Friday, 27 March 2015

God Bless America (2011)

Not too much trouble deciding what to discuss this week, since the above movie from the annoying comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is a gem of black-laced satire. Goldthwait the entertainer may not delight me, but in his role here of writer-director (not his first shot at directing incidentally), he manages in this low-budget diatribe to hit a number of sitting targets from our self-centred, celebrity-obsessed, and generally dumbed-down society.

Playing like the love-child of "Idiocracy" and "Natural Born Killers", our Everyman hero Frank, embodied by Joel Murray -- primarily a television actor -- rants and rages at the media-obsessed world in which he finds himself. Plagued by his noisy neighbours and their screaming brat, he daydreams of splattering their brains, but it takes the combination of being fired from his long-serving job for supposed sexual incorrectness and being diagnosed with an actually non-existent brain tumour by his blase physician for him to decide to end his empty existence. However, rather than committing suicide, he is distracted by a reality television report of a spoiled-rotten teenager berating her parents for buying the wrong sports car for her Sweet Sixteen. Stealing his neighbours' flashy yellow roadster, he tracks her down to her high school where he proceeds to blow out her brains.

Watched by Goth classmate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr, another TV performer) who is delighted that he has taken out 'the bitch', she spins a story of her abuse at home and begs to be taken along with him on his mission to rid the world of people who just don't deserve to live. Unfortunately this includes nearly anyone who is full of themselves and inconsiderate, like the chatty, cell phone-using patrons of a movie audience; the pair have no problem finding suitable targets on their cross-country trek to rid society of its worst offenders. These are not, let it be said the politicians and attorneys who may blight our society, but rather the commentators on and judges of humanity, whose opinions are accepted as gospel by the rest of society.

For example, a fat, tone-deaf, talentless contestant on "American Stars", brilliantly played by Aris Alvarado, becomes a media sensation because everyone enjoys laughing at him. He too considers suicide, not because he is the wide-spread butt of a bad joke, but because he thinks he may eventually cease to be the television personality that he has become. Naturally Frank and Roxy put him out of his misery with their own brand of justice, along with the television judges who mocked his hubris in the first place.

Having started with a brilliant first half, the satiric joke does begin to wear a bit thin by the final bloodbath. Goldthwait's betes noires may be begging to be exposed and mocked and the film amusingly manages to do this, but no one would believe that he is seriously encouraging us to take up arms to right them. It's only a movie, folks, and an on-target exercise of black comedy at that. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Sanctuary (1961) and Champagne (1928)

It was not really a problem to decide which film or films to write about this week. Unlike last week I was not faced with the task of choosing between an over-hyped new release versus a surprising indie. Instead, neither of the above movies is brilliant -- in fact you could go so far as to say that neither is particularly good -- but they both have at least one redeeming feature which makes them worthy of comment.

"Sanctuary" is a very vague re-make of "The Story of Temple Drake" (1933) which I reviewed in June last year. Both are based on Faulkner novels and both are travesties of the original source material. However whereas the 'pre-code' film starring Miriam Hopkins was solely a bowdlerized version of Faulkner's steamy Southern hijinks, this cleaned-up parable makes the earlier movie seem like Sodom and Gomorrah. A young and lithesome Lee Remick takes the Hopkins role of the feckless Southern belle, but all of the story's bare bones have altered. After she and her drunken beau, Bradford Dillman, take refuge at a bootlegger's cabin, she is raped by Candy Man, played here by Yves Montand and  described as a Cajun to account for his thick French accent. Rather than being repulsed by the brute, she ends up in the thrall of sexual satisfaction and decides to bunk up with him at the local brothel, treating us to a display of her fine body in a series of negligees. However when she believes him to have been killed in a car crash she returns to the sanctuary of Judge Daddy's plantation and the arms of Dillman (the beast she has murdered, her grandfather, and not her husband of choice in the previous movie).

In fact the only thing that makes this film of any interest is the participation of Odetta, the wonderful American folk-singer, in the role of her faithful black maid. This was her only cinema appearance until the late 70s and she majestically inhabits the part. When Montand rises from the dead and threatens to whisk away young matron Temple from her husband and two boys, Odetta kills the baby to shock Remick back to the realities of life. So noble Odetta bravely faces the gallows, knowing she has saved Temple to march off into the sunset with Dillman. What a crock!

