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Friday, 26 May 2017

The Homesman (2014)

The viewer is readily suckered into the impression that this is a Hilary Swank movie showcase. She plays strong frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough cookie who can match any man, but who knows she is aging and secretly yearns for a husband and family. Her desperate proposal to a would-be candidate is roundly rejected, despite her relative wealth, since she is plain as the proverbial pikestaff. She believably rounds out the role.

When three local women lose their marbles for various reasons, leaving their families unable to cope, Mary Bee 'wins' the draw to drive them back east to Iowa, across the Missouri, where they can receive the necessary care. She seems every bit as competent -- if not more so -- than the weak-willed men who should have undertaken this five-week traipse across the prairie. However she realises that a man's help could be useful, and she enlists the services of wastrel and general chancer Tommy Lee Jones, who has been left to hang by vengeful locals -- not that they actually hanged him, but left him sitting on his restless horse with one end of the rope attached to the tree above. Mary Bee agrees to cut him loose and to pay him 300 dollars at the end of the trek if he in turn swears to help her look after her three crazy charges.

The madwomen are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter and prove more than a handful for their mismatched minders. Swank and Jones gradually develop a modus operandi and a grudging respect for each other, despite his history of running away from any challenge when the going got tough (the army, a marriage) and her revealing her buried softer side. (Incidentally, he too dismisses a tentative marriage proposal). Then two-thirds through the film Swank's Mary Bee is unexpectedly and shockingly written out of the script and it becomes, what it was probably intended to be all along, a starring showcase for Tommy Lee, who directed the movie (his second directorial outing) and who co-wrote and co-produced. His usual curmudgeonly character is given top billing in a movie that Clint Eastwood would have been proud of, less a classic Western, more a character-driven road movie through the early pioneering days.

With Mary Bee out of the frame and having found the promised $300, Tommy Lee's first thought is to abandon his mad charges, but they chase after him and he perseveres through many hardships to get them back 'east'. Chuffed by his unexpected success and gradually accepting what a fine woman Mary Bee was, the viewer fully expects him to emerge as a reformed character. However, contrary to all expectations, he regresses -- sadly in this case -- to the feckless ne'er do well he has always been. What has been an occasionally humorous journey reveals itself to be an actual tragedy in the end moments.

One shouldn't have too many high expectations at seeing Meryl Streep's name in the 'and' role in the front credits. Hers is a brief cameo as the holier-than-thou Reverend's wife with whom the three mad ladies are deposited (a role than any middle-aged actress could have played, but no doubt agree to because of the casting of her daughter Gummer). In fact the movie is full of second-rank well-known actors: Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld., who each have a few minutes to strut the stage. The truth is that this is the Swank-Jones Show with the final emphasis very much on Jones. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

I nearly didn't watch this extraordinary documentary -- seven and a half hours shown over five nights -- thinking can I really be bothered watching a story that has been newsworthy for decades. However since the film has been widely hailed as a masterpiece, "the ultimate documentary", I thought I should give it a go. It was well worth the effort, as compulsive viewing as the best thrillers, even if it was nearly impossible to emerge from the experience with any doubts regarding that fateful night when O.J.'s abused, white wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered.

Film-maker Ezra Edelman has taken the time to examine the background of his subject in detail and has called upon both archive footage and current interviews with dozens of the dramatis personae. Little in the end is left to the imagination and the viewer knows all he needs know to make up his own mind. What we have is akin to a modern Greek tragedy, a potentially great hero undone by his hubris and falling in the end to unimagined depths. There is little doubt that Simpson was an icon to many as a sporting superman, turning his fame into riches through sponsorship, personal appearances, and movie roles. He seemed charming, kind and infallible, with a life that could only continue to move happily forward -- but personality flaws became his downfall.

At the height of his fame his endless ego and self-confidence created a sense of invulnerability and untouchability. When invited to add his weight to the civil rights movement, he declined, announcing that his fame and status were nothing whatsoever to do with his racial identity. He was O.J. -- the Juice -- deserving of his celebrity status. However when he was arrested for murder, after a day-long, knuckle-chewing flight, staged for his ever-growing flock of supporters, his identity as a black man became paramount to his defence team of high-powered lawyers. Having been warned by the (it would seem) easily-led presiding judge, who no doubt was considering his own future, not to play the 'race card', this is precisely what they did; they even invited the largely black jury into Simpson's home, replacing the many photos of him with white celebrities with more appropriate black ones. Eventually the long, long trial became an indictment of the city of Los Angeles, its historically racist police department, and one purportedly racist cop who could have planted evidence. They were on trial, not the defendant whom the incontrovertible evidence alone should have convicted. His lawyers turned the courtroom into a media circus, making the prosecutors look inept, as they defended the wealthy man who could afford the legal costs of some $50,000 a day.

In the end the jury, after only a few hours deliberation, acquitted Simpson of murder to the jubilation of the black community. To them this was payback for the Rodney King affair and a thousand other indignities. They didn't give a damn if he was guilty or not; all that mattered is that a black man won a long overdue victory. To the white community, O.J. was a man who got away with murder. The division was wider than ever! A civil suit by the Goldmans resulted in a 'guilty' verdict with an order for him to pay 33 million in damages, and his life became a spiral into deceit and decadence thereafter. He could still put on the smiling charm when it suited him to do so, but the days when he was an infallible hero, to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, were long gone.

Currently he is serving a 33-year jail sentence on charges of robbery, kidnap, and threat of violence which frankly seems like overkill on the part of the sentencing Las Vegas judge. Whatever his flaws this 'poetic justice' is probably uncalled for and ridiculously punitive.. I suspect that many people now feel sorry for him, a sorrow that a golden life could end in such ignominy. There is probably little further drama to emerge from this very sad tale that has absorbed the public for the best part of fifty years and which Edelman has so brilliantly chronicled.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Nightcrawler (2014)

I am more than a little mystified as to why this movie has as high a rating on IMDb as it does: 7.9/, when so few films break the 8/- barrier on users' votes. Myself, I would be hard-pressed to grant it even a 7/- despite it being well-made, photographed, and acted. The problem is that although the movie holds the viewer's attention, it is unrelentingly and irredeemably nasty, leaving a bitter taste by the film's end.

I can not agree as some argue that it is a scathing satire, since I suspect it is remarkably true to reality. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an immoral petty thief anxious to make his mark in the world. His 'lightbulb' moment arrives when he sees news cameramen at a crash site, videoing all the gory details amongst the gawkers. It seems that there is a profitable television audience for such footage. So Louis hocks his racing bike ("I rode it to win the Tour of Mexico" he claims) in exchange for a video camera and a police-frequency short wave radio. Now armed he can join the horde of gore-seekers who trawl the night streets in search of the latest bit of sensational slaughter with which to titillate the public.

Bloom finds an eager ally in Rene Russo, the news editor for a second-tier local television channel who is willing to pay good money for the latest scoop. Now in her sixties, she's still well preserved, but there is something very creepy about Bloom's making sexual overtures in her direction. "I'm twice your age", she protests; and while this is not quite accurate, it could be, with Gyllenhaal playing younger than his actual age. For this role he has lost weight, leaving him looking sallow, wasted and totally untrustworthy.

As he becomes more successful in getting to crime scenes first, he becomes more and more megalomaniacal, starring as the hero in his own make-believe world. He's driven, money-hungry, and not adverse to breaking the law in pursuit of unpalatable footage. He's a latter-day Weegee, with no redeeming qualities. He even withholds information which would lead the police to a pair of murderers in the hope of being there to record their capture in a dramatically satisfying scenario. He is without morals, seeing himself as invincible, and happy to sacrifice his underpaid assistant, Riz Ahmed, among the slaughtered.

Ahmed, an ethnic British hip-hop artist and actor in minor crime flicks, has made a surprising break-out in the U.S. market, with recent roles in "Jason Bourne" and "Rogue One", as well as the well-received mini-series "The Night of". Here he plays Bloom's naïve, but willing sidekick, paid a pittance, but promised great things by his manipulative boss. His puppy-like character really throws a spotlight on just how despicable a human being Bloom's 'nightcrawler' is. There is no comeuppance!

It's the perfect title for this movie. Bloom, in his relentless manipulation of truth and decency, comes across as some sort of creepy-crawly worm or snake that one would be advised to crush under one's heel.   

