Friday, 26 September 2014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

It seems I've become something of a Woody Allen apologist. The reviews here for his latest 44th (!) movie were so universally negative, that I nearly didn't go to see it on its release. The Times' critic described lead actor Colin Firth's performance as "soggy" -- whatever that means, and nearly all the detractors tend to compare each new Allen release with earlier Allen movies, rather than with the general dross available in cinemas today.

By that rather limited viewpoint, Woody's latest is not one of his greatest (and do bear in mind that I was not particularly taken with "Blue Jasmine"), but it is sunny and breezy, manages to bring smiles to one's face in addition to the occasional laugh-out-loud chuckle, and is much more than just a pleasant way to pass some 90 minutes.  Always fascinated by magic and magicians, Allen casts Firth as heavily made-up, unrecognizable Chinese conjurer Wei Ling-Soo, a world-renowned performer in the late 20s when the film is set. He thrills audiences with his skill at making elephants disappear, sawing ladies in two, and evaporating and re-appearing himself. In his non-stage life as uptight, cold and caustic rationalist Stanley, he derives the utmost pleasure from de-bunking fake mediums. He has recently acquired a super-efficient and therefore highly suitable 'fiancee' in the form of Catherine McCormack and is supposedly happy with his rigid world view..

When an old childhood friend who has also become a professional magician albeit less successful (Simon McBurney with the most distracting comb-over ever) tells him about a sweet young thing (Emma Stone) busy plying her money-making seance act on a susceptible family on the Riviera, adding that he has been unable to discover her trickery, Stanley is tempted to go and expose the young hussy. Stone's Sophie has not only charmed rich dowager Jacki Weaver with her attempts to communicate with her late husband, but she has also enticed Weaver's ninny of a son (Hamish Linklater). He persists in serenading Sophie non-stop with his titchy little ukulele while he croons songs of the period slightly off-key; he and his Mum are preparing to fund a psychic research centre to Sophie's delight (and the greedy joy of her chaperone mother, Marcia Gay Harden in a nothing role), and he also hopes to make her his pampered wife.

Stanley is introduced into the household under a false identity by McBurney and Weaver's daughter and son-in-law who are fearful that Mum and Junior are being fleeced. From the moment he lays eyes on the wide-eyed Sophie, he attempts to pooh-pooh her supposed flashes of psychic inspiration, even when she seems remarkably prescient about his travels, love-life, and real identity. He remains unimpressed by her parlour tricks and is determined to show her up for the phony gold-digger that she is. However on a day trip with him to visit his beloved Aunt in Provence (a smashing performance from old-stager Eileen Atkins), Sophie manages to sense things about his Auntie's past relationships that she could never have known. Thus the consummate rationalist Firth must re-evaluate his long held prejudices and admit the possibilities of the soul, religious beliefs, and something inexplicable to his own hidebound views. He even calls a press conference to admit to the world that he just may have been wrong all these years. There is absolutely nothing "soggy" about his performance and the other main players are fine as well.

However when Atkins is injured in a road crash and Firth reluctantly attempts to offer up a little prayer to an unacknowledged God, he is reminded that even if his dear aunt should die, he can always communicate with her via Sophie. This knocks some sense back into his addled mind: only the skill of doctors can save his aunt and Sophie really must be some colossal fraud -- as a pedlar of illusion himself he is sure he can expose another, never dreaming initially that McBurney and Sophie might be in cahoots. Even when the truth is out and Sophie has accepted Linklater's proposal, Firth begins to understand that there is something about her which has touched him deeply and that even in the rational world there is something which can only be described as real magic. He offers his hand in marriage to save her from herself, but is rebuffed -- much to his amazement that a young lady from Kalamazoo should turn down the great full-of-himself celebrity. That's your final chance he yells after her...but we can guess the ending.

As always Allen's use of period music is brilliantly incorporated in the film and there is even a brief cameo from Ute Lemper as a café singer in Berlin (complete with grotesque Weimar figures in the foreground). The South of France photography is sumptuous as well. I feel that Woody keeps returning to his favourite period of the l920s if only to incorporate the spiffy shiny period roadsters which accompany nearly each scene; he may even have a fetish for them! As for the age difference between Firth and Stone, not that there is any mention of this in the storyline, I admit that there is something just a little bit creepy about this. However as Allen himself has admitted, he is now far too old himself to play against some of the exciting new actresses he finds, so substitute Woodys with all their inbuilt neuroses and jaded outlooks must fill in for him. Perhaps this recurrent theme is a sweet little love letter to his own much younger spouse in a marriage which has now lasted the best part of twenty years.

