Friday, 24 June 2016

Tale of Tales (2015)

I can't recommend this film highly enough, especially if you are a sentient viewer fed up with superhero flicks and jejune fart jokes, and more especially if you relish the idea of a pitch black fantasy laced with surreal humour and horror. Here are some fairy tales strictly for adults.

Directed in English by the Italian director Matteo Garrone who wowed the film world with his mafia epic "Gomorrah", he draws on a selection of tales gathered by the Neapolitan scholar Giambattista Basile and published posthumously by his sister in 1634. The full work known as Il Pentamerone for its collection of tales told over a five-day period (rather less than 1001 nights) is the earliest collection of folk stories, later liberally raided by both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Basile subtitled his opus 'Entertainment for Little Ones' but Garrone's movie is anything but suitable for the kiddies.

In its three overlapping and intertwining stories, we are introduced to the rulers of three kingdoms: an unsmiling Salma Hayak who yearns for a child of her own, Toby Jones who neglects his once-beloved daughter for his obsession with a giant flea that he has nurtured, and randy Vincent Cassel who beds all the young flesh that crosses his path but who falls for the sweet and heavenly singing of two old crones. Add to this mix, a dancing bear, fire-eaters, tightrope walkers, albino twins born to two different mothers, and a fiendish ogre and you begin to get an inkling of Garrone's brilliant mix. On top of the many curiosities on display, the film is a visual treat in its costuming, cinematography and location-sourcing. Rather than depending on CGI, the action takes place at real fairy-tale palaces such as the Castel del Monte in Apulia, Roccascalenga Castle in Abruzzo, and Donnafugata Castle in Sicily. It seems a fantasy world such as we have never seen before.

All three actors have their moments of bizarre glory but foremost among these is Jones, who woos his fearsome pet with the same "scootchie, scootchie coo" that he once reserved for his infant daughter. When the fearsome galumphing flea eventually dies, he promises to betroth Princess Violet (a feisty but not exactly gorgeous  Bebe Cave in her first feature film lead) to whichever suitor correctly identifies its giant preserved hide, fully expecting all of them to fail and thereby keeping his daughter to himself. Instead a giant Neolithic monster played by 6' 9" French actor Guillame Delanay sniffs the leather and announces 'flea'! Delaunay is actually a pretty gruesome looking fellow in the mould of dear old Rondo Hatton and probably didn't need too much makeup to achieve his monstrous appearance. Of course a King's word is the King's word and Young is obliged to dispatch Violet to the fiend's cave where she is promptly raped. Now in an ordinary fairy tale you might expect the ogre to morph into a handsome prince, but that is not the story being related here and the outcome is far bloodier.

Hollywood star John C Reilly is also in the cast playing Hayak's spouse, ordered to slay a sea monster so that his wife can eat its bloody heart (cooked of course by a virgin!) and thereby become pregnant. His role is really a cameo, ending with his death only minutes into the movie, which makes me wonder why he needed the two assistants named in the end credits. Otherwise the cast (largely Italian) is superb. Special mention needs go to Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael playing the elderly singing sisters. When horny Cassel insists on one of them sharing his bed, Carmichael's Dora agrees if he promises to keep the room in darkness and proceeds to glue down her saggy flesh; when Cassel breaks his word and discovers her ruse, he has his guards toss her out of the window. It's that sort of a story... But a kindly necromancer alters the hag into a naked vision of delight played by Stacy Martin. (Parenthetically I recently sat through all five hours plus of Lars von Trier's self-indulgent director's cut of "Nymphomaniac" which features that largely unclothed actress as the younger and definitely more attractive version of Charlotte Gainsbourg.) When the smitten Cassel makes her his queen, Henderson hopes for a cushy life courtesy of her sister's good fortune, but is reduced to bribing a tanner to flay her skin in the hope of attaining her own renewed beauty. Yuck.

The film is a leisurely 134 minutes but I found it totally absorbing and inventive. Of course it may not be to everyone's taste -- especially if superheroes and CGI make your day, but it is an amazing and ravishing few hours for anyone who relishes something truly different.      

Friday, 17 June 2016

Orchestra Rehearsal (1978)

I have long been a devoted fan of the wild, wonderful, and wacky world of the Italian writer-director Federico Fellini. I've seen all of his entertaining films from his earliest "Lights of Variety" (1950) through his last in 1990, and I do try to re-watch them from time to time. I have certainly seen the above short feature made for Italian television previously, but had forgotten how bizarre and poignant it is.

Like it says on the box, the movie concerns a small orchestra, gathering for their morning rehearsal, in an ancient chapel, now a recital hall with perfect acoustics. We watch as the room is set up and the musicians gradually appear, awaiting the arrival of their conductor, a somewhat Teutonic type in the mould of von Karajan. They quibble, joke, feud, flirt, and even snog amongst themselves, while possessively claiming their own space. Today is a little different since a television crew has arrived to document the proceedings and to interview the various musicians. Also present are various union officials, since this is a mini-portrait of Italy in the 70s (and beyond?); their role is to 'protect' their occasionally reluctant members and to ensure that 'the workers' rights' come first, even if this involves lumbering the orchestra with some superfluous union members who can't even play an instrument but who are due work. 

