Friday, 31 October 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)

This was our last selection from the London Film Festival and a rip-roaring treat it proved to be. If you can stretch your mind to imagine a Korean spaghetti Western a la Sergio Leone mixed with Indiana Jones derring-do and stunts, all set in the Manchurian desert during the 1930s, you will begin to get an idea of what this film was like.

Starring three of Korea's leading actors -- and despite the credits shown at IMDb it is not possible to make them equal the good, the bad and the weird of the title, since they all came across as each of these adjectives in the course of the action -- it is an unashamed romp. I recognized two of the three from "The Host" (Song Kang-Ho) and "Bittersweet Life " (Korea's Alain Delon I call Lee Byung-Hun); the third certainly looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him. The plot encompassed a stolen map leading to hidden treasure sought by all three protagonists, hostile Japanese soldiers, untrustworthy Chinese, and would-be Korean nationalists. Beautifully photographed and with some unbelievable action sequences, the film is a hoot -- perhaps a wee bit talky in parts, but overall good fun.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Living Corpse (1928-29)

One of the best things about the London Film Festival is their "Treasures from the Archives" section where one has the opportunity to view both rarities and restored prints. This silent was the very first Soviet-German co-production, a prestige endeavour that received little exposure or popularity on release with the imminent attraction of "talkies". The two-hour print shown at the Festival was put together some 20 years ago in Berlin by the Deutsche Kinamathek from various film archives and the original score was found in the Library of Congress. It was little-known in the sixty years before its restoration and has probably been little-seen since, but I am positively delighted to have had the opportunity of viewing it.

Despite its title and the well-known fact that I have more than a passing interest in the horror genre, this was actually a domestic drama based on a Tolstoy play. The lead actor was Vsevolod Pudovkin, best known as one of the greatest Russian directors and film-writers, which in itself makes this movie a fascinating watch. He plays a man who wishes to dissolve his marriage for the noblest of reasons -- he believes his wife loves another and would be happier without him; he is forced into the subterfuge of faking his own death when neither the Church nor the Law offers any easy solutions. He is not prepared to fabricate make-believe adultery and he does not really wish to commit suicide. The story itself was actually something of a potboiler and greatly overextended, but the film itself was so beautifully shot, with dozens of Russian classic montage sequences and so many memorable faces, that it was a rare visual feast. It was also a pleasure hearing the original orchestral score (recorded, not live) rather than the usual tinkly piano accompaniment. This was definitely this year's Festival highlight.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

A couple from Korea...

My film festival festivities continue apace. On Thursday we had planned to watch some free open-air silent screenings celebrating London as imagined from the past. However after a droll short, "The Fugitive Futurist" from 1924, the heavens opened. Discretion proved the better part of valour and I therefore did not stay to see "High Treason" from 1929. Neither a cold bottom from sitting on stone steps in Trafalgar Square nor soggy clothing mix well with moviegoing appeal!

Hansel and Gretel (2007): It was back to a great cinema treat with this Korean fairy-cum-horror tale. A distracted young man wrecks his car and lies dazed until he is found by a strange girl. She takes him back to a handsome house deep in the woods where she lives with her older brother, younger sister, and superficially cheerful parents amidst a riot of colourful toys and succulent cakes. Not only do the telephones not work, but when our hero tries to find his way back to the main road, all paths lead back to the enchanted house. Then the parents disappear and other adults arrive to fill out the family or so it would seem. The movie plays with the power of wish fulfillment and the fractured dreams of childhood in strange, mysterious, and occasionally bloody ways. This is not a film where logic can be used, but if one gives oneself to the fantasy, it is both moving and surprising.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK (2006): As luck would have it, I found this film in my needs-to-be-watched backlog and decided to make it a thoroughly Korean day. It was director Park Chan-Wook's follow-up movie to his fantastic vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), but it could not be more different. Our heroine here, who comes from a long line of neurotic females, is committed to an institution after slashing her wrist and connecting herself to the electric supply in the factory where she works. She is convinced she is a cyborg and her only source of nourishment is licking battery acid, while a roly-poly fellow inmate wolfs down her meals. She is surrounded by other colourful "loonies" (I use this word advisedly since this seems to be what the director intended), one of whom befriends her and finds a way for her to take in nourishment. The one thing this movie does share with the previous three films is that she yearns for her new friend (a consummate thief) to steal her sympathy so that she can gun down all of the "men in white" -- a recurring fantasy throughout the picture. The movie is wildly imaginative and colourfully rendered; however I did feel that Park was trying just that little bit too hard to give us this fey story.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Film Festival update

I seem to be running out of time to get my London Film Festival screenings into some semblance of coherence. Note to self: Viewing movies after 9 p.m. and after a drink or two and a half bottle of wine is not a good idea!