The DVD of "Champagne" was purchased for completeness rather than anything else, since it was one of a very few Alfred Hitchcock movies I'd never seen. I think this now leaves "Juno and the Paycock" and "Mary" (both 1931) as the two missing culprits. Tell me, has anyone actually heard of or seen the latter film? Hitch spent five not very happy years at Elstree Studios between 1926 and 1931 and most of the ten movies he directed during this period are largely neglected. To be fair nearly all of them have redeeming qualities, and a few like "The Ring", "Downhill", and "Blackmail" are quite watchable. The consensus on "Champagne" is that this is one of his very worst movies and few have bothered to disagree. One critic described it as "dreadful" -- and the name of said critic: Alfred Hitchcock!

It's really not that bad at all, and there are plenty of the Master's trademarks in evidence -- inventive visuals, good sight-gags, and an intriguing blend of game-playing and lechery, all handled with a very light touch.  Betty Balfour -- a kind of British Mary Pickford clone billed locally as "Britain's Queen of Happiness" (!) plays the spoiled daughter of millionaire, Gordon Harker. To throw some cold water on her irresponsible behaviour and to prove that her beau, a very wooden Jean Braden, is only after her money, Harker pretends to have lost his fortune, forcing her to try to make her way in the world. Well she doesn't quite become a prostitute, but finds work as a 'flower-girl' at a seedy nightspot, where she is leered upon by "The Man", an evil-looking Ferdinand von Alten, actually a pal of her father's meant to keep an eye on things. Balfour demonstrates a certain comic sensibility in the role and furnishes the odd chuckle, but is not really the movie's saving grace. That would be the man in the director's chair, a youngish Hitchcock showing pleasant indications of the genius to come.  

Friday, 13 March 2015

Wrinklies in India vs. Cool Vampires

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo...decisions, decisions, decisions. Normally, if I have seen a new release at the cinema, that is my choice for the week's review. However, while I wasn't exactly dragged kicking and screaming to see "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (2015) as part of a visiting family outing, I can state that it never would have been my own choice.

This sequel to the surprisingly successful 2011 movie celebrating golden oldies finding a new lease of life in India is quite honestly the same film again writ slightly larger. Yes, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Bill Nighy are always very watchable and the producers have dragged in silver fox Richard Gere for good measure, possibly as a lure for potential American viewers. However the situations are so contrived and obvious and the young hotel proprietor, Dev Patel, so very annoying that the movie is a colourful celebration of very little. Easy enough to watch but even easier to forget.

The crux of the tale concerns Patel's effort to open a second hotel with backing from an American mega-group and to navigate the problems and parties culminating in his wedding to his long-suffering fiancĂ©e. He decides that Gere is an inspector for the Americans, ignoring new guest Tamsin Grieg who might well be the culprit, while Gere seems intent on romancing Patel's dishy momma. Talk about ho hum...and two hours' worth at that.

In contrast the movie that really struck my fancy this week is Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" (2013). Jarmusch is an art-house/cult director, and many of his movies are something of an acquired taste. Of his previous outings, I really liked "Dead Man" (1995) -- a revisionist Western -- and "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) which is unclassifiable, with Forest Whitaker as the most laid-back assassin in film history. However there are other movies in his filmography which are hard to love and equally a little hard to watch.

This film proved a surprising exception as Jarmusch creates his own unique vampire mythology. The ethereal Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old lovers Eve and Adam. They just can't get enough of each other, even if, when the movie opens, she is living in louche Tangiers and he is camped out in derelict Detroit, indulging his passion for classic guitars. Adapting to the new century, they do not feed on humans (whom they refer to as zombies) but on supplies from friendly doctors or blood banks. Wads of cash help to provide the 'life' style of choice for these immortals. Swinton's best friend in Tangiers is the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlow, amusingly embodied by John Hurt. They all wear gloves for some reason and are able to read by touch, just part of Jarmusch's new mythos.

