Thursday, January 31, 2019

Luna Papa (1999)

The mountainous nation of Tajikistan is one that's often forgotten by the rest of the world, but despite this, and despite setbacks in their own country, they've still managed to make at least a small impression on the international cinema stage, like with the Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov production Luna Papa...

In a small village, a young woman named Mamlakat ends up mysteriously pregnant. Aided by her father and mentally impaired older brother, she goes out in search for the father through the neighbouring countries. Throughout their journey, the family comes across many trials, and have no luck finding the father at first, and Mamlakat finds herself having to adjust to her changed life back home...

Luna Papa is a somewhat interesting fantasy realist production. The story moves along nicely, with a neat narrative device, likeable and distinctive characters, and quirky situations. There's a good mix of comedy and drama, and the movie at times feels like an odyssey throughout the regions of Central Asia.

I was left confused though by whether or not Mamlakat's pregnancy was supernatural or not. If it was just the horny pilot, how did he romance and bang this young girl who doesn't even seem to know what sex is in under 30 seconds, all without ever showing his face to boot? And how did he have sex with Mamlakat without the two of them ever actually having had sex? All we see is her moaning in pleasure as/while she slides down a hill. Maybe it's meant to be metaphorical, but it didn't really seem that way to me, when so much else in the movie plays out normally and literally.

I was disappointed with the direction the story took near the end. It's like the author wrote himself into a corner, and so we're treated to a plot development akin to a Monty Python skit that's played straight. The movie just sort of ambles along after this point, until reaching the end, which is bizarre in a way that wasn't really signposted before this point, making it feel a bit much.

Visually this is a great movie! The scenery is beautiful, with its deserts, mountains, and ocean-like lakes.

I also found the country itself an interesting sight, with how it seems a mix of older times and modern day things   The film is from the 1999, yet it has a timeless feel that could take place in any other decade of the 20th century. Or heck, it could look like a post-apocalyptic world where everyone's trudging along with what remains of modern day technology! Quite a definition of timeless when it looks like both the past and the future!*

*PS, I sure hope that statement doesn't end up being accidentally insulting to Tajiks! "Uhh, no, I meant your country looks post-apocalyptic in a nice way".

The score is quite good, with some  pieces, though one is perhaps repeated a bit too much, making me wonder how much music they actually had written.

The acting is quite good! Chulpan Khamatova is convincing in the lead role, Moritz Bleibtreu is quite good as the mentally challenged brother forced to adapt near the end, and Ato Mukhamedzhanov works well as the father trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I was a little disappointed upon finding out most of the actors aren't actually Tajik, but I guess it's not that big a deal. The locals probably didn't mind, and also would've specifically liked these actors for all I know. Plus, there may not have been many Tajik actors available to begin with! Every Tajik I've spoken to has reacted in surprise to this movie even existing, with the response of "...We have a film industry?".

Luna Papa is a weird and flawed picture that didn't really come together for me by the ending, but it's still an interesting movie for sure, with its sometimes stunning and surreal visuals almost reminiscent of The City of Lost Children.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)

Say, have you ever wondered where Fu Manchu studied, or what he's a doctor of? Peter Sellers has got you covered with his 1980 comedy The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu...

On his 168th birthday, the diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu is ready to once again take his rare elixir vitae, but a mishap causes it to be spilt, and so the  villain has to scramble his dacoit forces across the globe in order to gather the necessary ingredients to concoct a new batch of elixir. The retired but no less brilliant Nayland Smith is on the case though, and swears to bring Fu to justice before he can be restored to full strength...

The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu was very harshly received on its release, and I was both curious and worried about whether or not this reputation was deserved. It actually made for quite a stressful viewing experience, since I was enjoying myself, but thought that at any moment the penny could drop and it'd suddenly become awful. Let me put that expectation out of your head right away. This movie is by no means terrible. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's quite an entertaining picture, and I had a smile just about the entire time.

This succeeds as a pastiche. While I feel it doesn't go as far as I would've liked it to in that regard, it's still effective, and if I compare it with similar movies such as Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, it's leagues better. While some really enjoy that film I found it rather...spotty, both as a comedy and as a pastiche. Despite being based on a British property from the 1880s, it felt too modern and American. Fiendish Plot too has some touches of modernity and absurdity, but it's played a lot straighter for the most part, and never goes really overboard, though one or two scenes had me close to groaning. Despite its silliness, the film genuinely made me nostalgic for a period of Chinese history that is either long gone, or never actually existed (or at least not exactly like this).

