Saturday, 28 November 2009

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Life is forever full of pleasant surprises. This Japanese flim has been languishing on my hard disc for a few weeks now, begging to be viewed. Knowing nothing about it (for once I hadn't done my research), I was put off by its downbeat description as a film chronicling a woman's tragic life. What I was more than pleased to discover is that the tragic tale in question was told as a brightly-coloured fairy-tale, a flamboyant fantasia, full of invention, infectious music, and even uplifting pathos.

Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima who was also responsible for the very jolly "Kamikaze Girls" (2004), it stars Miki Nakatani as one of life's natural victims from her childhood, through her years as a naive teacher, and later, as her circumstances spiral downward, as the mistress of two would-be poets, a whore, a prisoner inside for murder, a yakuza moll, and finally a mentally disturbed baglady. The actress inhabits the role from the character's early twenties until her murder at age 53, taking on the necessary makeup, costume, hairstyles, and demeanour to show the passage of time and the changes in her life. Her history is gradually revealed by a young nephew, who never knowingly knew her, when his father reveals that he had an older sister who was disowned by the family and instructs his son to clear the mess in the filthy tenement where she ended her days. Bit by bit a picture emerges of a woman who was everybody's punching bag but who optimistically kept looking for love and companionship.

As a young girl she tried hard to capture her father's affections which appeared to be reserved for her bedridden, younger sister. Since he seemed so depressed, she took it upon herself to make a certain funny face which always made him smile, and that grimace became her first defense when faced with any pending disaster. Her initial downfall occurs during a school trip when she tries to protect one of her teenaged students who has stolen some money, but she ends up both sexually abused by a fellow-teacher and shamefully fired. It's all downhill from there, 'though she views the world through rose-coloured glasses, as the director skillfully reveals through the amazing set decoration. Even when the student comes back into her life much later professing love, she eagerly embraces him, despite his having been the initial cause of her degradation.

While this may seem both melodramatic and depressing, it is really nothing of the sort; the stylish verve with which her story unravels in a series of flashbacks leaves one feeling hopeful. Even after her death there is an imaginative coda which is guaranteed to bring tears to the most cynical viewer. This is definitely a film which deserves to be better known and which almost certainly will find its place as a cult favourite.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The White Ribbon (2009)

A few weeks ago The Times published a list of the 100 best films since 2000 -- without any criteria let it be said as to how their film writers reached their final selection (which contained some rather dubious choices from my point of view.) Very surprisingly number one on the list was director Michael Haneke's "Hidden" (Cache) from 2005. Now, I know a lot of people think highly of that movie but I found it very unsatisfying in a number of ways, especially in its lack of resolution.

The above film won the Palme d'or at this year's Cannes Festival and I think this win was well deserved. This film is a far more accomplished one than "Hidden", but I should add that it is a very, very nasty one that leaves a definite aftertaste of disgust. It is set in a small, secluded German village in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I and is narrated, apparently many years later, by the young schoolmaster of the village -- just one of a number of local characters to whom we are introduced: the pastor, the doctor, the midwife, the Baron and Baroness, their Steward, a local farmer, and their many children. The film's German title is subtitled 'A German Children's Story' and the blank-faced youngsters here immediately bring to mind the scary kids from "The Village of the Damned".

A series of unexplained and cruel events take place starting with a tripwire knocking the doctor from his horse and running through a Down's syndrome child being physically abused. There is a strong suggestion that the local children are inherently malicious and responsible for the various outrages, this being a template for the Nazis they will become in later years, but there is much more to Haneke's thesis. There is cunning and evil in the hearts of most of the characters. The doctor who has been having an affair with the midwife casts her away in the ugliest of fashions and is almost certainly sexually abusing his teenaged daughter. The pastor who maintains a holier-than-thou demeanour is a sadistic tyrant with his own family. The son of the farmer blames the baron for his mother's accidental death, destroying a cabbage patch, and his father is almost certainly responsible for a barn-burning before hanging himself. The director seems to be saying that the potential for wrong-doing exists in all of us -- a very black view of the human condition.

