Friday, 24 April 2015

Pieges (Snares) (1939)

The director Robert Siodmak had a fascinating career, divisible into a number of disparate sections. Although his official biography shows his being born in Dresden, he was actually born in Tennessee where his Jewish parents were visiting. The family returned to Germany when he was a one-year old and he was raised as a proper German gent. After trying his hand at various jobs, he drifted into the world of film. His first cinematic outing was the influential semi-documentary "People on Sunday" (1929) which he co-directed with two other burgeoning talents, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer, from a script by Billy Wilder. He continued with a successful career at UFA before Hitler's rise to power, at which time he followed Wilder to Paris for a brief fling at French film-making. He arrived back in the United States in 1940, travelling on the last ship to leave France before the German occupation.

His early Hollywood years were with Paramount where he was only trusted with B-pictures. However when he moved to Universal in 1943 and given a freer hand, he churned out a remarkable run of titles; he successfully blended the techniques of German Expressionism with American naturalism to create a run of film noir classics such as "Phantom Lady", "The Suspect", "The Killers", "Cry of the City", "Criss Cross", and perhaps his masterpiece "The Spiral Staircase". His films combine broody violence in sombre or sordid urban settings and he could be relied upon to produce a professional-looking movie on the tightest of budgets. His is an unsentimental vision of underworlds, both of crime and the damaged psyche. After 1950, there were only a couple of notable American films and his career turned full circle when he moved back to Germany.

The above film also known as "Personal Column" was his last French movie and a template for the American films to follow. A serial killer has been responsible for the disappearance of eleven young girls, taunting the police with cryptic poetic letters. Commissioner Tenier enlists a young taxi dancer, Maria Dea, in her first film role to reply to ads in the personal columns which seek young ladies for unspecified duties. There follows a series of vignettes as she follows a number of possible leads in the search for the killer, briefly introducing us to various lonely and not altogether reputable or sane suspects. The stand-out scene, but one which does not really further the action in any way, is a ten-minute section with Erich von Stroheim in one of his many charismatic film roles after his directing career hit the skids. He plays a has-been couturier who employs her as a model to strut his designs before an imaginary audience.

The film's male lead is the inherently charming, despite himself (and despite what one knows of his collaboration during the war years), Maurice Chevalier, returning to the movies after a two year absence. He plays a night-club owner, a debonair ladies' man, who notices Dea at one of her rendezvous, and woos her non-stop. Siodmak even manages to include two of his jaunty songs into the action. The man is a charmer, no doubt, but he is not really much of an actor, and when he finds himself having to play things seriously when he is accused of being the sought-after killer and facing death row, it is something of a stretch for the boulevardier. His friend and lawyer played by Pierre Renoir (son of the painter and older brother of the director) offers him no real hope. Of course the real culprit is revealed at the last moment in a whirl of images -- clocks, shadows, mirrors -- invoking the terror and confusion of a guilty man now caught in an inescapable net.

While this movie has its moments, it is a little too leisurely and 'bitty' to be wholly successful. However as a teaser for the psychological thrillers to follow it is well worth a glance, especially since there are the turns from von Stroheim and Chevalier to tickle one's fancy.     

Friday, 17 April 2015

Wild Tales (2014)

The 'wild' in the title of the above Argentinian movie does not just mean outlandish, which this film is to the nth degree, but to individuals becoming 'wild' when they lose all control over their emotions and inbred civilised responses. Oscar-nominated for best foreign language film, this flick from the young director Damian Szifron probably never stood any chance of winning. It is too black, too tongue-in-cheek, and lacks the expected gravitas of Oscar contenders. It is also probably too hugely enjoyable to join such hallowed ranks. Surprisingly it showed in competition at Cannes-- a far cry from the Dardenne Brothers.

A compendium movie of six non-connected short films, the director has stated that its theme is about the pleasure of losing control. Each story is 'wild' in its own way, but perhaps the tales are not as completely far-fetched as they are presented; when someone is pushed beyond certain limits, he may well 'snap' and give in to explosive passions. Here are Szifron's little morality tales:

The tone is set by the first story, "Pasternak", where the passengers on a flight indulge in idle conversation and discover that they each have known a bad bit of business by that name. Amusing at first, as more and more of them pipe up to mention how they met the nasty fellow, the story becomes troublesome as they discover that they have all been given tickets for this particular flight. Soon they are bashing on the locked door to the cockpit; in the light of recent events this story is too close to the knuckle to remain amusing.