Friday, 5 May 2017

Carol (2015)

This movie may have been nominated for six Academy Awards -- none of which it won, but I must confess I didn't much like it. Thinking about this I remembered that I didn't reckon Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning turn in "Blue Jasmine", one of the seven Oscar nominations she's received, including one for the above film. and I think my main problem is with the actress herself.

She won best supporting actress for "The Aviator" which was an ever-so brief impersonation of Katherine Hepburn (big deal) and was also nominated for her two "Elizabeth" films, "Notes on Scandal", and "I'm not There".  I wasn't taken with any of these performances. I would not dream of questioning her acting chops which verge on the formidable, but I find her characterizations cold and bloodless. Like her Hepburn turn she comes across as impersonating the characters she plays, rather than inhabiting them. There's a kind of 'look-at-me' show-off feel to all of them. Even her Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies remains lifeless. I wish I knew what all the fuss is about.

In this movie she plays a bored, rich wife on the edge of divorce who takes up with shop-girl Rooney Mara (also Oscar-nominated, but for best supporting actress, although her role is on a par with Blanchett's). A full-blooded lesbian affair develops, and one suspects that part of the reason the pair both received nominations was for one 'brave' and fairly graphic lesbian scene; however this was in no way as erotic as some of the action in "The Handmaiden" which I reviewed last week. The chemistry between the two main characters never felt quite convincing, with Blanchett's Carol just looking for an escape from the nasty details of her pending divorce and Rooney's Therese letting herself drift into a new experience -- something of an exit from her humdrum existence. That deeper feelings developed from this in both of them remains a little unconvincing.

The only other female character, Carol's best friend Sarah Paulsen with whom she indeed had a lesbian relationship previously, is somewhat underplayed and all of the male characters are largely ciphers. Kyle Chandler plays Carol's husband as a vindictive drunk eager to get full custody of their child on a morals clause. The daughter in question is something of a red herring and Carol's professed love for the child never rings completely true; she wants joint custody but not at the expense of her own whims.

Of rather greater interest than the movie is the backstory of the novel on which it is based. Respected novelist Patricia Highsmith was advised by her publishes that a lesbian love-story, purportedly semi-autobiographical, would be career suicide, so "The Price of Salt" was published in 1952 under a pseudonym. It then fell out of print until the 80s when a Sapphic publishing house offered Highsmith one sum to re-publish under the real author's name or a lesser sum to re-publish it under the previous pen-name. It did not then appear as a Highsmith novel, now renamed "Carol" until 1990, towards the end of the author's life.

The 50's atmosphere is nicely invoked through the film's nominated set design and costuming, but the story could have played out just as well in another period. It's interesting that there was no Oscar nomination for director Todd Haynes, who rather more movingly directed Julianne Moore in another period forbidden love affair, 2002's "Far From Heaven". He may be a virtuoso woman's director, but "Carol" is the less involving of the two films.

Although the viewer is left hanging at the end of this film, it is pretty clear that the two main characters will find some kind of future together. Interestingly enough "The Price of Salt" is the only Highsmith work with a relatively happy ending -- one that the author might have wished for herself at the time in her disguise as the Therese character.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook is a fascinating director -- not exactly prolific but endlessly inventive. I've not seen all of this Korean auteur's films but I'm particularly fond of his 'Vengeance Trilogy': Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) -- his best-known flick, and "Lady Vengeance" (2005). I didn't much care for his quirky "I'm a Cyborg" (2006) nor his foray into English-language film-making with 2013's "Stoker" (something of a misstep I felt without the exoticism of his usual Korean cast). However, "Thirst" (2009) offered an interesting oriental slant on vampirism and he is back on top form with his latest film above.

He has taken the English novel "Fingersmith" and transported the action from turn-of-the-century England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, when mores and attitudes were still firmly 'Victorian'. This very long film is divided into three chapters, each largely (but not entirely) from the perspective of the three main characters. However this is not a latter-day "Rashomon" where we must guess which version is the real truth, but rather a gradual unveiling of a single truth. While we remain transfixed by the aesthetic opulence on display in the film's beautifully-crafted set decoration, make-up, and costuming, we don't immediately realise how we are being 'played' by the different storytellers. We do not know until the very end what or whom to believe.

Ex-pickpocket Sook-Hee is installed as the new personal maid-servant to Japanese-born heiress Lady Hideko on the recommendation of one 'Count' Fujiwara (actually a low-born Korean swindler who is scheming to take control of her fortune). To this end his competition is her elderly Uncle Kouzuki, who also covets his ward. He has kept Hideko isolated on his vast country estate, only letting her surface to read passages from his famous collection of erotica to a lusting audience. He has so far financed his lifestyle by selling the occasional rare book, except he can't bear to be separated from any part of his library and has used Fujiwara to prepare clever forgeries.

The 'Count' wants Sook-Hee to wage a war of attrition, promoting his rare qualities to the naïve and trusting Hideko. However a teasing and lustful intimacy soon develops between the two women, as the handmaiden indoctrinates the heiress into the ways of sexual love -- such as a man might expect. Fujiwara's fiendish plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, and have her confined to a madhouse, leaving him to enjoy the fruits of his wickedness, and having promised Sook-hee a relative pittance for helping him. To escape the unwanted attentions of her Uncle, Hideko eventually agrees to run away with him -- but only if Soon-hee can come as well. However the first chapter ends with the pair depositing the now well-dressed maid at the Dickensian loony-bin pretending that she is in fact the 'mad' Hideko. 

With chapters two and three we continue to gather previously unknown and withheld information about this trio and their interrelationship, leaving us to discover what secret game each of them is playing. At a bum-numbing 145 minutes the film manages to hold the viewer's attention with only minor gaps. One remains hypnotised not just by the gorgeous visuals but for a genuine desire to understand these complicated characters and to discover which of them will receive their just desserts. The true story emerges with Hitchcockian suspense while we are invited meanwhile to wallow in its depravity and raw sex.

It's a masterpiece of film-making which Park might never better, but he probably still has many years ahead of him and may well have further treats in store for us. I do hope so!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Paradise Alley (1962)

My love affair with the Showcase Channel is beginning to fade as they seem to have a limited number of movies in their repertoire, which they keep repeating, and the screenings are interrupted willy-nilly by ads with depressing frequency. However I still have a backlog to get through and hope that some new offerings might surface, so I'm enjoying the channel -- for now. This week I watched a selection of what I can only call French farces -- not quite up to the level of God coming down to earth -- but with some modest entertainment value. First up was "Proper Attire Required" (1997) where a pauper who has wrecked a taxi-driver's Audi is mistakenly supposed to be the feared expected Audi-tor by some corrupt hotel managers, who wine and dine him in error. It was all rather sweet but silly, especially since the script failed to wrap up the fate of some country bumpkins who were trapped in the meat locker and who have probably frozen to death by now.

Even more minor was "Love Vertigo" (2001) where a potential groom develops wedding jitters and envisions various scenarios before the bride backs out of marrying him. The main point of interest was his clandestine love interest played by Julie Gayet, who now sixteen years on has become M. Hollande's paramour. The short movie "Versailles Rive-Gauche" (1992) was also mildly amusing as everyman-schmo Denis Podalydes strives to impress the young lady who has come to dinner, while his mini flat is increasingly invaded by an assortment of family, friends, drunks, and a five-piece band who have lost their rehearsal space.

But on to the above-captioned film which is not to be confused with the later Stallone vehicle of the same title. This is a fascinating little poverty row movie which probably deserves cult status, if only it was not so difficult to access a copy. It was written, directed, and produced by Hugo Haas, who also takes the lead role -- so 'vanity project' doesn't begin to cover it. Haas was a popular Czech film star in the 1930s, but forced to emigrate with the Nazi invasion. He started small in America doing voice-overs in propaganda films and moved on to character parts after the war. When he had earned sufficient dollars, he began churning out his own B-movie potboilers, usually sensationalistic in feel, casting himself in "Blue Angel" scenarios of the older intelligent man who is besotted with a young hussy.

In this his last film -- actually shot in 1958 but not released until 1961/62 -- he changes pace by playing a down-on-his-luck 'actor' who takes lodging in a seedy boarding house in the condemned area of the title. It turns out however that he was once a famed director of classic films, Karl von Stallburg, who was committed to a sanatorium by greedy relatives. On his release, he lands in this quasi-slum where he is horrified by bickering neighbours and would-be juvenile delinquents. By chance one of the lonely residents is a veteran cameraman, played by silent comic Chester Conklin, who has kept his (non-working) camera as a memento, along with other movie memorabilia. Between them they concoct a plan to shoot a documentary in the Alley, provisionally entitled "The Chosen and the Condemned" -- only without any film in the camera. They see this as a means of healing the neighbourhood since of course EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES!

