Thursday, 29 January 2009

Gua Sha - The Treatment (2001)

Life is full of surprises. I religiously scour the German television schedules (which I receive by satellite) for oddities, particularly on the German/French arts channel Arte. I have found most of my silent collection there; for example, last week they showed a 2007 restoration of Intolerance (1916) and their selection of unusual cinema is matchless. The only problem with them (and all of the other German channels) is their propensity for overdubbing rather than relying on subtitles.

I noticed the above Taiwanese film in the afternoon schedules and didn't bother to check it out; I just noted that it was starring Tony Leung and I assumed it would be something pretty special. Well for a start it wasn't the Tony Leung of the recent Wong Kar Wai and Ang Lee films but the actor of the same name who starred in "The Lover" (1992), who is also a fine actor but not the one I was expecting. The next surprise is that this was a modern-day drama, set and filmed in St. Louis, Missouri and written primarily in English, which led to the very pleasant surprise that the movie was not dubbed but used German subtitles for the dialogue which switched between English and Mandarin (and I was able to cope with these for the brief non-English dialogue).

But enough about the background: the final surprise was how involving the story was. Leung plays a prize-winning computer game designer, who, together with his equally intelligent wife and US-born 6-year son, is trying to assimilate into the American life style and the American dream. He has brought over his non-English-speaking father from the mainland and hopes to obtain a green card for him. When the child falls at home and is taken to hospital for stitches, the doctors note the extreme bruising on his back and conclude that he has been abused; and the do-gooder social workers immediately remove the cosseted child from his home and very loving parents. All attempts to explain that the bruising is the result of an ancient Chinese health treatment known as Gua Sha -- and in fact administered by the grandfather -- do not impress the ignorant court and they deem the child permanently at risk. The Child Services lawyer takes pleasure in presenting the father as a violent man -- based on the kind of games he designs -- and provokes him into losing his temper in court which hardly helps his case. I don't want to go on to explain how this situation develops and how it resolves itself, even if the film does not appear to be on DVD at present, as the possible spoilers are many. I will just mention that the penultimate scenes involve Leung in a Santa Claus suit climbing up the drainpipe to the family's ninth floor apartment with a toy monkey in his arm -- real heart in your throat action. I could do with a lot more surprises like this one.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I was pleased indeed to obtain tickets for the preview of this film which opens here soon, since the concept is more than a little intriguing and the movie has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards. I will stick my neck out up front and predict that it will not win any of the major prizes -- best film, best director (David Fincher), best actor (Brad Pitt), or best supporting actress, but I would expect it to do well in the various technical categories. Whether or not it wins best screenplay from a previously published source remains to be seen, since this film manages to expand into nearly three hours with a far wider timescale and focus than the very, very short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written as a bedtime fantasy for his young daughter.

The film is very good and certainly worth seeing, but it is not without its flaws, primarily its very leisurely approach and the extra long framing device of Cate Blanchett dying in hospital as Hurricaine Katrina approaches New Orleans and very slowly relaying Benjamin's story to her daughter. First criticism: she may be dying but this is no excuse for her dialogue to be mumbled and barely intelligible. Against this, Blanchett is fine as Pitt's lifelong love Daisy from her prima ballerina days through her older persona. There is also a second pair of bookends about a blind clockmaker who builds a clock that runs backwards, which while very interesting is actually unrelated to the story here, although a nice counterpoint. As probably everyone now knows the story follows Pitt's character from the time he is born as a wizened old-man baby; it chronicles his growth backwards, through middle age and youth until he finally regresses into infancy. The special effects which allow Pitt to play all of these parts (other than the late childhood ones) are seamlessly done and certainly will deserve Academy recognition.

This film does succeed, but I think on different levels than those intended. There is a lovely interlude when the elderly Pitt begins an affair in Russia with a bored and spoiled Tilda Swinton -- probably another embroidery on the Fitzgerald bare bones; how this story finishes itself many years later is nearly a throwaway thread, albeit a very satisfying one. However, despite the occasional misplaced humour (like the old geezer who keeps telling Pitt about the seven times he was struck by lightning), this is really a film about loss. It's not just the lost love of Pitt and Blanchett which can only fulfil itself in their middle years before she gets too old and he gets too young, but the loss of our various loved ones as their alloted time passes. There are an uncanny number of deaths in the film as it plays itself out and ultimately the movie is a sad one. It does not celebrate life so much as it reminds us that time and tide are our overriding masters, that we are ruled by incalculable and merciless circumstance.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007)

It is hard to believe that a movie about a magical toy store could escape being a magical viewing experience, but disappointingly, such was the case here. Screenwriter Zach Helm in his first outing as a director, brings an overly twee sensibility to the story and the character names that somehow defeats his presumably good intentions. One is left with a colourful and beautifully designed toystore set, perhaps overly busy at times, peopled by some rather unappealing (here) lead performers.