The film rapidly moves on to the second section titled "Rats", where a waitress in a small deserted cafĂ© in the back of beyond recognises the new customer as the man who ruined her father and who tried to seduce her mother. The short-order cook at the back suggests that the rat poison in the cupboard might be the answer to her dilemma. Throughout, the movie makes several not-so-veiled references to the rottenness and corruption that characterise both people in authority and governments -- and such criticism does extend beyond the borders of The Argentine! Repeatedly characters say that folk want change but are seldom prepared to get involved or do anything about it. Here someone does something in an over-the-top way.

The third part "Road to Hell" deals with machismo and road rage as a yuppie in a new high-powered motor upsets a redneck in his junk heap. Their sparring behaviour grows more and more irrational together with the murderous gleam in their eyes. The segment ends with a totally unexpected and humorous tableau, taking away any potential bad taste in the mouth or mind.

Part four "Bombita" stars the most recognizable actor of the large ensemble cast, Ricardo Darin of "The Secret in their Eyes" and "Nine Queens" fame, as a demolition explosions engineer. His own usual mild manner also explodes when his car is continually towed away several days in a row, and he is forced to deal with a succession of petit bureaucrats who are 'just doing my job'. He risks his family and freedom to make a final stand and ironically becomes something of a hero in the process. 

The fifth segment, which also felt the longest, "The Deal", is possibly the least successful and the least amusing of the director's examples. A wealthy man tries to protect his feckless son from a 'hit and run' charge by getting one of his servants to accept the rap in exchange for a huge monetary sop. However as a greedy lawyer and an equally greedy prosecutor get involved in the wheeze, his patience finally snaps. A new deal is struck but the would-be shock ending was telegraphed too far in advance to work for any sentient movie-goer.

Finally "Til Death do us Part" crowns the movie with a fast-moving and totally outrageous series of events at a vaguely Jewish wedding feast. When the pampered bride discovers that her new husband has been unfaithful with one of the guests, she loses it completely. She turns on the groom threatening his financial and social ruin, before he snaps as well. Between them they just about wreck both the room, the multi-tiered cake, and the mental and physical well-being of their family and guests, before collapsing together into a heap of unmitigated lust. A delightful ending for a largely delightful movie.

It is no surprise to note that the film was co-produced by Pedro Almodovar's company, since this is a production right up his own off-beat alley and a movie that he himself would have been proud to direct.    

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The above Japanese animation from the wonderful folk at Studio Ghibli was one of the nominations for best animated feature at the Academy Awards earlier this year -- and no it did not win, despite a host of eager fans. The favourite for the award was "How to Train Your Dragon" Mark Two, which on the night lost out to "Big Hero 6". Despite its many virtues which I will touch upon below, I am not in the least surprised at Kaguya's loss to more 'child-friendly' films. If the truth be known its appeal is fated to be more for aesthetically minded adults.

Running 137 minutes and best seen in its subtitled original Japanese language version, it's not really kiddies' fare, even when American-dubbed. This film was a labour of love for its director Isao Takahata, who has announced that it will be his last movie. Together with the genius animator Hayao Miyazaki, who has also announced his retirement, they founded Ghibli way back when and between them produced a mind-blowing body of work.

This movie took eight years to reach the screen and since he is not himself an animator, Takahata farmed out part of the animation work to some nine other studios. Based on Japan's oldest folk tale, the 10th Century "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", the film faithfully relates the story of the poor woodcutter of the title finding a miniature babe in a suddenly sprouting bamboo stalk and taking her home to be raised by him and his barren wife (who suddenly develops bounteous milk-filled breasts!). He decides that the child is a gift from God, and as the infant grows at a prodigious rate, he decides that she is really a Princess, especially when he next finds a hoard of gold coins growing in his bamboo orchard. So off he goes to the City to build a palace suitable for the pampered princess that she is apparently meant to be.

Despite the impoverished lifestyle in the shack where she is being raised, the young girl finds joy in playing with the neighbourhood kids who call her 'Little Bamboo' and in appreciating the beauties of nature that surround her. Reluctantly she is snatched away from this simple life to a sheltered but opulent environment where a 'Lady of the Court' attempts to mentor her into becoming a high-class potential trophy and to force her to abandon her natural exuberance. Now fully mature after a relatively short period, word of her beauty spreads and potential suitors storm the mansion. She sends them all away with far-fetched tasks, vowing to only marry the one who can provide her with the impossible. Even the Emperor himself is rebuffed.