The film is mainly notable for its cast of old-timers which include Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), Billy Gilbert (known for his sneezing routines and a classic comic foil), Marie Windsor (still a sexpot in her forties), Corinne Griffith (a star of the silent screen), and other even more minor players. Unfortunately the love interest young leads are taken by Don Sullivan (whose two previous roles were in "The Giant Gila Monster" and "Teenage Zombies") and Carol Morris who is credited as "Miss Universe" (Lord knows when!) Despite this mishmash of players the story develops nicely with the enthusiasm of the local residents, eager to shine in this make-believe film. It even manages to heal the ongoing spat between Hamilton and Gilbert when she is cast as a disguised Russian countess whose hand he must kiss. When they finally 'shoot' this scene, it turns out that she has soaked her hand in vinegar, to the general amusement of all.

Since this strange fable is really a sort of fairy tale, some studio bigwigs get wind of the wheeze and offer to finance making the movie a reality, agreeing to put all of these would-be actors on their payroll. Yeah, yeah, yeah! 

Haas is a largely forgotten figure in Hollywood history, but he deserves to be remembered, if only for this unusual swan song.  

Friday, 14 April 2017

Showcase on European Cinema

I am ever on the lookout for new sources for watching relatively obscure foreign-language movies, but every time I find an unheralded satellite channel with imaginative schedules, the channel in question seems to be doomed -- i.e. insufficient viewers to attract the necessary advertisers to support it. The subscription channel CineMoi was a sad instance of this, disappearing up its own whatsit within a year -- and there were earlier instances too.

Therefore I was completely charmed to discover that the hitherto boring channel Showtime now screens what they label "Eurocinema" between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. daily with an hour out for some weird Chinese programme. I discovered this recently when the ShowBiz Channel (showing the occasional film programme of interest) went suddenly out of business -- literally a case of here today and gone tomorrow.  Since there are an inordinate number of minor satellite channels whose listings are considered too obscure to be included in any of the standard newspaper or magazine programme listings, I have made a point once a week to check out the forward schedules on various channels (Talking Pictures, Movies 24, True Movies etc.) on my DigiGuide for which I pay an annual subscription.

With Showbiz disappearing I noticed that I had not checked Showtime for a while since most of their film offerings were in "The Attack of the Giant Leeches" or "I was a Teenaged Caveman" category. So when I checked that channel a few weeks back, I made the happy discovery outlined above. I have no idea when they started this European strand (or how long I've been missing out on it) nor how long it will last given past disappointments. So I am recording as many movies that I've not seen previously to my hard disc and hope to get through these before yet another channel bites the dust.

It's an interesting assortment of films, many of which I've not heard of previously, so I'm looking forward to some happy viewing while this source lasts. So far I've watched the Russian flick "Taxi Blues" (1990) which has been on my 'would like to see' list for a while (I didn't actually reckon it much in the end although it is well thought of) and several very strange short films. However the pick of the bunch so far has been "Let There be Light" (1998) a charming, French fantasy film from director Arthur Joffe, whose filmography is otherwise short and fairly undistinguished.

It seems that God has written a screenplay (as thick as a Bible) and wants to go down to earth to have it filmed. Since the Almighty is invisible, he needs to assume a corporeal presence and moves from body to body (including a cat and a pigeon) as the mood takes him; we can tell where he is at any moment since the host body develops a noticeable eye twitch. In fact his shape-shifting is so volatile that it is hard to keep tract and a number of familiar French faces such as Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale have cameos so brief that they literally pass in the blink of an eye. This taking over of unsuspecting bodies reminded me strongly of the cult horror movie "The Hidden" (1987), but with a very different agenda. God is accompanied throughout by his assistant and sidekick angel played by Ticky Holgado who bemoans that he has not yet received some fully functional wings and who improvises makeshift ones throughout.

Eventually God finds would-be filmmaker Jeanne winningly played by Helene de Fougerolles (another new name to me) who eventually manages to shoot his script despite studio interference from Tcheky Karyo, who is in fact playing the Devil. God is particularly keen on this namesake of Joan of Arc on whom he 'had a crush' and whose fate he has been regretting for centuries. When the finished film is finally screened the audience members are completely charmed since what they are viewing is exactly what each of them would most wish to see in a movie, which of course is different for everyone. Even Karyo can not restrain his laughter and they all go soaring off into the sky, just like the final scene in "Miracle in Milan" (1951). It's a strange but ultimately satisfying film that could only have been made in France. I shudder to think what a U.S remake might be like.

I've also discovered that Showcase has a sister channel, Showcase 3, which is still largely screening B-movies although occasional cult movies like "Beat the Devil" (1953) and "The Great Flamarion" (1945) can be found in their schedules. To my amazement, last week that channel screened "The End of St Petersburg" (1927) which ran 20 minutes longer than my own copy and which also boasted a fine orchestral score -- my previous copy was really a 'silent' movie.

I'll keep my fingers crossed for Showcase. Long may it wave!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

It's been a while since I was keen on anime based on Japanese manga. My initial enthusiasm for the likes of "Akira" (1988) and "Legend of the Overfiend" (1989) waned sharply and by the time I got around to watching the 1995 anime of the above movie I had just about lost interest. Therefore I can not join the legion of fanboys who claim that this new movie is a complete betrayal of that mind-bending original.

Let's be honest, this Scarlett Johansson starrer is not a remake of the anime, but rather a dumbed down, or to be less pejorative,  a simplified take on the concepts of the original manga. Johansson plays a hybrid human-android warrior trained to fight against cyber-terrorism in a cityscape of the future -- an imaginatively designed amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and the L.A. of "Blade Runner". She is the invincible Major, a triumph of design by cyber-scientist Juliette Binoche -- a sexless feminine fighting machine or as the New York Times described her "a giant dream Barbie, hairless pubis and all". (One might note here that the same character in the anime had noticeably prominent nipples). The 'ghost' in her shell are her earlier human memories and her soul. The film's poser is 'what is it like to be human in a synthetic body?'

Her sidekick Batou is played by a beefed-up Pilou Asbaek, who like many of the city's denizens has some cyber enhancements, in his case upgraded eyeballs which I found rather disturbing. Johansson must have a soft spot for this Danish actor since he also had a small part in her recent "Lucy". The biggest name in the supporting cast however is the iconic Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano who plays the Major's aging controller. It's fascinating that all of his dialogue is in subtitled Japanese while everyone else speaks English, but I guess in a cyber-society everyone has the built-in facility for instantaneous translations. There are a few agreeable nods to his own penchant for stylish violence. For example when the big baddy sends his goons to try to assassinate him, he makes short work of them quipping that it is pointless to send rabbits to kill a fox. Otherwise the cast was filled out with little-known players -- but then again it is really Scarlett's show.

Directed by ad-man Rupert Sanders, whose previous film "Snow White and the Huntsman" was singularly underwhelming, he has produced along with a technical staff of thousands a feast of eye candy. With incredibly inventive cinematography and visuals one can predict the movie's winning a number of technical Oscars, but the film itself is far from coherent or thrilling. The nub of the story is that the Major was the first successful prototype after a slew of failures and the corporation behind her are really only interested in her kind as weapons of mass destruction. Johansson continues here with her action roles from the Marvel movies and her idiosyncratic sci-fi roles that began with "Lucy" and "Under the Skin". However, none of these movies do much to spotlight her acting chops.

Another hoo-hah has been that the role should have been given to an oriental actress rather than a dishy Caucasian. This complaint is a little idiotic since the heroines in manga anime seldom look remotely oriental. The writers have addressed the controversy by suggesting that Major's original 'ghost' was in fact Japanese and that she has had false memories implanted, but I doubt that this argument is sufficient to satisfy the nay-sayers.

