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Friday, 29 July 2016

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

I blame George Romero for the fact that zombie movies have been done to the death (pun intended!)  However it is still possible to churn out a crowd-pleaser that tickles the old funny bone. I came to this movie with absolutely no expectations of it being anything but a reworking of the old clich├ęs, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it both fresh and entertaining. Mind you, it was a box office failure and the main reviewers whose word we should accept as Gospel dismissed it as feeble juvenilia.

Now I am some generations away from my teens and do consider myself a serious film buff, but there is nothing wrong with welcoming a good laugh. This movie has great visual humour along with its over-the-top gore, (I admit I do love to see a messy exploding head!), and I found myself laughing out loud throughout. If an old fogey like me is able to appreciate the critics' accused bad taste, then the movie is well on its way to acquiring cult status.

Briefly the film follows three teen-aged boy scouts, high school sophomores, over the course of one night. While they are camping in the woods, their town becomes contaminated with rampant zombie-ism and only they, with their multi-badge skills, can save the day. The storyline is somewhat more complicated insofar as two of the three (who secretly are ashamed to still be scouts) want to sneak off to attend a senior class rave, hoping to return to their tents before their third friend realises they are gone -- fat chance, he's soon on their tail. Their scout-master also seems to have gone AWOL, but of course he's been infected, along with the rest of the town, its animals -- in fact just about everyone but one of the strippers at the local titty-bar. Can the four of them locate the isolated senior party (they've been given a phony address) before their schoolmates succumb to the zombie horde?

The main players are all relatively unknown. Rising teen talent Tye Sheridan is Ben the most sensible of the three and probably the eldest since I didn't think sophomores would be able to drive at night. He made a mark as a child actor in "The Tree of Life" (2011) and "Mud" (2012) and can be forgiven for 'slumming' in this comedic horror rather than pursuing more serious career choices. His horny friend Carter is played by Logan Miller who has been around for a while, but not noticeably. The third scout Augie, played by Joey Morgan in his debut role, was probably selected because he's chubby and comes across as childish. (He's the only one of the three who still takes scouting seriously). The fourth member of the zombie-fighting mob is the stripper Denise, played by Sarah Dumont, who has nothing outstanding in her filmography, but who is a likeable ally here for the three teenagers. In fact the only 'name' in the cast is an unrecognizable 90-year old Cloris Leachman who has thrown herself into the silly spirit of the movie. As a point of interest, a very minor role is taken by one Patrick Schwarzenegger -- yes, son of Arnie. 

The film may be gory but the violence is cartoony rather than scary, and the laughs keep coming. Who would have thought that you could giggle at Ben's escaping from an upper window onto a trampoline by swinging on a stretchy zombie penis or by Carter's copping a feel of a topless busty zombie pole-dancer. Yes, that's the level of some of the humour, but it's all so fast-paced that one chuckle merges into the next, from fighting off Leachman's zombified cats to David Koechner's never-say-die scoutmaster with his floppy toupee. In addition, one can only admire how the boys' scout skills enable them to improvise some ingenious Rube Goldberg weapons to fight off the menacing mob.

Maybe I should be ashamed of myself, but I found the film a blast. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

Men & Chicken (2015)

Denmark is a relatively small country with a subsequently limited number of A-list actors, all the more recognizable nowadays through the popularity of 'Scandi-noir' television series. However even the most dedicated viewer might have trouble recognising the leads in this very black and very peculiar film from prolific screenwriter but only occasional director Anders Thomas Jensen. Jensen is responsible for the screenplays for such recent international hits as "In a Better World", "Love is all you Need", "Salvation" and many more thoughtful and prestige features. However when he dons his director's hat -- and this is his first movie for ten years -- he favours offbeat comic, absurdist scenarios.

I've seen his 2003 feature "The Green Butchers" which celebrates small-town cannibalism, but not his second film, 2005's "Adams Apples" which pits neo-Nazis against the established church. However in the above film he pushes the boundaries of 'good taste' even further by creating a film that can best be described as a slapstick "Island of Dr Moreau". Estranged brothers Elias (superstar Mads Mikkelson) and Gabriel (David Dencik) learn from their father on his deathbed that they are not only adopted but the children of different mothers. Their real father is apparently an ancient and mad geneticist, the wonderfully named Evelio Thanatos, living in an abandoned sanatorium on a remote island. Gabriel, the more rational of the two -- although both come across as societal misfits and both bear the scars of surgery to correct birth defects --is determined to find their birth father and to discover the fates of their respective mothers. Reluctantly he allows Elias to join him on this road trip, despite the latter's need for frequent pit-stops to deal with his rampant masturbatory urges. Mikkelsen has a ball playing against type. 

