Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Not a bio-pic... non, c'est un musical!

Gainsbourg (Joann Sfar)

In bio-pic terms, 'Gainsbourg' is maybe somewhat of a missed opportunity - despite its bio-friendly length, not much about the man is delved into too deeply, as incidents and character are skimmed over rather scantily and haphazardly. This is a shame, seeing as I for one don't know very much about him aside from his public persona - his songs, especially those with his loves Birkin and Bardot, that he drank a lot and that he always had a cigarette wedged in his mouth.

However, I don't think a typical dry bio was the intention here and if, like me, you are grinning from ear to ear at the vaguely retro cartooning of the title sequence then you may just appreciate the many incidental pleasures that make up the first 75 minutes or so of what follows. Director, Joann Sfar has imagination and flair for sure (his daring use of animation and puppetry helps to stop things feeling dry) and he has certainly paid homage to the man and, if nothing else, this will certainly rejuvenate interest in the music.

Eric Elmosino is terrific in the title role and just like Marion Cotillard before him, in that other flawed bio of an Icône française, he manages to transcend simple convincing impersonation to become the man totally (and there is NO lip-syncing the songs here either, as the cast use their own voices).
Special mentions: A suitably lusty and far too brief turn by Yolande Moreau as Fréhel. The cafe scene where the young Gainsbourg meets her is a joy. As is Sara Forestier - very funny as the cheeky France Gall.
I have to admit that Laetitia Casta's big glam entrance as Bardot left me a little breathless and is one of the film's most indulgent highlights - all thigh-high boots, leopard print, lush blonde tresses and mascara as the distinctive instrumental of 'The Initials BB' trumpets away on the soundtrack. It just couldn't be anyone else.
And the songs! In fact 'Gainsbourg' feels closer to being a musical bio-pic. Or, to be more precise, it's a musical homage - as the songs, staged with originality, poignancy and sheer fun, are always never less than reverential to the artistry of the man (including acknowledging that he was an accomplished painter) if not always telling us something about his character or propelling the story. Look out for what they do with 'Comic Strip' (I just wanted to jump up and cry "more, more!"), not to mention the scene when when we finally hear THAT song - it's a little surreal and quite hysterical. Much like the film actually.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Oh, don't be such a sissy!

The Haunted House of Horror (Michael Armstrong)

What sounded like camp, spooky fun actually does start well - looking rather pretty in it's very dated 60s way: lots of boutiques, big hair'd skinny girls and even girlier (but not always) pretty boys. Granted, the acting is a bit laboured but we shouldn't expect too much from a 'Tigon' production - apart from giving us such classic (and somewhat undervalued) chillers as Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, it's really not too unkind to say 'Tigon' was a poor cousin to 'Hammer' and 'Amicus'.
But all hope of some fun or chills is lost when you realise no-one bothered to make any effort at all. Zero screenplay/plot/direction/logic! Lazy and pointless doesn't even cover it.
The gist of the story beggars belief: their 'groovy' party gets boring so they decide to move on to an old derelict house that's reputed to be haunted (of course). A seance is suggested (it was either that or an orgy). More accurately, they hold hands and stare at each other until a door creaks. They split up to investigate the noise, when one of them is hacked to death. Much hysterics (by the girls) and face-slapping (by the girly boys) ensues. Instead of leaving the house and calling the police they decide to bury the corpse of the man who was previously their friend. And not tell anyone... for absolutely no reason at all. Well, except that one of them convinces the others that it just has to be one of them that did the deed (well of course it is). So now it all makes sense...?? Ahem...
For the rest of the flic the players carry on bumping into each other, aimlessly wandering about; all with no conceivable purpose beyond being hysterical, or looking nervous, or bored (managing a combination of all three would have been far too much to ask for I imagine). Along the way, poor Denis Price pops up. Hoorah! Then, for a handful of scenes, he sleepwalks in an utterly redundant part and then promptly disappears again (in search of his agent I don't doubt).
It all climaxes with Frankie Avalon getting stabbed in the cock (I kid you not) when the least scariest killer in the history of cinema is revealed - who is then stopped in his limp-wristed rampage when the lights go out, causing him to run off in hysterics, screeching into the night... because he's terrified of the dark (?!).
I would have wondered here that maybe someone was overcompensating for an ambivalent audience with a bit of a joke ("last one to the exits is a rotten bit-part in a stinker of a film") but I was already nodding off and wondering how many people did the makers seriously think would have been left in the theatre at this point.
Where's Terence Fisher when you need him?