All in all this was an enjoyable movie to watch largely because of the ravishing visuals. I think a neat little analogy lurks here. The 'ghost' of the first challenging film can be found in the 'shell' of this second simplified extravaganza. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Little Thief (1988)

The screenplay for the above film was co-written by Francois Truffaut who hoped to direct it as well, but died before he was able to do so, landing the script with the more pedestrian Claude Miller. One can see why it would have been a pet project for Truffaut since it is the distaff side of his famed "The 400 Blows" (1958). Instead of charting the history of a troubled and anti-social youth, the story here is of 16-year old Janine, brought winningly to life by 17-year old Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Set in the years shortly after the Second World War, Janine is a compulsive thief, cutting a lonely yet somehow sympathetic figure. Abandoned by her mother and unloved by the stern aunt with whom she lives, her only outlet is through the theft of articles that she hoards rather than desires and cash from the local church to fund her cinema obsession. Forced first from her school and then from her village, she lies to secure the position of maid in a grand house in a nearby town, escaping to the ready-made dreams of the local cinema on her days off. There she meets an older married man, Didier Bezace, 42 to her 16 and tries to entice him to deflower her. He is horrified at the suggestion that he should do this, so she quickly contrives to lose her virginity to a workman in the house and subsequently presents herself to Bezace as an experienced 'woman'. He no longer resists the temptation and a clandestine relationship ensues. Mind you, this is no 'Lolita' fantasy; she's far from a simpering innocent and knows exactly what she wants. In his favour he does his best to educate her in the ways of the world and enrols her in a secretarial course as a step up from domestic service. However she soon becomes enamoured of a young thief and casts her older lover adrift. 

Her new paramour is played by Simon de la Brosse a charismatic 23-year old who committed suicide a few years later. He encourages her to steal from the household where she's been working (much to the dismay of her mistress who has tried her best to befriend the girl), and off the pair go on the run until their romantic idyll ends with a police raid. He escapes capture but she ends up in a drab borstal overseen by a pack of stern nuns, dreaming of escape and reuniting with her lover. When she and a new friend manage to break out, there is no welcome for her anywhere, but armed with the camera her friend has given her she hopes for an independent and crime-free future. We in turn wish her well despite any lingering doubts.

The film verges on the plodding, as scene follows scene in unearthing her sorry progression, but Gainsbourg holds one's attention and saves the film from drowning in its own misery. She's a fascinating actress. Here she is an odd-looking but not unattractive teenager. As she grew older her looks became progressively strange, but were tempered by her growing prowess as an actress. There is no law that says lead actresses have to be raving beauties. She made her feature debut as a 13-year old and the above movie was her seventh. She won a Cesar in 1986 as most promising newcomer and went on to win a best actress award in Cannes in 2009. She relishes challenging roles -- one has only to look at the parts she has taken for Lars von Trier --and she has remained an intriguing player throughout her long and successful career.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Surprise of "The Surprise" (2015)

It's been a hectic weekend filled with enjoyable celebrations, delaying my regular Friday blog until today. Then there was the problem of deciding which movie to spotlight.

Usually if I go to the cinema to watch a film, whether repertory or modern release, that movie gets pride of place. However I note that an outing to the National Film Theatre at the start of the month got buried when I decided to review "Elle" instead. The movie in question was "Dernier Atout" (1942) from reliable director Jacques Becker. Folks, this Vichy-era potboiler was so forgettable that I needed to remind myself a few minutes ago what in fact it was about. And please don't ask me why we chose to book tickets for it in the first place. It's a contemporary crime melodrama set in a fictitious South American country, since of course there was no crime whatsoever in German-occupied France at the time. Pierre Renoir (son of the artist and older brother of the director) plays a slimy crook out to retrieve the fortune stolen from him by an erstwhile colleague. There's a murder and a lot of business over a string of pearls which may or may not be genuine. And since the senior policemen are all buffoons, the crime is investigated by a pair of new graduates from the police academy, assisted by their jolly mates. The only trouble is that they all looked as if they were pushing forty... Hugely forgettable.

I have written previously that not all foreign films are worth the effort of seeking them out, although fortunately many of them are; and it is a rule of Patty's thumb to watch as many foreign-language movies as possible in search of the occasional gem. Looking back at the other foreign films that I have seen since the beginning of March, it's very much the traditional parsons egg. From my film diary I can report that I have seen the Belgian flick "2 Days, One Night" a worthy effort from the Dardennes, starring Marion Cotillard trying to get her job back and her colleagues wanting to keep their bonus if she is laid off. Yawn! Then there was "The Cow and I", a French movie from 1959 starring the ever droll Fernandel as a prisoner of war in Germany trying to get back to France with a cow in tow as a disguise; quite sweet but sufficiently long that it became a shaggy-cow story. On Netflix I caught up with "The Clouds of Sils Maria" (2014) for which Kristen Stewart won a Cesar award -- why, I can't begin to imagine -- since she didn't even attempt to speak French in this French-made movie starring Juliette Binoche, and the film itself was really nothing special. I also finally saw "Ida" the Polish foreign film winner from a few years ago where a novice nun discovers that she is really Jewish...absorbing, but her flawed and dissolute aunt was the more interesting character, as they strove to discover what had become of her parents during the Holocaust.

I'm not done yet! I also watched "The Tale of Tsar Saltan", a colourful Russian animation from 1984 of the classic fairy tale (and I have the older live-action version languishing in my backlog of movies to view). And while strictly not a foreign film, since America-made and largely in English, the 2016 documentary "The Lovers and the Despot" tells a fascinating saga of the abduction of a famous South Korean actress and her director-husband to North Korea to create more kudos for dictator and film-buff Kim, with plenty of subtitled Korean talking heads.

As I have mentioned before Sky Cinema is currently gifting its subscribers a new foreign film premiere every Wednesday. This month I started watching but gave up on French flick "Summertime" (2015) with Cecille de France establishing her lesbian credentials during a 'summer of love' and "Game On" (2016) a largely sung Polish tale of a street artist forsaking her dreams to look after her family who are about to be evicted. It is meant to be cheery but it struck me as dreary. That's two movies whose ends will never be seen by yours truly.

"The Commune" (2016) is a watchable but ultimately depressing film about a rich, hipster couple who decide to turn their large villa into an experiment in living with other like-minded folk (who largely came across as a bunch of freeloaders). Everything is more or less hunky-dory until the husband decides that his mistress should move in as well.

Finally there was one more than pleasant surprise, a Dutch movie from 2015 actually called "The Surprise". Written and directed by Mike van Dien, it is his first feature film in eighteen years since his Oscar-winning "Character" (1997). It's an Wes Anderson-esque fable of a wealthy youngish man who feels he has nothing to live for when his overbearing but beloved mother dies. His own pathetic attempts at suicide having failed, he contacts a covert organisation that arranges a speedy dispatch for rich clients eager to shuck off the mortal coil. He chooses the option for his death to come when least expected, and returns to his sprawling fairy-tale estate to dismiss the servants and to await the end. However to his dismay and amazement he begins to fall in  love with a young lady he encountered in the coffin-choosing room, despite clients being forbidden to fraternize. He now wants to cancel the contracts on his beloved and himself, but that too is against the rules according to the company's head honcho, English actor Henry Goodman and his goon-like gang of sons. Goodman is the only player known to me in the otherwise Dutch cast, but they all are splendid, especially the rather moving sub-plot of the estate's old-faithful head gardener who yearns to join his recently deceased wife.  Despite the black subject matter, this movie is indeed a rather jolly and ultimately satisfying confection. Recommended.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Elle (2016)

This long and masterful film from provocateur Paul Verhoeven is totally absorbing, always shocking, never boring, thoroughly thought-provoking...but a hard movie to actually like. It's the first feature from the Dutch-born director since 2006's "Black Book", with only a 2012 short "Tricked" surfacing during this ten-year hiatus. Few would argue that Verhoeven is not an accomplished film-maker with a number of amazing movies dating back to the late 70s/early 80s, but I would guess that his controversial approach to his subject matter and the many (largely unfounded) accusations of misogyny make finding finance for his projects an uphill battle.

I understand that this movie was originally intended as a U.S. production, but a series of A-list actresses including Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, and Diane Lane took one look at the script and rapidly turned away. So eventually the project moved to Europe where a further selection of mature actresses didn't want to know. Enter Isabelle Huppert, long noted for her challenging and often sex-obsessed roles, working with directors such as Haneke and Chabrol, who had read the book on which the film is based and who actually sought out Verhoeven as the most suitable director. It is a match made in Heaven -- or possibly Hell.

She plays a middle-aged divorcee with a highly successful video games company, run jointly with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and a bottomless sexual appetite. We are introduced to her character in the movie's opening seconds when she is attacked at home by a masked intruder and brutally beaten and raped. The only witness is her smug cat, who silently watches as she tidies the mess of broken crockery, bathes, and calmly orders in some sushi. Reporting the atrocity to the police is not even a consideration and one begins to wonder whether she somehow perversely enjoyed this home invasion.