When they eventually reach the derelict building which is over-run inside and out with sheep, goats, pigs, and hundreds of chickens, they discover that they have three hare-lipped half-brothers, played by TV stalwarts (The Killing, Borgen, 1864, Dicte...) fat, cheese-loving Nicolas Bro's Josef, childish Nikolaj Lie Kaas' Gregor, and nearly unrecognizable in his physical deformity disciplinarian Soren Malling's Franz. However rather than greeting Elias and Gabriel with open arms, their new siblings attack them savagely with stuffed animals, planks of wood, and any other makeshift weapons which come to hand and force their retreat. They suspect that they have been sent by the hospital authorities to cart the trio away.

When they return and manage to join the dysfunctional household -- greasy, asocial, and disgusting Elias fits in the more readily -- they find a world of madness with the patriarch long dead upstairs on the ancestral bed and a locked and forbidden cellar laboratory below. They live on the proceeds of a prize bull's sperm which is collected twice a year and Gregor explains the ubiquitous chickens. They are for 'practice' until they get to meet 'real girls' and are eminently suitable for the purpose since they regularly produce large eggs! The original Danish title of the movie translates as 'Men & Hens', which is perhaps rather more apt in its sexual connotation. Nosy Gabriel manages to break into the cellar and finds the evidence of his father's nightmare experimentation and the mummified remains of the five mothers. All the brothers are the products of spliced human and animal DNA and like all hybrids they are naturally sterile. One is part owl, one part bull, and so on with Franz being the most part-animal of them all: part chicken! Chickens apparently made the best test subjects and some of them now strut about on cow hooves. (Wait to discover what became of the island's resident stork who disappeared years before). 

Rather than the plot spinning completely out of control as one might assume when Gabriel briefly accepts that his 'brothers' can only continue to exist under custodial care, he begins to understand that they can all live together and enjoy a relatively 'normal' life (complete with numerous offspring), thanks to their Dad's warped experiments. For these mental and physical misfits there can be a happy and joyful future.

A cross between a comic horror flick and a backwoods nightmare, this film is certainly not for everyone. However it's a wondrous and grimly imaginative creation from a writer whose next project is the script for a mainstream Stephen King movie.   

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Saxon Charm (1948)

And so another one bites the dust! I've have a long way to go before I manage to clear my lengthy 'would like to see' list (and frankly I doubt that I ever will), but I am always delighted when I manage to track down a previously-elusive title. Incidentally I've just found a new source of rarities, but I'm keeping shtum for the moment.

The above film hardly qualifies as an important one and I wasn't tempted to take a copy, but I certainly enjoyed watching it. Based on a novel by Frederic Wakeman who also wrote "The Hucksters", John Payne (never a major presence) and feisty Susan Heywood play happily married couple Eric and Janet Busch. He's a well-received published novelist who has just written his first play and he is keen for legendary impresario Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery) to produce it on Broadway. He bypasses the crowd of sycophants waiting to see Saxon (in his hospital bed -- his apartment is being decorated and he can't stand the smell of fresh paint!) Saxon gives him a warm welcome but begins the lengthy process that nearly destroys both Eric's creative confidence and his marriage.

Saxon may have had a run of successes in the past, but is currently in a dry patch. However his massive ego does not tolerate any talent existing outside his influence and interference. He not only bullies Eric into a series of urgent but unnecessary rewrites, but also has him (and initially Janet) at his beck and call to meet him at restaurants or nightclubs at any ungodly hour. Things come to a head when Saxon pulls Eric from an overdue carefree vacation with his wife and demands that he join him forthwith in Mexico where he is trying to get his wealthy ex-wife to finance his next production. When he learns that she is flat broke, he leaves her sitting in a club waiting for his return and begins borrowing cash from Eric. In short he is an unreliable and totally nasty bastard.

