Saturday, 13 January 2018

Broadway Danny Rose

Year of Release:  1984
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Nick Apollo Forte
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Comedy

Danny Rose (Allen) is an unsuccessful talent agent, who is stuck with acts such as a one-legged tap dancer, balloon animal makers, and novelty bird acts.  The one act on his books that is showing any kind of promise is washed up lounge lizard, Lou Canova (Forte), who is enjoying a comeback due to a nostalgia craze.  Danny manages to get Lou a very prestigious gig, but Lou, who is already married, refuses to go on stage unless his girlfriend, Tina (Farrow), is in the audience.  He persuades Danny to not only go and pick up Tina but to pretend to be her boyfriend in public, in order to keep her and Lou's affair secret.  To make matters even more complex, Tina's ex-boyfriend is a gangster, who is convinced that Tina left him for Danny, and puts a hit on him. 

This film really is a romp.  It abandons the usual intellectual, up-town Woody Allen style of comedy for a more earthy style, with the humour coming more from situation and character than the usual Allen wisecracks and quips.   It also abandons the Manhattan elite setting more typical of Woody Allen films with Allen here playing the fast-talking agent,  and set in the swamps of New Jersey, seedy clubs, cheap offices and warehouses.  The film even has some action sequences with chases, and fights.  Mostly it is a nostalgic tribute to the New York showbiz world of the 1950s, despite apparently being set in the 1980s, it's filmed in black-and-white, and is bookended by scenes set in a deli where agents and ageing comics gather to tell jokes and showbiz stories.  Mia Farrow turns in a great performance as the loud, brassy Tina, all gravity-defying hairdos and huge sunglasses that hide half of her face.  It's not a great film and it's not hugely funny but it is very enjoyable and features a very funny shoot-out in a warehouse.       

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Martin McDonagh
Screenplay:  Martin McDonagh
Starring:  Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
Running Time:  115 minutes
Genre:  Drama, dark comedy, crime

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is a single mother who lives in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri.  Mildred is consumed with grief and rage over the brutal murder of her teenage daughter seven months previously.  Angry at the lack of progress in the official police investigation, Mildred hires three advertising billboards along a road into town and uses them to personally call out the town's police chief, Willoughby (Harrelson), as to why no arrests have been made.  This, of course, does not go down well with either the police or the townspeople, and Mildred soon finds herself a target.

This is something of a tragicomedy, dealing with seriously dark and disturbing themes and occasionally brutal violence, however it is also very funny, with some laugh out loud lines.  Frances McDormand dominates the film as Mildred Hayes, a tough, witty and angry woman, who does not care about what anyone thinks, but who still has doubts about her mission.  One of the strengths of the film is the way characters are introduced one way, and then are revealed to be more complex, particularly Woody Harrelson's turn as the troubled police chief.  The film raises some issues regarding police racism which it never really deals with, and some viewers may find the arc of Sam Rockwell's racist police officer hard to stomach.  However, this is certainly worth seeing, it's a dark but hilarious film, well-made with some fantastic performances.  It's a film about the corrosive effects of anger, revenge of violence, how it can become an endless cycle that consumes everyone and everything.

Frances McDormand and two of the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Needful Things

Year of Release:  1993
Director:  Fraser C. Heston
Screenplay:  W. D. Richter, based on the novel Needful Things by Stephen King
Starring:  Ed Harris, Max von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia, J. T. Walsh, Amanda Plummer
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Horror

A mysterious stranger named Leland Gaunt (von Sydow) arrives in the small Maine town on Castle Rock, where he sets up a strange antiques/curiosity shop called Needful Things.  Gaunt appears to have an uncanny knack of finding the one thing that every customer most desires, and each is priced to just what the customer can easily afford, but there is a catch:  The cash price is only half of the payment, the rest comes in the form of a deed, usually a cruel prank played on someone else in town, and all designed to point to someone other than the prankster.  Before long, the nice little town becomes torn apart with suspicion, paranoia, hate and misplaced revenge. 

While this is far from the worst movie to be based on one of Stephen King's works, it's also far from the best.  Although it really does as well as it could do at compressing King's sprawling, episodic doorstop of a novel into a coherent film.  It's well cast with solid character actors, and the story is interesting.  The problem is that the film doesn't have much of a consistent tone, the mixture of supernatural horror, dark comedy and small town soap opera worked a lot better on the page, where there was more space to go into the characters and their relationships.  The performances are good, especially Max von Sydow as the devilish Leland Gaunt, and the story is interesting enough to carry it along, but it's neither scary or funny, and the climax is ridiculous.

Max von Sydow in Needful Things         

Saturday, 25 November 2017

"Strange Weather" by Joe Hill

Year of Publication:  2017
Number of Pages:  432
Genre:  Horror, fantasy, suspense

In the last ten years Joe Hill has established himself as one of the most original and striking writers working in the field of horror and fantasy.  This collects four short novels, written in longhand over a period of four years.  In "Snapshot", a boy and an elderly woman are stalked by a mysterious tattooed thug who owns a Polaroid camera which has the power to steal memories.  In "Loaded" a mall security guard is hailed as a hero for stopping a mass shooting, but a young journalist suspects there is more to the story than meets the eye, and as she investigates the guard begins to find it increasingly difficult to maintain control.  In "Aloft" a young musician attempts skydiving for the first time, only to find himself marooned on a bizarre floating island in the clouds.  An island that seems to have a strange life of it's own.  In the apocalyptic "Rain" a lethal rain of nails spreads across America and the world.

