Friday, 30 May 2014

Dixiana (1930)

I'm back to obscurities again after last week's attempt to go with the flow with a modern populist film. The reason for this is that the satellite SkyArts Channel (a very good thing in principle even if they repeat most of their programmes ad infinitum) is currently doing a 13-part series titled "Hollywood Singing and Dancing". It's based on a 2008 set of DVDs covering the various decades, so it's obviously being chopped and re-assembled to cover the same material over thirteen weeks.  So far I've viewed one programme devoted to the 1920s and a two-parter covering the l930s (which came out significantly shorter than the l930-themed disc).

Since one tends to think of the l920s as the culmination of the silent era, one wouldn't have thought that there would be enough material to broadcast an hour on musicals made between 1928 and 1930, but there was a wealth of films covered. With the coming of sound at the end of that decade, audiences couldn't get enough of staged sound spectaculars, even if they tended to be filmed as if one was sitting in the audience watching the stage from one's seat. There was often no attempt at telling a story, and importing Broadway stars who could sing and dance but not act was often a formula for disaster. All of the studios tried to get in on the musical film's new popularity, but the public was soon sated with these early attempts at mass entertainment. By 1930 this first surge of musical films was dead in the water and would not be revived until the mid-30s by the likes of Astaire and Rogers, Busby Berkeley, and yes, Shirley Temple.

I have over the years seen a selection of these early sound musicals and apart from their historical oddity value, there is little to commend them, and in fact many of them are now 'lost'.
One that is still available and which on paper seemed to have a lot going for it was the above title, which can be viewed on good old YouTube. Various factors appeared promising: popular singing star and silent film actress Bebe Daniels in the lead, supposedly solid support from the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (madly popular in the early 30s for their innuendo-laden humour before the Hays Office kicked in), the first film appearance of dancing legend Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and the final reel in early two-strip Technicolor.

Despite the lavish production where money seemed no object, I did find it something of a disappointment. Daniels as the eponymous Dixiana was OK, but her co-star Everett Marshall, imported for the role from the Metropolitan Opera in New York was solid mahogany, and the music was singularly unmemorable. Wheeler and Woolsey, whom I have only occasionally seen before were to my taste spectacularly unfunny; their main shtick was to challenge all-comers to a bet that they could not pick up three cigars from the floor, one at a time, without saying 'ouch'. They would then kick their helpless victim up the backside! What jolly japes. Bojangles was as always wonderful -- all three-minutes of his screen time! Black performers in 'white' movies were always only given small bits so that their performances could be cut out to avoid 'offending' audiences in the Southern states. The Technicolor was pretty nifty 'though and probably gave those early viewers their nickel's worth. 

The story, such as it was, concerned Marshall falling in love with New Orleans circus-performer Daniels, who appears in a speciality number with Wheeler and Woolsey dressed as dancing ostriches (!). He takes them to meet his parents on their vast plantation (with its happy Negro workers), but snobby mummy kicks out her beloved son's fiancĂ©e when she learns of her circus past, and Daniels is far too noble to let her beloved alienate himself from his family. When she tries to re-join the circus, her act is no longer wanted so the three of them go to work for slimy gambling-house owner Ralf Harolde. He plans to make Dixiana Queen of the Mardi Gras (cue the colour sequence) and his bedroom queen as well, but trusty Marshall and his down-to-earth Daddy save the lady and the day.

It's another instance of my being glad to have seen this film but of my being equally hard-pressed to recommend it as anything other than a curiosity.

Friday, 23 May 2014

21 Jump Street (2012)

Since you ask, I have in fact now watched a second Pakistani film -- "Josh" (2013) aka "Against the Grain". However, I did promise to lighten up for today's blog, so I won't tell you that it was yet another indictment against negative forces and repression in a third world country, focussing on an entire community in feudal servitude, rather than just one family suffering religious intolerance. I also won't tell you that it was inspired by true events which led to the founding of communal soup kitchens in poor areas. You'll have to watch the movie if you want to know any more and somehow I don't think I've made it sound too enticing... Very worthy nonetheless.