The Warlords (2007): This joint China-Hong Kong production set during the late 19th Century Taiping Rebellion in China features three charistmatic leads in Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro as "blood brothers" who rise through the ranks to leadership glory. However Li fans should not come expecting martial arts mayhem since this is a prestige production, filled with busy battlescenes and somewhat sombre acting. Like so many films striving for historical accuracy, this one is far too long, goes somewhat soggy in the middle, and spends too much time on the red herring of Li lusting after Lau's mistress. Still it has sufficient "wow" moments and enough bravura turns to make it on balance a winner on screen.

Louise-Michel (2008): The less said about this film the better. I love absurdist humour and off-beat Belgian movies as much as the next guy, but this one fell flat on its surrealist face. Had I realised that it was by the same team as "Aaltra" (a somewhat missable movie about two crippled farmers who hate each other but who end up on a wheelchair roadtrip!), I probably would have thought twice about watching a movie featuring a woman (who might have been a man) hiring an assassin (a man who might be a woman) to kill the factory boss who put her and her co-workers out of employment. Still there were noticable hoots emanating from some audience members which either proves that I have suffered a humour-bypass or that there really are different strokes for different folks.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008): I was a little afraid that the latest movie from one of my cinematic heroes, Takeshi Kitano, might be another self-indulgent effort after his previous two: "Takeshis" and "Glory to the Filmmaker", but although it forms the third part of a very loose trilogy, it had much to commend it. Takeshi, who is a keen and very able artist himself, here gives his satirical take on what it is to be an artist and how the art world can be a very phony place. Divided into three parts, the story follows the son of a rich industrialist and art patron who is encouraged by his Dad to become a great artist at the expense of both schooling and social behaviour. When Dad goes bankrupt and hangs himself and his mother dumps him with uncaring relations, the boy's obsession is given little room to grow. The next section visits him as a young man still determined to be an artist as he attends an art school which can teach him nothing and as he experiments with finding his style with his bohemian friends. However outlandish experimentation just makes his art more derivative and his every desperate effort is refused by his favoured gallery. Takeshi himself takes over the role of the still unsuccessful and unfulfilled middle-aged man who becomes more and more desperate and more and more misled to achieve artistic greatness. The fact that all of the many paintings featured in this movie -- both the "great" ones supposedly by other artists and the awful, duff ones -- are by the director himself is proof of his amazing skill. Again the film is possibly a little too long and not completely of a piece, but Takeshi's humourous observation kept me contentedly watching.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Dean Spanley (2008)

The one thing that is guaranteed to annoy us time and again -- and to some extent undermining the pleasure of the film about to be viewed -- is the incredibly awful time-keeping at the London Film Festival. If a film is scheduled for say 6 p.m., it is reasonable to expect it to start within a few minutes of that time and to not have to wait until the many latecomers are seated. This showing was particularly delayed, not only for the aforementioned reason, but also because the Festival director had a huge posse of special guests to wheel up on the stage and for some of them to speak a few unnecessary words. There were so many on this occasion that half of them were left standing on the side aisle while others including the very frail Peter O'Toole were placed on display (to rapturous applause) but not asked to say anything; he looked as bemused as I felt.

Eventually we were permitted to watch the movie! It is an extremely odd and extremely lightweight confection which might have been dismissable were it not for the sparkling turns from O'Toole and Sam Neill. Set in Edwardian England, O'Toole is an old duffer living in a huge house with only his housekeeper for company after the deaths of his younger son and wife. Dutiful elder son Jeremy Northam visits once a week, but finds it heavy-going and on one fateful Thursday -- for want of anything better to do -- he takes his father to a very boring lecture on the transmigration of souls. There he first sees Neill's eponymous clerical gent whom he subsequently encounters with some frequency. Fascinated by his strange demeanour and his apparent love for tokay, he invites him to dinner. In his cups -- after a few glasses of the syrupy brew -- Neill tends to regress to what he believes to be a previous existence as a faithful dog. As luck would have it, O'Toole often goes on about a wonderful dog that he lost in his youth (one of the "seven great dogs" in the world), and when these two characters are finally brought together, O'Toole becomes able to locate the heart which he has refused to acknowledge all these years.

