Friday, 29 January 2016

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

When is a movie not a movie? The answer is not simply when it is made for television or cable and unlikely to get a cinema release. This question also covers rarities like the above 68 minute film which was made for a television arts series, but which is something more than an appraisal of a long dead artist. Ken Russell's fanciful takes on a number of composers come to mind, but this amazing film embroiders the little-known facts of Godfried Schalcken's life (yes, he really was a painter and his works can still be found in various European museums), with an overlay of imaginative horror and political comment.

Based on a 100-year old short story by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also gifted future film-makers with the first lesbian vampire Camilla and who incorporated his own weird dreams into his fiction, this was a pet project of British television producer Leslie Megahey. He tried to interest the BBC in taking his script as part of their ghost-story for Christmas strand, but they wanted to use a different director and he felt that only he could truly realise his vision. When he was subsequently put in charge of their Omnibus series, he commissioned himself to direct the movie and it aired late evening on 23 December, 1979. Despite a couple of subsequent showings over the next decade, it was considered 'lost' for years, until a relatively recent dual-format release by the BFI, packaged this gem with a host of other goodies. It was never considered suitable for VHS release because of some occasional nudity including an ever-so-brief full frontal shot, sure to affront our moral guardians.

Charles Grey sets the scene as Le Fanu the narrator, explaining how he learned of the strange events in the life of the painter and believing that so-called ghost stories have their roots in the depths of the human mind. With his fruity voice and purring tones, Grey leads us into the world of l7th century Leiden where the strange tale unfolds. (Vincent Price and Peter Cushing were the director's first choices, but Grey is just about perfect). When the story opens, the artist (Jeremy Clyde) is a penniless student under the tutelage of Gerrit Dou (also a real painter, played by British character stalwart Maurice Denham) and in love with Dou's comely niece and ward Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). Despite his mentor's conviction that his talented pupil has a bright future, they are both aware that his short-term prospects are negligible. Therefore when the grotesque suitor 'Vanderhausen from Rotterdam' comes to claim Rose's hand in marriage, Dou is willing to sell her future happiness for the ghastly visitor's casket of gold and jewels. Covered in the layers of make-up that have transformed him into one of the walking dead, it is hard to remember that the actor, John Justin, was once a romantic lead back in 1940's gorgeous "Thief of Bagdad". Despite imploring Clyde to run away with her, he replies that he can only work hard in the hope of some day being able to buy back the marriage contract -- and off she goes into a unknown future.

Dou and his student prosper but lose all contact with the couple for many years, apart from one fleeting visit where the crazed young woman seeks sanctuary with them and apparently flings herself to a watery death. Investigating further Schalcken visits the church where the pair were last seen together and witnesses something so horrifying in the crypt that it colours his remaining years. The viewer is left to draw one's own conclusion as to whether Vanderhausen is a vampire, a ghoul, or just a greedy old man who covets Rose's youth, and to ponder what she in turn has become.

The film faithfully recreates the period and the interiors look as if they might have been designed by Jan Vermeer himself. But the underlying theme is that every man has his price, and that greed, earthly concerns, and commerce have replaced faith in the church both in the art of the period and in the hearts of men. Many of Schalcken's strange paintings, small candlelit subjects -- boding something sinister in the shadows -- are featured in the film, but the one that is the focus of Le Fanu's eerie tale was created for Megahey's chilling biopic of the long-forgotten artist.

The disc is packaged with an interesting interview with Megahey and two short films "The Pit"(1962) and "The Pledge" (1981), which reinforce the idea that many horrors lurk in the shadowy corners of our imagination.    

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Last Sunset (1961)

I'm not sure why I decided to watch this film again, apart from noting some 'puff' piece in a listing of the week's best upcoming movies, but I'm glad I did.

It is the only movie in which Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson co-starred, and being a product of Douglas' own production company, he made sure that the spotlight focussed mainly on him. It's the one thing I've always disliked about that actor -- and fair dos, he's been in a number of very good films. He always seems eager to project a macho and would-be charming image which manages to grate, and never comes across as quite natural. Too much 'look at me'!

Here he plays an outlaw in Mexico with sheriff Hudson in pursuit to bring him back to justice for murdering his brother-in-law. He holes up at Dorothy Malone's ranch while her husband (Joseph Cotton doing a poor impression of a Southern-gentleman loser who likes his drink) is away overnight. Seems that he and she had a 'thing' some many years ago and he is eager to reconnect with the gal that was. However he is increasingly attracted to her daughter (fifteen, rising sixteen) Carole Lynley -- such a potential romance would be a real 'no-no' today. However it is a part of Douglas' annoying persona that he is irresistible to women and a template for masculinity.