What makes this film memorable is the black and white lovingly photgraphed local setting, whose bucolic beauty contrasts strikingly with the evils of the story. One comes away hating the director's strong and negative moral message, while still admiring the skill with which it is told.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)

I'm not sure why I keep approaching films from French director Claude Chabrol with great anticipation, since while they continue to be well-mounted and well-acted, his psychological thrillers are no longer exactly thrilling. "Bellamy" which I reviewed below at the recent London Film Festival is a case in point, and this one from two years earlier was equally unrewarding. One sits there wondering where in the world the story is headed and even after it reaches its peak, one thinks 'was that really worth the journey?'

Our heroine here is Ludivine Sagnier, one of the less good-looking in a long line of stunning French ingenues -- although she has been glammed up here -- playing a rather naive, yet charming, TV weather girl, Gabrielle. It is something of a stretch to understand why she seems to be so irresistible to all of the men she encounters, from her station manager to aging local celebrity author (Francois Berleand) to a somewhat unstable young playboy (Benoit Magimel) who falls head over heels at his first glimpse of her. Both Magimel's Paul and Berleand's Saint-Denis pursue her ruthlessly, but she only has eyes for the married author and is soon a frequent visitor to his little lovenest for regular sex sessions. On her birthday, as a special treat, he takes her to his club where his old lascivious cronies foam at the mouth at her attractiveness. He then takes her upstairs; while nothing is shown, there is the suggestion, later confirmed, that he has invited them to share a piece of the birthday cake so to speak.

The next day he tells her that he is going to London for a few days, having told his saintly wife that he is likely to be away for some time, and when Gabrielle goes to his flat, she finds the locks have been changed. She takes to bed at this rejection and only her mother's intervention, asking the persistent Paul to take her away, eventually brings her back to life. They go to Portugal where he showers her with gifts and affection, which she receives greedily but for which she gives nothing in return. When he threatens to leave, saying he has had enough of her pining, she offers to marry him per his frequent pleas. It is quite clear that she does not love him but that she can't stand the thought of being alone. In addition, there has been the implication throughout that Paul probably is AC/DC, swinging both ways. After their marriage, he is apparently horrified at some of the sexual practices that she has undoubtedly learned from St. Denis and she rather stupidly has also told him about the club visit. This leads to a final showdown between her two lovers and effectively the end of both relationships.

There is a juicy (that's the relevant word) role for Matilda May playing St. Denis' agent and sexual conspirator, still hugely attractive now in her forties, and the balance of the cast are also very able, especially the actress playing Paul's icy socialite mother. However, what annoyed me most were all of the unanswered questions which may have served to produce a more well-rounded scenario, but which were frustratingly left unexplained. Why, for example, did Paul have such a deep-seated hatred of St. Denis? Why did one of Paul's two younger and uptight sisters appear to have such a roving eye for anything in pants? And what real relevance did Paul's mother's telling Gabrielle of a tragic incident from his childhood have in explaining his somewhat warped behaviour?

The film ends with Gabrielle's taking part in her uncle's magic act, where she lies on a table smiling, ready to produce the illusion that she is being sawn in two. I would guess that Chabrol saw this as a nifty illustration of her emotional history with Paul and St. Denis, but it was a somewhat trite and obvious metaphor for what had transpired during the previous two hours.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (2009)

We thought about going to see this oddity at the London Film Festival, but since we knew that there would be an extended series of showings at both the National Film Theatre and the ICA this month, we decided to wait for a less hectic time. Having now viewed it, I think I could have easily waited forever.