However she begins to pine at the futility of the life that her 'parents' (particularly her status-seeking 'father') have thrust upon her; she comes to realise that her true home is the moon, her days on earth numbered. She daydreams of running off with her long-lost childhood sweetheart (despite his having a very tangible wife and child of his own), but comes to accept the fate that destiny has decided upon, even if it means forgetting all the wonders she has experienced. In the film's emphasis on a strong-minded female protagonist with a great love of nature, the movie shares common themes with some of Takahata's earlier works like "Only Yesterday" and "Grave of the Fireflies".

What makes this film unique however is the quality of the hand-drawn animation. All of the backgrounds are so tenderly rendered in the pastel tones of Japanese water-colours, that one feels like one has wandered into a sea of classic ink-and-brush art. The movie is breathtakingly beautiful, hence its many adherents. Only the chunky rendering of the human figures lets the side down. It was this that I least liked about Takahata's previous film "My Neighbours the Yamadas" (1999). His style of animation may indeed be inspired, but I personally prefer the lush, rich colours and solidity of the Miyazaki movies. Alas we must now live without the output of these two influential directors, but I am sure their legacy will live on. The spirit can not be nourished by CGI alone!   

Friday, 3 April 2015

Nashville (1975)

Being the self-confessed film fanatic that I am, I'm frequently asked to name my favourite film. That's a pretty silly question if you think about it and one that is impossible to answer, since not only are there a large number of movies of which I am very fond, but also that 'list' is something of a moveable feast with different titles coming and going as the mood strikes.

However, if you were to ask me which film I have watched more than any other, "Nashville" would win hands down. I seem to play my copy which I've had since the Seventies (and incidentally it only recently became available here on DVD and Blu-ray) at least once a year, and you crafty mathematicians can work out that it celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. The reason that I find this movie from one of my favourite directors, Robert Altman, so watch-worthy is that I notice something new and different each time it plays. There aren't many films with that continual element of surprise.. Yet, oddly enough, I have never reviewed it nor even mentioned it in this current blog. I did refer to it several times in my old AOL blog and wrote a brief, heart-felt R.I.P. for Altman when he died in late 2006.

So the time has come to wax lyrical about some of the movie's many charms. Altman only found success in feature films fairly late in his career, after churning away on industrial films and television series. He was well into middle age when he had his first hit "M*A*S*H" in 1970 and in the years between then and the above feature he directed six remarkable movies including "Brewster McCloud", "McCabe and Mrs Miller", and "Thieves Like Us". However it was with "Nashville" that his trademark techniques were established, utilising large ensemble casts with overlapping scenes and dialogue. He is not usually a story-teller as such, but rather an expert in creating a sense of place and the fleeting interaction of various and varied characters -- with their dreams, hopes, and fears.

In this movie he has 24 lead actors whose stories mix and match during a long weekend in the country music capital of the title. Foremost among these are Lily Tomlin as a gospel-singing mother of two deaf children, Geraldine Chaplin as a pretentious and self-deluding BBC documentary reporter, Keith Carradine as the womanizing lead singer of a pop trio, Henry Gibson (of Laugh-In fame) as the smug glad-handing local legend, and Ronee Blakley as the fragile and ultimately tragic country diva. Other stand-outs among the cast include Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Karen Black, Barbara Harris, Keenan Wynn, a very young Scott Glenn, Gwen Welles as an ambitious but totally talentless would-be singer, and Jeff Goldblum who pops up everywhere but who never says a word. Meanwhile in the background is the booming microphone of the 'Replacement' Party's campaign truck with its reactionary and populist political messages.

Altman creates the panorama of this place as a microcosm of American society at the time, all set to a splendid selection of country and western music. The movie was initially criticised by the established Nashville community for not showcasing their own established 'hits', but rather promoting a selection of new numbers all performed by various cast members (and only Blakley came from a musical background). Many of the new songs were written by the ensemble members themselves; in fact Carradine's "I'm Easy" won the best original song Oscar that year. The film was also Oscar-nominated for best movie, best director, and a double best-supporting actress nomination for both Blakley and Tomlin. Now, of course, the Nashville hierarchy treat the film as a classic paean to 'their town' and it has become a well-deserved cult favourite as well.

Coincidentally a new documentary titled "Altman" has just been released, but in celebrating the maverick who broke all the rules of movie-making, the film is apparently a pedestrian and fairly turgid re-cap of his career by a succession of talking heads. Only the clips from his many marvellous movies make it of any interest. One would be far better off re-watching some of the idiosyncratic films which made the term 'Altmanesque' so meaningful, so entertaining, and so influential to subsequent film-makers.