So today's cheerful review will examine the above incredibly popular yet incredibly dumb movie, so successful that the sequel is now available in your local picture palace! Based on a 1980's sitcom which is best remembered for bringing one Johnny Depp to the world's attention, it's a tale of undercover rookie cops going back to high school to unearth whatever naughty things were going on, in this instance a new designer drug-racket. The mismatched pair in this 're-imagining' are Tatum Channing and Jonah Hill, ex-High School classmates where Channing's Jenko was the popular jock who bullied Hill's nerdish brainbox, Schmidt.
Why they should both choose to join the police force and how they unbelievably became close buddies is probably neither here or there. The fact that they are both pretty incompetent new officers and the fact that they 'look young' (yeah, yeah, yeah) is sufficient motivation for their tough desk sergeant, Ice Cube -- a throwback to another 80's  clichĂ©, to assign them to the high school gig.

I can just see the writers slapping their thighs with the conceit that dishy Jenko will be taken up by the class nerds and that in the new politically correct environment Schmidt will be thought of as the 'cool' one and will find the kind of popularity he never experienced before. I've read that Channing is something of a revelation here, being given the opportunity to exercise his comic skills -- but my reaction is 'what comic skills?' since I found the whole shooting match a pretty mirth-free exercise. In the past Hill has shown rather more range in his roles, but he makes Schmidt a pretty boorish fellow. That's not to say that the movie was unwatchable, it was sweet in parts, but hardly any sort of laugh riot. Maybe if I had been an aficionado of the original TV program, I might have been amused by the various cameo nods to the original cast.

Obviously there is one major cameo role -- hardly a surprise or as unexpected as it is meant to be -- by an uncredited actor; no prizes for guessing who. He plays a heavily disguised member of a criminal biker gang with whom our heroes tangle in the misplaced shoot-em-up finale that finally proves their mettle. Anyhow, there was nothing here to encourage me to gallop off this evening to see the sequel with Jenko and Schmidt undercover in college. I think I can wait for that 'pleasure'.      

Friday, 16 May 2014

With You, Without You (2013)

Further to my review below of the Pakistani film "Bol", I recently watched Mira Nair's 2013 American movie "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" (almost interesting enough for its own review). In the opening scenes set in Lahore, a couple are seen leaving a cinema and the fellow is complaining that he prefers entertaining movies; his date retorts that "Bol" was a very brave movie to make and that 'all the students are talking about it'. So it must have been as ground-breaking and controversial a film locally as it was engaging and eye-opening to me. I'm glad I saw it!

As a not tremendous change of pace, today's film hails from Sri Lanka -- and yes, I know as little about the film industry in that country as I do about Pakistan's. Written and directed by Prasanna Vithanage, it is a much smaller tale -- much shorter as well -- but in the end equally heart-wrenching. Set in the aftermath of the country's long civil war, it deals with the difficult reconciliation between the Tamil minority and the rest of the country.

This theme is embodied in two characters, Sarathsiri , a middle-aged pawnbroker in a backwater town and Selvi, a young and beautiful Tamil refugee. He leads a lonely existence watching wrestling on TV in his sparse flat over the shop. She has lost all of her family during the conflict and is living with two old aunts and their families, who begrudge her presence and her poverty. When she pawns her few precious bits and bobs, Sarathsiri is struck by her beauty and wants to be more generous than his thrifty principals allow. Hearing that she is to be married off to an old man, he works up the courage to tell her that he likes her and asks her to marry him -- and surprisingly enough she accepts.

Initially she is ecstatic with her new life and relative comfort (she even goes to a proper cinema for the first time); she wants to get close to her new husband, trying to find out more about his past and surprised at his evasiveness and disinterest in hers. We hear their thoughts as each hopes to find true love with the other, but he for one can not express any of this. When she inadvertently learns that he had served in the army, a soldier like those who killed her two young brothers, who raped and stole, she says she would never have married him had she known; he responds with undue and cruel sarcasm. She becomes withdrawn, stops eating, and begins to waste away.

He is desperate to win her back, wanting her to understand how deeply he loves and needs her, even admitting the shameful actions which caused him to resign from the army. He tells her he will sell his business and take her to India for the visit of which she has always dreamed and they seem to be on the verge of their own reconciliation. However a little worm starts eating away at the viewer and one just knows that there will be no happy ending. As he drives away on his motorbike to collect the wonderful airline tickets (neither of them has ever been on a plane) I had a horrible premonition that he would crash on the road. I was wrong, but the final denouement was far worse....

