Friday, 31 July 2015

Wild Rovers (1971)

As an extremely loose generalisation I'm not all that fond of Westerns. However since I reckon nearly all of John Ford's oaters, most of Clint Eastwood's, and a hefty selection of others by the likes of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah, maybe I enjoy them more often than I admit. Against this there are a host of B-movies which do their best to destroy the genre, and it is probably those which shade my flawed admission.

Now Blake Edwards is not a name that one associates with Western movies. Directing from the 1950s, he started being linked with first-rate comedies from "The Pink Panther" in 1963 and "The Great Race" in 1965. If one ignores (as I do) the increasingly desperate 'Panther' sequels, his comic craft reached its pinnacle in the early 80s with "10", "S.O.B.", and "Victor Victoria".  However, being Western-born (Oklahoma) and penning various Western scripts early in his career, maybe directing one (as well as producing and writing it) was just something he had to get out of his system. The above title is the flawed end-product -- a brave stab where the succulent parts do not quite manage to create a juicy whole.

It's another buddy movie but certainly sub-Butch Cassidy. William Holden fresh from "The Wild Bunch" and Ryan O'Neal trying to escape his "Love Story" icky-ness, work for big-time rancher Karl Malden. Holden is the old hand beginning to feel the weight of time on his shoulders and O'Neal is the callow youth, still wet behind the ears, who can't hold his booze; yet there is some tangible chemistry between the unlikely pair. Both are worried about their futures and, on a whim, decide to rob a bank: 'We're going where cowboys can kick off their spurs and be happy -- I promise you' says Holden's Bodine. The balance of the film has them attempting to outride the posse led by Malden's sons, Tom Skerrit and Joe Don Baker, with little idyllic interludes en route to the inevitably downbeat finale.

I was curious to discover just how much of Edwards' comic sensibility would leak into the script and there are indeed little throw-away felicities. At one stage Holden tells his sidekick that things can't get worse, just as a chamber-pot of urine is emptied on their heads. Or there is a scene with Moses Gunn's mule-trader (the pair initially made their escape with only one horse between them) where the puppy O'Neal has insisted on taking with them is suckled by Gunn's nursing-mother puss. Other pluses are some breath-taking photography in Monument Valley, a fine horse-breaking scene in deep snow, and a judicious use of folk tunes, some of which Holden croons. However, despite the film's highpoints, it is never as elegiac or humorous or violent as the best Westerns which it strives to emulate.

The movie was not much of a success, especially after being butchered and truncated by MGM. It is in fact dragged down by a superfluous ranchers vs. sheepherders sub-plot and Rachel Roberts' screechy turn as a madam. Edwards eventually tried to establish its potential cult status by releasing a longer version, complete with an intermission and exit music, which is the version I just watched. He really needn't have bothered since it remains a patchy if occasionally enjoyable pastiche. Holden with his expressive, remorseful face, is as usual very watchable, but he was better served by Edwards in his last film role ("S.O.B").  

Friday, 24 July 2015

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Occasionally in the past I have written how movies that I have yearned to see for years turned out to be little short of disappointing when I eventually tracked them down. Therefore I am more than pleased to write that the above film, which has eluded me forever (as far as I can trace it has never been shown on television in Britain nor released here on VHS or DVD), is a literate, wondrous, and joyous view. I can not begin to understand why it is so seldom screened.

Written by Herb Gardner from his successful Broadway play, it provides Jason Robards Jr. with one of his very rare leading roles. His very long screen career began with television work in the l950s, moved into screen roles in the early 1960s, and ended with "Magnolia" in 1999. While he was always an intriguing presence, his only other film lead was in the elegiac "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970); but he was always difficult to ignore, from his slimy Nixon-ish president in "Washington Behind Closed Doors" (1977) through a showy host of supporting characters.

Here he is definitely centre-stage as Murray, a free spirit, constantly pursuing life's little pleasures, and disdainful of those poor mortals who rush off to clock into work each morning. For the past seven years he has been nurturing the nephew dumped on him as a five-year old by his feckless sister. Since the child -- a remarkable turn by Barry Gordon who was actually 16 when he played the part -- was born out of wedlock with no patriarchal surname, his mother never bothered to give him a forename. Murray tells him to use whatever name strikes his fancy, as long as he makes a decision by the time he turns thirteen. He has variously called himself Raphael Sabatini and Dr Morris Fishbein; today he calls himself Nick and skives off school to pursue adventures with his uncle.