I have never been much of a Dustin Hoffman fan, although I have admired his acting chops in many of his films -- "Lenny" and "Tootsie" spring immediately to mind, but I must now conclude that he really can't play comedy without the intelligent viewer wanting to thump him. His eponymous title character, the 243-year old shopkeeper and inventer, is so-overplayed with what is meant to be ingratiating quirkiness that I felt like hiding my eyes in embarrassment. Natalie Portman as a stalled musical prodigy and Hoffman's protege gives an adequate but uninspired performance. Only Jason Bateman as an uninmaginative accountant brought in to sort out the business before Hoffman "goes away", i.e. dies, brings a sense of wonderment to his role. Hoffman says that the word accountant sounds like 'a counting mutant' and the continuous use of 'mutant' to address Bateman's character is a joke that wears thinner and thinner as the film goes on. I should also shed some praise on child actor Zach Mills, "the hat collector" of the cast-list, who bonds with Bateman and who helps him find his inner child. He reminded me of the young Lukas Haas and his enormous stick-out ears seemed unreal.

I could see children reacting positively to this movie if only because of the many wondrous toys on display, but I can't help thinking that the film misfired when it had the capability of being a truly remarkable 90-odd minutes.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

I had heard much praise for this Romanian Cannes Palme d'or winner, despite its unpromising subject matter (abortion), and since I really admired a previous Romanian downbeat outing -- The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), I was hoping for some worthwhile viewing. Frankly, however, I can not see what all the fuss was about for this slight story with its non-cinematic presentation.

Originally titled "Tales from the Golden Age" and set in Ceausescu's Romania of the 1980s when abortion was a crime, it was probably intended as a satire on a time when life in the country was anything but 'golden' and focuses on the rather drab and unpromising society that it actually was. The tale concerns two girls, roommates at a technical college, and how they go about obtaining an illegal abortion. The one who is pregnant is the sort of selfish ninny that one felt like kicking and she over-relied on her more practical friend for the final organisation, having lied to the would-be abortionist (the ironically named Mr. Bebe) about how far gone she was -- although the actual timespan of the title was never worked out, having failed to secure the required hotel room, and also having omitted to find out how much it would cost. Come the day, the final price involved her friend having to submit to his sexual demands.

Meanwhile the practical one had to try to keep her own boyfriend happy by appearing at his mother's birthday celebrations out in the middle of nowhere and realised that her own humble background remained an obstacle to any long-term prospects. This rather extended scene with his family's friends rabbiting in the background while she looks bemused might have seemed irrelevant, but it helped the viewer to realise the depth of her worries both about herself and her friend whom she had left alone at the hotel. When she returns she finds her asleep with the aborted remains on the bathroom floor which, of course, her friend expects her to dispose of . When she returns from this sorry task there is no reply from the room, but she finds the cow in the dining room stuffing her face. This is where the film ends and leaves the viewer wondering whether selfless behaviour is ever its own reward and whether our heroine could expect any support from either her friend or her boyfriend were the situation reversed. OK, it was a vaguely interesting time capsule, but seriously not worth all the hoohah it generated. PING!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

I must confess that I have not seen anywhere near as many Italian movies from the 70s and 80s as I think I have, since I keep stumbling across previously-unviewed giallos -- so-called from the yellow dustjackets of thriller novels. I had vaguely heard of this film from director Pupi Avati (a minor horror director of that time) and probably remembered it because of its unusual title, but I had certainly not viewed it previously. Unfortunately, despite its fairly respectable cult reputation, it was not in my opinion much of a find.

It stars Lino Capalicchio whom I recognized immediately from the far superior arthouse film "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1970). He plays an art expert who is employed to restore the altarpiece of a church in a remote town. Something should have alerted him immediately that all was not right, since the death of St. Sebastian was depicted here by knives (while as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of religious painting knows, the saint was killed by arrows). He might also have had further suspicions that the town harbored secrets by the succession of weird folk he encounters (a dwarf mayor, a slightly subnormal local lad, a paralysed old woman, an overly-cheery priest, et. al.) and by the fact that the friend who summoned him there soon meets his maker falling from a high window. He learns that the dead painter of the original fresco had death-cult leanings, encouraged by his two very strange older sisters, and that various suspicious disappearances accompanied the fresco's original conception.