Maybe next time I will find some happy mindless film to write about without burdening you with my explorations into the esoterica of the Cambodian or Indonesian cinema scenes.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Bol (2011)

As far as I know there is not much of a film industry in Pakistan nowadays, and although I have seen numerous Indian movies over the years, I can't think of another Pakistani one besides the one under review today -- the third film from writer-director Shoaib Mansoor. And contrary to expectations, the film is terrific -- very, very long, but powerful, moving, and devastating.

The title translates as "Speak up" and that is what our heroine Zainub, an emotional performance from actress Humaima Sehbai does. Sentenced to be hanged after murdering her father, she made no attempt to defend herself during her trial. Her petition for a stay of execution has been rejected by the President, but her request to record a statement for the press is allowed. It is in this brief period before her 4 a.m. execution that we learn her story. It is her last chance to 'speak up'.

With the partition of India her family only moved as far as Lucknow where her grandfather established a herbal medicine shop, eventually taken over by her father (Manzai Sehbai). With the rise of more accessible medical care by trained doctors, he barely ekes out a living and his very large family is close to starvation. He believes that Allah will provide, but his religious faith includes no mercy or compassion. His poor wife has given birth regularly and he has seven surviving daughters -- Zainub being the eldest. From his point of view, women are completely useless, except to prepare his meals and to provide sons who can look after him in his old age. When his worn-out wife finally produces a male-child, the midwife promptly tells him that the infant will never mature into a man. (How she can tell a new-born's sexual make-up is a mystery to me). His first reaction is to kill the baby, but he accepts his wife's pleas and agrees that the boy will be kept indoors away from the world and raised as yet another hated daughter!

Zainub is married off to another poor family, but is thrown out when she refuses to follow her mother's fate with a series of unwanted pregnancies. She returns to the family home where her outspoken words and modern ideas make her as objectionable in her father's eyes as her very effeminate younger brother. She even arranges for her mother to be sterilized. Her father screams that she is the cause of all their troubles and that her husband should have killed her rather than dumping her back on him. You get the gist -- a really nice fellow and loving Dad! In his own opinion, he is a righteous man who goes to the mosque daily and who has been asked to act as treasurer for the imam, but his outlook is so bigoted that he would rather everyone in his family suffered than to betray his high-flown 'religious' ideals. It is even his daughters' fault when Pakistan loses at cricket since they have not prayed sufficiently well for the team.

He is full of his own self-importance and makes life a misery for everyone in the household. When one of his loyal customers learns of his financial woes, he is offered good money for teaching the Koran to the children of that household; however he refuses this opportunity when he learns that the man is a pimp in a notorious red-light district. He decides that he must get the local matchmaker to marry off his other daughters, but has no money for dowries. When told that he should be grateful if she can find anyone 'with their own teeth' to marry them, he protests that they should line up to marry his stock since "my ancestors owned an elephant in Delhi". The man is a monster!

The crunch comes when Zainub asks their close neighbour Mustafa (who is in love with one of her sisters) to take the naive boy, a talented artist, to work each day at a nearby artists' commune. It seems that he may have found a way to make a living, but several of his licentious co-workers view him as easy young flesh and he is soon gagged, raped, and left in a field. When a eunuch finds him and brings him home, his mother and sisters fawn over him, but his father is so consumed with visions of his becoming a dancing freak, he promptly suffocates him to save the family's so-called honour.

He would like to see the matter hushed up but the local police chief suspects the worse and says that it is not an 'honour killing' and the only way out would be for a bribe to be paid to his station ("not for me of course"). There goes the mosque's building fund! When he is asked to account for the missing money, nobody wants to help, and in desperation he goes to the pimp. The latter is happy to provide the funds in exchange for our 'holy' man impregnating his courtesan grand-daughter, since he is so good at producing girl children -- an important commodity in that particular community. He insists on marrying her first (still of course wed to his long-suffering wife) and when a baby girl is duly born, the pimp offers him increasingly large sums of money for more female babies. Ashamed he returns to his impoverished family, but when the courtesan dumps the new-born on his doorstep, his initial reaction is to bash in the baby's brains. That is when Zainub murders Daddy. When the pimp and his minions come to fetch the child, he's told that it was killed and dumped by its dead father -- having been spirited away to safety by one of the daughters.