When Hudson turns up they both agree to help Cotton ride his herd into Texas where he hopes for a good price to improve life for his wife and daughter and where Hudson plans a showdown with Douglas where he has jurisdiction. Of course Hudson also has eyes for Malone (who is soon widowed) -- they of course being oners for "Written on the Wind", a far better showcase for the attractive actress. (Unfortunately, Hudson has too much baggage nowadays to be 100% believable as a romantic lead, but we'll ignore that.) His affection looks to be reciprocated, especially since Douglas now plans to ride away with the gooey-eyed Lynley. However, the film becomes something of a Greek tragedy as Malone's dreadful secret is revealed (no prizes for guessing what this is) and Douglas finally becomes something of real hero for guaranteeing the young girl a better future.

The film is one of the last of its genre after the great heyday of the Western in the 1950s and it's always a pleasure to watch a movie where all of the cast, down to the minor roles, are familiar actors. Of note here -- in throwaway roles -- are the villains of the piece who want to rustle the herd and white-slave the women, as played by Neville Brand and the iconic Jack Elam (a fabled one-eyed actor, along with Peter Falk and Forest Whitaker). The cinematography is magnificent and the script is a literate one by Dalton Trumbo -- the most notorious of the Hollywood Ten. The director, Robert Aldrich, had a long career helming memorable action movies, but none of them are as lyrical or thoughtful as this superior movie.

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I must add a footnote to my week's viewing since I have finally seen "Seven Days Leave" (1930). This title was added to my famous list when I read a book some years ago entitled "Forgotten Films to Remember" with an emphasis on the early 30s. Based on a J.M. Barrie play ("The Old Lady Shows her Medals") and set in London during World War I, it concerns a lowly charwoman, Beryl Mercer who originated the role on stage, fabricating a make-believe son serving as a soldier to match bragging rights with her boozy friends. Through some convoluted machinations soldier Gary Cooper -- in a Scottish kilt -- turns up on her doorstep. This was his first talkie role, but he easily surfaces as the natural actor that marked all of his subsequent film work. Embarrassment and hostility soon turn to affection between the two lonely characters-- and it is great to see the gangly Cooper walking beside the five-foot nothing Mercer as 'mother-and-son' celebrate his leave. It ends as a typical Barrie tear-jerker, but do try to find this movie on You Tube before it disappears...  

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The 'Eight' in the title refers to this being Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature, a specious bit of arithmetic, since one can only reach that total if one counts the two separately released halves of Kill Bill as a single film, if one ignores the dire "Four Rooms" where QT was one of several directors, and if one counts his half of "Grindhouse" as the single movie it turned out to be, rather than half of an intended whole. Never mind...let the man have his own conceits, and my goodness he is full of them.

None of the above is meant to deny my general admiration for him as a talented filmmaker. I have a fair amount of affection for most of his features, with the possible exception of "Jackie Brown" which I find something of a Parson's Egg, brilliant in parts but dreary in others. I was therefore prepared to adopt a positive approach to his latest film (and I would never have gone to see it so soon after its release last Friday were I not anticipating something special). Sorry to say, I found it hard to 'love' the movie, despite some redeeming virtues. Let's examine these:

Much has been made of the fact that the film was shot in 70 mm Panavision. The opening shots of snow-bound mountainous Wyoming are nothing short of spectacular, with a screen almost too wide to take everything in. However some 95% of the subsequent tale -- a bum-numbing three hours plus is shot in a single interior. While one could argue that the wide-screen gives one the feeling of the characters' whole immediate universe, the effect is rather more like watching a stage-bound production. However, I can forgive this since those characters are largely so well-drawn.

Set in the period immediately after the Civil War, we are introduced to Kurt Russell's walrus-moustached bounty hunter, handcuffed to his prisoner, the murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh, who spends the film getting progressively more battered and bloodied until her features are barely visible. She seems to be garnering acting kudos for her role, which puzzles me, since her voice is horribly affected at the best of times and largely unintelligible here (except when she sweetly sings a folk ballad). Then of course there is Samuel L Jackson's more ruthless bounty hunter, who prefers to bring them in dead rather than alive. His character is probably the most precious to Tarantino, but his barnstorming performance is probably too much for the film's own good; he overpowers the action. Next we have Wayne Groggins' Southern rebel who claims to be the incoming sheriff of Red Rock where the previous characters are headed, before a fierce storm forces them and their stage-driver to take refuge at a mountain way-station (Minnie's Haberdashery, a name that only QT could dream up). I can't say that I am familiar with Groggins' career, being largely a TV actor but with a smallish part in "Django Unchained", however he becomes one of the more likeable and believable characters among the hateful eight.