This may make the film sound somewhat appealing, but I must tell you that the story unfolded in a more than slightly incoherent manner, aided by abrupt transitions between scenes. It did manage to convey a growing sense of dread as our hero attempted to solve the mystery of the painting's history, especially after his restoration was well and truly trashed. However the supposedly shock ending was too clearly signalled in the build-up and I found myself wishing that a more talented director might have used the bare bones of this story in a more compelling and suspenseful way. Oh yes, when I was beginning to think that the house of the title had no relevance, we were allowed to see the side view of the house where the old painter and his sisters had lived, with its large grinning red mouths painted across the panes -- not that this really had much to do with anything! It did, however, provide for a good "come-on" title for a frankly very flawed movie.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Susana (1951)

Despite being one of my favourite directors, I've written very little about Luis Bunuel recently, probably because I've known and loved his European output for so long and because there is so rarely an opportunity to view the mixed bag of films that he churned out during his "lost" years in Mexico. He left Spain after the Civil War, not for political reasons, but because work had dried up. After some years in the U.S. during which time he made no films, he settled in Mexico in the late 40s, became a citizen, and only returned to Spain at Franco's request in 1961 -- after which most of his greatest films emerged (if one puts his early youthful surrealist efforts with Dali into a box of their own). This is not to say that his Mexican sojourn was fallow, since it produced masterpieces like "Los Olvidados", "El", "...Archibaldo de la Cruz", and "Nazarin", but for much of the time he took whatever work was available, most often on low budget movies, with variable results.

It is still difficult to track down his Mexican output, but I am ever on the trail. "Susana" was one of the earliest, and he both wrote and directed this very minor outing. It is hard to label it anything other than an overheated melodrama, but it is not without interest and in many ways seems a forerunner of greater things to come. Rosita Quintana plays a delinquent sexpot who has escaped from a grim reformatory and who lands up in the driving rain at the plantation of a rich landowner. Taken in by the family and kindly treated, she deliberately sets out to seduce their student son, the macho foreman, and ultimately the father himself, setting herself on a collision course with his dutiful wife and her cheeky and suspicious housekeeper. By the end of the movie she is back in detention and the household is once again in harmony, almost as if nothing has transpired. However, underneath this surface one can sense Bunuel's belief that outside forces can so easily disrupt the taken-for-granted order of things and that happiness is a very delicate balance between temptation and duty.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Apocalypto (2006)

There are certain films that I am in no hurry to view, yet which I find surprisingly good when I eventually catch up with them. I thought Mel Gibson's previous directorial outing with "The Passion of the Christ" was well-done, even if it was not exactly my cup of tea. Before it was released, no one would have believed that a film shot in Aramaic would find an audience, but then no one allowed for the vast Christian fundamentalist market in America, which turned it into a pot of gold for Mr. Gibson. However, it is even less possible to envision a ready-made audience for a film shot in Mayan and this movie did not find the same success -- which is a shame actually, since it is a well-made, beautifully-shot, and ultimately very exciting action flick.

That it received its television premier in Britain on a very minor satellite channel rather than on Sky Movies or one of the main terrestrial channels reinforces the unfortunate impression that this film is not for the mainstream viewer. However, anyone who is prepared to read subtitles will discover a major achievement here. Gibson creates a stirring saga of a peace-loving group of forest-dwellers being captured by a warlike nation and taken to their city temple to be sacrificed to the angry gods. One young man manages to escape and does all in his power to return to his child and pregnant wife whom he has hidden away in a deep hole, all the while being pursued by a vengeful chief and his men. The second half of this rather long film thereby becomes a chase movie and one is rooting for young Jaguar Paw-- a monumental performance by one Rudy Youngblood -- all the while.

The care that has gone into the production design from the seemingly authentic make-up and costuming to the crowd scenes of thousands is more than admirable, and Mr.Gibson, whatever his faults, deserves our praise. I have read that the film is not exactly historically accurate, but who gives a damn. It's entertaining and brilliantly conceived and that counts for a lot nowadays.

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Best of a Bad Lot

I've seen some pretty dubious films over the last few days -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks" anyone? -- which are really not worth writing about. These included another two 2007 efforts which probably did no business to speak of: Hilary Swank in yet another poor role choice in "P.S. I Love You" and where-has-my-career-gone Meg Ryan in fraught family drama "In the Land of Women". Forget about them! So has there been anything deserving of comment? Well...

