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Saturday, 29 October 2016

Curtain Call (2016) for The Goldwyn Follies (1938)

Family commitments kept me away from my computer all day yesterday, hence my regular Friday blog appearing on a Saturday:

I wish I could give you more details about the first film above, our first selection from the LEAFF programme (and yet another Korean movie), but it's not yet listed on IMDb. I certainly recognised some of the cast from earlier Korean films, but can't put names to the faces.  What I can do is endorse this flick from director Ryu Hoon as an entirely pleasant and inventive 99 minutes. The storyline concerns a third-rate group of actors (all of whom are proud of their craft), who are reduced to performing mildly erotic and innuendo-laden farces, directed by a man who was once destined for Shakespearian stardom. Their chance to improve their standing and to rescue their theatre, threatened with closure, is to partake in a competition celebrating Shakespeare's 400th anniversary and offering a prize for the best performance of "Hamlet".

This is quite a challenge for the ragtag ensemble but one that they take seriously, drafting in a great Shakespearian actor, now on the verge of Alzheimer's, to play Claudius and giving the lead to a young man in their troupe with pretensions of grandeur. They are further lumbered by the theatre-owner insisting that his squeeze 'Cutie' be given the role of Ophelia, even if the condition is that she will only speak her learned lines (to save her voice!) and all other communication must pass through her assistant. When the actor playing Hamlet is tripped up on his entrance and lies there unconscious, the players improvise that he is dead. We are therefore left with a production of "Hamlet" with no Hamlet! By the interval, half of the audience has walked out, appalled by the remaining cast's faffing about.

Backstage the theatre-owner bursts in, flabbergasted that the troupe is not playing their regular soft porn, and tries to stop the second half. This even upsets his mistress, who by now is revelling in the thrill of performance, so they lock him in a closet, and proceed with the play, having worked out a way of announcing that Hamlet is actually alive. The only trouble is that the actor, who has stormed out in a huff, is now halfway across the city. They rope in the director to play the final scene -- which is largely the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy out of sequence -- silently mouthed in part by the veteran Shakespearian whose aged mother is in the audience, never before having seen him on stage.

They succeed in charming the remaining audience and indeed the viewer with what has developed into a jolly romp. I certainly recommend this movie unconditionally.

As for the oldie above, a chance e-mail took us to the Regent Street Cinema to see this film. What we did not know in advance is that Wednesday afternoons there are devoted to viewings for senior citizens at a knock-down cost (£1.75) and the cinema was jammed. I had certainly seen the film previously long, long ago, but I had forgotten how truly awful it is. In what seems a nearly interminable two hours Goldwyn puts together a miscellany of diverse 'talents' (and I use the word loosely) to pad out the clich├ęd story of producer Adolphe Menjou striving to reach a renewed audience with movies they can relate to. He drafts in 'hick' Andrea Leeds whom he names 'Miss Humanity' to advise what will and what won't appeal to the mass audience. For example, her advice causes a ballet (!) of "Romeo and Juliet" to forego its regular tragic ending for a happier one.

The featured 'talent' includes German ballerina Vera Zorina pretending to be Russian, Metropolitan Opera star Helen Jepsen giving us endless arias from "La Traviata", a very unfunny Phil Baker (a radio personality of the day), tenor Kenny Baker (the poor man's Dick Powell), ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wise-cracking dummy Charlie McCarthy -- Bergen was a popular radio performer but his lips move on screen, and the Ritz Brothers with some largely unfunny routines (apart from their rendition of 'Here Pussy Pussy' which I had extracted to my 'bits' collection those many moons ago) . 

It's really a hodge-podge despite Goldwyn's apparently spending a fortune to obtain some quality. The ballets are by Balanchine and the music is by George Gershwin, who was working on the score when he died aged 38. It includes such classics as "Love Walked In" and "Our Love is Here to Stay", largely massacred by Baker's out-of-date (even then) singing style. It's not surprising that the film was a flop on release and it has not grown is stature, despite its eye-watering Technicolor -- one of the first musicals to sport this new invention. It truly is a 'Goldwyn Folly'.


Friday, 21 October 2016

The Last Three (and a half)

And so another London Film Festival winds to a close -- and I was a little more enthusiastic about our final three choices.

First up was "Lost in Paris" from the unmistakeably eccentric duo of Dominique Abel and the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, who wrote, directed, and starred in this eccentric tale. I first discovered them at the Festival five years ago when I was charmed by their film "The Fairy" and I made a point of searching out their earlier and equally delightful collaborations. Here Fiona plays a gawky Canadian tripper who manages on her first day in Paris to lose her backpack, money, and passport; these are found by the homeless Dom who dresses in one of her sweaters and takes himself to the fanciest restaurant he can find. Their paths cross and situations develop enabling them to demonstrate their elastic-jointed flexibility and quirky child-like chemistry. The addition of rather more dialogue than before does not distract from their visual comedy so reminiscent of silent cinema. The big surprise here, however, is their co-star, the 89-year old Emmanuelle Riva, playing Fiona's dotty aunt. Who would have believed that the star of "Hiroshima mon Amour" (1959) and more recently the tear-jerker "Amour" (2012) could have such a ball playing farce.

