Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Script review - "The Battle of Algiers"

I remember not loving this film when I saw it years ago - perhaps it had been over hyped before I saw it - but I was knocked out on reading the script. It's a tough, uncompromising look at the urban part of the war in Algeria. It focuses on one section - the terrorism campaign, in particular as practisde by young Ali.

The film is empathetic to the struggles of the Arabs but also the French - the commanding officer Mathieu is tough, brave, ruthless and smart. He's doing a job to finish it and if that means torture so be it. But the human face of torture is not overlooked. The incidents and writing feel well researched and believable. (I know it's based on a true story but it feels true - which isn't always the same.)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie review - "Spirits of the Dead" (1968) ***1/2

Anthology films were all the rage in Europe in the 1960s - they were reasonably popular in Hollywood too. Roger Corman had done an Edgar Allan Poe anthology, Tales of Terror - some enterprising producers had the idea of getting art house darlings to do one. This has Fellini, Vadim and Malle, not a bad line up (Orson Welles, Chabrol, Visconti and Bergman were also approached).

Vadim's segment is the campiest fun - Jane Fonda is a vixen who runs around her estate killing people, having orgies and seducing unwilling women as part of threesomes.  She falls in love with the boy next door... played by Peter Fonda! Which is a bit perverse, even for Vadim... but they don't kiss or anything he's not keen until so she accidentally kills him and then lives to regret it. Its all garish and not particularly well made but the Fondas make it fun (Jane really, that is - Peter is only in it briefly).

Malle's segment is much better directed, more serious. Alain Delon is very effective as a nasty piece of work (it's a shame Delon didn't play more villains he suits them) who tackles his own conscience - manifested as an actual person. Brigitte Bardot is not convincing in a black wig and feels wasted but I enjoyed this bit - it's not as highly regarded, I'm not sure why.

Fellini's segment is superb. It's a sort of companion piece to La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2  with Terence Stamp, at the height of his sixties groovy-ness, playing a Shakesperean actor who is in Rome to make a Christian Western. He's hassled by various parties - the paps, director, interpreter, press, random women etc. Its done with flair and vivacity. The "horror" is more muted but Stamp hooning along the highway is genuinely scary - I wish Fellini had made a horror film or two.

A strong, entertaining film with gorgeous colour.

Movie review - "Popeye" (1980) **

A controversial film - it prompts mixed reactions in people, but you can't say Robert Altman didn't give Paramount and Disney a Robert Altman film. All his trademarks are there - sprawling scenes full of overlapping improvisational dialogue, roaming camerawork, the ensemble acting, seemingly careless formation of scenes, lack of close ups. Not to mention Shelly Duvall who, as Olive Oyl, is one of the most perfect matches between actor and character I think in the history of cinema.

It doesn't work, at least it didn't to me. The film has some fantastic things - that set is magical, I adored it. It deserves to be in a better remembered film (although Popeye did make money). There's Duvall, and much of the cast seem to suit their roles. I liked the romantic scenes between Olive and Popeye and her song 'He Needs Me' is really touching. The basic story should have worked - Popeye searching for his father is very empathetic.

But the story is muffled - we don't get a sense of Popeye's character or background, the search for his father lacks emotional resonance, I didn't get a sense of Bluto or Whimpy, the townsfolk were not very likeable, the songs seemed tossed off.

It's a weird movie. Very Altman. Very flawed. Definitely an ending of 70s auteur cinema as much as say Sorcerer was.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Movie review - "Universal Soldier: The Return" (1999) *

The basic idea of Universal Soldier is so good, it could sustain a bunch of sequels. I haven't seen the first two but they were straight to video - this apparently ignores their existence.

It's terrible. The basic idea isn't bad - Jean Claude is a recovering Universal Soldier with a kid (but no partner) working with a new bunch of Universal Soldiers, who mutiny. There's a reporter.

It's badly directed - like an average episode of a TV series (from the 90s not the awesome TV we have now). Scenes are poorly constructed; there's no suspense or excitement. The acting is bad, except Xander Berkeley.

There's a random visit to a strip club - a woman hits on the female reporter. There's no decent banter between Jean Claude and the journo. There's a hacker with blue hair. There's an opening action sequence which is revealed to be a training exercise. Awful dialogue. The villains have great abs and bad acting.

It's dull. And dumb. It feels cheap. Opportunities thrown away wholesale.

Movie review - "Masculin Feminin" (1966) *** (warning: spoilers)

I mainly watched this because I felt I had to, it being from the classic Godard period and everything, and was prepared to be hostile but wound up enjoying it more than I thought. It's very arty but the art has integrity and there is energy and talent - you can feel it's influence on 90s art house cinema.