Venom (1981): This London-set "thriller" (I use the word lightly) would probably deserve to sink into obscurity were it not for the high-powered cast that give their all to this nonsense. The sickly son of a wealthy American couple has been left in their townhouse in the care of his grandfather, Sterling Hayden. A gang of would-be kidnappers, led by the ever-fiendish Klaus Kinski and including a psychotic Oliver Reed as the family's nasty chauffeur and sexy housemaid Susan George, are trapped there after trigger-happy Reed shoots a copper who has come to advise the household that a deadly black mamba is also within. This warning comes too late for Ms. George who has been fatally bitten. The outside forces led by Inspector Nicol Williamson and Sarah Miles as a toxologist attempt to resolve the stand-off. Needless to say -- and I'm not too worried about spoilers here -- the baddies all get eaten up and the goodies eventually survive, but not before the viewer is treated to some tolerable suspense, a few jump scares, and the usual OTT performance from Herr Kinski.

Payment Deferred (1932): This has the feeling of an early British talkie, but in fact it is an MGM movie featuring a number of newish actors before they became better-known, including Ray Milland in a small part as a long-lost and wealthy nephew and Maureen O'Sullivan as the daughter of the family led by paterfamilias Charles Laughton, a lowly bank clerk with unfounded aspirations. It's all very stagy and is in fact based on a Broadway play where Laughton created the role, but he is very definitely the whole reason for watching this obscurity. Hammy and mannered as his interpretation may be, he is never less than watchable, and for a Laughton aficionado like me, the film is a treat. He plays a more than flawed human being who stoops to murder to alleviate the family's financial woes (burying poor Milland out in the yard) and then falling into adultery whilst his family are away. However by a neat twist, he gets his comeuppance -- and not for the crime that he did commit...

Ping dammit!!!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

While there is nothing very wrong with the overblown Charlize Theron remake of this film in 1998, it lacks the naive charm of the original, which in itself is an offspring of the 1933 "King Kong", with which this giant ape story shares a lead in the very old-time Robert Armstrong and a director, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Like its predecessor, the other leads, Terry Moore and Ben Johnson, were hardly A-listers, but do bring a believable simplicity to this tall tale.

The Joe Young of the title is Moore's "pet", having raised him since he was a baby and she was a wee girl on her family's back-of-beyond farm in Africa; he is her only friend and playmate. When Armstrong arrives on safari to find animals to take back to the jungle-themed nightclub he is opening in Hollywood, he convinces Moore (and Joe) to come with him. Unlike Kong who is merely displayed for the titillation of his viewers, Joe is taught to do various "party tricks" including a very camp tug-of-war against a bunch of cavemen-lite strongmen, including the boxing champion of the time Primo Carnera. Being locked up between shows, he pines for home and Moore can't get out of her contract. However when some drunken yobs feed him booze, Joe escapes and wrecks the joint -- including repetitive footage of a number of lions escaping from the broken glass behind the bar over and over again. It's a hoot! Now the police are on his tail, with orders to shoot. But when Joe becomes a hero by saving kids from a burning orphanage (!), a happy ending is assured. This sector of the black and white film is shot with a fiery orange tint which is very effective.

The creature was created by the legendary Willis O'Brien, who did not work on the original Kong, but who had a hand in its sequel and who was a mentor to another legend, Ray Harryhausen. Since this giant ape was in reality only about a foot tall, the special effects may seem primitive to the modern viewer who has been spoiled by CGI, but this does not make the movie any less entertaining. Too often remakes result in the original movie being lost to contemporary audiences, but fortunately this one is available on DVD and hopefully will live on to charm new generations.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

Although we have been regulars at the annual FrightFest in August for some years now, there are always a few of the twenty-odd movies shown over the four or more days of the Fest that we do not see, usually the late night ones which would involve missing the last train home (to say nothing about falling asleep during the showing). We do, however, try to catch up on the ones that have escaped and this film is a fine example of one that it would have been a shame to miss.

Not that I was expecting anything special from the basically no-name cast and the unknown director, Jonathan Levine (who has subsequently won an audience prize at Sundance for "The Wackness" in 2008). However this movie turned out to have a nifty twist on the promiscuous teen slasher genre. Gorgeous goody-two-shoes Mandy, played by Amber Heard, is lusted after by all of the jocks at her high school. She previously was best-mates with outsider Emmet, played by Michael Welch, until his dares at a pool party the previous summer resulted in the death of a popular guy and he became an official outcast. When Mandy is invited to a weekend party with some of the in-crowd, she accepts, but seems determined to preserve her chastity and her sanity as one by one her new friends succumb to various gruesome deaths. No secret is made of the fact, from fairly early in the proceedings, that a jealous Emmet is the killer. However, there is a totally unexpected turn of events which makes this film stand apart from and above its genre trappings. For someone who thinks she has seen it all (too many times) in even the most inventive horror outings, I was indeed taken by surprise, and that can't be a bad thing.