We're always game to view silent movies which we've not seen previously, so we booked tickets for "A Woman of the World" (1925), a showcase for the great silent diva Pola Negri. The showing was preceded by a recently restored 1926 short "What's the World Coming to?" which is the 'half' of this week's title. It's set 100 years in the future from that date, i.e. ten years from now when women and men have reversed their roles with the former being fierce and fearless adventurers and the latter helpless, blushing grooms. Michael thought it stupid, but I found this role-reversal comedy pleasing enough and mercifully sufficiently brief. Mind you, today's feminists would have a stroke to think that men might morph into a gender that they refuse to accept for themselves -- weak, silly, fashion-conscious, and vain.

As for the main feature, Negri plays a countess who discovers her lover (she has just had his family crest tattooed onto her arm) is unfaithful and she moves from the sophistication of the Riviera to her cousin's home in Maple Valley, Iowa. Said cousin is played by the silent clown Chester Conklin, whose goofy antics are a little out of place in this vaguely serious drama. The countess's worldliness (to say nothing of her tattoo) both awe and flabbergast the small-town busybodies, who think nothing of paying 25 cents each at the local fund-raiser to 'talk to a countess'! She is romantically pursued by an infatuated youngster Charles Emmett Mack (who tragically died in 1927) and the town's moral guardian Holmes Herbert, an actor with a long but relatively undistinguished career from 1915 to 1952. Despite resisting temptation he fails to drive her from Maple Valley and falls hopelessly for her charms. I stress the word 'charms' since despite her ability to fill the screen, Negri was never one of the great silent beauties. I'm glad I saw this programme, but neither of the two films were that wonderful.

Our last choice was "On the Milky Road" from the Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica, who not only wrote this epic three-part story, but also directs it and takes the lead role. Starting during the region's civil wars when his character Kosta rides his donkey to deliver milk across enemy lines, it moves to the period after the armistice when he falls in love with an outlaw, the still-gorgeous Monica Bellucci. Their love is doomed since the couple are relentlessly pursued by remorseless mercenaries who do not hesitate to slay all and sundry in their search. In the final section Kosta has become a monk constructing a never-ending monumental pattern of rocks in his great love's memory. The movie is a consummate mix of the realistic horrors of war together with more magical realism, elements of folk myths, and enchanting animal imagery -- a faithful falcon, a milk-loving snake, and a bear. In other words it's all very typical and satisfying Kusturican cinema. 

Next up over the next few weeks, a pair of movies from the first London East Asia Film Festival and our regular Korean Film Festival selections.      

Friday, 14 October 2016

Four from the Fest

We've now seen four more of our London Film Festival selections, leaving the remaining three to be viewed over the coming weekend. I must confess that I am a little disappointed so far, so let's have a look at this week's festival movies.

First up last Saturday morning at 10.30 am was the Venice Film Festival hit "La La Land", a modern musical from director Damien Chazelle -- a long-cherished project made possible by the success of his first feature "Whiplash" (2014). It just happened to be my birthday as well and I thought, 'Great! The perfect start to the day'. The film has been hyped to the skies and was even introduced by the Festival director as 'the best 10.30 am of your lives', or words to that effect, so I was expecting something truly remarkable.

Well the rest of the audience seemed very happy with the movie and it is receiving rave reviews on IMDb; I found it jolly enough viewing but not a great film. It struck me as being very derivative in part from so many other musicals and the original score from Justin Hurwitz is by definition an unknown quantity and not terribly catchy. In a way Chazelle might have done better with more familiar classic tunes a la Woody Allen. The personable leads, Emma Stone as a wannabe actress and Ryan Gosling as a wannabe jazz pianist are pleasant enough and have reasonable chemistry, but neither are strong singers nor graceful hoofers. They do try hard and the end result is not without some charm, but it hardly leaves one 'breathless' as promised.

The story starts as the usual boy hates girl, boy comes to love girl, boy loses girl, but not the expected happy-ever-after of boy gets girl. Towards the end we are presented with a scenario of what might have been, but this is not how the movie actually finishes. Realism is fine, but fantasy happy endings are what we've come to expect from most musicals, unless you're looking at Shakespearian tragedies morphed into the musical genre like "West Side Story". This is not the feel-good movie that one might have wished or as it is being promoted.