OK, that's being more than a little unfair, but it is the sort of viewing experience that is probably meant to be of intense interest to a dyed-in-the-wool film buff, but which is actually a little on the tedioso side. Back in 1964 Clouzot, the director responsible for such classics as "Wages of Fear" and "Les Diabolique" wrote a script about jealousy and obsession -- L'Enfer. He contracted stars de jour Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani for the leads and, blessed with an 'unlimited' budget from Columbia, he set about creating what he hoped to be his finest work. It would seem that there was a touch of the Kubricks about his perfectionism, shooting and reshooting many of the scenes. The net result is that Reggiani walked off the set never to return, and before Clouzot could draft in a new leading man, he succumbed to a heart attack.

An unlikely hero, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, who has single-handedly been responsible for preserving thousands of endangered films, found that Clouzot's widow was sitting on some 185 cans of film, roughly 15 hours worth, and permission was given for him to create this documentary on the masterpiece that might have been, as "The Epic that Never Was" did for 'I Claudius'. Unfortunately the sound track is gone and he could only work with the silent footage with its loving closeups of Schneider and several scenes with modern actors reading lines from the shooting script. For all of the director's experimentation with distorted images inspired by op art and colour inversion for psychedelic images of his heroine, these self-indulgent distractions did not help the film to remotely near completion. It was not until 1994 that a version of "L'Enfer" made from Clouzot's original script and starring the delectable Emmanuelle Beart reached the screen.

However, it would seem to me that with 185 cans of raw material available, someone, some day might actually piece together a reasonable facsimile of the director's original vision -- and that might just be rather more interesting viewing.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

This is Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar's 17th film and the fourth to feature his latest muse Penelope Cruz, an actress who is always better in her Spanish-speaking roles, despite her recent Oscar win for the Woody Allen film. Almodovar claims that she is the only woman who might just tempt him away from his own sexual predilections. I must concur that she is indeed a lust-object in this movie with a gorgeous body and some not-so-discreet nudity. However, I personally find her looks rather weird, especially when she is made up to evoke Audrey Hepburn, as she is here.

None of this is really relevant to reviewing the film which has not yet opened Stateside, despite the director's growing popularity there. In his canon of very individualistic movies, I would not put this in the top drawer, although he brings to the table his usual combination of vibrant colours, strong roles for women, and full-blown melodrama. The major difference here is that the main role belongs to a full-blooded male, actor Lluis Homar, playing a previously famous movie director named Mateo Blanco, who has lost his sight in a car accident and who now only responds to the name of Harry Caine, his screenwriting nom de plume. Moving between the present and the early 90s, we follow both his story and that of Ms. Cruz. She plays a failed actress, part-time call girl, and secretary to a wealthy magnate, Martel, becoming his mistress after he provides medical treatment for her dying father. They live a life of opulence, with he more enamoured of her charms than she is of his. She yearns to give acting another go and auditions for Homar who immediately succumbs to her beauty and offers her the lead role in his next production 'Girls and Suitcases'. Martel takes on the producer's role and keeps his own spies on the set, together with his awkward gay young son who is technically shooting a documentary on the making of the film.

Cruz and Homar can not resist each other and are soon involved in a passionate affair, which is reported back to Martel by his straight-faced, lip-reading private detective, together with verbatim reports of Cruz' aversion to Martel's love-making. However when Cruz threatens to leave him, he pushes her down the stairs, and the script must now be adapted for a lead actress with her leg in a cast. She agrees to stay with Martel until the film is finished in exchange for his not pulling the finance. However when she and her lover take off together for a break on a volcanic island in the Canaries, Martel gets the film re-edited with the worst takes and premieres it to disastrous reviews.