We soon learn that she is not a very pleasant person, disliked by most of her young techy staff, casually fornicating with Anna's husband, masturbating as she watches a dishy neighbour through spyglasses, losing patience with her dim-bulb son whose bossy girlfriend has just given birth to a baby that can't possibly be his (it's more than several shades too dark), and berating her botox-obsessed mother (veteran actress Judith Magre born 1926) who is planning to marry her sexy toyboy. Huppert's is a brave and bravura performance sprinkled with occasional nudity, hard to believe that the actress is 63. She's a very flawed heroine, but you can't take your eyes off of her nor stop wondering how the story will develop.

Halfway through we discover the gruesome facts of her family background, which might partially explain her own tightly-controlled behaviour. We also learn the identity of the masked intruder, but revenge is not what this film is about. She continues to plough her own path, albeit with the implication that a more rational and thoughtful persona is fighting to emerge, after a series of traumatic developments.

Some critics are saying that this movie is Verhoeven's masterpiece, his best-ever film, but I would not agree. I have a lot of time for "Black Book" which was actually in 2008 voted the best Dutch movie of all time by his countrymen and I am also fond of some of his very accomplished early films like "Soldier of Orange" and "The Fourth Man". No longer much of a Hollywood player despite a successful run of 90s movies, this is his first French production (a language in which he was not even previously fluent). The movie premiered at Cannes, not let it be said to universal acclaim, but it is brilliantly conceived, constructed, and acted. 

When I wrote about this year's Oscars I said that it was a shame that the nominated Huppert didn't win over the predictably likeable performance of Emma Stone in "La La Land". Having now seen "Elle", I can't say that I'm really surprised. With her no-holds barred performance Huppert does indeed out-act virtually any other actress, it's just that the character she plays is so very difficult to like and by association to honour.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

A long time ago we kept asking ourselves "What was the name of that 'nice' film we saw?" And we never did quite work out what movie we were thinking of. Well, here's another picture that falls into that category of niceness -- and I hope I will continue to remember it. Which is pretty good since I wasn't really aware of the film's existence before its recent showing on FilmFour . Since it is now some six years old, it's yet another flick that fell through the cracks without my realising it.

It's a delightful, good-natured flick which gives lightweight comic actor Paul Rudd a rare leading role -- long before he got his Ant-Man gig. He is not so much the 'idiot' of the title, but rather a simple soul, quite immune to the bullshit of the world -- naïve and trusting. On his release from jail, having been stitched up for selling weed to a uniformed cop (he was such a nice guy that he couldn't resist the cop's doleful pleading), he is at a loose end. He can't go back to his former girlfriend and her organic farm since she has replaced him in her affections with another gormless helper. Worse still she will not return his beloved pooch, Willie Nelson, despite never having liked the mutt in the first place.

He doesn't want to live with his mother, so it's up to his three sisters to find him a bunk and some work. The three are played by high-flying magazine writer Elizabeth Banks (looking remarkably like Parker Posey here), bisexual free spirit Zooey Deschanel, and yuppie Emily Mortimer who is in thrall to her horribly pretentious hubby played by the ever unlikeable Steve Coogan. While all three want to help poor Ned, they are not prepared for the disruption he will bring to their safe little lives. He won't lie for Banks to authorise a story she hopes to flog, where the info was given to him in confidence. He blurts out to Deschanel's girlfriend (Rashida Jones) that they are soon to be parents after his sister's quickie shag with a pompous artist. He 'corrupts' Mortimer and Coogan's cocooned son by introducing him to boyish pastimes and dooms their tenuous marriage by mentioning that Coogan conducts his interviews in the nude with the ballerina that he is documenting. All of this is revealed without malice, simple facts that he has observed.

When he tells his sympathetic parole office that he has inadvertently smoked a reefer, the helpful officer replies "I didn't hear you say that". So innocent little Neddy repeats it, landing himself back in jail for breaking parole. The family finally gather round their 'idiot brother' but he doesn't want to leave his simple comfy life in jail -- at least not until the three sisters liberate Willie Nelson giving Ned a new lease on life. We last see him living a happy, hippy existence out in the countryside, making candles with his ex's now-ex boyfriend, with good old Willie in earshot. In truth it is the three sisters who are idiots, who have not realised what a breath of fresh air and a treasure their brother really is -- he's just too good for our modern selfish world. This definitely is a 'nice' movie to remember.    

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Oscars 2017

Before I get on to the finale of this year's ceremony which made headlines around the world -- far more than the usual puff pieces and to the Academy's great dismay and embarrassment -- let me make a few comments on the ever-so-long self-congratulatory parade leading up to that classic fiasco.

For a start let's consider the new host, Jimmy Kimmel, who is more or less an unknown quantity in Britain. I reckon he did a reasonable job, far better than some of the hosting disasters of recent years. I'm thinking of the likes of Seth McFarland, James Franco/Anne Hathaway, and little Dougie Hauser. There weren't many foot-in-the-mouth moments in between some sharp jabs at the presidency and Hollywood itself. He came across as a 'please-please-like-me' kind of chap and kept the evening moving, despite some unnecessary bits of business like parachuting snacks from the ceiling (once would have been enough), his phony feud with Matt Damon, and waylaying some civilians off a tour-bus to ogle at the gathered celebs. Michael, being the cynic that I love, suggested that these sightseers were straight out of central casting.

As for the awards themselves, up to the final hoo-hah, there was little in the way of surprises. All of the acting Oscars went exactly where the pundits predicted, although some upsets might have been fun. Not that she stood a dewdrop's chance in hell of winning, but it would have been great if Isabelle Huppert had managed to dethrone Emma Stone as best actress. I have absolutely nothing whatsoever against Stone and have generally enjoyed her various performances, but as I have made clear ever since I saw "La La Land" last October, the film is undeserving of its hysterical hype. As is, it was the evening's biggest winner with six Oscars out of its record 14 nominations. Fortunately other films got a deserved 'look-in' in the writing, editing, sound editing and sound mixing, costume, and best actor categories. It's healthy to spread the love!

A highpoint of the evening was Viola Davis' acceptance speech (fortunately not drowned out by the Academy Orchestra) saying with regret that the place where the greatest potential is gathered is the graveyard -- a fine metaphor for her race's long struggle. Mind you the Academy did seem to bend over backwards this year to resolve last year's Oscars-so-white controversy -- and please don't yell at me if I suggest that not all of the nominations were really among the five best in their category. I'll say no more.

Finally to the evening's denouement which couldn't have been scripted in anyone's wildest dream. Septuagenarians Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were wheeled on to present the award for best picture; I am not suggesting for a moment that one or other of the pair is going gaga, but the debacle could have been better handled. Beatty was obviously aware that the card he'd been handed was incorrect and should probably have spoken up then. Instead he thrust it at Dunaway who in what must have been a 'senior moment' blurted out "La La Land". It took an unbelievable amount of time, during which three of that's film's producers managed to make thank-you speeches, for the mistake to be put right and for the "Moonlight" producers to take their rightful place on the stage. By then the shine had been taken off their victory. Beatty kept making excuses and Dunaway made herself very scarce. Hilarious in a way.

Anyhow I had my wish that "La La" not win best picture. I've not seen "Moonlight" yet but it sounds a deserving winner. Rather than honouring a film that looked back to glorify America's technicolour musical past, the Oscars have been dragged into the present with a gritty and timely movie -- and that can't be a bad thing. As for Kimmel promising not to return -- as if the evening's fiasco was somehow his fault and not a distracted accountant's busy posing for a selfie with Stone -- I for one would be happy to see him again. He just needs to improve his timekeeping.

   

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Chase (1946)

They're doing a Martin Scorsese season at the National Film Theatre and in what seems to be becoming a tradition with living directors, they asked him to curate some of his favourite films. This explains why the above little-seen and little-known dreamy film noir was programmed. Boasting a recently restored print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I can just about understand why it was one of Scorsese's selection; it is an interesting example of a B-movie noir, succeeding in maximising its small budget, but it is a little short of being a perfect gem foreshadowing David Lynch as the programme would have it.