Montgomery began his long acting career with MGM in 1929 and was usually cast as a society playboy, but he never enjoyed himself more than when he had the opportunity to play a villain, starting with his sinister turn in "Night Must Fall" (1937). After war service, his return to Hollywood was marked by a desire to direct as well. He is the uncredited co-director on John Ford's "They Were Expendable" (1945) in which he starred and he took over the reins when Ford fell ill; he could not have had a better mentor. He went on to direct and star in 1947's "Lady in the Lake" ('though only seen in mirrors since the film was told from the camera's point of view) and "Ride the Pink Horse" -- both accomplished features. He made only two further movies as an actor of which this is one before retiring from the screen in favour of his role as a director and producer. He went on to produce 321 television episodes of 'Robert Montgomery Presents' between 1950 and 1957.  But for a still handsome and suave figure, he is a totally unlikeable scoundrel in this film -- it's a brilliant turn.

I should mention Saxon's girlfriend in this movie, Alma Wragg (an awful name for a would-be star says Saxon) played by Audrey Totter. Alma has ambitions as both a club singer and a would-be movie star, but Saxon manages to put the kibosh on her big opportunity by spreading a pack of lies about her. He just can't accept the notion that she could possibly be successful without his input. Totter spent her long career play the 'bad' girl in a string of B-features, but in terms of talent, she was an A-list actress and deserved far better. Credit too to Saxon's faithful sidekick played by Harry Morgan (Col. Potter in MASH) who is willing to carry on as his dogsbody were Saxon not too proud to admit that he needs him.

As the film ends well for Eric and Janet having pried themselves away from Saxon's control, the 'legendary impresario' has a new fish in his sights -- an up and coming playwright who has approached him previously. He phones the guy and blames his tardiness in contacting him on his late wife's 'sad' death (she committed suicide after the Mexico incident) and claims to be feeling 'so terribly alone'. Can't the fellow come to his apartment that instant to discuss his wonderful unproduced play, previously promised elsewhere. Saxon tells him that they would 'mutilate your material' -- just as he himself did for Eric -- and another patsy is caught in his net!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Premiere (1938)

Nearly everything about the background of this film is fascinating. It's a shame therefore that the movie itself is a fairly feeble potboiler featuring a cast, with one exception, of solid wood. We only chose its rare showing at the National Film Theatre because of a very misleading programme blurb which suggested that it was the love child of Agatha Christie and Busby Berkeley -- murder mystery meets extravagant 30s' musical.

For once the introduction by one of the BFI archivists was enlightening and well-presented. It seems there was a very successful 1937 Austrian film of the same name starring the notorious Zarah Leander. A star of Swedish operetta, it was her first German-speaking role and led to her becoming the highest paid film star of World War II German cinema, although she never became a German citizen much to Dr Goebbels' chagrin. She was the 'Nazi Garbo' if you will, and starred in a string of worthy dramas. She never regained her popularity in her homeland after the war, being considered a collaborator. But back to the movie under discussion...

The director of this English film, Joseph Summers, had a copy of the original Austrian movie and cut the extravagant German musical numbers into his pedestrian remake. You know the drill: hundreds of dancers, reflecting mirrors, and a theatrical stage that seems to go on to infinity.  However, he needed to find an actress who could pass for star Leander in the close-ups, especially when clothed in the same gowns, and chose B-player Judy Kelly for the important lead. Naturally the German lyrics needed to be translated into English, but unfortunately Kelly was no singer, so she was dubbed a la Marnie Nixon. Think about it: a flashy German musical production translated into English with a look-alike lead actress who can not do her own vocals. Bizarre! The original cinematographer, costume designer, musical director, choreographer, and writers are not credited.

However the weirdness does not end there. Like the original, Summers' film is set in Paris for no discernible reason and the cast share more or less the same names as their Austrian counterparts, although leading man Hugh Williams has his name changed from the original Fred to Rene!! The plot concerns the murder of an impresario in his box during the premiere of his latest revue, and inspector Bonnard (who just happens to be in the audience) solves the mystery before the final curtain. Bonnard is played by the American actor John Lodge, a scion of the old Boston family and subsequently Governor of Connecticut, as a stolid Scotland Yard type. He and his bowler-hatted minions are supported by a bevy of unlikely-costumed gendarmes. One change to the script was to give him a 'silly ass' sidekick who adds absolutely nothing to the plot, but the character was thought to be a staple in mystery movies of the time, much like Charlie Butterworth in Hollywood films of the period.

