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 clich├ęs. 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!