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Friday, 27 February 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards (2015)

I didn't write about the BAFTAs this year since they are becoming unwatchable, as so-called 'national treasure' Stephen Fry's self-centred bonhomie and feeble jokes grate more and more. His introduction of Tom Cruise deserves to go down in infamy...

So on to the Oscars and yet another new host in the attempt to find someone to match the classic Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal years. I had reasonable hopes for the no-longer young Dougie Howser in the form of Neil Patrick Harris, who has both song-and-dance experience and a reasonable record of hosting other award shows. However it was something of a wash-out and I would be surprised indeed if he is invited back next year. While his opening number was fairly clever the remainder of his presentation became flatter by the minute -- his scripted patter not connecting with the audience and his ad libs more like damp squibs. I've read that he had a support team of some l4 people acting as writers and dressers but I fear they  didn't earn whatever exorbitant amount they were probably being paid.

And the show not only over-ran the scheduled time but was also overstuffed in a number of boring ways; I can quite understand why viewing figures were well down. For a start there was too much of Harris's shtick about his predictions for the evening in a locked box on stage with all to be revealed at the show's end. Then there was the complete omission of the themed compilations which I for one anticipate each year, too much focus on the nominated songs and their unending renditions, and far too much using the stage for political burbling (earlier winners being drowned out after their allotted 45 seconds but the A-listers being allowed to waffle on and on.) Even the 'In Memoriam' section suffered by not showing clips from the deceaseds' careers, followed by an endless dirge from Jennifer Hudson. Only the 50th anniversary celebration of "The Sound of Music" with Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews was truly memorable.

While it is probably politically incorrect to make the following comment, that's not to stop me! The Academy was criticised for its largely all-white list of nominees, and the show's producers seem to have tried to compensate by enlisting a plethora of black presenters and by giving the Academy President -- who happens to be a black lady -- the floor for a long and basically political speech. Even the standing ovation given to the winning song "Glory" from "Selma" seemed to be part of this overt compensation. It's a nice song but I'll be dipped if I can see where rap fits into a period piece.

What about the actual awards you may ask. As usual I have not seen many of the nominated films and performances (although I certainly have seen "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" which were the night's main winners.) However I have read enough about most of the movies and performances to have some fairly reasoned opinions. The Best Supporting Oscars to Patricia Arquette and J  K Simmons came as no surprise to anyone, as did the long overdue award to Julianne Moore as best actress. (Parenthetically here, she also won this award for "Still Alice" at the BAFTAs despite the fact that the movie has still not opened in the U.K. -- would someone please explain that to me). And I'm glad that the final swing toward "Birdman" did not deprive Eddie Redmayne of the well-deserved best actor award. Michael Keaton gave a brave performance and may have been a sentimental favourite, but Redmayne's transformation into Stephen Hawking was a tour de force.

As for "Birdman" taking the top prizes, I'm not so sure these were deserved. I've not yet seen "Boyhood" and am in no hurry to do so, but I think that any film which is twelve years in the making should have received more honours -- possibly for best film or best editing, since I doubt that the largely improvised acting required much directing from Richard Linklater. I would also have preferred the award for original screenplay to have gone to Wes Anderson for "Grand Budapest". Finally, as I wrote when I reviewed "Birdman", Emmanuel Lubezki's award-winning cinematography was brilliantly done but totally seasick-making.

It has been noted that audiences are losing interest in the awards ceremony because it remains determined to honour so-called artistic integrity rather than popular taste. In this context it is fascinating to note that the blockbuster best picture nominee "American Sniper" has earned more money at the American box office than the other seven nominees put together.  Also it is somewhat inexplicable why the very successful "The Lego Movie" was cold-shouldered in the animated feature category. The Academy sometimes moves in mysterious ways...

Being the buff I am, I'll certainly be back next year for my annual dose of excess in its many forms, but the ceremony would benefit from a good re-think.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)

This East German live-action fairy tale apparently traumatized a whole generation of British children. It was serialised and brought to late afternoon television in the 1960s. Broadcast when the days were growing short and in black and white since colour sets were not widely available, there were not even the deep rich hues of the clothing and production design to lighten the scares produced by a sinister dwarf, a prince turned into a bear and his steed turned into a pile of stones, and a huge goggle-eyed mechanical fish. For all those who remember this movie with fondness for a childhood now long gone, there are apparently others who have never recovered from its surreal weirdness.

I was not one of these poor kiddies and first saw the film a few years back at the National Film Theatre. I watched it again recently in its restored DVD version and was again enchanted by its appealing simplicity and naivety. A prince comes to ask for the hand of the world's first communist princess, a buxom Aryan spoiled brat, who disdains his gift of a casket full of pearls. She will only consider marrying him if he brings her the fabled singing ringing tree. He procures the straggly-looking tree from the aforesaid evil dwarf and is confident that the princess will now accept his suit, saying may he be turned into a bear if she does not.