The screenplay is replete with hip references to amuse the learned viewer. Hurt mentions that he wishes that Adam had been around with his critical ear before he wrote "Hamlet". Missing her lover, Swinton books flights to Detroit, stressing that she can only fly at night, as Mrs Fibanacci. When the lovers need to flee Detroit after the debacle mentioned below, she books similar flights back to Tangier as Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan. OK, not all of these little niceties will register with every film-goer, but they are pleasing nonetheless.

Adam's needs and privacy in Detroit are provided by Anton Yelchin in exchange for lashings of lolly, but the lovers' idyllic existence comes to a screeching halt when Eve's sister Ava (the ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska) decides to pay a visit from Los Angeles ('Zombie Central' says Adam). She rapidly depletes their store of O-negative (another little interesting touch) and craves excitement, convincing the couple to visit a jazz club with Yelchin. When they return home and Adam and Eve retire, Ava finds Yelchin just so cute that she decides to drain him dry for a tasty midnight snack. The least she could have done is 'turn' him says Adam, as they drive her out and find themselves fleeing back to Tangier.

Apart from the above there is very little story to this film, but it is so beautifully and lovelingly filmed  and so cleverly written that I found it enchanting viewing. Also measuring in at the two-hour mark, I would cheerfully watch this one again, rather than sit through the contrived kitsch of the Indian alternative.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Amour (2012)

Ever since this Michael Haneke film won the Academy Award for best foreign film, the DVD has been sitting on a table glaring at me to watch it -- it almost seemed to be daring me to do so. However, knowing the story concerned two octogenarians facing the end of their lives was so off-putting that it really was a case of forcing myself to finally play the disc. It is not a movie  many young people will appreciate, but anyone who has watched a beloved relative suffer and die or anyone in their later years facing the spectre of their own mortality, will find themselves relating to the story and wondering just how they themselves would fare in its brutal scenario.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmannuelle Riva, movie icons dating back to the 1950s, play Georges and Anne, retired music professors rattling around in their spacious mansion flat, going through the daily motions of their lives, and complacent with their routine existence. When Anne has a minor stroke and a operation does not ameliorate her condition, she makes her husband promise that he will not let her go back to the hospital or dump her in a care home. One can not 'spoil' the ending of this film, since the opening scene shows firemen breaking into the sealed apartment and finding Anne's decaying body covered in blossoms. We know from the start that there is no happy ending to come.

What Haneke gives us instead is the impossible situation that Georges finds himself in as Anne's health continues to deteriorate and he becomes her primary caretaker, straining with showers and nappies, knowing that his own health is beginning to suffer. This is the first film that Trintignant has appeared in for seven years (and his last to date) and the director wooed him to take the role. He reluctantly agreed saying that it was not a movie he himself would wish to see -- understandably since he was 82 at the time. He does a magnificent job with his sad eyes registering every indignity his wife suffers. This is not so much a film about love as the title would have it but rather about the responsibility one accepts (or resents) after spending a lifetime with one's partner or spouse. Neither the help of a part-time nurse nor the occasional nagging concern of their daughter, Isabelle Huppert, can free Georges from his being torn between duty and despair.  Love doesn't really get a look in.

Riva at 80, Oscar-nominated for her role, has the easier part, but it is heart-breaking to both her and the viewer to see her formerly independent spirit brought down by age and illness, to the extent that she has lost any will to survive. It's a story that plays itself out every day in every corner of the world and it is remorseless -- a very, very hard watch. Music features throughout this film, but no piece is ever finished, just as life, Haneke seems to tell us, can never be played out to the desired end. He won his second Palme d'or at Cannes for this film, but in my book his earlier winner "The White Ribbon" (2009) is the masterpiece of the two. This one is far too depressing in so many ways to completely engage the viewer, and entertainment doesn't enter into it.

I've seen all of Haneke's cinematic output and there is a streak of nihilism and despair running throughout his oeuvre. He does not normally believe in giving us easy answers or a clear denouement. I found his other critical favourite "Cache" (2005) more than a little frustrating in this respect. In this film he leaves us wondering what Georges plans for the pigeon, an unwelcome visitor to the flat, that he so carefully captures or for that matter what in the world has become of his character by the film's end. It may be fine to let the viewer decide these things for himself, but it is also sometimes upsetting not to understand the director's intentions. Me...I like a tidy ending even if it's not a happy one.