At the cabin we meet Bruce Dern's bigoted Southern general, Tim Roth's putative hangman (speaking with an unbelievable plum-in-the-mouth upper-class accent), Tarantino regular Michael Madsen as a laid-back cowboy enroute to visit his Mom, and Demien Bichir as a Mexican dogsbody, theoretically looking after the station while Minnie is away. We have doubts that any of them are what they claim to be and Russell suspects that one or more of them are planning to spring his prisoner. We are therefore introduced to a long and somewhat tedious game of cat-and-mouse as suspicions and prejudices fly and we wait for some sort of mystery to be solved. This first half finishes with a fifteen-minute intermission, Tarantino's nod to earlier film sagas, where we were presented with a still screen ad encouraging us to go out to buy more popcorn...

The second half is probably slightly more action-filled and entertaining, when two of the characters die from drinking poisoned coffee, spewing and spraying buckets of blood -- at times the surplus of gore verges on the humorous. Jackson is determined to unmask the culprit. He mercilessly kills one of the company, but the subsequent violent shootout is interrupted by someone unexpectedly shooting up from the basement. One of the protagonists has been hiding there throughout, Leigh's outlaw brother, Tatum Channing in the briefest of lead roles. This exposes a fatal flaw in the writer-director's plot: if Channing and his cohorts (who these are I will leave as a non-spoiler) wanted to free his sister, they could have taken out Russell the minute he burst through the cabin door with Leigh in tow -- but then we wouldn't have had our three-hour talkfest.

Even without this peculiar plot point, the film feels self-indulgent and overstuffed. It could easily have become a more manageable shorter movie if Tarantino had taken out some of the singularly unnecessary stage business: having to burst open and then nail shut the cabin door every time a character entered or exited, the slow business of setting up stakes in the snow as aids to reaching the far-off outhouse, the lingering shots of stabling the horses, and more. We could also have done without the two bits of voiceover narration by the 'great man' himself, totally superfluous to the action which was divided into clear chapter title cards -- but Tarantino seems to feel obliged to put in an appearance of sorts when he can. Then there was a rather unnecessary cameo for his good mate Zoe Bell as 'Six-horse Judy' (!) and a rather over-extended massacre of black Minnie and her all-black staff prior to the current action.

Some people feel that Tarantino is trying to make a case for the plight of the black man in America and that this justifies Jackson's larger than life determination to kill white men. The N-word is used ad nauseam and I sometimes think that Tarantino does this to excess just to annoy Spike Lee. Jackson's centrepiece speech is a rather disgusting and graphic harangue to Dern, bragging of the horrid things he inflicted upon Dern's estranged son, goading the old chap to attempt to draw before Jackson can claim another notch on his belt. One suspects that this is just another of his character's unbelievable lies like the ongoing rigmarole of his being one of Abe Lincoln's pen-pals!  The point is that any political grievances that the director wants to stress are undermined by the unending and small-minded blood-letting.

A great Morricone score doesn't compensate for this being the most un-Western purported Western in film history. This movie is as about as 'Western' as "Reservoir Dogs," the Tarantino film it most resembles.

Friday, 8 January 2016

A Special Day - Una giornata particolare (1977)

I don't know exactly how many films the great screen partnership of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni made together. I read recently that it was an incredible seventeen, but a quick look at their respective filmographies produced a figure of eleven -- so it is probably somewhere in between, from the first in 1955 to the last in "Pret-a-Porter" (1994).

I've wanted to see the above movie -- one of their later co-starrers -- for ages. The movie was Academy-nominated for best foreign picture and Mastroianni had a best actor nod as well. However the only copies available over the years were dubbed ones, to which I have a rooted objection. So the film remained on my 'would like to see list'. It's never appeared on British television, so I was amazed to find it scheduled on the new and fairly minor satellite channel 'Talking Pictures', which specialises in hoary old British B-movies. Naturally it was dubbed, interrupted with ads, and a terrible print, but at long last I was able to view it, if not ideally.

The special day in question is the 8th of May, 1938 when Rome was 'honoured' by a visit from Adolf Hitler. The film begins with some ten minutes of archive footage featuring Hitler, Mussolini, and King Victor Emmanuel III, before it cuts to the flat where Loren lives with her brutish husband (Canadian actor John Vernon) and their six children. She was 43 when the film was shot by director Ettore Scola and appears without any side as the shabby, downtrodden hausfrau that she is portraying; yet a handsome woman shines through. Her family are all excited about the day's parades and celebrations and soon troop down to the street, along with the dozens of other inhabitants of their huge Fascist-built apartment block, like a swarm of ants streaming from their hill, leaving her to get on with her endless domestic chores. Another tenant across the courtyard, who has not left his apartment, is Mastroianni whom we observe on the brink of suicide. A chance encounter pursuing an escaped pet bird throws them together and their paths continue to cross throughout the day.