The trailer promises an "orgy of horror". The liars!

When did escapism become such a dirty word?

Deception (Irving Rapper)

Coming as it does, not only on the cusp of Hollywood's golden age but also Davis's at Warners, 'Deception' is often forgotten or dismissed in favour of the previous classics she made with Warners or the gothic hysterics of her later films. Not fair!
A recent re-evaluation has convinced me that this is a bit of a classic. And, I have to admit, an out and out camp classic. But, more than this, the camp of 'Deception' is positively elevated to high art. The story is complete hokum of course and is performed with such overwrought feeling and pungent relish that you are constantly expecting the characters to burst into song. Opera-noir anyone??
But this was still a time when people cared and cynicism hadn't taken over so much that now anything not total po-faced realism (outside of a comedy proper) is sneered at knowingly or declared "so bad it's good" by a seemingly more 'sophisticated' audience. It was a time when they cared enough about high production values and reveled in artifice, glamour and the pure indulgence of escapism. Pah! When did we learn to stop letting go of grim reality??

Some would have us believe that 'Deception' is one solely for the die-hard Davis fans - those more willing to forgive her more arch mannerisms or looking a little 'past it'. But, despite withering opinion, those not enamoured of Davis's charms will still find much to smack their chops over as well.
Korngold's stunning score is not merely a refreshing change to Warner's over reliance on Max Steiner's often intrusive bombast - it's actually one of the best scores of the period. It also helps that Davis and Henreid don't look phony when 'playing' the music - Davis is particularly convincing because she could actually play the piano and Henreid, despite looking a little awkward, was helped with the same trick as Garfield in Humoresque. Rains, having an absolute field day as the unhinged musical genius, bangs and smacks at the poor keyboard as an unhinged musical genius in a camp melodrama would.
The sets are incredible and have a whole life of their own - huge luxurious drawing rooms, shadowy stairwells, grand staircases made for dramatic death scenes, lots and lots of cine-rain spattering windows and flooding the street of the evocative opening sequence. Combined with the noirish lighting and deep focus of Davis's favourite cinematographer Ernie Haller, all goes to making 'Deception' a visual feast for any jaded cinephile.

Less than four years after 'Deception' came All About Eve. It seen as possibly Davis's finest performance (she is great). But, as ever, a performance is what it is (Davis the original show-off). 'Eve', despite its high critical pedigree, is very much the beginning of the end for Davis as a 'serious' screen actor. As Margot, she is the absolute star of the production - positively chowing down on the furniture in one of her most hand-swivelling and eye-rolling turns. She will never top Margot. As any drag queen worth her weight in false eye-lashes will testify, from this point on, her most significant roles are never less than monstrous or crazy - Dead Ringers, Baby Jane, The Anniversary, The Star, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. 'Deception' feels almost subtle in comparison (who am I kidding??).
What 'Deception' doesn't deserve is to languish in the shadows of these inferior (though hugely entertaining) efforts. At the very least it's the equal of her well-known previous classic films (time has been kinder to it than The Old Maid or Dark Victory). It may be no masterpiece, but it's still a marvelous example of the golden age of over-ripe melodramas and that's surely good enough reason to drag it out of the closet and brush the cobwebs off.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"To a new world of Gods and monsters..." and genetic gender-bending wife swapping??

Splice. (Vincenz Natali)

A nicely sinister title sequence gives way to a rather flatly executed but fairly intriguing story of brilliant genetic engineers, in the age-old tradition of playing God. Who are they kidding??
Never mind the fact that we all know such ideas are ALWAYS doomed to end in the death and/or mutilation of all around but I had a real problem in believing such incredibly stupid people as these two could ever EVER in the imagination of even the most demented chimpanzee ever really be considered brilliant?? Maybe if brilliant equals behaving like a confused and concussed five year old, who after falling down a particularly long flight of stairs and banging his head on every stair on the way down, then carries on chasing the big red shiny balloon going “lalalalalala..lah!” because it’s soooo pretty.
And, as the film progressed (nay, descended) on it’s demented way, they plummet to new-found depths of utter ineptitude and crassness. Maybe they just got bored of inserting marbles up there nostrils when they realised it wasn’t going to come out of one of their lugholes and only made their brain itch? Come to think of it, mine was beginning to feel scratchy.