However the orchestra members themselves from the straight-laced old-timers through the young hipsters seem to be in love with their various instruments. As each is interviewed in turn they make wild claims for the importance and contribution of their particular instrument -- the violin, the cello, the trombone, the bassoon, the harp, and so on -- to the harmony and success of any performance. They each express an almost mystical relationship with their own instrument to the detriment of all the other less significant ones. Even the tuba player boasts that he didn't chance upon the instrument, but that the lugubrious sounding creature found him.

When the actual rehearsal begins, the conductor carps and criticises the players, until the union busybody calls a twenty-minute break. The maestro retreats to his room to freshen up and bemoans how the god-like role of the conductor has been undermined. Long gone are the days when his word was law and he could physically punish any musician who dared to play a duff note. When he returns to the hall he finds chaos. The musicians have become hysterical children, fighting amongst themselves, denigrating the role of the conductor, and defacing the walls with scurrilous graffiti. They decide that the conductor can easily be replaced with a giant metronome, but even that is soon kicked aside in their hatred. The next thing that happens is that a giant wrecking ball begins to knock down the ancient walls, resulting in at least one death. Duly chastened, the musicians resume their seats and begin to play the sweetest of sounds; music does indeed calm the savage beast. But even as the film fades to black, we begin to hear the maestro registering his nit-picking complaints.

One can't help but note and be moved by the simple beauty of the music, composed especially for this film, by Fellini's distinguished collaborator Nino Rota. Rota scored many of the director's movies, dating back to "I Vitelloni" in 1953, and this was their last collaboration before the composer's death the following year. The beauty of the sound contrasts with the parable of how simple it is to spread dissent and anarchy, a sentiment that fits neatly into the Fellini canon.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Finishing School (1934)

If I believed all film reviews as gospel, especially for older movies where I occasionally wonder if the reviewer has actually seen the film in question, I would possibly miss out on watching some very interesting movies. For example, the late Leslie Halliwell whose word I am more prepared to trust then most, described the above movie as "modest pap for the teenage audience". This is grossly unfair, although other reviewers are equally dismissive, and the film certainly bombed on its initial release.

The movie has been on my 'would like to see' list for a rather long time since Danny Peary listed it as 'a sleeper' in his "Guide for the Film Fanatic" (1986). (My goodness, doesn't time fly by when you're having fun?) It was briefly available on You Tube but rapidly deleted by them before I had a chance to watch it. So a fortuitous showing on BBC2 last weekend -- and believe it or not it was a UK television premiere -- finally saved the day.

Produced at the very end of the pre-Code period, it's a fascinating look at morals and class hypocrisy. Frances Dee plays Virginia, the spoiled but na├»ve daughter of tycoon John Halliday and flighty socialite Billie Burke, who is enrolled in (or perhaps dumped at) her mother's old school Crockett Hall which is actually billed as 'the villain' in the front credits. There she meets room-mate Ginger Rogers, known to all as 'Pony' and not just for her fondness for horses! Pony and her cronies are game for a laugh and think nothing of breaking all of headmistress Beulah Bondi's many rules -- no drinking, no smoking, no lipstick, no anything that it likely to ruin your or the precious school's reputation. Their mantra is that you can do what you like -- as long as nobody finds out and you're not caught. Besides she says such indiscretions are nothing compared to the school's 'genteel racketeering' in over-charged uniforms and outings. The schools's annual fee incidentally is $6000.00 -- and remember this is 1934! Lessons focus on such important things as knowing how many calling cards to leave if the family in question is not at home.

The girls escape to New York for the weekend purportedly to stay with Pony's dear 'aunt' -- a washed up old actress who is paid to meet the school's chaperone on arrival at Penn Station and again on departure; "one step lower and I'll be in the movies", she chortles. Instead the girls check into a seedy hotel ready for a high old time, where the current boyfriends and their pals and quantities of booze are waiting. Dee admits that she has always wondered how it would feel to get tight and they're soon chanting "Ginny gonna get fried" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell". When a sozzled Dee subsequently tries to escape from the amorous groping of her blind date, she is saved by heroic hotel waiter Bruce Cabot (Fay Wray's macho saviour in "King Kong"), a medical intern who is moonlighting to pay his way through his studies. When a romantic attraction develops, Bondi and of course Burke wish to end it since they can only see him as a lowly waiter and not as a noble would-be doctor -- to the extent that Virginia is not allowed to spend weekends away and his letters are intercepted and destroyed, even after it becomes self-evident that the young lady is now pregnant. This takes place off-screen in a nicely handled scene where one sees her footprints in the snow after she has escaped for a clandestine meeting gradually fill in with the falling snow as the night progresses. She is led to believe that she was just a cheap fling for this no-goodnik 'waiter' and she contemplates suicide, since nothing must interfere with the demands of 'proper' society.