Strange? Very! The layered acting from these two leads are what make the film memorable. Northam and Bryan Brown as a colonial enabler (he is the one who manages to keep finding the increasingly expensive bottles of tokay) are OK, but not irreplaceable. The same could not be said of the exquisite turns from O'Toole and Neill.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

In-Flight Movies once more

This will almost certainly be the last in-flight report of the year -- thank goodness! All of the following are 2008 releases which I more or less watched under the suitability of the smallest of screens and the variability of the sound quality -- to say nothing of altered viewing ratios. But at least I know which of them might bear watching again under improved conditions.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: This is not a film that is likely to break any box office records, or even to have mass appeal, but it is a charming and unusual examination of an aging spinster's embracing life. Set in late 30s' London, Frances McDormand plays a poor but well-brought up vicar's daughter who is unable to hold any of the nanny jobs in which her agency has placed her and faces jobless penury. She "steals" the address of a potential employer and rather than finding a difficult child to look after, she finds a naked lover in the bed of aspiring American actress-singer Amy Adams. Proving herself invaluable to the flaky Adams, she is semi-glammed up by her new friend and may even find a love she has never known in the arms of Ciaran Hinds. Both actresses are terrific, the period setting and music are top-rate, and the feel-good factor is uplifting.

The Incredible Hulk: This is not to be confused with Ang Lee's box office flop "The Hulk" from 2003, but for my money it is not much of an improvement, not even with the surprising casting of Edward Norton in the lead. This time he must cope not only with the military who wish to exploit him as a weapon, but also with mad adversary Tim Roth who has exposed himself to the same formula. Cue a lot of over the top CGI fights between the two giants -- one of whom is meant to be truly evil. Yawn. You can tell that the Marvel folk really hope to extend this franchise and there is even a cameo for Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man at the end, but I for one am hulked out.

Hancock: This Will Smith starrer as a drunken and anti-social superhero starts off as great fun, but by the second half has degenerated into an unholy and unbelievable mess. Unsuccessful PR guru Jason Bateman wants to polish up Smith's image after he is saved from death by the destructive Smith, who manages to rack up expensive mayhem each time he uses his powers. Smith is prepared to give it a go, even accepting a jail sentence, until he lays eyes on Bateman's luscious wife, Charlize Theron. It seems that he is not really one of a kind since she has fantastic powers too and from that point things just get sillier and sillier.

The Ruins: I've read this sub-Stephen King horror novel and could see where someone might think it would make a good and gory movie. Well they've simplified the plot, cast a bunch of minor actors (the one exception is the very able Jena Malone), and were too chicken to give the film the same very bleak ending as the book. The plot concerns some college-grad holidaymakers in Mexico who visit a Mayan ruin with a new German friend only to be stranded at the top, prevented from coming down by hostile natives, and at the mercy of flesh- eating plants. The high point of thisso-called horror is watching one of the actor's legs being amputated. Horrible yes, horror not really.

The Wackness: This was apparently a big hit with the audience at Sundance earlier this year and is certainly a quirky tale. Recent high school grad Josh Peck earns his money for college by pushing an ancient ice cream wagon around the city as a cover for the drugs he sells. One of his best customers (and his confidant) is a shrink played by Ben Kingsley, who is in a strained relationship with his new wife and whose stepdaughter is the object of Peck's lust. As stories of adolescents "growing up" go, this is a watchable one and the main actors are fine, although I must confess that I found Kingsley rather annoying. However, like life there are no guaranteed happy endings here.

It's London Film Festival time and I saw the first of my selection last night. More to come here in due course...

Friday, 10 October 2008

Devil Doll (1964)

This film forms part of a very small sub-genre of movies about possessed ventriloquists' dummies which includes the classic "Dead of Night" from 1945 and Tony Hopkins' "Magic" (1978); it is not to be confused with the Lionel Barrymore starrer of the same name from 1936 which is scary in its own right but which has nothing to do with ventriloquism.

I must confess to a soft spot for this low-budget British flick despite its relatively low production values and its pretty awful cast, which consists of two American actors Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli and William Sylvester as a visiting journalist, the rather wooden Yvonne Romaine as his wealthy British girlfriend, and Sandra Dorne, an ex sex-bomb from the 50s and now well past her peak as Vorelli's assistant. The real star of the film is Vorelli's dummy Hugo, who not only can talk on his own but who can also walk on his own! He's a pretty threatening wooden doll who's kept caged up at night, and the obvious hatred between him and his "master" is palpable. It seems he's powered by the captured soul of a former assistant and Vorelli fancies Romaine with her money as the next inhabitant of a wooden body.

