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 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 fiancĂ©e 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...