Friday, 27 June 2014

Not a lot to write home about...

I did not watch any films yesterday or the day before, which is not exactly headline news, but a little unusual for PPP, when I haven't been away in exotic climes like New York or Newcastle. However checking my list for the week since I wrote last Friday, I find that I have in fact seen sixteen films or compilations; so there should be something that makes me want to put pen to paper as it were. They were of variable quality, ranging in age from 1923 to 2014, and a few I can even admit to having enjoyed, but none of them have worked their way to the top of the pile to be raved about.. So, let's have a look at the selection of what is actually a very typical week's mix:

First there were the not so golden oldies: a dreary Norma Shearer (unrecognizable) silent from 1923 called "A Clouded Name"; a Ronald Coleman rarity from 1933 "The Unholy Garden" with his being about the only good thing in it as a roguish gentleman thief; from my list of things to see I was able to delete "Dillinger" from 1945, with gorgeous Gene Tierney's considerably less handsome brother Lawrence making his screen debut in the title role (a pretty blah version of the tale); the best of the four was the pre-code "Jewel Robbery" from 1932, with William Powell playing an even more roguish and appealing gentleman thief, with a rather more able supporting cast. I've seen that one before and it remains good fun.

Next we shall quickly dismiss Sky's weekly premieres (only three since I had seen the fourth at last year's FrightFest -- and thought it pretty feeble). The big 'treat' for Sky subscribers was "Wolverine", Hugh Jackman's second spin-off flick from the X-Men series, which was slam-bam enough entertainment as the muscle-bound hero devastated half of the baddies in Japan, but nothing that I would care to see again. I had to double-check what "Cold Comes the Night" was actually about since I drew a blank trying to remember it; it's comely Alice Eve running a sleazy motel when she is taken hostage by flavour of the year Bryan Cranston, searching for a missing stash of money. (I probably won't remember it next week either). Finally for completeness sake, I sat through "Reef 2 - High Tide" a fishy animation with absolutely nothing special about it.

I shall quickly dismiss the two television movies I watched, although "The Right to Remain Silent" from 1996 was actually a superior one with a surprisingly starry cast; the more recent "The Girl He met Online" was the usual dismissible fare as boy meets psycho.

Then there were the three foreign-language movies, all OK in their way, but nothing that I can honestly recommend. The foremost of these was the Russian version of Don Quixote from 1957, strongly acted by one of the Russian 'greats' and winningly photographed; but the Hallmark version with John Lithgow is actually more entertaining! "The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh" (1971) is an Italian giallo from my DVD backlog, starring sexy Edwige Fenech as a blood fetishist with some bad boyfriend choices, an overly complicated and in the end totally unbelievable thriller of sorts. Finally there was the French horror "Livid" from 2011 which was, yes, French and horrible.

Two documentaries: "The Legend of Billy Jean King - Battle of the Sexes", the oft-told tale of when 'Billy beat Bobby', with the focus on how this was a feminist triumph. "Corman's World" also came from the DVD stockpile, a winning examination of the charming Roger, King of the B Movies, 'who made a 100 movies' (actually many more) and 'never lost a penny' (not quite true). He gave many actors and directors their first crack at stardom, so there were lots of talking heads singing his praises, including Jack Nicholson who was actually reduced to tears.

Off terrestrial television there was the multi-story "What to Expect when You're Expecting" which was available some while back on Sky's pay-per-view Box Office, but which they never chose to show later on to us hard-done subscribers. No big loss however with lots of soppy tales from the all-star cast.

My final contribution to the week's entertainment was another DVD which I imported from the States, "Labyrinth of Darkness" a selection of shortish films from Czech master animator Jiri Barta. I hadn't seen any of his films previously and still prefer those of Jan Svankmajer, but they were pretty dark and disturbing. His so-called masterpiece is a 55-minute version of the Pied Piper fairy-tale, but in his telling the piper doesn't lead the children from the town when the greedy burghers refuse to pay him, but rather turns them all into rats to jump to their watery deaths. Glad to have seen this disc...

OK, it probably was a more attractive week than I made out when I started writing today, and given a different frame of mind, I probably could have gone into a great deal more detail on many of the above films. But there you go -- I didn't want to. So there!  

Friday, 20 June 2014

Any Day Now (2012)

You may have noticed that I frequently have a little moan about the dwindling number of premiers on the Sky Movie Channels each week and more particularly about the quality of the now usually four titles that are offered. I often wonder where on earth they have located some of the dreary 'straight-to-video' (as they used to be called) movies they present, together with their sprinkling of useless television movies. I have concluded that they acquire these in bulk from distributors as their penance for trying to book their weekly 'blockbuster'.