Needless to say the selfish wench has eyes only for the tree that is neither singing nor ringing at present and rejects him again. Lo he morphs into a bear which, despite apparently requiring three hours of make-up each morning, looks like little more than a man in a furry onesie.  In debt to the dwarf, he abducts the princess from her pampered life and takes her back to Fairyland, where she is instructed to pick berries for food and find moss for bedding. When she baulks at such un-princess-like expectations, her beauty fades -- her nose grows long and her golden locks go lank. The dwarf takes great pleasure in the mismatched couple's distress and watches and snorts with glee as he creates more and more obstacles in their path.

Ultimately she warms to the 'dear' bear and learns that good deeds are stronger than magic spells; she regains her golden tresses and the bear again becomes her handsome prince. Apparently it is only when true love blossoms that the tree can sing and ring!  Sort of -- it's the quietest singing and ringing you can imagine, not great bells chiming out.

Obviously shot on a low budget with plenty of painted backdrops, primitive effects including antlers attached to a white horse, and a man in a swimsuit manoeuvring the big fish, the film is perhaps most suitable for young children who have not yet been brainwashed by computer-generated animations -- then again they too might be frightened by one of the scariest villains since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Childcatcher.  For adults it is a nostalgic return to simpler times and entertainments and can be enjoyed by its own colourful and imaginative criteria. Some would suggest that it is meant to be an East German political allegory about Communism vs. Capitalism, but that's a load of hooey says PPP. It's a simple fairy-tale that manages to encompass deceit, betrayal, jealousy, forgiveness, and love in its short and eye-catching running time.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

I was intrigued when this film was first released since it seemed to have a number of things going for it: two charismatic leads (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), a fascinating "true" story of an art world scandal, and it was directed by Tim Burton, whose quirky worldview usually manages to divert. Anyhow we never did get around to seeing it straight away, but caught up with it recently at a repertory showing. Once again, bless the Prince Charles Cinema for their idiosyncratic programming.

Despite what I wrote above, this is the most un-Burtonesque movie of his career, at least on the surface. Not only is there no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter, but he appears to be playing it straight in recounting the very strange relationship between the 'artist' husband-and-wife team of Walter and Margaret Keane (Waltz and Adams). The film opens with Margaret and her daughter fleeing her first marriage and landing in the 'boho' San Francisco of the late 1950s. There she finds work painting juvenile designs on baby furniture and indulges her true 'talent' of drawing portraits of the passing crowd at Sunday open-air art fairs. Her work is distinguished by large-eyed tykes who seem to be capturing all of the sadness of the soul in their mournful gaze.

She is spotted by Walter who is trying to flog his dismal Parisian street scenes, painted he tells the na├»ve and accepting Margaret in his dreary garret after studying at the Beaux Arts in Paris. When he proposes, she can see only a happy future together -- and with her short blonde bob Adams seems to be channelling Doris Day. Always eager to pursue a fast buck and a master of the fast line, Walter arranges for their paintings to be displayed in the corridors of a 'beat' night club. When his sorry works are ignored but hers attract some positive attention, he convinces her that they will sell better if they are thought to be the work of a male artist. She reluctantly agrees and for the next ten years churns out painting after painting behind locked doors (even lying to her daughter), while he courts acclaim and riches for 'his' haunting pictures. Always looking for commercial possibilities, he flogs hundreds of cheap posters to the all-too eager punters and grows rich and smug. Margaret is now almost a prisoner, toiling away in their lavish home. Adams forgoes any hint of glamour from her previous roles, and gallantly portrays the worn-down victim of a man whose behaviour verges on the psychotic if he doesn't get his own way.

The film was written by the same screenwriters who created Burton's "Ed Wood" and there is the same perverse fascination with Walter's larger than life character. This results in what could have been a conventional biopic of one person being dominated by another horrific OTT participant. I have no idea how true to the facts this film really is and how much is Burtonesque embroidery, but they would have us believe that Walter never actually painted anything original in his life and that he may have briefly visited Paris once upon a time...and there he is on national television telling the world how his painting was inspired by the ruins of Berlin after the war with homeless kiddies peeking through the barbed wire. For some reason this film, along with "Birdman", was considered a comedy at the recent Golden Globe awards. There is little to find amusing in Walter's misuse of his wife's talents.

