother and two daughters, and as mother, daughter, and niece -- but frankly it matters not. What matters is that they stick together in their personal allegiances and criminal pursuits. They are able to get away with their 'crimes' with the connivance of Bernard Hill's coroner who rules on natural causes of death in exchange for possible, but never realised, offers of sexual favours. He and his son Smut (now there's a name) are the main characters in this grotesque fable of life on the Suffolk coast.

While this is meant to be the most accessible of all of Greenaway's films, I would argue otherwise, since the film is loaded (nearly to the point of sinking) with esoteric touches, symbolism, and strange behaviour. It was not released in the US until 1991 and was only released then on the strength of his 'scandalous' next film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover". In contrast to ' Drowning', that movie as well as "The Baby of Macon" and "The Belly of an Architect" seem almost straightforward. In all of his films, Greenaway manages to combine a painterly, pictorial eye (enhanced here by Sacha Vierney's impeccable cinematography) with a bizarre story-telling sensibility. This movie opens with a young girl, dressed like a fugitive from Velazquez' Las Meninas, skip-roping up to 100 as she counts off the names of heavenly stars. Then the set is progressively numbered up to 100 with the numbers appearing in various and unexpected places -- on posts, on pictures, on paper-chase runners, and even on dead cows. In fact one could play a game of spotting all of the sequential numbers, although some are only spoken rather than pictured.

As Plowright's character says, 'why care about other people, life is just a game', and indeed the characters partake of their own made-up games with names like 'The Great Death Game' and 'Hangman's Cricket'. Smut, who is obsessed with creepy-crawlies and who at one stage attempts to circumcise himself with scissors, celebrates each death with a fireworks display. In the end he plays his own hanging game, the object of which is to punish those who have caused unhappiness by their own selfishness. He says this is the best game of all because the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final.

So did I warm to this movie the second time around? The answer is still 'no'. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it is impossible to empathise with its totally unsympathetic and amoral characters. It's all an intellectual exercise beautifully presented, but with a complete absence of humanity or heart.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sarah's Key (2010)

Were it not for BBC4 (hopefully not doomed like its lively younger sister BBC3), there would be hardly any foreign language films shown on British television. They have also gifted us with an amazing run of subtitled European television serials in their regular Saturday night slot. Yes, there is the very occasional title on Sky Premier (but only in the ratio of about l to 50 crappy television movies or animations) and the equally rare showing of one of the 'classics' on Film Four. CineMoi while it lasted was brilliant, at least initially, but most often I must seek out films that I would like to see in repertory showings or on disc. Meanwhile I can fondly recall the days when there would be whole seasons of foreign films on the now populist BBC2. More's the pity!

The above French movie actually premiered on Film Four along with a dreary policier starring Daniel Auteuil, and was something of a corker. Directed and co-written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and based on a popular novel ("Elle s'appelait Sarah") by Tatiana DeRosnay, it joins a number of recent films in movingly discussing the Holocaust by telling a small story on a very human level. Sarah Strazynski is a self-possessed and buoyant 10-year old, who, when the police come to round up her family in a notorious Jewish purge, cheerfully locks her younger brother in a bedroom wall cupboard, enjoining him to remain quiet during what she tells him is a "game"She believes that she is saving him and that she will soon be back to release him. Instead she and her parents are crowded into the Vel' d'Hiv cycling stadium along with 10000 other Paris Jews in this infamous 1942 round-up, kept in inhuman conditions for several days, before being sent off to various death camps.

This was a little known atrocity in the history of other atrocities of the period, although if memory serves it was also the staging point for the demise of Alain Delon in the scathing 1976 film "Mr Klein". The main point of contention is that the hazing, persecuting, and confiscation of property was carried out not by Germans, but by the French themselves against their fellow citizens. Separated from her mother and father and still in possession of the fatal key, Sarah manages to escape from a French camp with another girl, furiously driven by her determination to return to Paris and release young Michel. They end up at the farm of the Dufaure family where her companion dies, but where the initially unwilling-to-get-involved elderly couple conceal Sarah and ultimately raise her as their own. The patriarch is played by the imposing actor Niels Arestrup who has graced a number of French hits in the past few years (I saw him recently as the bull-headed vintner in "You Will be my Son"), and he is always a majestic force of nature. Eventually they manage to get Sarah back to the flat in Paris where another French family are now living (despite the horrible smell!!!), but of course it is too late. Sarah knows in her heart that she has killed her brother. The fact that he almost certainly would have died anyhow is very much by the by in her mind.