This is the sort of movie that one can just sit back and enjoy on its own terms, without pursuing any sort of intellectual exercise as to how it fits into the Allen canon.  Bring them on Woody!  

Friday, 19 September 2014

Mr Belvedere Goes to College (1949)

After the rather soft-core horrors of FrightFest, the time has come to reintroduce some classic whimsy into the mix. The above movie is the first of two spin-offs from the inimitable Clifton Webb's pouring-porridge-over-baby's-head triumph in "Sitting Pretty" (1948), as self-proclaimed 'the world's greatest genius' Lynn Belvedere.

Webb is amongst the most unlikely of Hollywood leading men, coming to talkies well into middle-age with his caustic performance as the suave villain in "Laura" (1944). Indeed he made several silents back in the 1920s and was a professional ballroom dancer and Broadway star in his earlier career. As a matter of interest, he originated the male leading role in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" both in New York and in London.  The characters he played in his second late-life film career were often remarkably close to his own waspish personality: debonair, cultured, slightly effete but never effeminate. A bachelor, he lived with his mother who was apparently his best friend, until her death in her early nineties, six years before his own. He left us with a treasury of memorable films including the original "Cheaper by the Dozen", "Stars and Stripes Forever" as John Philip Sousa, and the Barbara Stanwyck version of "Titanic". Even in some of his lesser-known flicks like "Dreamboat" and "Heavens Above", he was never anything less than terrific.

After the unexpected success of "Sitting Pretty", the Belvedere character was revived in this movie to examine how the self-educated genius who left formal schooling after two exasperating weeks in kindergarten (!), reacts to the campus scene when he finds that a college diploma is a prerequisite to receiving a literary prize that he has been awarded. Mind you, it is his intention to complete the four year course in under one year. Not that we ever see him attending classes, but we do get to witness his response to Freshman hazing, his unlikely impressive abilities as a pole-vaulter, and his civilising a bunch of unruly sorority sisters. His bumptious ways are always winning and Webb is, in effect, the only reason to both watch and enjoy this movie, despite oneself.

It pains me to say, that he acts his co-star, a late-teen Shirley Temple, off the screen. I have never made a secret of how charming I (and most of Depression-era America) found the young actress when she was but a toddler. Later, rather thankless, roles like this one probably account for her early retirement. Here she plays a young war widow, who has gone back to college under her maiden name, with her three-year old son in tow, but discreetly hidden away. She is determined to write a tell-all magazine article about the notorious Mr Belvedere and he is determined that she will do nothing of the kind. She also has a low-key romance with would-be suitor Tom Drake, whose mother (Jessie Royce Landis) is horrified when she learns about the scandalous child. This whole sub-plot is completely dispensable, but it would have left the feature a rather short film. One must therefore relish Webb's indelible performance, like when Belvedere is arrested by a young cop (Jeff Chandler in an early bit part), works his way out of the handcuffs, and claims that, yes, he did teach Houdini a few tricks. He also uses his one free phone-call to contact his friend J. Edgar Hoover to intervene. As always, the prickly yet super-confident Webb is the most memorable thing in this rather patchy movie.

I will soon watch the third Belvedere movie "Mr Belvedere Rings the Bell", which I have never seen (but I have the disc on order). There he takes on the nursing home challenge -- I kid you not. I bet he quickly sorts out the wrinklies and their problems. What a man! What a character!

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Rest of the Fest

As promised, the remaining six movies we saw at FrightFest last month: However, as time passes, my powers of recollection fatally diminish. Maybe that really is the best way to review movies -- if a film doesn't stick in ones memory, perhaps it was little more than a time-filler (it would have to have been pretty bad to qualify as a time-waster). Here's the verdict:

Open Windows: I was keen to see the latest from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, whose intriguing "Timecrimes" (2007) was one of the more challenging flicks at FrightFest a few years back. This time he was directing in English with a nearly A-list lead in the shape of Elijah Wood; however the tale of enticing Wood's fan-site webmaster to act as a pawn in the proposed kidnap of 'movie star' (erstwhile porn actress) Sasha Grey left me completely cold. I've never been much of a fan of split screens, and the combination of computer images, tablets, and smartphones fighting to open windows on the screen became a new form of 'found footage' torture to me. As Wood becomes unwillingly more and more involved in the plot, the whole sorry business began to make less and less sense. Sorry, folks.

Faults: This was the European premiere for what was described as a disturbing black comedy, starring genre fave Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Well it was hardly comic, but yes, it was quite disturbing in its way. Leland Orser, a familiar-looking actor better known for his TV appearances,  very effectively plays a slightly slimy cult de-programmer who is in serious financial shtuck; he convinces Winstead's parents that he is the very man to return their daughter from the tentacles of the mysterious cult called Faults which appears to have brainwashed her. However, once she is kidnapped and taken to a remote motel, with her parents in the adjoining room, things do not quite go to plan. In the game of cat and mouse that follows, one begins to question who is winning the battle of wills. Hardly a horror film, but still a tense and intriguing movie.

