Friday, 25 March 2016

August Rush (2007)/In the House (2012)

Memory is a funny thing...and two films viewed this week demonstrate this.

I first saw "August Rush" shortly after its release and thought, "OK, that was an interesting movie...maybe a little soppy, but OK". Reviews ranged from 'iffy' to adequate and I put it out of my mind. Or I thought I had. Yet snippets of the movie kept coming back to me and a gradual fondness began to emerge, so I decided upon a second viewing -- and I'm pleased that I did. It's a strange and as it turned out in my case a haunting film with much to recommend it.

In short, classical cellist (Keri Russell) and Irish rock musician (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) meet, have a one night stand, and go their very separate ways. When she finds that she is pregnant, she so wants the child as a reminder of that one carefree night in her ordered life, but her father-cum-manager convinces her that her son was still-born and that her career is all that matters. However she has lost the taste for his stern discipline and retires. Meyers too wants desperately to find what he now believes to be his destined and lost love, leaving his group to try to get on with some semblance of life. Meanwhile their child has been placed in a state orphanage, and youngster Freddie Highmore (in a remarkable performance) refuses all offers of adoption, believing in his heart of hearts that his real parents will find him.

Befriended by caring welfare worker Terence Howard, he runs away to New York hoping he will help him locate his family, but arrangements go astray and he ends up in the not-so-tender hands of Robin Williams, playing a latter-day Fagin, who is providing a home of sorts for a bunch of lost boys-cum-street musicians. The young lad has always heard music in the wind and the trees and he soon demonstrates a prodigious musical talent. Through a set of plot contrivances necessary to move the story forward, he ends up living at the Julliard School of Music where this teenaged prodigy composes an incredible urban symphony that is to be premiered (with his conducting) in Central Park. However Fagin Williams does not want to let the boy-wonder (and meal-ticket) escape his clutches. It is a frantic race for him to reach the park for the concert, where Russell has come out of retirement to play and where Meyers too is drawn. The inevitable family reunion is downplayed, yet the viewer knows as the music surges that they will now live happily ever after. 

With its amazing mix of music -- classic, rock, folk, symphonic -- and a likeable cast (except maybe Williams) I'm not surprised that the film stayed with me over the intervening years -- unlike some movies which I viewed last month and can now barely remember. I've always had a soft spot for the underused Russell (who started her career in the Mickey Mouse Club in 1991) though I've rather more ambiguous feelings about Meyers, even if his defining role in the TV series "Gormengast" (2000) is another memory-worm. And as mentioned above, young Highmore gives his all. He's had a wonderful career as a child actor from age seven and seems to be continuing along the same lines as a young man, even if he is now playing Norman Bates in "Bates Motel"! Yes, as it turns out, "August Rush" is a movie well worth remembering.

At another extreme, I scheduled BBC4's premiere showing of the French movie "In the House", even if the storyline seemed to ring vague bells. I checked all my many lists and decided that I couldn't possibly have viewed the film previously, but from the minute we started watching, it all seemed very, very familiar. We couldn't work out where or when we had seen it nor quite remember how it panned out, so we kept on watching. I eventually realised that I own a DVD of the movie. How stupid can you be Pat? Or how forgetful?

It all came back to me -- although completely forgotten over the last few years -- and it was no punishment viewing it a second time. Adopted from a play by director Francois Ozon, whose films delight in playing games, it follows Fabrice Luchini's high school literature teacher (with the lovely name of Germain Germain) as he and his childless wife (Kirstin Scott Thomas) become increasingly bewitched by the essays turned in by one his pupils. Said student, Claude, played by Ernst Umhauer, has ingratiated himself into the family life of one of his classmates on the grounds that he is helping the dim lad with his maths. But he is besotted with 'the middle-class mother, played by Emanuelle Seigner and plots to whisk her away from the Raphas, Senior and Junior. Each instalment ends with the words 'to be continued' and Luchini and Scott Thomas hang on every syllable as the saga unfolds. However one never knows whether the youngster's stories are fact or fiction and to what extent he is trying to infiltrate into his teacher's own life. Luchini's mentoring of the young writer eventually backfires when he loses both his job and his wife, but the insidious little monster is already tempting him with the tales of what he imagines to be going on in many other flats and houses. 

If nothing else I should have remembered Scott Thomas' frantic attempts to make a go of her pretentious and wildly pornographic art gallery and the delightful cameo from one of my favourite French actresses, Yolande Moreau, playing twins. Such are the vagaries of memory.  

Friday, 18 March 2016

Anomalisa (2015)

There are a number of amazing things about this very strange animated film from card-carrying kook Charlie Kaufman, but the most amazing of all is the fact that it was actually Oscar-nominated. Unlike the usual culprits -- Pixar, Ghibli, Aardman -- this is not the expected child-friendly product to pack them into the multiplexes, but a movie directly aimed at an adult audience and one which it will probably be slow to find. Yes, we have had puppet sex before in "Team America", but with doll-like sexless wooden bodies, not with the finely detailed genitalia to be found here in Kaufman's everyman fable.