In the afterword to this book, Hill discusses the appeal of the short novel form (the longest story in the book is 140 pages, and the shortest is about 90 pages), describing them as combining the narrative drive of a short story, with the additional character depth of a novel, and tells us that the best are "All killer, no filler".  By and large he is right when it comes to the stories here.  The stories are full of tension and zip along at a good pace.  The characters are well drawn and believable.  Hill has always been very skilled at putting often quite surreal horror elements cheek by jowl with the mundane details of everyday life, making the horror seem almost more bizarre.  There is also a strong vein of humour and social satire here, with "Loaded", in particular, critiquing American gun culture.  "Snapshot" becomes a metaphor for ageing and resultant memory loss, which kind of gives the story a strange feel in it's final pages, and doesn't really fit with the fantasy elements.  However, this is a hugely entertaining , gruesome and funny collection.

       

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dracula

Year of Release:  1931
Director:  Tod Browning and Karl Freund (uncredited)
Screenplay:  Garrett Fort, based on the stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Starring:  Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Running Time:  75 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is one of the most influential horror films ever made.  an English solicitor, Renfield (Frye) arrives in Transylvania to finalise the purchase of an old abbey by mysterious nobleman Count Dracula (Lugosi).  Renfield soon learns that Dracula is, in reality, a vampire.  Driven insane by his experiences and enslaved to Dracula, Renfield helps the Count travel to England.  Once in Britain, Dracula sets his sights on Mina (Chandler), the daughter of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) who runs the lunatic asylum next to his abbey.

There have been many screen adaptations of Dracula, and this is neither the first or the best of them, but it is still the most influential.  The film bears little resemblance to Bram Stoker's original novel of 1897, being largely based on a hugely successful 1924 stage adaptation which turned the novel into effectively a drawing room mystery.  The film has some extremely atmospheric scenes, particularly early on, capturing a real sense of decay and mystery.  As it comes along the film becomes increasingly flat, it's stage-bound origins very much in evidence.  A lot of the important sequences take place off-screen, including the film's climax, which is hugely disappointing.  There are also plot elements and characters that appear and are dropped without explanation, and it doesn't really flow.  However, Bela Lugosi is the definitive Dracula, even though he bears little resemblance to the character as described by Stoker he is still what comes to mind when you think of "Dracula", and to this day his portrayal is parodied, copied and referenced.  With his slow, fractured, heavily accented speech (Lugosi couldn't speak English at the time and learned his lines phonetically), along with his icy hypnotic stare, he has an otherworldly sense about him that dominates the screen.

This is not a good film, and it really hasn't aged well, but there are some great things in here and it is a key film in the canon of American film and the evolution of the horror film, which make it worth watching, and it is a must-see if only for Bela Lugosi's performance.

Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Dracula
  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Taika Waititi
Screenplay:  Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, based on the comic-book character Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum. Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, science-fiction, action, adventure, superhero, comedy

Two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Asgardian Thunder God Thor (Hemsworth) is hunting, unsuccessfully, for the powerful Infinity Stones, but is tormented by dreams of Ragnarok, the end of Asgard.  Returning home to Asgard, he finds his trickster half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) in charge and his father, Odin (Hopkins), missing.  With Loki's aid, Thor manages to track Odin down to Earth, where he reveals that he is dying and that his death will allow his first-born child, the Death Goddess Hela (Blanchett), to escape her imprisonment and seize control of Asgard. 

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the shared universe centered on movies based on Marvel Comics characters.  This film is very light in tone, and often very funny, playing more as a comedy than a straightforward action adventure superhero film.  The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are both very good comic actors and they bounce off each other very well, Cate Blanchett goes full on panto villain as the evil Hela, and Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the intergalactic warlord, who rules a planet where Thor and Loki find themselves trapped on.  To add to the fun, Mark Ruffalo reprises his rule as the Hulk , and Benedict Cumberbatch has a brief appearance as Doctor Strange.  The film manages to balance the humour with enough drama to give scenes some emotional heft if needed, and sometimes comedy makes drama all the more affecting. The film is definitely too long,and the humour doesn't always land, but this is still a fun and funny comedy adventure.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok   

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Good Morning

Year of Release:  1959
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Starring:  Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugamura, Shitara Koji, Masahiko Shimazu
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, drama

Set in a Tokyo suburb, the film focuses on two young brothers: Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), who are desperate for a TV set, but their parents refuse to buy one for them, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the boy's father (Ryu) believes that television turns people into idiots.  Angered by their parent's refusal, and sick of being told to keep quiet all the time when adults indulge in pointless small talk and conversational niceties that don't really mean anything (such as "Good morning", "How are you?", "Good evening" etc.), the boys resolve to stop talking altogether, a decision which causes tension and misunderstandings in their gossipy, close-knit neighborhood. 

This is a gentle, sweet-natured comedy from legendary film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, and is a loose remake of his own 1932 film I Was Born, But....  As always with Ozu, this is beautifully shot film, in vibrant Technicolor.  Every shot is perfectly composed and designed, largely filmed in low-angles with the action framed in doorways or corridors, and sometimes taking place in the distance.  It's also sedate, moving at a very slow pace, with very little actually happening.  However, it is funny and joyful, although it is hardly a laugh-riot.  It is also a deceptively simple film, it has weight, dealing with traditional Ozu themes such as the generation gap, and the changing of Japanese society.  It also pokes fun at small talk and everyday conversational pleasantries, while also acknowledging that they are kind of a necessity. 

Silence is golden for Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Shitara Koji) in Good Morning