The Samurai: This German concoction did not make a great deal of  sense and I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it was actually about, but it was good gory fun and more typically the type of fare I would expect FrightFest to showcase. Set in a provincial town beset by a wolf's rampages, young cop Jakob (who has been leaving food in the woods for the predator) receives in the post a strange-shaped parcel addressed to 'Lone Wolf'. After a mysterious phone call asking if 'his' package has been received, Jakob goes to a cottage in the forest; here an ancient samurai sword is unwrapped and its possession taken by to a peculiar and fierce man dressed as an extremely unfeminine woman. This almost-human embodiment of the wolf goes on a bloody rampage in the village, decimating all who have made fun of Jakob and a bunch of innocents as well. The question is can Jakob stop the massacre and more importantly does he want to.

Alleluia: Again, I was eager to get tickets for this Belgian movie, since its director Fabrice du Welz helmed the very memorable "Calvaire" (2004). Here he retells the true story of serial killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez which first hit the screen in the cult flick "The Honeymoon Killers"(1969). The story is relocated to the Belgian countryside as gigolo Michel becomes enticed by overweight, needy, and drab single mother Gloria (a smashing turn from Spanish actress Lola Duenas). They pose as brother and sister to entice rich widows into his dubious arms before killing them for profit. However as Gloria becomes more and more jealous and demanding, especially as his latest conquest is a wealthy stunner, their fragile deceptions are threatened by her sexual insatiability. A pretty fair 're-imagining' as they say nowadays.

Nymph: This Serbian movie (not "A Serbian Movie") was probably the worst of the eleven films we chose, and unfortunately it wasn't even a 'foreign' film since it was made in English -- probably to increase its commercial prospects which are frankly pretty slim. Two American gals visit Montenegro to see an old college chum; together with his fiancée and one of his pals, they take an ill-advised excursion to an abandoned island fortress. That will teach them to avoid the warning words of the local nutter fisherman, played (one wonders why) by Franco Nero. Once ashore they encounter the bloodthirsty resident siren/mermaid who has been lovingly cared for by one of Nero's old crew these many years, and they seem to be trapped when they find that their boat has been destroyed. It was all a bit of a yawn, although the scenery was nice and there were lots of glamour shots of gals in skimpy bathing costumes to keep some people happy.

Extraterrestrial: This is actually a three-year old movie from the above-mentioned Spanish director Vigalondo, but at least it was in Spanish. With a very small cast (since most of the local humanity have been abducted by aliens in the spaceship hovering above the city), a couple wake after a one-night stand, much to the gal's embarrassment since her live-in lover is about to return. They must also deal with her creepy next-door neighbour who is determined to expose sexual shenanigans in which he is offered no part. This was a low-budget yet mildly entertaining mash-up of sci-fi and rom-com, a harmless but not overly memorable movie.

And there you have it. Will we return for more FrightFest next August? Like Sean Connery I have now learned never to say 'never' again. The move to a new cinema and having to split the audience into three parts with a rotating rota of movies seems to have worked quite well, and if anything the time-keeping was better (thank you gods) than it has been previously. Time will tell...

Friday, 5 September 2014

FrightFest and a Girl Named Lucy

Because I said I would, let's return to FrightFest, or at least to the five films we watched on the Friday and Saturday of the weekend:

Late Phases (2014): A UK premiere for this clever take on the werewolf film. Grumpy, blind war veteran (a thoroughly abrasive Nick Damici) moves into a supposedly idyllic retirement community...idyllic apart from the banging and screeching on his first night there and the fact that his guide dog is killed protecting him from an unseen beast. It doesn't take a genius to work out that an unfriendly neighbourhood werewolf is rapidly decimating the elderly population, not that his nosey neighbours appreciate his concern. Nor does the reality-denying local priest (an always welcome Tom Noonan). Not a great deal actually happens and the splatter is kept to a jokey minimum, but warrior Damici is armed to bring matters to a head and restore some sense of order into the doomed community, whatever the cost to himself.