The second amazing fact is that after his ill-received directing debut ("Synecdoche New York" in 2008 -- admittedly a boxes within boxes complicated movie) no studio would dream of giving him money for a sophomore film, despite his award-winning strengths as a screenwriter ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). "Anomalisa" began life as a 40-minute voice play. Having formed a working partnership with animator Duke Johnson (which whom Kaufman shares the directing credit), the project was initially funded on Kickstarter, before scrabbling to finance the balance of the production.

Stop-motion animation is a very slow process at the best of times, but Johnson has done an amazing job of bringing Kaufman's play to life, down to the very smallest movements. Their computer-printed unstrung puppets are surreally lifelike as they go about their mundane lives, even if they do seem rather top-heavy and squat. Disturbingly their face-movement joins, usually painted out in post-production, are left in place -- and occasionally shift or even fall apart -- reinforcing the notion that we are watching some sort of parallel world, yet one with haunting implications for us all. A third amazing feature of this movie is that it has a cast of hundreds, but only three voices.

Our 'hero' Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker, who has checked into Cincinnati's bland Hotel Fregoli, before delivering his presentation on improving customer service. We gradually become aware that everyone with whom he interacts from the taxi driver from the airport to the soulless reception clerk to the bell-hop to the bar staff -- men, women, and even children -- all speak with exactly the same voice (all furnished by Tom Noonan) and facially they are indistinguishable. Michael seems to be suffering from Fregoli Syndrome, a condition in which one believes that everyone else is the same person but in a different disguise. He appears to be facing some sort of alienated middle-age crisis, desperately trying to bring some meaning to the emptiness of his own life. He may have written a book titled "Let Me Help You Help Them", but he soon realises that pretending to care about others is impossible when everyone else is identical.

And then he hears a third voice, Jennifer Jason Leigh's homely Lisa who seems to be a light in the darkness -- an anomaly, the 'something different' for which we all search. Michael is enchanted with the possibilities embodied in this plain, sweet, and inexperienced woman, and they soon spend the night together. However, despite his cockeyed dream of a future together, he becomes disenchanted with her perceived failings and dutifully returns to his wife, child, and friends -- all of whom look alike and sound alike. There is no redemption or happy ending for this Everyman, even if Lisa seems to have found something meaningful in their time together.

We are probably more receptive to Kaufman's thesis that we are all potentially lost souls by his embodying this nihilistic philosophy in his slightly skewwhiff puppets, rather than employing real actors with whom we might identify. It's an odd movie that will not set the box-office ablaze, but one that is destined to find its own cult audience, even with the yucky business about the antique Japanese sex 'toy' that he has purchased as a present for his young son. Very weird!    

Friday, 11 March 2016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

OK, I admit I was a little disappointed. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Coen Brothers fan, I had been looking forward to seeing their latest movie, partly for its purportedly all-star cast and largely because anything to do with 'old Hollywood' (especially sending it up) is guaranteed to tickle my funny bone. While this film is far from an all-out dud like their needless remake of "The Ladykillers", it is very definitely middle-range Coen Brothers and not up there with their best.

Despite their award-winning record, the brothers have never claimed to be part of the Hollywood establishment, and pointed barbs from talented outsiders are often on target. However, unlike "Barton Fink" which was ultimately a mean-spirited jab at La-la Land in the 1930s, finally sending the whole shooting match up in flames, 'Caesar' is an episodic and meandering look at 50s Hollywood, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to its output and foibles. Insofar as there is any story being told, we follow one day in the life of the film's main character (Josh Brolin), studio executive Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life and reputedly ruthless behind-the-scenes fixer of the period. A fastidious Catholic who confesses his 'sins' on a regular basis, Mannix's true faith is in Hollywood's 'magic'; tidying up other people's messes is really what keeps him going.

His main problem today is the disappearance of superstar George Clooney (playing his third role as a Coen Brothers 'idiot'), one scene away from completing the epic of the title, who has been snatched from the set in his leather skirt by a disaffected bunch of Communist screenwriters (shades of the anti-American witch trials of the time). Clooney demonstrates that even great Hollywood stars can be gurning boobs as well! We are also introduced to Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams-esque mermaid, in the club with no husband to hand, for whom Mannix plans a scenario where she can adopt her own kid. (Hello, Loretta Young). Meanwhile on the studio lot we meet acrobatic cowboy Hobie, played by the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, who incidentally gives the movie's best performance, as he is roped into a high-falutin' drawing-room comedy, a la Gary Cooper?, under the exasperated eye of pernickety director Ralph Fiennes. Then there is song-and-dance man Channing Tatum, doing a remarkably able pastiche of Gene Kelly, although rather more sexually explicit than would have been tolerated back then.

