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Friday, 28 November 2014

Body and Soul (1925)

Apart from the standard popular tune, there have been a surprising number of films, TV series, and mini-series with the above title -- each unrelated to the next, but none of such potentially great interest to the movie buff as the above Poverty Row movie.

Looking at niche interests, one must note that it was directed by Oscar Micheaux, one of very few black directors to accumulate a substantial body of work in the bad old days, and that it showcases the first film role (and his only silent role) of the majestic Paul Robeson. Both of these men were giants with landmark footnotes in film history. Micheaux is credited as the first African-American to produce a feature-length movie ("The Homesteader" - 1919) and also the first to produce a feature-length sound movie. Not many of his movies survive and since they were intended primarily for black audiences, few are known today. The fact that they were all made on the proverbial shoestring did not help them to linger in the collective memory.

As for Robeson, he was one of the first black actors to cross over into 'white' films, most noticeably in the original 1936 version of "Showboat". Tall, handsome, with a beautiful bass voice, he was the son of a minister, graduated from college in 1919, and attended Columbia Law School -- so he was hardly any kind of stereotype. He performed on stage and in concert from the early twenties, and made a series of wonderfully conceived films (several of them in England) in the thirties. His last film performance was in "Tales of Manhattan" (1942) when he took offence at the portrayal of Negroes in Hollywood movies. Always a radical and a fighter for justice, he was suspected of Communist sympathies (he famously performed in Moscow), and had his passport confiscated for his beliefs. He was effectively blacklisted and his career destroyed. A sad, sad story.

In the above film he takes a dual role as the respectable, poor would-be inventor Sylvester and his ex-convict brother who poses as a man of the cloth. His fire and brimstone sermons become so popular with the local community, that no one sees his true colours (a drinker and a gambler) through the fa├žade. He entices Sylvester's girlfriend or rather rapes her, manages to get her to steal the money that her poor old mother has been saving in the family bible, and drives her in disgrace from her home. When the mother eventually traces the girl, she is starving and sickly --soon to die. The mother is played by the large and imposing fair-skinned Mercedes Gilbert, who was a well-known stage actress, and the girl by Micheaux's sister-in-law in her only film appearance.

While censorship was not as formal in the twenties as it became after the Hays Code, the director was broadly criticised by his fellow blacks for portraying a minister as a thief, rapist, and murderer. Without the funds to reshoot the movie, Micheaux tacked on a new ending -- an early instance of 'it was all a dream, the nightmare of a tortured soul' cop-out. Despite this being the only time Robeson played what could be considered a villain, his performance is mesmerising. The film is worth seeing for him alone, but the Criterion disc is blessed with a great jazz score by Wycliffe Gordon and Courtney Pike. And while I usually object to voices on the sound-track of a silent movie, I could just about swear that at times I could hear Robeson himself singing.

I am away for a short break at the end of next week, so I shall reappear in a fortnight's time. 'Til then....

Friday, 21 November 2014

There's a whole world out there...

It never ceases to amaze me how many interesting movies are waiting to be discovered by the open-minded viewer. I could happily ignore most new releases -- although to be fair I try to make the effort to see them all in due course -- in the hope of finding my entertainment further afield. This week has been a good case in point, since after watching the film that I intended to be the centrepiece of this entry, I saw two others that merit if only the briefest of mentions.

The first of these was a German experimental film from 1925 titled "Das Blumenwunder", which I assume means 'the wonder of flowers'. No point trying to verify this on IMDb since the film isn't even included in their remarkable database. Effectively it was a very, very early entry in what I think is called time-lapse photography, watching various flowers bloom, blossom, and sometimes fade. I have certainly seen modern-era nature programmes using the same technique, but never morphing the flowers into flowingly-robed dancers as this one did! On one level its 65 minutes running time verged on the boring, but I kept telling myself that the movie was probably of great historic merit and certainly of great curiosity value.

The second movie was a modern Indian one from Channel Four's annual late-night Indian season. I've given up watching every one of these movies as a matter of course, but do set those that sound of potential interest. I picked a real winner with "Lootera" (2013).  Set in 1953, shortly after the country's independence, it seems at first a run-of-the-mill love story as the sickly daughter of a rich landowner (whose property is largely being nationalised) falls for the handsome 'archaeologist' who is excavating on their land. He loves her too, but his 'brother' tells him that their 'uncle' would never sanction the proposed marriage. Their engagement is announced but when her father visits their temple to prepare for the ceremony, he discovers his gold statues have been looted and the handsome lover has done a bunk. The so-called uncle has meanwhile purchased the treasures of the house and paid for them with a wad of counterfeit cash! Hence, I assume, the title of the movie.