R100 (2013): This Japanese film receiving its UK premiere was not part of the main programme, but featured on the 'Discovery Screen'; we chose it because non-US and non-UK movies have been the pick of the Fest in previous years. What a swizz! Film Four who are the festival's main sponsor actually broadcast the movie, free-to-view, the same weekend. Had we known that we might have saved ourselves the cost of a decent bottle of wine! Bitching apart, it was a weird treat and I suppose there was some advantage to watching it on a big screen. Our 'hero' (a recognizable Nao Omori from the great "Ichi the Killer") has a boring job and a wife in a coma. So as one might, he joins a strange gentleman's club to fulfil his fantasies. The catch is there is no quitting membership within the first year and he is beaten, embarrassed, and abused by a series of dominatrices -- but guess what, his reaction is supreme bliss. After an obese deliverer of projectile saliva (don't even try to picture this) dies at his house, he fights back, killing ranks of female ninjas, until the CEO of the club, an occidental buxom giantess locks herself in his fortress for the ultimate orgasms to the strains of Beethoven's Ninth. A kinky hoot...but what in the world was this movie doing at FrightFest?

 The title refers to the fact that this is purportedly the 100th film of a 100-year old director, as we eventually discover from a bunch of his lackeys. An apologist for him says that no one can understand this movie until they too are 100. A colleague retorts that there is therefore no point releasing the film, since how many 100-year olds are there and how many of them go to the cinema? Good questions....

The Harvest (2014): Another UK premiere for another US movie with rather more interesting credentials. From director John McNaughton of "Henry" fame and starring Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon, they play a somewhat estranged and somewhat deranged married couple with a big secret concerning their bedridden son. As a young new neighbour (a fine Natasha Calis) tries to make friends with the lad, Morton's behaviour becomes more and more defensive, desperate to hide the fact that there is another bedridden boy in the basement. What is being harvested and for whom is the shocking puzzle for the viewer to discover.

Starry Eyes (2014): Still another UK premiere and I'd better hurry along or I'll never get through everything I'm hoping to cover today. This was a mildly interesting examination of the desperate search for stardom in Hollywood by a would-be actress with rather minor talents. Performed by a no-name cast, our heroine Sarah is seduced by the producer of a supposed film company -- a front for a bunch of Satan worshippers we gather -- and is physically and mentally transformed into a beautiful murderess. So now you know how one becomes a success in La-La Land.

Life after Beth (2014): A preview this time for a Sundance hit starring Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan (flavour of the month), John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Anna Kendrick in a zom-com of dubious distinction. Young Zach is heartbroken when his girlfriend Beth dies, but rather taken aback when she comes back to life as a gradually disintegrating zombie. Her parents (Reilly and Shannon) are thrilled to have their daughter back and happy to turn a blind eye to her strange behaviour. Meanwhile Zach's family want him to get involved with a nice young lady of their choice, although they then are distracted when their long dead relatives begin to arise from the grave. Why all of the characters were meant to be Jewish is a complete mystery and non-sequitur. The film started as mildly amusing but soon outstayed its welcome.

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And here comes "Lucy" which deserves rather more room than I have left. This new film from French director Luc Besson (who has directed very little of late) is a fine bit of entertainment and something of a roller-coaster ride. Starring the delectable Scarlett Johansson, the movie has a similar premise to Bradley Cooper's "Limitless" (2011); it poses the question, what would happen if we humans used more than 10% of our potential intelligence. Cooper rose to the 20% level with amazing consequences, but Johansson's heroine gradually moves up to 100%. She begins the movie as a feckless bimbo living in Taiwan. Her slime-ball boyfriend Pilou Asbaek (yes, him out of "Borgen"), involves her in a major drug heist master-minded by Min-sik Choi ("Oldboy"), and she finds herself with a bag of some weird chemicals sewn into her tummy. One of her jailors, before she and three other mules are to be dispatched to various European cities, fancies a bit of 'how's your father' and kicks her in the stomach when he is rejected. This breaks the bag and disperses its contents into her system with unforeseen results as her intelligence and cunning grow by leaps and bounds.

She makes her way to Europe to recover the full drug haul with hordes of the Chinese Mafia on her tail, their guns blazing indiscriminately, and Lucy is no slouch herself when it comes to disposing of the enemy. Into the mix comes intelligence guru Morgan Freeman who has lectured on our poor use of our potential, but he adds little to the procedings as Johansson's Lucy is more or less the whole show. It's hard to think of another young actress who could have thrown herself so completely into the role as she becomes aware of her mortality and strives to preserve the knowledge that she has unwittingly acquired. Perhaps the film could have been rewritten for an older lead actress like Streep or Mirren, but it would have been a very different animal.

Of course the whole concept is a load of tosh, but it is beautifully handled by Besson. The cinematography of animal life and the special effects are masterfully presented, and he takes pains to remind us that the original ape linking the animal world to humankind was also called Lucy. Johansson moves from a pretty nobody to the embodiment of unimaginable intellect and pure spirit.

Next time for the remaining six FrightFest films....