I could be here all day making mealy-mouthed pot-shots at this totally bonkers ‘film’ but I think I would give myself a migraine (how long have you got?).
I will admit that I haven’t laughed in the cinema this much in a long time (who’d have thought rape, child-abuse, pissed-off hormonal turd-things in a tank and Adrien Brody’s cum face could be so funny??). But I think it would be unfair to say that all the laughs were unintentional and a touch mean-spirited to ignore that the makers had imagination and chutzpah to spare – at least caring enough to be daring and original, not to mention still appealing to the cinephile with the many references to the classics.
However, by the time of it’s ludicrous and protracted finale, a tiny part of me was dying inside and I was beginning to feel my soul being sucked right out of my arse. And as I groaned at its sphincter-squeezing epilogue (consoling myself with the fact that most of the cast were dead) I began to wonder if self-harming was so bad after all.
The audience I saw it with howled throughout and and were enjoying it as much as I dared to admit. But as we sheepishly filed out of the cinema, our mutual bemusement and deep shame was most palpable. I for one felt more than a little defiled as I wondered if I would ever be able to erase the images in my head of the most excruciating ‘sex’ scenes ever put onscreen (and I thought Elizabeth Berkley, thrashing about like a harpooned dolphin in a jacuzzi with Kyle MacLachlan was the pinnacle!)

Forgiving a Cinephile's Indulgence is Easy

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)

From the opening sequence on the boat, where the two leads meet, seemingly for the first time, I knew with very little doubt where this story was leading. I think anyone with a passing interest or familiarity with this kind of genre will do. If you haven't within the first half hour then you really do need to get out more!
But predictability of plot strands is maybe not the be-all and end-all of what is at play here. This is Marty for God's sake! Every cinephile's favourite cinephile.
Just as with Vertigo, the twist is almost an irrelevance (it's why Hitch gave it all away half-way through) and you follow the story with this in mind so that it then becomes a different story entirely. Of course 'Shutter Island' is no masterpiece of cinema to compare with 'Vertigo' but it's a lot more fun than the naysayers missing the point would have us believe.

About three quarters the way through 'Shutter Island', one of the patients of the asylum informs our hero, "this is a game and it's all for you". Just as Leo's opener, "Pull yourself together" is the film's most winkingly obvious clue to its audience, this line is equally conceited and knowing and is most assuredly the film's catchphrase. Someone is certainly smacking their lips here.

The story is a real hodge-podge piece of cod-psychology and gothic hokum gone literally over the hill and so far away with the fairies that we can only try our best to keep up. In the hands of cinephile Martin Scorcese, who seems here to have become something of a gleeful plunderer of all we know and love, the film becomes something - to put it mildly - akin to an insane pastiche/homage to every noir pulp, B movie, Hitchcock or Stephen King horror there ever was. As he piles cliche atop of cliche, as glaring continuity errors jump out the screen and the caricatures jostle for centre-stage, it brings out the cynic in much of its audience - woe betide anyone not sneering at this potboiler's over-ripe melodramatics and blindingly obvious 'twist'.
So, cry "rip off!" if you want to be thick. Groan and roll your eyes at the twist if you want to miss the point. Sit with your arms folded and remain pursed-lipped if you want to be humourless. But I defy you to turn away.
Don't sneer. Just give in! If you don't then it really is your loss because this is one marvelous piece of work. A real one-off that treads that very thin line between screaming camp and utter palm-sweating jaw-dropping cinematic insanity.
Just go with it! Enjoy the over-familiarity. Snigger slightly at the melodramatic set-pieces, as the rain lashes down and trees are toppled and eyes roll and jaws drop (ours as much as those on screen!). Take pride in your knowledge of all that's being referenced. Wonder at the rich cinematography, the juicy cameos from Max von Sydow and Patricia Clarkson, the elaborate and very improbable sets, the bleak landscapes. Let your skin tingle at the incredible soundtrack - a rich musical assemblage that includes Penderecki, Ingram Marshall, Mahler, John Cage and Schnittke (it really is great!).
Yes it's a mess. Yes it's utterly flawed. Yes the 'twist' is (intentionally) reduntant. But it's not boring for a single second and, from a cinephile perspective, is possibly the most fun I've had in the cinema since 'Basic Instinct'!