Seeing his daughter's suffering kills the father and the story resumes with her living (and dying from TB) elsewhere in genteel poverty. Hunted by the police since many others were similarly deceived, the impostor comes back into her life while on the run -- and a different sort of love story follows, largely inspired by the O. Henry story of 'The Last Leaf' -- not that any happy ending was feasible.' This was an unusual and gripping tale and the film blessedly didn't suffer from the characters bursting into song and dance at every opportunity. Yes, there was music and singing, but this was as a background to the action and the film was all the better for its restraint.

So finally to the movie intended as this week's topic: "The New Gulliver" (1935). This film from Aleksandr Ptuschko (1900-1973), often referred to as 'the Russian Disney' was both very much of its period and a total delight despite that. What I'm getting at is that almost all Russian movies from the 30s featured smiling, happy, collective workers, going about their tasks for the glory of Mother Russia. (I doubt the films would have been sanctioned had this not been the case). Ptuschko takes the classic tale and rewrites it as a Communist text. The live-action actor, a big, brawny, cheerful yet gormless fellow, is shipwrecked in Lilliput, where he is captured by a host of impressively fashioned stop-motion miniature figures. (Again this must be one of the earliest major examples of the technique.) However these Lilliputians are a decadent bunch of aristos, while toiling beneath the kingdom are crude Claymation figures forced to manufacture munitions and awaiting their chance to rebel and to rise to the surface. I guess you get the message!

The Lilliputians decide that Gulliver should join their army as a man-mountain defence, and prepare a sumptuous banquet for him. They bring on the entertainments including a troupe of tinier midgets ('You have midgets?" he asks in amazement). However Gulliver wonders why they 'beat' their workers and he refuses to toast their king; he says they should change their motto from 'God save the throne' to 'God save Labour'. Rather than defending the kingdom from foreign enemies as in the book, Gulliver supports the workers as they storm the palace, forcing the king and his queen to hang precariously from the clock-tower. 'At last' enthuses our hero as he awakes from his dream.

You can watch this gem on the treasure-house that is You Tube. There is a copy available with English subtitles, even if these are occasionally difficult to read with their white on white. There is also a slightly longer version posted, but without the necessary titles that definitely add spice to this fantasy. Well recommended!

 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Korean movies

Korean movies have gone from strength to strength over the last fifteen or so years and I can think of dozens that have enchanted me, from period epics through quirky policiers, from fantasy sci-fi through effective horror. Therefore when we noticed that a Korean Film Festival was scheduled for London this month (incidentally the 9th and the largest and most ambitious of all the Korean Festivals staged around the globe), we thought 'let's book some tickets'. After studying the very diverse programme which featured the 102nd(!) film from director Im Kwontaek and a retrospective of the movies of talented 'outsider' Kim Ki-duk, we settled on two films from a short-list of seven or eight. They were, as it turned out, not necessarily the best choices we could have made and short reviews follow below.

Coincidentally -- or perhaps in support of the Festival -- Film Four also scheduled five television premieres for recent Korean movies five nights in a row. I thought 'super-duper' and set the hard-disc for the very late night showings of "In Another Country" (2012), "Like You Know it All" (2009), "The Day He Arrives" (2011), "Oki's Movie" (2010), and "Hahaha" (2010). However, I had to literally force myself to sit through these five which were largely very slow and tedious and occasionally confusing.. Ironically each of them had a main character who was either a film director or critic (or in some cases both).

The generalisations I can tell you by distilling the five movies are that Korean film-makers all look like late teenagers (presumably not the bloke who has just shot his 102nd film), drink to excess, are always unfaithful to their wives, and are given to sprouting would-be profound but actually idiotic inanities at the drop of a hat. The weather is either freezing cold, rainy, or boiling hot -- and umbrellas are essential accessories. The films were all surprisingly well-rated on IMDb, but I couldn't tell you why. The first actually starred French super-star actress Isabel Huppert rabbiting away in English to the otherwise Korean cast who were forced to reply in occasionally pigeon English. How peculiar! The classic 'groundhog day' scenario seems to have been adapted by the screenwriters of these movies and all of them featured repetitious scenes, dialogue, and characters. Something of a big yawn and not super-duper at all. 