The star is Jean-Pierre Leaud, best known for being Francois Truffaut's alter ego in many different movies. He plays a guy just out of the army who fancies himself as a bit of a Marxis; his best mate (Michel Debord) is a union activist; he tries to get on to a pretty girl (Chantal Goya) he meets at a cafe, who has two friends, one of whom (Marlene Jobert) seems to fall for Leaud.

This isn't very story heavy, to put it mildly. It's more notable for the stylistic devices: chapter headings, long scenes consisting of only a few takes where a guy asks a girl questions (I really loved these scenes they reminded me of talks I used to do when younger, firing off questions to women), Leaud talking to himself in a laundromat, spotting Brigitte Bardot in a cafe (she has this random cameo), the film in jokes (references in dialogue to Pierre Le Fot), going to see a porn film where there is artistic stuff, the depiction of Leaud's death via reportage, the combination of culture references (a doll is guillotined listening to a radio report of De Gaulle going Mitterand, talk of Satre, anti-Vietnam protests), the sound track.

I'm not super across what life was like for teens in 1965 Paris but a lot of it was recognisable: they talk pretentiously about politics, and also about sex; the guys want to get the girls into bed, the girls are curious. One of them (Goya) becomes a pop star, which is different (she becomes big in Japan which made me laugh).

The women are shown to be not that involved or interested in politics - dim pretty things. But the guys are pretentious idiots. Mind you they are more active and get more of the attention - this sort of misogyny is not un-familiar to French cinema from this period.

Jobert is very pretty - so too is Goya but Jobert has more life. I'm not sure what she sees in little Leaud, but I guess he is the director's surrogate. Jobert is Eva Green's mother in real life, which is pretty cool.

An energetic, lively movie. In an odd way I felt you could remake this for different generations and cultures.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Movie review - "The Long Riders" (1980) ***

I always found this movie not satisfactory and could never put my finger on it. Watching it again, for something like the third time, it hit me - it doesn't feel like a proper movie, it's more like an album, a collection of various "tracks". Vignettes that are cobbled together.

There is no one over-riding story, really, it's a series of incidents. There are thematic links of course - it's the tale of the Jesse James gang, and the device of having brothers play brothers works wonderfully - but there isn't momentum.

Much of it is repetitive - a robbery, David Carradine calls Pamela Reed a whore, a person is killed because they know the Jameses, another robbery, David Carradine calls Pamela Reed a whore again, another person is killed because they know the Jameses. You get the feeling scenes could have been rearranged or even taken out and you wouldn't have noticed.

Too many of the scenes aren't particularly memorable. Too many characters are similar - Randy Quaid and Robert Carradine both explain they got into robbing "just because"; Keith Carradine's woman and James Keach's woman both seem to be the same winsome thing. There's too much bullets hitting bodies in slow motion.

But some of it is outstanding - Ry Cooder's musical score, the production detail. There are excellent performances from Stacy Keach, David Carradine, Keith Carradine and James Whitmore Jnr. I found James Keach's Jesse James a little unsettling at first but then got into it. Fine acting from all involved, down to the little roles eg Dennis Quaid, James Remar,

Many of the scenes I remember as well - James Whitmore Jnr's exasperation at not getting the gang, James and Frank crossing the river after the Northfield Minnesota Raid, the final moments between Frank and the Pinkerton, Pamela Reed hopping out of the bath. There is some good album.

Lots of people love this movie. I admire it. But feel it should've been a mini series.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Movie review - "Bright Lights" (2017) ****1/2

Perfect remedy (or at least treatment) for those who were genuinely upset at the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds so close to each other. It's a fascinating look at these two old broads - kind of like Grey Gardens only with money and more career respect: they were neighbours, great friends, who cared for each other. It's easy to see why Debbie would not want to have lasted long without Carrie.

It's also clear why Carrie didn't live to an old age - she doesn't look well, puffing away on the ciggies and sucking down the Cokes, grumbling at the personal trainer hired by Lucasfilm to look after her (I kept calling out to the screen "listen to him, Carrie! He's not a bad guy.") There's also a few scenes where Carrie seems to be high on something.

Debbie is no saint. She looks fantastic, with little plastic surgery - but to be blunt in a few scenes (especially at the end) she seems to be tripping on something as well.

The directors had incredible access and there's some amazing home footage of little Carrie and Todd, as well as Harry Karl and a handsome Eddie Fisher. There's also a later interview with Debbie's mum who seemed like a bitch and an old Eddie Fisher who looks awful - this was the most disturbing part of it for me.

Debbie does her one woman show full of corny jokes and her fluffing lines and misremembering lyrics (the directors devote long takes to this, which is great), but she loves performing. Todd helps out. Carrie goes to London, attends Star Wars conventions. Both go to award ceremonies and live in a houses full of trinkets and junk. Both mad, both lovely, both talented, both pros. It's a fantastic love story.