Robert Cummings plays a down-on-his-luck ex-GI who is taken on as wealthy hoodlum's (Steve Cochran's) chauffeur when he returns the latter's lost wallet, in tact short of $1.50 which he has used to pay for a much-needed meal -- we are in 1946 remember. Cummings despite his two starring roles in Hitchcock movies is miles away here from his usual feather-light, happy-go-lucky leading man. Cochran, in one of his first leads, is too hairy and hunky to morph into the starring lead he later became before his early death, but he makes a fine, hissible villain as the heavy who wants to control everything, from business to his trophy wife (Michele Morgan) to even his chauffeur-driven limo with its dual controls that he can manipulate from the back seat. We know he's a bad egg when in his introductory scene we see him socking a manicurist whose hand has slipped and nicked his finger. His henchman Gino is wonderfully played by the ever-watchable Peter Lorre, who can portray nuances of emotion by the slightest twitch of his face, and the pair are formidable symbiotic rogues.

Morgan after her early successes in France went to Hollywood, not so much to escape the war but to capitalise on her reputation. Her first role there "Joan of Paris" was relatively well-received but she had already lost other career-making leads, such as Ilsa in "Casablanca" because of her poor English. When subsequent films tanked she went back to France where her career regenerated and she won the first best actress award at Cannes for 1948's "Pastoral Symphony". In "The Chase" she is little more than a stunning blonde given an assortment of flashy gowns to model. After a series of midnight drives where she stares longingly out to sea, she manages to persuade Cummings to run off to Cuba with her. On arrival in Havana their first evening takes a nightmarish turn, ending with her murder and his flight from the authorities.

So far so good until two-thirds the way through we discover that Havana 'was all a dream'. It seems that Cummings is a recovering shell-shocked veteran given to lapses of memory. However he knows he has promised to do something, somewhere that evening, and miraculously regains his sanity in time for a happy ending with Morgan -- the script in the meantime contriving to kill off any threat in a spectacular way. I think I agree with the contemporary review of the movie in Variety which describes the film 'taut as sprung steel' for most of its running time then 'slackening limply into the commonplace'.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel -- the writer was an endless font for classic film noirs --  the movie delivers his dark pessimistic view of the world with some style. However I wouldn't go as far as Guy Maddin, who lauded the picture as illustrating the extraordinary potential of film as dreams, a series of unconnected elements morphing into a wonderful whole.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Baftas (not) and some foreign treats

I really can't be arsed to write in any detail about this year's BAFTAs. They have become a B-movie version of the Oscars, trying to slavishly prophesy the probable winners to come. This comment is not just my deep-rooted fear of a "La La Land" landslide; but when the Brits begin nominating films that have not yet been released here -- case in point "Moonlight" which only hits the theatres this week -- a sorry state has been reached. This is probably why Dev Patel (the only British winner) was gifted best supporting actor, since no one here knows who the heck Mahershala Ali (the probable Academy winner) might be. As for the host (for the umpteenth time) Stephen Fry, I just can't put up with any more of his luvvie twittering. If he is such a 'national treasure' he should be stuffed and exhibited in the British Museum. Even the Fellowship award (usually bestowed on a British worthy) was given to Mel Brooks, who was wheeled on looking the worse for wear. Bah, humbug!

The week was not, however, without its pleasures -- largely in the form of three lovely foreign-language movies, none of which are going to win any awards. First up was "Our Little Sister", a gentle 2015 Japanese film, reminiscent of Ozu's family sagas. Three very different, but loving, grown-up sisters discover on the death of their estranged father that they have a young teenaged half-sister.. Since she has been left with no blood relatives, they encourage her to come to live with them. Hers is a happy transition and the sisters' love for their new sibling infuses further warmth into what potentially could have been a troubled household.  Nothing much happens but we too are left with a warm glow and affection for these well-rounded characters.

I found the Brazilian film "The Second Mother" (2015) somewhat annoying at first, since it depicts the outcome of disrupting the sense of 'knowing one's place'. Regina Case plays Val, the faithful housekeeper for Dona Barbara, her husband, and her spoiled and lazy son. Val has virtually raised the now l7-year old and still showers him with kisses. Meanwhile her own daughter, whom she has not seen for years, has been raised by others, financed by the wages that Val sends 'home'. When the daughter arrives in Sao Paolo from the North, Val's employers agree that she can stay for a few days while studying for university entrance exams and have even paid for a new mattress to be placed on the floor in Val's spartan bedroom. However the feisty daughter soon inveigles herself into the luxury guest bedroom, eats at 'their' table, ingratiates herself into the husband's affections, scoffs up the son's special ice cream, and even has the audacity to swim in their pool! Val is beside herself with embarrassment and is not surprised when Dona B insists that the daughter leave and live elsewhere.

When she passes the entrance exams with flying colours (Val is more than chuffed) and the son of the family flunks his -- and is subsequently dispatched to Australia for six months, Val begins to realise how she has become the family's indispensable non-person. She now wants to re-establish the missing relationship with her own child, joyfully goes for a splash in the partly-drained pool, and finally hands in her notice to the family for whom she has sacrificed all. There is something heroic in Val's new-found freedom.

The last of the three movies is the least 'worthy' but probably the most entertaining. In the French film "Up for Love" (2016), the debonair leading actor Jean Dujardin (who charmed the world in 2011's award winner "The Artist") is shrunk from his normal height of just under 6' to a petite 4'5" by the magic of cinema. He plays a confident, rich, and successful architect who woos lawyer Virginia Efira (an attractive Belgian actress I've not seen before); she is estranged from her soon-to-be-divorced husband and law firm partner Cedric Kahn. Despite herself, she finds that she is falling for the charming Alexandre, who is not a midget per se but whose lack of growth results from a pituitary problem, and who only just reaches to her bust. She is well aware of the staring and giggling that this mismatched couple attracts -- even her mother who is remarried to a comically deaf husband and the jealously-possessive Kahn cannot imagine the two as a potential pair. The question is can Efira reconcile her feelings with the realities of a life with her diminutive lover.

There is probably too much slapstick included, especially as the oversized St Bernard belonging to Alexandre's normal-sized son bowls him over each time he enters the house, greeting him with slobbering affection. But it made me laugh... Both the Japanese and the Brazilian films have garnered much higher ratings on IMDb, but this French movie wins hands down for its clever optical effects and general rom-com feel-goodness.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Jenny's Wedding (2015)

Decisions, decisions. Each week I need to weigh up what I have viewed over the last seven days and to decide which of those films to dissect. It's easy if I've been out to the cinema or finally caught up with a long lost treasure, but most weeks it's a question of sifting through the dross and deciding which has had left any lasting impression (at least in the short term). I was tempted to write about "It Follows" (2014) which I found a refreshingly different horror movie. However it boasts a no-name cast -- the biggest 'name' is Maika Monroe (!) who is also a professional kite-boarder -- and the other leads could have been anyone. Its premise is that having sex with the wrong partner curses one with a relentless face-changing 'follower' (out to do you in) until you pass on the curse by having sex with an unwitting someone else. Not that this actually cancels out the curse from the various characters met here. Regardless, the film manages to be unusually creepy with a slightly disturbing vibe -- and I've not a great deal more to say about it.

So I am left with the above film which is an unlikely contender, since the tale of two lesbians hoping to marry but reluctant to come 'out' to their family is nowadays rather old-hat. It could well have been made a decade ago or even formed the basis for an intelligent TVM. Written and directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue, better-known as a screenwriter, it creates a leading role for Katherine Heigl, whose career path has taken a downhill spiral since her heyday of "Knocked Up" (2007) and "27 Dresses" (2008). In fact it is her most recent release to date, although I believe there are one or two in post-production. To mirror my own woeful lack of knowledge and possibly prejudice, she seems far too glamourous and unaffected to portray a believable gay, but what do I know?

She has lived with her 'roommate' Alexis Bledel for five years now but can't bring herself to tell her doting parents (Tom Wilkinson and Linda Emond) that her roomie is also her lover and that they wish to marry. At her parents' anniversary party (not the best opportunity I would suggest) she takes each of them aside and confesses the 'awful truth' to much shock and horror, but promises not to let the rest of their family and friends in on her secret, leaving her sister to spread the rumour that she is involved with a married man -- more 'horror' but not quite so horrible as being gay. Dad is a fireman and is completely au fait with the macho posturings at his firehouse and can not conceive what his beloved daughter might get up to in bed. Mom blames herself,  All of the best stereotypical reactions are on display, but actually both actors do a splendid and believable job considering the script's clichés. Wilkinson is at his usual authentic flabbergasted best and Emond, with whom I was not previously familiar, morphs into the broken-hearted mum who had always dreamed of her favourite child's wedding day.