To return to the Festival itself, our first selection was Kim Ki-duk's latest "One on One". I referred to him as an outsider above since while he is well-revered overseas, he is not particularly popular in his home market; his films which have won major prizes at the top international film festivals have received scant praise among Koreans themselves. They tend to focus on society's own outsiders and on the cruelty meted out by man to his fellow man; his main themes are isolation, death, suffering in silence, and the need for revenge. None of this holds instant appeal for the average Korean movie-goer, whereas we foreigners treasure his movies as so-called 'art-house gems'.  His latest film is somewhat more conventionally constructed than many of his others. We follow a mismatched vigilante group, who dress up in varying costumes and uniforms, who seek to avenge the murder of a high school girl by the minions of some branch of the government. As is often the excuse for evil-doing, the perpetrators who are picked up and tortured one by one into signing confessions, claim that they were only following orders. Some of them begin to regret their actions -- others can't understand the fuss. The director seems to be asking where does responsibility stop? Can we ever satisfactorily correct society's wrongs? He does not provide us with any simple answers.

Our second choice "Cold Eyes", based on a 2007 Hong Kong thriller, was in contrast a huge hit in Korea. It is something of a rather atypical police procedural and I personally found it a little on the mechanical side. The lead actress Ha Yoon-ju plays a rookie policewoman with uncanny observational skills assigned to Hwang Sang-jun's surveillance unit; their job is to trace and pin down high-profile criminals rather than actively engaging with them. Their main target here is a ruthless criminal and bank-robber played by pretty-boy actor Jung Woo-sung (the 'Good' in 'The Good, the Bad, and the Weird'). The latter is apparently something of a major heart-throb back home and his appearance for a Q and A at the cinema yesterday attracted a throng of cooing, lovesick Korean ladies both in the audience and outside. I had no idea there were so many young Koreans living in London.

While the above reviews may come off as a little dismissive -- particularly of Film Four's selections -- I have not been put off seeking more Korean movies to view in the future. On balance the good ones I have seen in the past more than compensate for the seven seen this week, and certainly the two Festival choices were both of some minor interest.   

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Babadook (2014)

By and large I avoid most Australian films, since I find the accent both grating and often difficult to understand. In fact we could have selected the above movie as one of our choices at the recent FrightFest, but did not include it for that reason. However the generally amazing reviews it has garnered on its cinema release caused an immediate reappraisal for this fan of all things 'horror-able'. Having now seen it, let me state categorically that it provides truly creepy viewing and is destined to become a cult classic.

A freshman effort from writer-director Jennifer Kent, this low-budget but big-impact film focuses on conflicted mother Amelia, brilliantly embodied by Essie Davis, who is desperately trying to raise her genuinely disturbed and annoying son. Widowed when her husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to hospital to give birth to young Sam (a fact which the boy cheerfully advises to all and sundry), she is easily aggravated, sleep-deprived, and struggling to cope with her son's night terrors and disruptive behaviour at school and in public. A picture-book titled 'Mister Babadook' mysteriously appears on his bed-time reading shelf and it takes but one reading of the terrifying tale, which predicts death and disaster, for the boy to become convinced that this threat is real and that the Babadook does indeed inhabit every shadowy nook. Child actor Noah Wiseman gives a scary performance that could leave any child well and truly traumatised. 

Sam is determined to protect his mother from this fearsome creature and before long Amelia too begins to believe that something truly disturbing is looming in the darkness. She soon begins to lose her grip on reality, experiencing phantom phone calls and the reappearance of the mended book after she has carefully torn it to shreds and burned it. It does not displace one's rational belief in the nonexistence of monsters, that we too see her fears take shape in the form of the terrifying Babadook. The film's horror is far more psychological than the gleeful frissons we experience in viewing a bunch of typical teens being picked off one by one. Amelia finds that her long-standing resentment of the son who caused her husband's death begins to morph into physical hatred of the youngster. She is finally unable to cope. The child who begins the film as the bratty object of our disgust, causing us to sympathise with his harassed mum, turns into the object of our pity as we fear for his physical safety.

Without wishing to spoil the film's logic, one begins to suspect that Amelia was herself the author of the fiendish book, a way of making concrete her own worries and disappointments. In the end (spoiler here) the status quo can only be resumed by locking away the terror (real or otherwise) in the cellar that also houses all of her dead husband's chattels. The final images, however, suggest that the Babadook that any of us might create is alive and well and looking for his re-release.