I hadn't seen this movie for some years when I found it was available on DVD together with a "hot" (and I am quoting the case) Continental version of the same film. With my curiosity piqued I had to see the differences which consist of Vorelli hypnotising a staid music student into doing a "sexy" striptease before his audience (ending with a topless shot), a few brief shots of Dorne's breasts before she is murdered, and a scene set in Berlin where Sylvester's colleague's girlfriend appears topless rather than in a negligee. I was aware that movies were often shot in different cuts for different markets back then, but frankly these very tame scenes from our modern perspective add absolutely nothing to the film, and if anything detract from the spooky subject matter and the logic of Dorne's death.

The movie has something of a cult following and one or two real frissons of fear, but they are lost to some extent in the rather plodding action.

Guess what? Yes, I'm off to New York again for hopefully the last time this year. I should be back in time for the London Film Festival, so more reviews then -- plus of course my latest scintillating selection of in-flight movies.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

The director John Ford is one of my cinema gods and at some point during most of his films I find myself moved to tears. However amongst his large output there were some definite duds. In particular "Mogambo", despite its starry cast, has always struck me as but a pale shadow of the original "Red Dust" and the English-set "Gideon's Day" has very little to offer. The above movie is possibly another of his lesser films, but by its casting alone, it deserves out attention. Ford himself is said to have stated that he considered this shoot just a job of work, but it is still -- despite the outlandish story -- a well-mounted and generally involving tale.

Army officer C. Aubrey Smith (the foremost figure of English authority from the 30s) cables his four sons that he has been court-martialed and dishonoured; it seems that he was getting in the way of a ruthless international arms syndicate. The sons played by George Sanders, David Niven, Richard Greene (nominally the lead), and the little-known William Henry set out to prove his innocence after he is found murdered (a crime that was meant to be taken as suicide). They travel to India and South America to track down the names their father has mentioned before his sudden demise. This is where the film is graced with its galaxy of wonderful character actors: Alan Hale, John Carradine, Reginald Denny, J. Edward Bromberg, Barry Fitzgerald,, who all play their part in solving the mystery and restoring the family name.

The weakest link is love interest Loretta Young who is involved with Greene, but who is happy indeed to flirt with the other brothers. This normally charming actress is just a flighty spoiled rich girl here, unexpectedly turning up in various parts of the world in a succession of designer outfits, and relatively flippant even after witnessing a local massacre.

So, yes, it's minor Ford and well down the list of his "must-see" movies, but from my point of view, even minor Ford beats out much of the competition.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Getting started

Just to get into the swing of things, here are a few random thoughts about some of the movies I've viewed in the last week -- and all I can say is that I hope things will look up:

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007): One of the last entries on my former journal reinforced my feelings about Adam Sandler and his puzzling popularity. OK, the man does take chances and can raise the occasional smile, but this farrago of two hetero chaps pretending to be married for insurance benefits was doomed from the start. Like his latest "Zohan", this ends in a plea for tolerance which is all very worthy, but funny (not).

Black Snake Moan (2006): While it has been an interesting exercise watching Christina Ricci grow up (and change shape!), her recent role choices leave much to be desired -- although I suspect she is not the easiest actress in the world to cast. Here she plays a nymphomaniac of sorts whom bible-thumper Samuel L. Jackson chains to his radiator in order to reform. Hmmm.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007): Not having been overly enthused by Cate Blanchett's first outing as Queen Elizabeth, I was hardly looking forward to more of the same in this second chapter. Admittedly the production is sumptuous and lovingly put together, but it was also ponderous and heavy going.

Close to Home (2005): I held out some hope for this Israeli film of two mismatched young female recruits in the army serving out their conscription, but was left wondering whether the movie had any real purpose, other than to drive home the authoritarian nature of army life and the hounding (or so it seemed) of Arab Israelis trying to go about their daily business.

Mr. Woodcock (2007): While I will admit that Billy Bob Thornton has some talent as both an actor and a writer, I find his onscreen persona more and more irritating. Here he plays a bullying physical education teacher who is about to wed the mother (Susan Sarandon) of a grownup victim of his venom, Sean William Scott, playing a now successful self-help author who is unable to help himself in the circumstances. Embarrassing and unpleasant all round.

I know, things can only get better...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Moving along

Now that AOL (bless their little cotton socks) have announced the demise of three and a half years' of heartfelt blogging, it's time to move my journal.

Since I am still shooting across the Atlantic like a demented bat out of hell, it will take a while to settle in, but I promise to continue with my capsule reactions to my recent film viewing which will of course reflect my very eclectic taste.

Watch this space...