The pacing gets a little staid at the midpoint, but never falters drastically, and the climax is when things get really high-concept. The climax is mixed though. It's actually relatively free of action, and the resolution isn't about the throwing of fists, clashing of swords, or the firing of guns, but is just a conversation! Sounds utterly anticlimactic, right? It almost is, but said conversation is actually quite interesting, and is the kind of exchange you'd only witness in fiction. Two characters, arch enemies, sitting down and talking to each-other about their roles, what they are without the other, and wondering if they should start their game anew. Thoughtful stuff! What follows next however is just plain weird! It's definitely the most modern part of the film, and while it seems kind of out-of-place, it's almost brilliant in a way when you think about it, and not just a non-sequitur. It is still a shame though that there's not really a proper ending.

There's some talk (mainly on wikipedia) that The Fiendish Plot is a racist movie. That is bullcrap. The film is not racist. Rather, it's a piss-take on both racism in Hollywood, and of hokey stereotypes. We see quite a few hoary old cliches taken out of mothballs to have a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. The only thing that bothered me was Sid Caesar's character using the word chink a few times early on. It's period accurate of course, and it's not like the film itself is siding with that word per se, but it's still annoying. There's also one instance of yellow. It's no doubt meant to be spoofing the use of such words in less 'delicate' films, but while in movies like The Pink Panther Clouseau referring to Cato as yellow is obvious as a clear and egregious faux-pas on his part, the utterance of the word in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu doesn't come across nearly as well.

Apparently this production was a bit of a nightmare behind the scenes, or to put it another way, this was a Peter Sellers film. Quite a tempestuous chap if I do say so myself! Thankfully this doesn't show onscreen. It's very well-made, with neat costumes, great sets, and pretty locations, with Fu Manchu's headquarters getting a stunning snowy mountain environment. The look of everything matches the grand Oriental extravagance that the Christopher Lee series portrayed so well, it looks really good/it's a really good looking movie period!

The Fiendish Plot has an ensemble cast, with names such as David Tomlinson, Sid Caesar, Helen Mirren, Steve Franken, John Sharp, and even John Le Mesurier in a small role (with fellow Dad's Army alumni Clive Dunn showing up briefly too). Given the star's ailing condition, this was perhaps a necessity. These performers all do good jobs.

Peter Sellers makes for a good, albeit frail, Fu Manchu. He appears sparingly earlier on, but gets more to do as the story progresses. While his Indian-face in The Party is pretty cringey by today's standards depending on the viewer (surprisingly enough some Indians tend to view it the most favourably!), Sellers' occasions of donning yellowface never came off as offensive because he was specifically parodying the yellowface prevalent in older cinema (or indeed, recent cinema, if the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series was any indication).

The accent he affects is similar to the one he used when playing the Charlie Chan parody Sydney Wang in Murder by Death, but not silly and more sincere. He doesn't sound humourless of course, since he's Peter Sellers, but it's nowhere near as bad as Glenn Gordon's cringeworthy accent from the Adventures tv series, and never comes across as insulting or demeaning.

His portrayal of Nayland Smith is an interesting take on the character, but this  is also somewhat of a drawback. While it's unique to see Smith in such a wizened state, it's also a bit tough to watch in places considering that Sellers himself was in an all too real frail state, only months before his untimely passing. Despite the humorously themed eccentricities, the character is treated respectfully, just like his arch enemy. He's a bit of a kook in his old age, but he's still shown to be incredibly sharp and intelligent, as well as dynamic when the occasion calls for it.

The other characters range from good to ok, while a few come off as unnecessary. The Americans are pointless, and the actors playing them are the only reason I'm not immediately impatient with them. As for Helen Mirren's character, I'm not sure. She appears quite a bit in the latter half, but when you actually think about it she doesn't further the plot much. I wouldn't want to see her gone though. She's the kind of almost superfluous character who you'd want to see expanded rather than excised.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu would be Peter Sellers' last film, right after Being There. While not the greatest swansong one could ask for, in tone and quality it's a fitting enough coda to a remarkable career...

Monday, January 14, 2019

Aunt Clara (1954)

Eccentric old millionaire Simon Hilton knows the end is near, and he also knows his family are a greedy bunch of wretches, so he decides to play a little trick on them. Knowing that they'll all be to busy with their holidays and leisure time to bother showing up for his birthday, Simon intimates that those who show up might benefit favourably in his will. Once they show up, suddenly sucking up, Simon's will announces that they'll receive very little, while the only member of his family who was too busy taking care of others to appear will get the lion's share of his money and holdings-His niece Clara.