Enter Social Services on a witch-hunt looking to remove the boy to a more stable environment, threatening to take him away if Murray doesn't clean up his act and find regular employment. These jobsworths are played by prissy William Daniels and his new assistant and fiancée Barbara Harris, but her Sandy soon succumbs to Murray's quirky charms. She looks around the cluttered one bedroom flat (the kid's 'room' is an alcove) full of miscellaneous bric-a-brac and concludes 'No wonder Nick loves it here, I'd love to live here myself if I was eleven years old'. Daniels is appalled by her unprofessional approach and leaves in a huff; Sandy ends up spending the night.

Thinking she can reform Murray and safeguard Nick's future, she sends Robards off to find work while she tarts up the apartment like something out of Ladies' Home Journal. Murray turns to his more successful and fruit-fetishist brother (played by Martin Balsam) who arranges various interviews for him including one with previous employer Chuckles the Chipmunk (!) -- for whose obnoxious children's television 'personality' he was a scriptwriter --  but Murray ducks out of each interview, not accepting that his relationship with Nick is at stake. Balsam, Sandy, and even Nick are beginning to lose patience with his fecklessness. Although he may be a child, Nick is the more sensible, a 'middle-aged kid' vs. a carefree character who refuses to grow up.

The film's title comes from Sandy's saying that after meeting Murray she hasn't the faintest idea who she really is. He replies that life is like a circus where a small car, big enough for a midget, pulls up and a thousand clowns jump out -- there are infinite possibilities for each of us. However, as likeable as the Murray we first meets seems and as much as we wish he could maintain his irresponsible outlook, by the film's end he (and we) come to accept that sacrifices are part of life's rich pageant. Murray agrees to go back to work for Gene Saks' Chuckles, if only for Nick's sake. He explains, 'I want him to stay with me until I can be sure that he won't turn into Norman Nothing, to know why he was born a human being and not a chair'. In the final scenes Murray joins those 'clowns' dashing off to their morning responsibilities.

An acting Oscar was awarded to this film, but it was given to Martin Balsam; Robards was not even nominated. While Balsam gives a fine performance, as he has always done since we first noticed him tumbling down the stairs in 1960's "Psycho",  his is a relatively small part here with only one short 'moving' speech. Strangely, the movie was also nominated for best picture, with additional nods for its writing and music, but it should have been Robards' day in the sun. It would also have been nice if the Academy had acknowledged the fine black and white cinematography of New York City, where the film was shot on location.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Now You See Me (2013)

There are some movies which seem to split their audience into two factions. Some viewers will look forward to seeing a film and subsequently decide that it was a colossal crock of doo-doo and a waste of time; others will have no special expectations, but come away pleasantly surprised as to how entertaining it was. I certainly fall into the second camp with this movie.

I must confess that I found the movie's premise intriguing and have always been something of a fan for a well-turned magic trick of the 'how did he do that?' variety. In different parts of America we are introduced to four street magicians/hustlers: cocky Jesse Eisenberg, the flamboyant Isla Fisher, fly-by-night Dave Franco (James' slightly less annoying brother), and Woody Harrelson, an aging mentalist and hypnotist -- all of whom are after the fast con and the fast buck. Each of them is summoned by a well-placed tarot card to journey to an address in a run-down area of New York; the purpose of the summons is unclear but they are all sufficiently intrigued to make the journey.

Lo and behold one year later the mismatched quartet are headliners in Las Vegas as The Four Horsemen, stunning their audiences with unbelievable illusions. On one night they select a random member of their audience -- a Frenchman as it happens -- and 'teleport' him to the inner vault of his bank in Paris; he somehow removes the piles of cash and reappears in Vegas, as the money rains down on the audience. Ten minutes later when their bank opens, the French officials enter their vault and find it bare, with only the magicians' calling card in sight. How did they do it?

One begins to suspect that insurance mogul Michael Caine whom the four acknowledge as their patron is somehow benefiting from this grand heist and that he is 'fifth' Horseman who gathered them together in New York. But this is a red herring, for in their next gala performance, their audience learns that the meagre amounts in their personal bank accounts is mysteriously swelling,  as Caine whom they have called to the stage sees his own vast fortune -- illustrated by a bank check for a ginormous figure -- diminishing by the second. Again, what's the trick?