Of course all of the players are a little too old for their roles, but this is nothing new when one looks at teenage/young adult movies today. Despite this, Dee acquits herself well and one wonders where her career might have taken her had she not placed her l933 marriage to Joel McCrea above screen ambitions. She continued to appear in films through the early 50s, but these were gradually diminishing supporting roles. Incidentally her marriage to McCrea which lasted through his death in 1990 was one of Hollywood's longest and presumably most solid.

It is interesting to note that the film was written and co-directed by a woman, Wanda Tuchock, a rarity at the time. Tuchock never directed another feature but did churn out some notable screenplays from the silent "Show People" and "Hallelujah" through classics like "The Foxes of Harrow" and "Sunday Dinner for a Soldier". There's some lovely dialogue as well, such as when Pony describes the 'suitable' young beaux dragged in for Crockett Hall tea parties as 'If you took the hair off their combined chests you wouldn't have enough to make a wig for a grape". There's also the ditty that Pony sings in the shower: "Never hit your Grandma with a shovel". This was apparently later recorded by Spike Jones in 1942 but it has been suggested that Rogers composed it herself.

OK, perhaps it's not a great film, but it is a progressive and engrossing look at another era -- and a heck of a lot better that some reviews imply.   


Friday, 3 June 2016

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

Considering the fact that writer/director Preston Sturges is one of my great favourites, it's odd that I have never written about him or his films on this blog. Going back to my archives, I find that he was only mentioned as a screenwriter in reviews of "The Good Fairy" (1935) and "Easy Living" (1937). So we shall put that to rights today and look at his meteoric rise and fall.

Sturges (1898-1959) was born into wealth and after a spell in the services during World War I, briefly worked for his mother's cosmetic empire (where he invented the first 'kiss-proof' lipstick). He then pottered with other genius-like but commercially unviable inventions. He did not take up writing -- initially plays and short stories -- until he was 30. He eventually migrated to Hollywood in the hope of earning big bucks for his screenplays, where he scripted a number of 30s classics including "The Power and the Glory" plus the two above and was uncredited on others such as "Twentieth Century". However he soon became disgusted by directors tampering with his scripts and yearned to exercise full control by directing them himself.

He sold his script for "The Great McGinty" (1940) to the studio for one dollar in exchange for the director's chair (and the film went on to win the Oscar for best screenplay). Then in a four year period Sturges churned out some of the most anarchic and successful slapstick comedies of the period: "The Lady Eve", "Sullivan's Travels", "The Palm Beach Story", "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek", and "Hail the Conquering Hero". He was a master of madcap plots, the exquisitely-turned phrase and the pratfall, and he made sneaky inroads into the Breen Office's production codes with his politically incorrect scenarios. At a time when the combination of writer and director was unknown and simply perceived as two separate talents, he briefly became one of the highest paid people not just in Hollywood but in the United States, and he paved the way for other multi-talents like Billy Wilder. He was also the forerunner for today's iconoclastic writer-directors like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. His legacy is enormous.

However when his next film "The Great Moment" flopped -- the studio was not ready for a movie (albeit a very good one) about a dentist inventing laughing gas -- the moneymen washed their hands of him. There was then a three-year gap before he directed three more Hollywood movies (including the one above). All were failures at the box office and he retired to France, where he made his last film in 1955 "The Diary of Major Thompson" (also known as "The French they Are a Funny Race") which frankly is not particularly good.

What occasioned today's topic was reading that "Diddlebock" has just re-emerged on disc. When this movie -- financed by Howard Hughes no less -- flopped, Hughes took control of the film, let it sit on a shelf for three years, re-editing it and re-releasing it in 1950 as "Mad Wednesday". I suddenly realised that I had only seen this re-edit (which I recall as being hilarious on my first viewing), but I had never seen the original movie as Sturges meant it to be seen -- some fourteen minutes longer. That situation has now been rectified although I would have to re-view the 1950 edit to tell you definitively how they differ. (I've not done that yet but shall.)

Anyhow the movie is still a treat. Sturges coaxed Harold Lloyd out of retirement to star in his first feature for many years. The film opens with the first reel of Lloyd's 1925 hit "The Freshman" and then considers what has become of the inadvertent college football hero some 22 years on. Offered a job by an erstwhile enthusiastic football fan, he has languished in a dead-end post all these years, before being summarily dismissed. On that day in question where he seems to have no viable prospects, he falls in with Jimmy Conlin (one of Sturges' many stock company actors). He then has his first ever drink (a new bartender concoction christened 'The Diddlebock'). After a number of these drinks and some surprise gambling wins, he awakens the next day to find himself the owner of a garish new suit, a horse, carriage and coachman, and a failing circus with a large number of very hungry animals. There is one lion in particular who has taken a shine to the man and the mayhem ensues. Some humour never dates and we have a replay of Lloyd's famous roof-ledge antics over a city's streets, but this time with a lion in tow.

Bless Preston Sturges for giving us so many memorable movie moments.  For more information, seek out the 1990 American Masters documentary "The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer". As Sturges said of himself, 'The most remarkable thing about my career is that I had one'.