When she bookends the first half of their life together by again driving away with her daughter, Walter tells her that he will only agree to a divorce if she sends him 100 original big-eyed paintings from her new home in Hawaii -- and believe it or not she begins to churn them out. It is only after being inspired by some cold-calling Jehovah's Witnesses that she seeks protection from the courts. In the trial that follows, Walter, acting as his own lawyer, produces so histrionic and unbelievable a performance -- inspired by TV's Perry Mason -- that the film seems to verge on high comedy were it not for the fact that the viewer is rooting for justice for Margaret, which she finally may receive. He may be a despicable bastard, but Waltz' performance is a master-class of high camp, even if one finds it hard to believe that he is the all-American bastard that he is meant to be.

The supporting cast of Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwarzman add little depth to the movie nor does Danny Huston as the local reporter who befriends Keane. Only Terence Stamp manages to give the film some momentum in his role of the New York Times Art Editor. who protests that these kitschy portraits are anything but real 'art'. I'm inclined to agree with him and wonder how her pictures ever became so popular, since they are little more than sentimental tosh. Then again, Andy Warhol claimed that the Keane oeuvre must be good if so many people bought them!

Burton may have given us a more conventional movie than we have come to expect from him, but he does insert the odd strange touch to remind us that he could be depicting a fairy-tale world where nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. For example when Margaret approaches the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, the water is ringed with non-existent palm trees and in the stressful years that follow, she often feels besieged by the same eerie big-eyed folk that she puts on canvas. The big question is when is a Tim Burton film not a Tim Burton film?    

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Circus (1928)

If you asked me a few days ago what I would be writing about this week, I probably would have confidently replied "Daisies", the 1966 Czech New Wave film from Vera Chytilova, a movie which has been on my 'must see' list for ages. Now that I have finally seen it, my initial reaction was one of extreme disappointment. Despite the occasionally flashy psychedelic visuals, I kept thinking that the director was just trying too hard to be 'kooky, and I was more annoyed than charmed. The non-story, such as it is, concerns two feckless teenaged girls living for the moment by exploiting older men. The final scene, after wantonly destroying an official banquet feast, shows the pair trying and failing to repair the massive damage they have wreaked, repeating to each other "If we work hard we'll be happy and good" a suitable mantra as the Russian tanks rolled in.

There's something to be said for being in the right mood for watching certain films. I suppose it is feasible that I would react differently to another viewing, seeing the movie for the imaginative mess and message intended by the director --  but I'm in no hurry to test that theory.

So today, much to my amazement, I find myself writing about Charlie Chaplin. As I've said previously you can divide film buffs between those who think that Chaplin was the greatest silent comedian and the larger proportion who are convinced that the title belongs to Buster Keaton (and I count myself amongst the latter).  Despite the universal popularity of Chaplin's 'little tramp', the more reflective viewer tends to be put off by his often mawkish sentimentality, leaving Keaton as the 'thinking man's' hero. However my recent view of the above title has to some extent softened my anti-Chaplinism.

This film is far less known than his other late and revered silents like "Modern Times" and "City Lights", probably because it was withdrawn by the man himself after its successful debut, and not re-released until 1969. However it was well enough thought of in its day to receive a special honorary Oscar for its virtuoso variety. Indeed Chaplin produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film and even wrote its score, adding a song sung by him over the front credits on its re-release. On many levels I would judge it his masterpiece and one of my heroes, Federico Fellini, counts it among his favourite films and an inspiration.

In his little tramp persona, Chaplin becomes involved with a circus when he is chased into the big top by the police. He becomes an accidental sensation drawing more roars of laughter from the crowd than the regular clowns with their jaded routines and is soon taken on to continue to inadvertently please the punters. He is only unfunny when trying too hard (much like the auteur himself in my book). However the film contains some inspired slapstick, especially a bit of business in the funhouse mirror maze, and a staggering performance on the high wire. Thinking he is protected by a safety harness, he makes some unbelievable moves, not aware that the harness has become detached; he manages to keep his perilous balance while being attacked by a pack of affectionate monkeys. Cue genuine laughs and amazement.

Of course there's a love story as well as he befriends the owner's badly-treated daughter, the bareback rider played by Merna Kennedy. 20 years old when she made this film, she retired in 1934 to marry Busby Berkeley. (Not that the marriage lasted but a fascinating bit of movie history gossip). He is convinced that she loves him as much as he worships her when he overhears a fortune-teller predicting her falling for a dark and handsome fellow who is 'nearby'. However it turns out that it's Rex, the new flamboyant tightrope walker who has caught her eye. Sitting next to her as she idolises her new hero up above, Chaplin's face tells the whole tale of how he wishes his rival would fall to his doom.

Chaplin's performance here is the equal of Keaton's in every way, although being Chaplin, the film's ending is a little marred by undue sentiment and a sense of melancholy. We seldom feel that way with the 'great stone face', and thanks for that, Buster.