Well, I have spent far too long on the above film, so I will rush through the remaining three. Christopher Guest can always be relied upon to provide amusing tongue-in-cheek mockumentaries and his latest "Mascots" is no exception, even if it is not quite in the same league as his very best. Here he looks at those costumed animals and whatevers who prance about during major (and minor) sports fixtures. We're privy to a competition where the best of them are vying for the bronze, silver, and gold Fluffy. Most of Guest's regular stock company are present and correct, although I do miss Catherine O'Hara, but few of them are given much to do apart from the ever-fragrant Parker Posey. He fills in the movie with a number of new faces from American and British TV, most of whom I don't know, but they all manage amusing turns with the possible exception of Chris O'Dowd. Still it's always lovely to see Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr, Bob Balaban, and the rest of Guest's crazy gang. However this movie is unlikely to reach your local multiplex as it has been made for Netflix and has now debuted on their service. How the world changes!

The remaining two movies will get even shorter reviews. "Interchange" hails from Malaysia and is an exotic tale of how an ancient curse from Borneo 100-odd years ago came to create a series of vampirish killings today. Very stylishly photographed with a foreboding atmosphere and great special effects of a man morphing into a bird, it probably would help if one was more familiar with the anthropological background to the story, but the intriguing film does not outstay its welcome. The same can't be said for the Korean film "The Wailing" which starts off as a straightforward policier but rapidly becomes a supernatural horror with the cop's daughter's possession by an evil spirit, an orgiastic shaman, a strange Jap who may be the devil, and a lurking woman in white. However at 156 minutes the movie manages to lose its way and become a muddled mess of occult mysticism. I'm none the wiser.   

Friday, 7 October 2016

Miss Peregrine and French Cinema

I did say I would begin reviewing London Film Festival movies today (of which I've only seen one so far), but I would be derelict in my duty if I did not comment on "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" (2016), the new release from that very individual director Tim Burton. Even with eight sets of tickets for the LFF in hand, I was still tempted to view Burton's latest treat earlier this week.

Now as luck would have it, I have actually read the 'young adult' novel (the first of a trilogy) by Ransom Riggs on which the movie is based. In a way I wish I hadn't, as the film departs wildly from the book, especially in its last third and denouement. Despite being full of Burton's trademark visual niceties, the screenplay by Brit Jane Goldman has been over-Hollywoodised to provide a slam-bang finale. The action remains in Britain, largely on an island off the Welsh coast, and the cast is also mainly non-American apart from a smallish part for Alison Janney and the film's arch-villain Samuel L Jackson, whose role has been overly beefed up to provide him with an opportunity for over-the-top make-up and histrionics.

After the death of his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), troubled young Jake (Asa Butterfield) yearns to visit the children's home in Wales where Abe spent his youth, tales of which have haunted Jake's childhood, together with a series of weird old photos. His psychiatrist encourages Dad Chris O'Dowd (thankfully more restrained than usual) to travel to the island with Jake, only for them to discover that the home was destroyed by enemy bombing in 1943 and that all of its inhabitants perished. This is where the magic of the narrative kicks in, since all of them, led by their governess Eva Green, have entered a time loop, enabling them to relive that day over and over. And a weird collection they are: from the bird-like Miss Peregrine (a strong turn from Green) through the lass with the lead shoes to prevent her floating away, the super-strong toddler, the girl with a mouth and another set of teeth at the back of her head, the masked twins, and many more, straight out of the sepia photographs. Jake begins to wonder what peculiarities his grandpa and he himself might have to fit in with this unusual bunch, but we learn this as the tale unfolds. Rupert Everett and Judi Dench (as Miss Avocet) also make brief appearances.

Burton provides us with many visual wonders throughout and with magical images that will long remain with the viewer, however I do wish the ending had been a little more faithful to the novel. Those who come new to the material may well appreciate all of the movie's CGI fireworks, but I do feel that a little less would have provided a more memorable and less confusing storyline. Butterfield, now a gangly teenager after his memorable turn in Scorsese's "Hugo", suggests a young Tim Burton avid to understand the wonders of this strange world, but the character in the film who is probably most Burton-like is the mutant lad who can fix a jeweller's loupe in his eye and project his vivid dreams. That's the director in a nutshell.

Back to the Film Festival and the 190-minute (!) "A Journey through French Cinema" from the respected director Bertrand Tavernier. This was a fascinating voyage across French films from the l930s to the early 1970s, with the emphasis on those directors, composers, and actors who had the most impact on Tavernier himself. It does not set out to be a detailed history of the period, but rather an idiosyncratic look at his personal favourites, both the famous and the little-known, with a great selection of clips and a straight-to-the-camera narrative; he does not try to play down his dislikes while extolling his heroes, nor does he try to whitewash reputations (Renoir at the start of the Occupation being an interesting case in point).

Tavernier concentrates on the period before he started directing films himself and provides many insights into the work and thinking of directors Becker, Melville, Sautet, and Chabrol, actors Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Eddie Constantine, and Belmondo, and many more stalwarts of French cinema history, with an interesting sidebar on composers. The film successfully encouraged this viewer to want to re-watch  some of the movies that I know but have not seen for a long time and to search out those rarities which remain unknown. I just wish Tavernier could have accomplished this feat in well under the three-hour mark -- it's a long time to sit in what are unfortunately the very uncomfortable seats at the National Film Theatre!