Her sister (Meryl Streep's little girl Grace Gummer) learns the truth when she sees the pair kissing in a bridal shop and promptly tells her mother, who of course already knew. This convinces her that Mum has been lying to her and trying to protect her better-loved child. Gummer is the ugly duckling of the pair, something of a baby machine, and married to a no-goodnik; she's completely taken aback when Heigl asks her to be her Maid of Honour. Their brother of course has guessed the truth since their high school days. Gummer is gifted with the movie's best line -- 'happy people don't have dead grass' -- a reflection of her own loveless marriage vs. her sister's radiant happiness with her proposed life partner, and a cue to dump her husband.

There is a further showdown between daughter and parents at a funeral parlour (she really does choose her venues poorly) where family friends learn the big secret (and the disgrace!).
However the wedding plans proceed, as gradually Mum and eventually Dad (on the day) accept that love conquers all. It all sounds ever so corny as I have outlined it, but it was surprisingly watchable and at times even genuinely moving. So there you go!


Friday, 3 February 2017

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

There will always be an audience for 'feel-good' movies, although few of these manage to win major awards, unlike this year's over-hyped contender "La La Land". The cinema audience loves to root for plucky dreamers a la Rocky and Billy Elliot, especially when they ultimately win, but even when they lose, if they lose with style. Such is the heroic myth of Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, Britain's lone competitor for a ski-jumping medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, a man who never stood a dewdrop's chance in hell of winning.

While based on a true-life story, this crowd-pleasing film is more fiction than fact, but does successfully convey the essence of Eddie's endeavour. A sickly and gangly child young Eddie always dreamt of Olympic glory, repeatedly running away from home (as far as the corner) when he thinks he has set a new World Record, for example holding his breath under water in the bath for a full 50 seconds. Unsporty and uncoordinated we see him failing spectacularly in his backyard at all the traditional Summer athletic events. Inspired, he fixes upon the idea that he might succeed at winter sports, since Britain has not entered the ski-jumping stakes since 1929. Even a poor showing could establish a new British record!

Actor Taron Egerton who made a showy mark in "Kingsman: The Secret Service" (2014) morphs seamlessly into the pudgy and homely body of young Eddie, who hies off to the Continent with his mother's nest-egg and his dad's 'borrowed' work van to pursue his dream. He hovers around the training grounds taking advice from various French and German racers and coaches, not understanding a word of what they are saying, before his persistence and foolhardy bravery pays off. He manages (after nearly breaking his neck) to convince Bronson Peary, a washed-up, disgraced, and usually drunk former jumper, played by Hugh Jackman, to oversee his preparations. The British Olympic Committee don't really want to know and set an improbable qualifying distance for him to meet. By a fluke he does manage to qualify and off to Calgary he goes -- and now we are all rooting for him.

He is treated as something of a joke by the Committee, his fellow team members, and the other real contenders, but the audience laughs with him, not at him -- we can not help but admire his bulldog spirit and his pluck. We cheer when he successfully manages the steepest of the jumps without killing or paralysing himself, even if he does finish in last place. The legend of Eddie the Eagle is born -- and remember that this is the same Olympics that lauded the efforts of the Jamaican bobsled team whose story was told in "Cool Runnings" (1993). Eddie is a loser who becomes a media darling.

The film is lovingly directed by Dexter Fletcher who was also responsible for "Sunshine on Leith", another ultimately feel-good movie with some dark undertones. The only other 'name' in the cast is Christopher Walken, playing Jackman's original mentor, in the very briefest of cameos. 

Eddie was able to 'dine off' his fame for some years. Even his father who pooh-poohed his dreams and who urged him to take up his own trade of plastering was cock-a-hoop on his son's triumphant return to Britain. But false fame does wane and guess what Eddie does now? He's a plasterer!   

Friday, 27 January 2017

Endless Poetry (2016)

Alejandro Jodorowsky is not a name familiar to most cinemagoers but a cult God to many, ever since his "El Topo" (1970) and "The Magic Mountain" (1973) became midnight movie staples. He is the equivalent of cinematic Marmite -- if you are familiar with his films (and there have been so few of them) you either hate them or willingly accept their beauty and weirdness.

Born in Chile in 1929 he was a poet, puppet-maker, clown and general rabble-rouser before moving to Paris in 1955. There he studied mime with Marcel Marceau, mixed with the surrealists and made his first feature film in 1968 "Fando y Lis". He had ambitious plans for a version of "Dune" (to star Orson Welles) which never made it to the screen. Only 1989's fantasmagorical "Santa Sangre" attracted any notice while his two other movies "Tusk" (1980) and "The Rainbow Thief" (1990) had no theatrical distribution. The latter is purportedly not a great flick, but I for one would love to see a movie starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Lee surface. In between he busied himself with cartooning, working on graphic novels, and publishing several books. A renaissance man for sure!

He returned to film-making in 2013 with the autobiographical film "The Dance of Reality" which I reviewed in passing a few years back. That film covered his early childhood in Chile, as seen through a surrealist's eye. The above movie picks up the story with the same actors -- a teenaged Jeremias Herskovits essaying young Alejandro, Pamela Flores playing his hard-done-by mother whose dialogue is sung as operatic arias, and his eldest son Brontis filling the shoes of his authoritarian father. The youngster helps out in his father's store, watching out for shoplifters for his Dad to drag out to the street, kick (urging his son to join in), and strip naked as a warning to the gawping bystanders. Dad hopes that his son will be a great doctor, but the boy only yearns to be a poet -- a would-be faggot, says Dad. He finally rebels against his extended suffocating family by hacking away at a tree in his grandmother's courtyard and is taken by a precocious cousin to the home of a pair of rich artistic sisters where he is welcomed amongst their resident bohemia. In the next scene the teenager emerges from his room some years on as the young adult Alejandro -- now played by the director's youngest son Adan (who also composed the music for the movie). Jodorowsky's films are usually family affairs and the real Alejandro appears periodically as the old man he is, as a kind of Greek chorus. His middle son Axel has also appeared in his father's films and I only learned recently that there was a fourth son Teo who died aged 24 in 1995.

This movie may well be the director's most accessible work and the critic of the New York Times believes it to be his best. I wouldn't care to draw the same conclusion but it is an absorbing watch with masterful photography from cinematic maven Christopher Doyle. As a fan of Federico Fellini, Jodorowky fills his screen with big-busted females, an assortment of dwarves, and a variety of artsy-craftsy types to people the young poet's wild parties and mount his 'chair of truth'. Black-hooded ninja figures whom we are not meant to notice are used to move the props. Two-dimensional stage scenery is wheeled on to recreate the streets of his youth. Hordes of post WW2 Nazis invade Santiago to reinforce the young poet's need to emigrate -- but only before he is made to reconcile with his hated father, forced to acknowledge the bonds of family by the older Jodorowsky figure. His first sexual encounter (everything but penetration he's warned) is with a violently red-wigged Amazon (played by the same actress as his mother) who will only walk with him holding his privates...and more. Yes, it's a very strange film -- but completely fascinating, if not for everyone.

This quasi-autobiographical movie which was partly crowd-funded is meant to be the second of five proposed films. That's a pretty ambitious project for a writer-director who will be 88 next month!  

A serendipitous aside: I saw this movie in the cinema on Wednesday afternoon and by coincidence watched one of Sky's dreary premieres that evening, "Kids in Love" (also 2016). It stars the likeable young actor Will Poulter as a gap-year student being lured into the circle of some spoiled and gilded youth (including current flavour Cara Delavingne) through a chance meeting with a tasty young French student. And who was this temptress? One Alma Jodorowsky, daughter of Brontis.  A nice coincidence but a pretty awful movie, so don't seek it out. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

5 to 7 (2014)

Tomorrow looks to be a busy-ish day so I thought I'd better move my usual Friday blog to a Thursday. This week's review comes courtesy of Sky's new one-premiere-a-day policy which has been providing an unconscionable number of obscure movies, many of them straight-to-disc, but which occasionally unearths a rare gem. While the above film has attracted its share of negative criticism, I found it rather sweet and charming to begin, and ultimately realistically bittersweet and believable.

Written and directed by Victor Levin, the only feature film to date from this television writer, it is not only well-written and well-crafted, featuring an eclectic yet excellent score, but it is far from a conventional rom-com.The title will ring bells amongst cineastes recalling the French film "Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962), the accepted timeframe for extra-marital affairs (although in that movie the heroine was actually anxiously awaiting some test results from her doctor). However the hours are meant to imply a certain French freedom where sexuality might be explored without jeopardising family commitments.