Since Uncle Simon had rather a few...somewhat unsavoury businesses, his dutiful manservant and confidant Henry feels he has to 'protect' Clara from these by either trying to steer her clear from them, or by misleading her into believing they're more innocent ventures. Whether or not she's fooled is one thing, but also important is the whereabouts of Uncle Simon's other beneficiary Julie, who seems to have vanished without a trace...or so her weaselly former employers say...

Aunt Clara is a sweet and entertaining comedy. Moving at a brisk pace, it covers a fair bit of ground without feeling overstuffed. We even get a good amount of setup before the lead actually shows up.

Clara is quite an interesting and most definitely cuddly character. You're never quite sure about her. Is she as blissfully unaware as she lets on, or does she know more about the truth than others suspect? Henry is a likeable old sod, and while it's a bit of a surprise to find out the character you've been following for the first 10 or so minutes is a crook, he's not that bad of a guy and there's never a point where you feel like slapping him upside the head, especially by the end when Clara's intervention sets him right.

I liked the prologue in the Blitz. It wasn't necessary to show for the story since Uncle Simon dies early on, but I felt it informed the relationship between him and Henry.

Some elements feel a bit hokey, like the instant love story, but that's forgiveable. Really my only problem with Julie's part of the story is that it takes so long for her to show up (enough time that I was actually a little confused about who she was at first), and that her first scene with Clara is offscreen, despite seeming like an important moment we should see.

Aunt Clara is very funny, with quite a few quotable lines. The film gets a little melancholy in the end in an unexpected way, and has a surprisingly moving ending for what I assumed was just a silly comedy going into it

After I finished the movie, I read a comment online about how comedies back in the olden days were so much sweeter, innocent, and less crass than today's. Very true, but it also got me thinking. While it of course wouldn't be a problem is Aunt Clara was set in a 'naive dreamworld' where nothing is wrong, the film isn't really like that. Instead it acknowledges that there are unsavoury and larcenous things in the world (all with a comedic glance of course), and shows how they can be remedied. Quite an admirable message!

The actors in Aunt Clara all do fine jobs. Leads like Ronald Shiner are fun, giving an exuberant air to proceedings. We get minor roles from British stalwarts like Sid James, and even a cameo from a real life personality, Prince Monolulu, who often frequented racetracks. And most importantly, Margaret Rutherford is simply adorable as the titular Aunt Clara! She plays the role very well, getting across all facets of her character, and nailing both humorous and dramatic moments. The only odd thing is that she's meant to be a niece to Uncle Simon, yet looks at least two decades older than him. Rutherford was only 62 at the time, but she always had that elderly quality to her, like she was born a dotty and doting old grandmother.

Aunt Clara has got to be a prime example of Margaret Rutherford's filmography, and of British comedy cinema of the period...

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Old (2018-)

Webseries pilot Old first came to my attention because of Robine Bailes and Graham Trelfer, creators of the hilarious Dark Corners review show on youtube (which I swear I'll talk about more in-depth someday! As members of the crew, they signal-boosted this pilot on their social media such as Patreon,

In an idyllic but manic nursing home, we follow seniors Fred and Jenny, and their young friend Joy, the establishment's nurse. Joy has just come out of the closet to them, and while they're figuring out a good way for her to meet some new girls, another resident overhears the conversation and creates a fake dating profile for Joy to mess with her. Meanwhile, death stalks the nursing home with the pawprints of the menacing cat Gus...

As far as pilots go, Old sets up its world quite well. There are enough characters to go round, but not so many that it's disorienting. The story is well-written, and never fails to amuse.

The humour is spot-on, often hilarious. It's a good mix of of raunchy without being gratuitous and super in-your face

One especially nice thing about Old is its diversity, not only in casting, but in sexuality, with its bisexual and lesbian characters, as well as the casual treatment of these as regular and normal. Particularly sweet is the conclusion.

The acting here is all very good. Some moments are a little more overdone and exaggerated than others, but otherwise things are fine. Peter Straker, Janie Gray, Monisha Gohil, and Andrew Cunningham are all standouts.

The scoring here is fun, fitting the action well. The song that plays over the end is nice too, with a sweetly sincere ring to it.

Well, this wasn't the longest or most complex of reviews, was it, but this is only half an hour, and comedies can sometimes be hard to review if they successfully hit what they set out to do. Old is a very funny watch, and with any luck it'll make it to a full series, and entertain for a long time...