However, every so often, a gem appears amongst the dross, as is the case with the above title. On paper the film seemed to have absolutely nothing going for it, since who would go out of their way to view a movie about a camp drag queen getting his uncloseted lawyer boyfriend to help gain custody of a teenaged Down's syndrome boy who has been abandoned by his druggie mother? The on-paper lack of appeal for this offering was compounded by it being something of a vanity piece for its lead, Alan Cumming, an actor so affected and fey, that he is usually a hard watch. I first noticed him in the Ireland-set drama "Circle of Friends" in 1995 and he has been 'Annoying-for-Britain' ever since. However, he is absolutely terrific in this film.

He plays Rudy, part of a trio of lip-synching drag artists, in a gay pub in West Los Angeles back in 1979. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, always behind in the rent for his sleazy apartment, with dreams of becoming a proper vocal artist. Next door lives 14-year old Marco, with his feckless mother who probably does love her handicapped son, but who loves her drugs more. When she's arrested for possession, Rudy bonds with the lad (a wonderful first performance from young Isaac Leyva) and seeks advice from his new lover -- a yuppie lawyer in the DA's Office. He's told that Child Services are responsible for the boy, and they do indeed take away poor Marco; however he wanders off from his new foster home and back to Rudy. Moving into his boyfriend's more salubrious flat, they get a signature from the boy's mother now sentenced to a three-year stretch, and apply for temporary custody from the court, using the fiction that they are cousins.

Under their loving care as they both warm to the boy, Marco begins to blossom, although still severely limited by his condition. They get him glasses to correct his faulty eyesight and find a suitable school for him. However tongues begin to waggle and soon the busybodies of this world are out to expose the shame of two homosexuals raising a susceptible child. Remember this was 1979! They end up back in court with a fiery black attorney -- more respectable white lawyers have refused to represent them, but find themselves with an uphill battle. Despite a child psychologist testifying that the boy would be best off with the pair and despite the judge recognising their sincere love for the boy -- the law is the law and they perjured themselves at the first hearing. They continue to appeal until their main nemesis -- the lawyer's former boss (he has of course been sacked in the meantime) does a deal to get the mother released from prison and to resume Marco's custody.

Parenthetically the DA is played by the little-known actor Chris Mulkey who first registered on my radar with "Patti Rocks" in 1988 and the great TV series "Twin Peaks" in 1990. He's been a busy fellow over the years and I noticed him within the last fortnight when he turned up playing Monroe's father in "Grimm" (one of several serials I follow on television nowadays) and as a cop in 1982's "First Blood" which I decided to re-watch a few days ago. Other than him the cast is generally made up of unknowns to me, including one dishy Garret Dillahunt as the lawyer-lover, with the exception of Frances Fisher as the first judge and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Michael Nouri.

Never mind, Cumming and Leyva are the whole show here, and Cumming even manages to showcase his formidable vocal talent with a moving rendition of "Love Don't Live Here Anymore". It's the sort of movie where you think the ending will be 100% predictable, but where you couldn't be more off-track. In the closing minutes, we hear extracts of a letter that Dillahunt has written to many of the characters encountered along the way. He describes Marco as sweet, smart, and funny, with a smile that could light up the room, and the world's greatest disco dancer. He says that the kid loved junk food and that chocolate doughnuts were his drug of choice. He adds that Marco enjoyed a bedtime story each night, but insisted that it have a happy ending. Marco loved a happy ending! But that's not what happened here....

The film did receive a brief release to a selected few cinemas, but then dropped out of sight, which is why no doubt it ended up on Sky's list of orphan-films, dumped on them as part of a package. However in this instance I was delighted to find it in their schedules and would recommend seeking it out, if you can. Just take a big box of tissues!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Shoot (1976)

And so another one bites the dust! I always experience a frisson of pleasure when I succeed in removing yet another film from my 'must see one of these days' list. Again I have YouTube to thank for providing the copy I watched, since it seems to be something of a moot point as to whether the film has ever been released for rental or sale. Not surprising that its availability has been limited, since this Canadian movie was generally slammed by the critics on its release and shunned by the public.

It gained its place on my little list from its inclusion in Danny Peary's invaluable "Guide for the Film Fanatic" published in 1986 -- and my copy of that paperback is now literally falling apart. 'Bite the dust' is actually a good intro for this film insofar as it was intended to be a controversial anti-gun movie, a kick in the pants to National Rifle Association die-hards. Starring the likeable actor Cliff Robertson, with some able support from Ernest Borgnine and Henry Silva, they play weekend hunting buddies, ex-combat soldiers who are bored with the weekday routine of work, family, and civilian respectability. They only begin to feel 'alive' again with a rifle clutched in their clammy little hands.