The relationship in question begins with our hero Brian Bloom played by Anton Yelchin 'meeting cute' with older French siren Arielle played by Berenice Marlohe (primarily a television actress whose first feature role was in 2012's "Skyfall" with this movie being her second). He is an aspiring but so-far unpublished writer -- the walls of his flat are papered with rejection letters -- who spies a vision of loveliness forced to smoke outside a public building; he crosses the street to join her and they strike up a conversation. She mentions that she can be found same place, same time every Friday; Brian is smitten and can't wait to see her again. Weekly, they spend two hours together at a museum or the movies and romance is in the air. However when she casually mentions that she is married with two young children, he is repulsed by the idea (typical American horror of the unconventional we're meant to think) and he resolves to stay away from her. His resolve lasts only three weeks before they tumble into bed together.

Oh but it's a civilised affair! Her husband (an underused Lambert Wilson) casually invites Brian to a family dinner party also attended by his mistress Jane (Olivia Thirlby) and a sprinkling of New York intelligentsia. Even their two kiddies accept Brian as maman's  boyfriend. So it continues for some time and they all are in attendance when Brian's talent is eventually recognised at a 'New Yorker' award ceremony. With the award cheque in his pocket, Brian decides the time has come to buy a ring for his lover and to propose to legitimise their union. This is the breaking the rules! After initially accepting his proposal and telling Wilson, she breaks off the relationship in a heart-felt letter. Heartbreak stirs Brian's creative juices and his first novel churns from his word-processor.

Yelchin plays with wide-eyed puppy-dog enthusiasm and has been criticised for being far too young and unsophisticated for Marlohe's older woman of the world, but a genuine love between the pair develops as just about believable. Before his recent death in a freak accident, aged 27, the Russian-born actor has appeared in a variety of roles, starting aged 10 in an episode of 'ER' and making his feature debut as an 11-year old opposite Anthony Hopkins in "Hearts of Atlantis" (2001). Best-known for his recurring role in the new "Star Trek" series, he embraced a wide variety of characters and a promising future was certainly cut short. Yelchin, like every one else in this movie is a complex yet strangely likeable character. There are no villains.

Mention should be made of Glenn Close and Frank Langella who play Brian's parents in a too-brief interlude. While they make a most unlikely and non-stereotyped Jewish couple, they exude a nice mixture of  paternal horror and maternal love when they are introduced to Arielle. I would have liked to see more of them.

My one criticism is that like many movies, the picture doesn't know when to end. It would have been perfect to finish with Arielle's seeing a stack of Brian's newly-published novel in a bookshop window and happily smiling to herself. But no, Levin is determined to fill in all the gaps with scenes that let us know what happened next. For once, I really didn't need to know.

   

Friday, 13 January 2017

Venus in Fur (2013)

There have been numerous films titled "Venus in Furs" (plural) based on the infamous novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to both S-M and masochism...an interesting legacy. However most of these have used just the title for their own spin on sexual perversions. You can find this title as part of a 1967 triple bill from Something Weird Video. Then there are two 1969 versions -- the slightly more polite Italian version starring Laura Antonelli known as "Devil in the Flesh" and the garishly coloured soft-ish porn version from schlockmeister Jess (Jesus) Franco released as "Paroxismus". To be honest I can't recall much about this movie from the cheapy Spanish auteur, (and for my sins I have seen most of his trashy output). His version has a young musician finding the corpse of a woman on a beach, who returns from the dead to take revenge on the sadists who abused her. With a supporting cast that includes Klaus Kinski and Dennis Price, I should really remember it. There's also a 1994 Dutch flick that remains obscure.

However the above French film from director Roman Polanski is a class act, based not on the novel but on a stage play by David Iver. It's a two-hander on a single set, but it is 100% absorbing thanks to the superlative acting from Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. The success of this movie is its cast rather than its story. Seigner's would-be actress arrives late at the theatre where writer-director Amalric is holding auditions for his new play. He is about to leave but she bullies him into letting her read and he reluctantly agrees. As she morphs from know-it-all tart to consummate stage diva his own reading of the lines moves from rote responses to heart-felt emotions as he succumbs to the power of her acting and her sensuality. The audition continues despite the occasional telephone calls from his impatient fiancée until the roles become reversed with his becoming the dominatrix and her becoming the obedient servant. He dons the high heels and 'fur' and even a smear of lipstick, so reminiscent of Polanski's own turn in "The Tenant" (1976), a study in humiliation. Amazingly, Amalric begins to resemble the director physically more and more as the film progresses.

I've always known that Almaric is a fine and prolific actor appearing in dozens of movies since his debut in 1984, including English-speaking roles in recent years, like the villain in "Quantum of Silence". However I have surprised myself by discovering how remarkable Seigner is in this movie. I was first aware of her opposite Harrison Ford in 1988's "Frantic" and have seen her in various roles since, most recently in "In the House". Yet none of her turns have captured my fancy, even her previous pairing with "Amalric" in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" where he alone took centre stage. Married to Polanski since 1989, she has previously appeared in only two of his films "The Ninth Gate" (1991) and "Bitter Moon" (1992) and I have but the vaguest recollection of her acing chops in either. However in this movie Polanski has worked his magic, as he has often done for his leading ladies, and she is magnetically superb. 

As an unrelated but fascinating aside, Almaric's mother is from a Polish-Jewish family and was born in the very village where the Polanski family lived prior to World War II.  

Friday, 6 January 2017

Last Year's Top Ten

According to my film diary -- yes, I actually keep a list of the movies I view each day -- I watched 832 films in 2016. Wow! Obviously not all of these were recent releases or new to me; the list is liberally sprinkled with ancient rarities that I have finally caught up with plus a good lashing of old favourites re-visited. Sad to say, however, reading the titles of all 832 pictures, I really do not remember what many of them were about nor my reaction to them. Perhaps I should annotate that diary in future with some notes that might jog my fading memory. Or maybe I really do watch a lot of dross in my efforts to see every new film on offer.

Anyhow in deciding to feature the ten films I most enjoyed last year as opposed to the 'best' films, I shall limit myself to movies either made or released within the last few years which I viewed for the first time in 2016. One that will not be among them is "La La Land" which I saw at the London Film Festival back in October, but which has just been released in time for Oscar consideration. It is being broadly hyped as the shoo-in winner for best picture, but I found it patchy and ultimately downbeat. Parenthetically I finally watched last year's favourite "Revenant" recently, and will not be including that in my top ten either --  gruelling, nicely done, but not a film to enjoy -- a 'feel-bad' movie.

Before revealing my idiosyncratic choices, a few comments about some of the premieres over the recent holiday period. I was terribly disappointed with "The Lady in the Van" which left a sour after-taste, and was similarly let down by "Zootropolis" ("Zootopia" Stateside) which I found a little too twee and preachy and by "Deadpool", amusing but trying just a little bit too hard. "The Dallas Buyers Club" was well-done but worthy, although both lead actors certainly deserved their Oscars. I was smitten by the French animation "Long Way North" with its hand-painted slightly abstract design -- so unlike most other animation nowadays -- and I thought that "Ethel & Ernest" (whether or not the BBC consider it a movie) was movingly worthwhile. Finally I was surprised how much I liked Jon Favreau's new "Jungle Book"; Bill Murray gives great Baloo! 

So the time has come to list out my favourites from last year -- the one's I would be more than happy to re-view time and again. In no particular order of merit these are:

"Florence Foster Jenkins" -- I hope it gets a slew of Oscar nods.

"The Forbidden Room" -- a maddening tour de force from Guy Maddin.

"Tale of Tales" -- a feast for the eyes married to quirky storytelling.

"Anomalisa" -- stop-motion for adults.

"Wishin' and Hopin" - a great contender to join the ranks of the best Christmas flicks.

"Paddington" -- the tale of a loveable bear told with great British charm and affection (although I am getting fed up with Nicole Kidman trying to be a villainess -- it doesn't quite ring true).

"Call Me Jeeg Robot" -- the only movie from our FrightFest attendance worth watching, although this Italian quirk-fest is unlikely to achieve widespread release.

"Populaire" -- A French movie from 2012 which I had actually seen before about a typewriter whizz -- colourful and unusual.

"The Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" -- possibly a terrible movie but I enjoyed every minute of it.

"Hail Caesar" -- not the Coen Brothers' best but a lively look at old Hollywood.

There you have it. Let's find out what joys are in store for 20l7...