The film's cast is huge, and most of them are given very little to do. Jonah Hill has about two minutes of screen time and Coen regular Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper-cum-Luella Parsons) is something of a waste of time. France McDormand, however, has a knock-out cameo as a film editor who nearly comes to an Isadora Duncan sticky end. There is even a Carmen Miranda-ish character for us to identify. The movie largely resembles one of those early talkie productions, where each of the studio's contracted stars did their little bit in the hope that these small turns would add up to a feature film.  "Hail, Caesar" is similarly far too patchy to be satisfying, although there are definite laughs to be found. For example, the scene where various religious leaders are called in to ensure that 'the tale of the Christ' which is shooting will not manage to offend any one is hilarious, especially with Robert Picardo's bolshy rabbi. However these affectionate felicities are few and far between.

Like Woody Allen movies, minor Coen Brothers' films are still potentially more entertaining than most, even if they occasionally turn out to be something short of a hoped-for masterpiece.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Shooting Oscars

This will be the first year that I haven't devoted a full blog to the Oscar ceremony, partly because I don't have a great deal to add to the widespread coverage of the recent event and partly because a film viewed yesterday shouts for some comment.

Considering the brouhaha over the past few weeks about the whiteness of the Oscar nominees, Chris Rock did all that was expected of him to emphasize the problems of so-called diversity and largely with good grace, although a few of his gibes fell resoundingly flat. He had a very valid point in stating that historically having nominees of colour was of little consequence to the black community when your granny is hanging from a tree. And in all fairness, there have been a fair number of black winners in living memory. The point has been made, but I'm not sure it needs to be drummed home ad nauseum. There was certainly a compensatingly high percentage of dark faces among this year's presenters, most of whom felt obliged to add their two cents to the argument, but I'm pretty sure genuine talent will continue to be colour-blind in the years to come. Rock's amusing recasting of black actors in some of this year's nominated films (I especially liked the 'black' bear that violated DiCaprio) drove the point home that not every role calls out for colour-blind casting.

As for the awards themselves, there were actually a few surprises -- always a pleasant turn of events. I miscalled the likely winner of best supporting actress (although I think Alicia Vikander was even more deserving of an award for her amazing turn in "Ex Machina") and I was flabbergasted that sentimentality did not bestow the best supporting actor gong on Stallone. Also surprising is the fact that this year was the first Oscar win for the incredibly prolific and talented composer Ennio Morricone. Leo's win (at last, say some) for "The Revenant" was a foregone conclusion, but I could have done without the incurably smug Alejandro G. Inarritu winning best director for the second year running. However if the Academy once again manages to split the best picture award from the director responsible for its gestation, a far more popular choice would have been awarding the directing Oscar to veteran George Miller. After all, "Mad Max: Fury Road" was the big winner of the night with six technical awards -- and the production design really was magnificent -- a seventh to its director would have capped the evening. I was chuffed to find that Stephen Fry's 'bag lady' Jenny Beaven took home another costume design award for that movie, and you could just about hear the dressed-to-the-nines audience's horrified gasps when she took to the stage in her leather jacket and motorcycle boots.

Now to the second highlight of my cinematic week: "Shooting Stars" (1928). This restored silent film was one of the galas at last year's London Film Festival, and last night was the first of its less spangled showings before its DVD release later this month. The direction and screenplay are credited in retrospect to Anthony Asquith, son of a former Prime Minister, although he is uncredited for both -- the directing credit ascribed to a forgotten A.V. Bramble. Asquith did indeed go on to a successful career in the sound era, but I am certainly underwhelmed by his silent output of which this is the third and final restoration.

Set in a film studio where two productions are underway, the glimpses of early film-making techniques hold a certain fascination, but the story itself leaves much to be desired as do the largely wooden performances. Married couple Brian Aherne, who went on to a distinguished Hollywood career, and Annette Benson present a false picture of marital bliss, while she actually has the hots for Chaplinesque comedian Donald Calthorp. The latter actor continued in memorable British roles throughout the 30s, but Benson seems to have disappeared from the scene after 1931 (there isn't even any biographical information available); frankly she was neither sufficiently gorgeous nor convincing in her femme fatale role. When her adultery (strong stuff for movies for 1928) becomes exposed, she fears for her future because of the morals clause in her contract, and tries to stage Aherne's death on set. Her plan backfires and Calthorp becomes the unintended victim. All highly melodramatic...

In fairness the film did have a few well-staged niceties, in particular its moralistic ending, but the hyped 'boldly expressionistic' shooting style and dramatic lighting from so-called rising talent Asquith is barely in evidence. Variety published two reviews on its original release -- one from an American critic praising the work and a second from a British critic knocking it. However a third review three months later more or less said that the film was of little consequence and not worth screening. Of course now we are meant to hail its brilliance as some sort of masterpiece.

This performance was graced with a live score from composer John Altman and his chosen l2-piece jazz ensemble. The music was the better half of the evening, even if it didn't always seem to tally with the images on screen. Unfortunately we were seated just across the aisle from the musicians and the effect was a little overpowering to say the least.