The one exception to the feeble casting was the role given to the Hungarian-born actor Steve Geray as the excitable stage manager, who managed to out-act the rest of the cast. Geray went on to a long Hollywood career, generally in notable support in movies like "The Mask of Dimitrios" (1944) and "Spellbound (1945), and he even had a rare starring role in "How Dark the Night" (1946). He continued until 1966 with his ignominious cinema swan-song in "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter".

The supporting programme shown with the above movie fortunately had its own charms. There was a brief clip of the Norah Jackson dancers from 1932 and the 21-minute "Teddy Bergman's International Broadcast" (1937) which featured some weird musical-hall turns of exotic singers, contortionists, and jugglers, as well as the singularly unfunny Mr Bergman himself. For good measure there were some additional brief clips of unknown origin featuring a girl-group of the period a la the Andrews Sisters and a pair of remarkable sub-teen xylophonists. I'd love to be able to trace these unknown charmers.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Railway Man (2013)

As I'm sure I have written previously, I have a deep-rooted dislike of war movies, especially those in which one is introduced to a diverse group of men (including the usual racial stereotypes) in order to sit back and watch them dispatched one by one. However I have no such antipathy to prisoner of war films from the comedic, such as "Stalag 17", to the tragic, such as "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence".

While it visits the same location and deals with the same appalling treatment meted out to the brave, suffering soldiers by their Japanese captors in the classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai", this film is not an action flick. Rather it is concerned with lingering trauma and reconciliation. Based on the autobiographical book by Eric Lomax, the film begins in 1980, some thirty-five years after the liberation of the POWs forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Colin Firth plays the 60-ish year old Eric, a long-time railroad buff, who 'meets cute' with somewhat younger nurse Patty (Nicole Kidman) while sharing a train carriage. A scruffy and solitary man, he finds himself falling in love much to his own surprise, and they soon marry. However it is not a case of 'happy ever after', as she soon becomes aware that he has recurrent nightmares and is suffering post-traumatic stress. The film cuts back and forth between the strained present and the horrific past, where actor Jeremy Irvine movingly portrays the young Eric.

He and his mates steal materials to build a primitive radio receiver in order to learn how the outside war is developing. When the device is discovered by the Japs, he bravely takes the brunt of the blame. His interrogators are convinced that he was transmitting classified data to their enemies -- but 'where is the speaker?' he protests -- and led by interpreter Takeshi Nagase he is ruthlessly tortured for many weeks. His only 'confession' is to blurt out that the war is going badly for his captors, who have been brainwashed into believing that victory is inevitable. When the camp is liberated, the Japanese officers are tried for war crimes, but Nagase bluffs that he was 'only an interpreter' (and not a member of the secret police) and escapes punishment.

Stellan Skarsgard, a fellow POW and life-long friend, reveals many of the above details to Patty who desperately wants to help her Eric fight his demons. When Skarsgard finds a newspaper report of how Nagase is not only still alive but still profiting from the past by working as a guide at the war camp site -- now a tourist attraction! -- he urges Eric to ease his anger and seek the revenge that has been eating him alive. Eric is unwilling to revisit the scene of his despair until a horrific and selfless act by Skarsgard spurs him to action. When he goes back to the source of his nightmares, he finds the mature Nagase a thoughtful and greatly changed man, who has made 57 'pilgrimages' to the site in the intervening years. Eric's initial fury and murderous intentions gradually give way to forgiveness.

A few words on the main cast: Firth and Skargard are both excellent and it is no great stretch for Firth to be believably playing a slightly older man. Kidman -- very much for a change -- has drabbed down her usual 'glam' and gives her best recent performance. Apparently the role was intended for Rachel Weisz who was unable to take it because of scheduling conflicts, but I do believe that she would not have done as fine a job as Kidman has managed here. Finally, both Japanese actors embodying the erstwhile fiend Nagase were fine, but Hiroyuki Sanada playing the older character was remarkable. He apparently started his career as an action star, but then became the first Japanese actor to play with the Royal Shakespeare Company (as the fool in "Lear"). He has subsequently appeared in a number of English-speaking roles, most recently in "Mr. Holmes". Apparently Nagase and Eric eventually became fast friends until their respective deaths this century. Concerned and loving wife Patty was still alive for the movie's premiere a few years ago. 

It's a powerful and moving tale of love and redemption and I'm surprised at how much I liked it!