During the course of her statement to the flabbergasted crowd of journalists and photographers, one female reporter is convinced that a miscarriage of justice is about to take place and tries to reach the President for a stay of execution, however his aides refuse to wake him up. The President's sleep is more important than justice, she concludes. Zainub finishes her statement with the sentiment that had her father lived, she would have died every day. She wonders how a man could love God yet hate his creations. Then she is hanged....

There were many other strands to this sorry tale which space and time force me to omit, but the film was a searing indictment against religious fanaticism. In the end, there was something of a happy ending, but this only helped to ease the pain of the events that preceded it. One comment that I should add is that unlike neighbouring India's films, the music here was embedded in the plot and was not used as a break in the action for some over-the-top singing and dancing. I understand that Mustafa was played by one Atif Aslam, a Pakistani pop star, and the modern outlook of his character and that of his family shed some light of hope in what otherwise would have been a very dismal world. The moral is that a man can have religious faith without losing his humanity.  

Friday, 2 May 2014

Love 'em and Leave 'em (1926)

I occasionally treat myself to a mini Louise Brooks movie retrospective when I come across one of her previously unseen film roles. A charismatic screen icon from the 1920s with her trademark dark bob, she has left more of a cinematic legacy than her acting talent warrants.

She came to New York from Kansas to further her career as a dancer with George White's Scandals and the Ziegfield Follies, before drifting into a series of obscure films in 1926 and 1927, most of which are largely unavailable or forgettable, although "The Old Army Game" -- a W C Fields vehicle is of some interest. She was treated as mainly attractive totty before breaking through as a screen force to be reckoned with in the closing third of 1928's "A Girl in Every Port" and the road movie "Beggars of Life". In the latter her luminous beauty could not be dismissed, even if she did spend most of the film disguised as a boy. After an important role in "The Canary Murder Case", she left for Europe and her iconic Lulu in Pabst's "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl" (both 1929).

'Canary' was originally shot as a silent, the first of four Philo Vance whodunnits starring the urbane William Powell. With the coming of sound, it was decided to reshoot it as a 'talkie' but Brooks refused to return from Europe. Her voice was disastrously dubbed by a very nasal Margaret Livingston and Brooks' Hollywood career was dead in the water. After making "Miss Europe" in France in 1930, she found herself persona non grata on her return to Tinseltown and only managed the occasional roles in Z-grade oaters before retiring from films.

The above movie, while not a Brooks vehicle by any means, would probably not be available today were it not for her presence. It was intended as a starring vehicle for Evelyn Brent, the elder of two sisters living in a boarding house and working in a department store. Brent had promised their late mother to look after younger sister Brooks and soon discovers that the amoral and feckless lass needs a lot of looking after. Brent is in love with workmate Lawrence Gray (a totally uncharismatic chancer), but Brooks soon moves in on the young Romeo when Brent goes on vacation. She has also squandered the firm's annual dance fund on bad horses and manages to cast the blame on big sister, who has until 11 pm that evening to find the money or go to jail. Brooks' Jane is a complete nightmare but 100% irresistible with it. She tells her sister that yes, she will go to the dance but certainly won't enjoy herself. One minute later the film cuts to her in her short-skirted circus outfit (think Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel"), energetically Charlestoning her little heart out.

Gray, who really doesn't deserve her, manages finally to reconcile with Brent, but Brooks in the meantime -- having cozied up to one of the store's managers -- is last heard of having driven off with the big boss in his Rolls Royce. Gold-diggers of the world unite! 

A sidebar of interest in this film is that the sleazy, rat-faced resident of the house and would-be lothario, who acts as Brooks' bookie and who has cheated her out of the winnings that would have saved the day, is played by one Osgood Perkins. Perkins was in fact a well-respected Broadway star of the day, who died at the very young age of 45 and who is best known to us today as the father of Psycho's Anthony.