It emerges that he is a disgraced radio announcer who has been dismissed for anti-Fascist views and the fact that he is homosexual. His last 'friend' has been deported to Sicily and the same fate awaits him. Before he blurts this information out to Loren, they have enjoyed the casual intimacy of growing friendship, and she comes on strong to him, slapping him hard when she hears his confession. Still she is so hungry for affection and gentleness that she continues her sexual pursuit of the attractive fellow (I doubt whether there was any thought whatsoever in her mind of being able to 'convert' him). Yet he remains unmoved, his face cold and abstracted, while the voluptuous Loren craves some response, some warmth, some solace. They end the day as friends, but two outsiders who each must get on with their hopeless lives. We last see them as she is again the dogsbody for her demanding family now bursting with patriotic pride and as he is marched off with his suitcase by two ominous-looking chaps to the strains of the "Horst Wessel" song.

In fact all of the action is counter-pointed by jingoistic and martial music in the background throughout, underlining the 'great' day's importance to the rest of the city. The print that was broadcast was horribly faded to a brownish sepia, although the film was shot in muted colour. Ironically this rather suited the documentary nature of that infamous May day, although I don't think this is what Scola intended. Anyhow the good news is that a restored version of the movie in the original Italian is now available from Criterion and a copy is wending its way across the Atlantic as we speak. Initially I was a little undecided myself about this film -- and critical opinion seems to vary widely -- but on reflection I think it showcases two magnificent performances and I can't wait to watch it again as it was meant to be viewed.

An interesting footnote: one of Loren's daughters is played by the young Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce's grand-daughter and interestingly Loren's niece, who subsequently became a well-known political figure in Berlusconi's government.  

Friday, 1 January 2016

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Well I didn't quite make it before the end of 2015 to wish you all the best for this New Year, so I'll start 2016 with my hope for a memorable and rather more peaceful year ahead for all of us. Naturally I also hope for many memorable new movies to be released and for the chance to discover the many old films I have never seen on my infamous 'must see' list.

The above movie is one that nearly got away and certainly the best of the Christmas television offerings. Some of the other premieres mentioned in my last blog were just too dreadful for words, but in the line of duty I gritted my teeth and sat through them. This very entertaining film from director Steven Soderbergh was passed on by the major studios as 'too gay' and was finally financed by cable titan HBO. Although it was shown on pay-to-view Sky Box Office, it never appeared on Sky Atlantic which is their dedicated HBO Channel nor on any of their regular movie channels. I was beginning to despair of ever catching up with it until BBC2 scheduled it a few days ago.

Set in the 70s and 80s with great care taken over sets, clothing and hairdos appropriate to those years, it traces the romance -- for want of a better word -- between the flamboyant entertainer Liberace and his much younger lover and factotum Scott Thorson. Since the script is based on Thorson's own autobiographical 'novel', one would be foolish to accept this film as a faithful biopic (not that most biographical movies are free of embroidery), but rather as Thorson's self-interested reminiscence of their relationship.

The two leads are taken by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon -- two shining examples of heterosexuality -- but they both perform wonderfully as believable gays. Douglas in particular is virtually transformed into the mannered and vain pianist, to the extent that one nearly forgets the actor under Liberace's skin. It is probably one of his most accomplished roles, and its a pity that he was ineligible for Oscar consideration -- cable movies not being 'real' movies in the Academy's estimation, despite its being in competition at Cannes. Damon also shows considerably more range than he is usually afforded and makes a fine fist of it (no gay puns intended). The supporting cast is also first-rate with Scott Bakula as a procurer, still-beautiful Rob Lowe as a preening cosmetic surgeon Dr Startz who succeeds in hooking Thorson on drugs, a nearly unrecognizable Dan Aykroyd as Liberace's ruthless manager, and a completely unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds as his adored and doting mother.

It's nearly unbelievable that the entertainer's enthusiastic fans never cottoned on to his sexuality (and he never emerged from the closet even when stricken with AIDS). Douglas portrays him as a rounded character, tender and fatherly when it suits him, but downright power-hungry, controlling, and self-obsessed underneath. He promised Thorson the world and even spoke about adopting him (not that this ever happened) to the extent that he ordered surgery from Dr Startz to turn him into a 'mini-me'. (Incidentally the make-up transformation as the hunky Damon is 'Liberace-d' is beautifully done.) However, he did not hesitate to dump young Thorson when a more adventurous and better looking 'fish' appeared on his horizon. It was only, supposedly, on his deathbed that the gruesomely bald entertainer reconciled with Scott, his one true love. If you believe that, you can believe anything, since Liberace's one true love was himself, with only his mother as a close second.