Soon both the FBI in the swarthy shape of Mark Ruffalo (I do wish he would learn to shave properly) and Interpol in the comely shape of Melanie Laurent are on their trail albeit as reluctant 'partners', assisted by serial magician-debunker Morgan Freeman. I wonder if it is some sort of Hollywood rule nowadays that Freeman must appear in every other movie, much as Steve Buscemi did in the Nineties! The four magicians lead them on a merry chase making the authorities seem more foolish by the minute, with their own adage of 'the more you look, the less you see'. This culminates with a spectacular outdoor performance at 5 Pointz (the former graffiti mecca) in New York where The Horsemen 'steal' a vault full of cash which the authorities have chased across the city, only to see it blown open at the venue to rain hundreds of multi-coloured balloon animals and showers of phoney money. The real cash somehow ends up in Freeman's car...

In fact this film is something of a detective story to unearth the true motive behind these spectacular stunts and to discover who is the real power behind the throne. The surprise 'reveal' when it comes is miles from what we might suspect -- and like all good magic it takes the viewer to another level. This is the sixth film from director Louis Leterrier and there is little in the popcorn titles of his filmography ("Transporter 2", "The Incredible Hulk", "Clash of the Titans" and so on) to prepare one for this smart and exciting film. OK, I can agree with the movie's critics that the characters are not as well-developed as they could be, that some of them are rather annoying (the smug Eisenberg for example, although Harrelson in particular is 'ace' here), and that the scenario doesn't quite hold together. However, sometimes there is little point trying to work out all of the logic or to fill in all the plot holes. There's something to be said for suspending disbelief and to just be carried away by the spectacle. I know, I didn't adopt this attitude for "Jurassic World" reviewed below, but "Now You See Me" grabbed me from the start. Like I said, I'm a sucker for a clever bit of magical illusion.

I understand that plans are in the works for a sequel, not that I can begin to imagine what more could be done given the denouement here. But I look forward to finding out...

Friday, 10 July 2015

That was the Week that Was!

No, not the hoary old television satire show, but a suitable heading for yet another week where I neither went to the cinema nor fell with relish on much of my satellite/television/DVD/YouTube viewing. However rather than attempting to capsule all of the bad and/or interesting films that I watched, I just want to comment on a few of them and mention a few more in passing.

First up was a 2015 television movie "A Deadly Adoption" which the channel in question billed as a 'black comedy'. Since it unbelievably starred Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell, widely considered ace comic actors (not that I have ever found either of them particularly hilarious), I thought the film could be worth a watch. When the US Lifetime Channel announced on April 1 that this pair of A-list actors would be starring in one of their movies, people thought it was an April Fool's joke -- and believe me it would have been more amusing if it were! This is a bog-standard TV film about a married couple with issues (one child miscarried by accident and one child with diabetes) who take in Jessica Lowndes as the supposedly pregnant slut from hell, whose unborn child they hope to adopt. How either of the lead actors managed to stay po-faced through the increasingly ludicrous action is beyond me. If this was meant to be some sort of spoof, it fell flat on its unfunny face, since one has seen too many bad television movies with near enough the same idiotic storylines. I suppose one could ask whatever possessed Wiig and Ferrell to appear in this nonsense in the first place, although the answer is almost certainly 'money' or maybe a sense of the ridiculous.

I had heard some fairly positive comments about "Arbitrage" (2012) so I was pleased to catch up with it and Richard Gere's 'Wolf of Wall Street' turn. However despite being reasonably well made and with a singularly starry cast including Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marley, an aged Stuart Margolin, and French model-turned-bad actress Laetita Casta (who fortuitously was killed off early on), one just didn't give much of a damn for the fate of any of these flawed characters, especially the ruthless tycoon Gere. He may have been moving heaven and earth to prevent his financial shenanigans coming to light to say nothing of fleeing the scene of a fatal car crash, but the only character for whom one had even an ounce of sympathy was Nate Parker's young black guy drawn into Gere's cover-up by a misplaced sense of loyalty.

In passing, let's mention the following:
 "If I Stay" (2014) - a soppy non-tearjerker, as teenaged celloist Chloe Grace Moretz has an out-of-body experience after the rest of her family are killed in a crash and she evaluates whether she should return to life and the arms of her rocker boyfriend. Ugh!

"Riot Club" (2014) - a thoroughly distasteful look at the decadent and privileged members of an Oxford society, who no doubt will 'grow up' to be tomorrow's leaders -- a thinly veiled poke at our current government.