One day with nary an animal to kill in sight, they stand bored in the snowy landscape on one side of a frozen river. Across the river stand another group of hunters, apparently equally bored, until one of them decides to take a pot-shot at Robertson's crew. The shot only grazes one of his buddies, but Silva immediately returns fire killing one of the other hunting party. They have managed to create an instant Enemy (with a capital E) and now need to prepare for what they perceive as the inevitable next encounter. No one reports the incident to the police, but Robertson immediately begins recruiting and training other townsfolk, who thrill to running about in the woods dressed as soldiers.

This central portion of the movie is frankly as dull as ditch-water or proverbially watching paint dry, since we have no way of knowing whether the desired combat and confrontation will ever occur, and the training seems to go on endlessly. However, one day during their manoeuvres, they discover to their horror that their 'enemy' is even better prepared than they. It's a massacre in the making! The moral, if there is one, is how can some supposedly intelligent men be so stupid that they can not curb their own madness in time to prevent disaster.

Had the film been rather better made or scripted, it might have become something of a cult classic, a timely warning against the availability and enjoyment of guns. As it is, it remains something of an obscurity to 'bite the dust' for pppatty's pleasure...

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

"Vile! The most lurid and horrible details of the book have been put into the picture. It is filthy and nauseating in its intent, horrible in its characterisations" - Harrison's Reports (May 1933)

"A sordid tale...dubious fodder for Hollywood in the first place. No amount of seasoning to camouflage the basic rancidness of the theme can square it" - Variety (May 1933)

These are but two of the flood of criticism that greeted this pre-code version of William Faulkner's notorious 1931 novel "Sanctuary". Even the New York Times who tried to give a more objective review of the film labelled it as "grim and sordid", despite complimenting the production on its intelligence. Needless to say I was dead keen to see it, since it has never been released on video or DVD and has never been shown on television -- such is its notoriety. It took a 'Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies before the Censor' at the British Film Institute to provide the opportunity.

Now that I have managed to cross the title off my little list, I must confess that like so many film rarities, it falls into the category of 'happy to have seen it, but why all the fuss?' Granted we have moved on as to what we regard as suitable subject matter for films and are far less readily offended by what is depicted on the screen nowadays. However, casting one's imagination back to the mind of the 30's moviegoer, I fail to see just what was so very shocking at the time. If one compares this film with the actual details of Faulkner's novel, it is something of a Sunday School parable and very little of the book's salacious content is actually shown on the screen.

Miriam Hopkins plays the title character, a flighty Southern belle, a bit wild in her ways -- drinking and cock-teasing, but no more immoral than most of her peers, not ready to commit to her faithful boyfriend, lawyer William Gargan. Spoiled by her grandfather, Judge Drake (Sir Guy Standing), she finds herself one rainy night stranded with a different drunken beau at the remote farm of a bunch of bootleggers. There she is stripped of her wet clothes by the tawdry housekeeper (Florence Eldridge -- later the elegant Mrs Frederic March), leered at by the male assembly, and given purportedly safe refuge in the barn. It is here that she is raped by big baddie Jack La Rue, who also shoots the feeble-minded chap who has been 'protecting' her. It is all implied and the viewer sees absolutely nothing distasteful -- it is left to one's imagination.

It's rather tasteful in its way when one considers that the La Rue character in the book is actually impotent, normally getting his kicks by watching, and in fact assaulted Miss Drake with a corncob. Now that is distasteful! Anyhow with her reputation in tatters, Hopkins can not risk going home and takes refuge in the local bawdy house (as one would - NOT). Gargan finds her, but she rebuffs him by actually kissing the sleazy La Rue. However when the latter knocks her about and refuses to let her leave, she shoots the scoundrel. The whole sordid saga finally comes out in court, but despite the disgrace, Hopkins is not tried for murder and goes on to be reconciled with grandpapa. Perhaps that is what really offended the moral sensibilities of the Hays Office.

The fact remains that Faulkner's book, branded as "probably the most sickening novel ever written in this country", was a bestseller, not just for its content, but because of the author's lofty literary reputation. One can understand the studios wanting to cash in on its popularity, but the film they created has been so cleaned up that it really doesn't warrant its own reputation for sordidness. The fact that it is not actually particularly good, well-acted, or well-made are more cogent reasons why it is not really worth seeking out.