Back in the present with the blind Homar (Cruz is long since dead) still in demand as a screenwriter, the news of Martel's death triggers a series of revelations from his longstanding female agent, her 18-year old son, and the grownup son of the dead magnate, including the true history of the film's failure. Given the opportunity to re-cut the movie and put it back together in his own director's cut, Caine becomes Blanco once more. One can take this as Almodovar's saying that a film must express the director's personal vision and that only this gives his life meaning. The film abounds with references to other movies including Almodovar's own and it is fun to recognise these. This film is in the end a movie about movies and their creation. However, the pace here is far too leisurely and self-indulgent to provide Almodovar's regular themes of love, sex, and death with the clear focus that they deserve.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Four Minutes/Vier Minuten (2006)

It was a toss-up whether to write about the above German film or Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (2008) which I have finally seen. Like all of Eastwood's films of the last decade or so, this film is impeccably staged, shot, and scored, and Angelina Jolie -- the only star name in the cast apart from John Malkovich -- gives an intense performance. Based on a true case of a missing child in 1920's California, a police cover-up, the distraught mother's sectioning in an insane asylum, and her subsequent vindication, the story can best be described as harrowing.

While the above film was also harrowing and in many ways equally depressing, it was on balance both uplifting and finally moving. Made by a director unknown to me (Chris Kraus) and starring two actresses equally unknown to me (Monica Bleibtreu and Hannah Herzprung), this film proved the more complete experience. While one could admire the fortitude of Jolie's character and Eastwood's directorial skills, their movie left me shattered but unmoved. The success of Kraus' film is that he is able to create a believable connection between Bleibtraub's elderly piano teacher, Frau Krueger, and Herzsprung's punk prisoner, Jenny, and for the viewer to accept the frosty interaction between these two very damaged women. Krueger still suffers from her distant past when her lesbian lover was murdered by the Nazis and tries to find some release by giving music lessons at a female penitentiary. There she notices Jenny who was once a child prodigy, but who suffered abuse from her father as a teenager, and who is inside for murder. Her greatest wish is to tame the youngster and to enter her in a forthcoming piano competition for the under-21s. But Jenny is damaged both by her past and by her violent surroundings, and prefers what Krueger calls "Negro" music to her teacher's choice of Schumann. What follows is a war of wills with neither side prepared to flex or to accept and understand the needs of the other.

When the prison authorities decide that troublemaker Jenny is not worth their bother and seek to prevent her taking part in the competition, Frau Krueger manages to break her out of prison, building up to the four minutes of the title, the four minutes that Jenny is given to show her talents to a highbrow audience. How she does this and how there is a final acceptance and reconciliation between the two women is the film's high point. Both actresses are mesmerising in their portrayal of traditional values vs. modern rebellion; while both of them play flawed characters, we hope that they will somehow find a common redemption.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Having writtten about "Company of Wolves" recently, I thought it might be about time to revisit director Neil Jordan's later flirtation with the horror genre, although this was a flick that left me strangely vacant after my first and only previous viewing. Not that this movie is a horror film in any real sense of the word; its history of a vampire's long and endless life is really more the story of the ennui of immortality, rather than its bloody trappings.

With a screenplay by Anne Rice and adapted from her own novel which finally reached the screen after years of abortive attempts, the author was originally violently opposed to the casting of Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Lestat. She later ate humble pie and praised his casting. I am less convinced that a Cruise with long blonde hair is completely successful as the cruel and decadent vampire of the book. He tries hard to overcome his normal screen persona but never seems quite at home in the role. Possibly because I have never been a fan, I welcomed his character's being "killed off" at about the halfway mark. However, no such luck, and he reappears subsequently, most annoyingly at the hastily tacked on and disappointing end to the film.

More successful, I think, was Brad Pitt as Louis in a relatively early role, where his pretty-boy looks marry well with those of a pale and world-weary vampire. Much has been made of the homoerotic relationship of the two male leads, but this is overstated and only their feeding has any erotic resonance. More interesting are the differences between them as Lestat's rampant and amoral bloodlust is contrasted with Louis' shreds of humanity and reluctant acceptance of his fate. When he does use his power to create a new companion in his endless eternity, he chooses a young girl, played remarkably maturely by the then 12-year old Kirsten Dunst. She becomes a 'daughter' to the two reluctant companions but begins to rue her fate more and more as she realises that she is becoming a woman forever trapped in the body of a child.