"Dragon" (2011) - Donnie Yen is given yet another outing for his martial arts skills in this fairly leisurely period-piece of a man who tries to hide his criminal past in exchange for a quiet family life, but whose deadly behaviour gives the game away. Watchable, but no more.

"Kid Boots" (1926) - Golden Oldie Time with Eddie Cantor (something of an acquired taste, but quite amusing here) trying to woo Clara Bow (not a vamp role for her surprisingly), and attempting to keep a new rich pal from the clutches of the vampish wife that he wants to off-load in the divorce courts and her scheming lawyers. A few nice bits of silent business are ample rewards for sitting through the film's scant 60-minute running time.

Probably the highpoint of the week was "Le Notte Bianche" (1957), better known as "White Nights" (but not the 1985 Baryshnikov movie). It's the only Luchino Visconti film I've not viewed previously. Based on a Dostoevsky novel, it stars Marcello Mastroianni (as watchable as ever) as a poor clerk who falls in love, despite himself, with a comely waif he sees moping on a bridge one evening. She is played by Maria Schell, who apparently learned her Italian parrot-style for the role to avoid being dubbed; she is waiting for her lover's promised return and resists Mastroianni's attentions, much as she appreciates his taking an interest in her sad little life. With a Nino Rota score, some fabulous black and white night-time cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno, and an extended scene of young lovers dancing away their daytime cares in a swinging club, this film manages to expertly mix hope and melancholy before its bittersweet ending.

Finally I must briefly mention my first viewing of "Manos: Hands of Fate" (1966), courtesy of YouTube. This movie with its 1.9 rating on IMDb is considered one of the worst films ever made, right up there with "Plan 9 from Outer Space", but not even as pleasingly laughable as the best bad movies can be. I must confess that awful as it was, I for one have seen worse than this tale of a family falling into the hands of 'The Master' in his long black cloak with its appliqued giant red hands and his female acolytes in their diaphanous white robes (with bras underneath). At least it had something of a (stupid) story and an acceptable if clichéd ending. 

Friday, 3 July 2015

Mr Holmes (2015)

Wow! Another actual outing to the cinema and the second review in a row of a new release. But I welcomed the chance to see the great Ian McKellen as the aged Sherlock Holmes. Taking a break from Gandalf and Magneto, McKellen presents us with a acting master class in this elegiac BBC movie based on the 2005 novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind".

Holmes is so established a character in our mythos that we tend to forget that he was never a real person and it comes as something of a shock to be introduced to the great detective in his dotage, when both his mind and his body are beginning to fail. With minimal make-up, the 76-year old actor plays Holmes aged 60 when he tackled his last case and aged 93, living on the Sussex coast, bee-keeping, and tended to by his doughty housekeeper Laura Linney -- suitably drabbed-down and with a pretty consistent rural accent. The war-widow's sole joy is her bright-as-a-button son, a wonderful turn from young Milo Parker. The boy worships just about everything to do with the fabled Holmes and dreads the possibility of his mother's moving on to a new job.

After staunch friend and biographer Dr Watson married, leaving Holmes alone, the detective finally felt the need to retire, especially after the unsatisfactory end to his last case, a series of events that continue to plague him. He understands that the decisions we make can haunt us to the end of our days and he resolves to write his own version of that case, even if the actual details continue to elude him. He wants to abandon Watson's romanticised telling of his exploits which have coloured the world's perception of the great man. He protests that he never wore a deer-stalker and prefers a cigar to a pipe!  Now that all his contemporaries have turned to dust, he wants to demystify the legend.

Directed by Bill Condon, who also drew a memorable performance from McKellen in 1998's "Gods and Monsters", this picture is a world away from current blockbuster cinema. It's a small film with little plot and is more sad and remorseful than jolly, as Holmes recalls a life cut short versus his own life gone on too long. However the movie does pull back from a potentially tragic ending to one that leaves us pondering life's mysteries and sweetness. The cast are all excellent, and there are memorable cameos from Frances de la Tour and Phil Davis. A seemingly unrelated strand of Holmes' visiting Japan and meeting Hiroyuki Sanada's bitter son adds a confusing layer to the plot, but this too is something that old Mr Holmes must finally put right.

The movie has not yet been released in the United States but will be soon. Do try to catch it before it is driven out of the theatres by super-heroes and rampaging dinosaurs.