These events from the past are mixed in with her researches for an article by the American-born, but French-domiciled journalist Julia (played by the majestic Kristin Scott Thomas). She and her husband have a son and had hoped for a second child after a series of miscarriages. He wants the three of them to move into a renovated apartment owned by his aging parents, but Julia becomes convinced that it is the scene of Sarah's fatal if well-intended action. . She is also at long last pregnant, but her husband no longer wants a late-in-life child. Increasingly estranged from her husband and determined to discover what has become of Sarah, she traces the Dufaure descendants to discover that the girl left the family at the earliest opportunity, but sent them a marriage announcement from America. She journeys to the States and then to Florence to find Sarah's son, played by a horrified Aidan Quinn. When asked if he recognizes the photo of the young girl wearing her yellow star, he recoils and protests that his mother wasn't Jewish. It later emerges that she hauled him off to the nearest church after his birth to be baptized, convinced that being Jewish meant death. Julia also learns that Sarah's own death at a relatively early age was not really an unfortunate road accident but an act of suicide from a troubled woman who could no longer live with her own guilt.

Apart from the named actors above, I did not recognize most of the cast, but singular praise must go to Melusine Mayance who played the young Sarah with a mixture of pig-headed bravery and stoic pathos. The film definitely has its share of teary-eyed moments to engage the viewer, but these are done with only minimal fanfare and are never milked for sentiment. The movie is a fine testimony to some truly horrible history.   

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Yol (1982)

As I have oft written, 'I have a little list' (as the Mikado's Executioner would have it), except my ever-growing list is of films that I would like to see, or to be 'knocked off' to continue the analogy.. Not, you will note, films that I would necessarily enjoy seeing, but rather movies that my researches tell me are part of my never-ending education, that I am duty-bound to watch given the opportunity. Enter "Yol" as a case in point.

Winner of the Palme D'or at Cannes, nominated for a foreign language academy award, and a fixture of Sight and Sound's 10-best lists, it is definitely a movie that I had to view and definitely a movie that I confess I did not enjoy watching. The backstory of the film itself is perhaps rather more fascinating than the actual film. Written in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d'├ętat in Turkey by Yilmaz Guney, it was also 'directed' by him despite the fact that he was in prison at the time. It was actually directed by his assistant on Guney's detailed written instructions. Guney escaped from jail, fled with the negatives to Switzerland, edited the film in Paris, and returned to his Swiss haven from which the final product was submitted to Cannes. The movie was banned in his native Turkey until 1999, not so much for its content (although it is critically strong of the country's regime and ethos), but because Guney himself was persona non grata.

'Yol' translates as 'the road' or 'the way' and the film follows the stories of five long-term prisoners who have been granted seven days' leave to visit their families, with dire threats of their sorry fates if they misbehave or fail to return in time. The picture intercuts among them and it was not always immediately clear which story we were following as the heavily-moustached protagonists all looked remarkably similar. Two of the tales were less detailed. The first involved a young husband who lost his identity papers and was thrown into another clink for the duration; the second was some jumble about Kurdish freedom fighters where our protagonist was forced to take on the responsibility of the wife and children of his slain brother. The other three tales were a bit more complex:

A man goes back to his family to visit his son and the wife who swore that she would wait for him. He finds that they have been thrown out because of her 'immorality' which brought huge shame on them all. He is urged to find and kill her to restore the family's honour. He treks over a snow-bound waste to find her in the home of other relatives and to discover that she has been chained up in an outbuilding for some eight months, been given only bread and water for nourishment, and forbidden from bathing or dealing with her other bodily functions. They have been waiting for him to appear and do what is expected of him. Even their son describes her as 'filthy'. He compassionately lets her bathe, comb her hair, and change her clothes, before forcing her back over the frozen wasteland (past the carcass of the dead horse that he shot on the way there), where she conveniently freezes to death -- saving him the bother of having to kill her himself. That description is my being a little flip, since he does try to carry her along and to stop her falling asleep. As he trudges through the snow with the woman on his back, he instructs his son to keep thrashing her to keep her awake -- one of the film's few memorable images.

In another story a man goes to find his wife and children but is snubbed by her family who consider him responsible for the death of their son during a botched robbery. In fact he did in cowardice leave the boy to be shot by the police, although he had previously denied this. His wife is horrified by his admission, but later on does in fact go off with him. On a train they enter a lavatory to finally rekindle their marital passion, but are spotted by the other passengers who are appalled by this display of lust, jeering and threatening to lynch them for their blatant 'immorality'. The pleas of their children provide a temporary escape, until a young relative of the woman's family comes along and kills them both! More misplaced honour!

The final story is rather lighter. A man goes back to his family and is attracted to a young woman whom he wants to be his wife, if and when he is released from jail. Their courtship is one of his telling her all of the dutiful things he will expect from her as a wife, while the pair are continually chaperoned by a nosy pair of black-garbed old biddies, a constant audience of noisy crows. Before returning to jail what he needs most is a visit to the local whorehouse.

All of these stories focus on the repression of life in Turkey at the time. It would seem as if people were forced to live by the prejudices of others, whether it is jailors over prisoners, soldiers over civilians, fathers over sons and daughters, husbands over wives, or the moral preoccupations of the mob. This is the message that Guney's film leaves with us. I genuinely think that some award-winning movies gain their plaudits by allowing us to witness a slice of life that the powers that be would rather we never saw. All very worthy I'm sure, but that's not entertainment!