With Cruise temporarily out of the picture, Pitt and Dunst travel the world looking unsuccessfully for more of their kind and for answers to the questions of their existence. They find no kindred spirits until they discover a nest of vampires in Paris, led by a charismatic Antonio Banderas and his mischievous sidekick (Jordan regular Stephen Rea). The setting of their catacombs is one of the more memorable examples of set decoration in cinema, but it becomes the stage for Dunst's destruction and Pitt's wild fury.

The film is bookended by Pitt telling his sad odyssey to reporter Christian Slater, who took over the role from the recently deceased River Phoenix. It felt good to see Slater at a point in his career when he still retained his acting skills and charm, rather than the faded has-been of later roles.

In conclusion, I think I warmed to this movie more readily this time around. I found the acting more or less acceptable, the literary quality of the story absorbing if just a little draggy at times, the costuming and staging artfully conceived, and the music just about right for the action. I may still have some trouble with Cruise, but the film's good qualities overcome even that.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Exiled (2006)

I won't pretend to be any great expert on Hong Kong cinema, although I have seen probably several hundred Hong Kong movies over the years, sufficient to know who I like and what I like. It seems to me that it is no longer the hotbed of innovation that it was before 1997 and the reunification with China. Despite some international successes like "Infernal Affairs", the source for Scorsese's "The Departed", and the comedies of Stephen Chow, too many of its recent movies have been draggy affairs. Part of the problem is that so many of the Hong Kong stars of the 80s and early 90s have found work on the international scene, both in the U.S. and in China. I'm thinking here of Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, the always-cool Chow Yun Fat, and of course the megastar of the bunch, Jackie Chan. Only the latter has retained some nostalgic connection to the birthplace of his fame and still occasionally produces or stars in locally-made flicks. And I must say I miss the kung-fu extravaganzas with their wonderful wirework, the colourful fantasies, and the ghost stories with their hopping vampires.

However, Hong Kong can still produce some engrossing cinema and director Johnnie To is responsible for a good share of it. This film was produced after his two popular "Election" movies, but is a far more cinematic outing than those semi-political films. Set in Macao shortly before the Chinese takeover, a triad boss played by the ever-so-slimy Simon Yam (who's been a Hong Kong star for yonks) wants to establish himself in this territory. He dispatches two of his assassins to murder a former gang member, Nick Cheung, who has exiled himself there and who is trying to find a new life with his wife, Josie Ho, and his infant son. Two other assassins take it upon themselves to protect him, but when the blazing shootout comes in Cheung's cramped apartment, the five men who share a past history finally put down their guns and share a meal in the spirit of friendship and common values. This is just the first in a series of increasingly fierce gunfights which form the focus of the film with their balletic violence; the meandering storyline comes a distinct second. Think of a latter-day John Woo movie without the poetry. The theme here is loyalty and brotherhood.

The ensemble cast does not feature any big names, but brings together a group of character actors who have been gracing Hong Kong cinema for years and most of whom also appeared in To's earlier movie "The Mission" (1999). The standout performance is from the group's leader Anthony Wong, who is ably supported by Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Suet Lam (an absolutely perfect monicker for a rather fat actor). In the course of helping their old friend with one last job to provide for his soon-to-be widow, they manage to antagonise the slightly comic Yam, interrupt a gold hijacking, and face the final shootout as one man. The strong action sequences are interlaced with humourous hi-jinks, heavy drinking, and would-be womanizing. In the end we really do care for these firm friends who live by their own code of honour.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Catching up with the New Stuff

In between Festival screenings and believe it or not a couple of other cinema visits (which I'll skip for the time being -- interesting as they were), I have been using my downtime to catch up on the latest premiere showings on satellite TV. Leaving aside some primitive animations and those films that I had already seen elsewhere, the following "new" (to me) movies all from 2008 have begun to fuse into a gigantic mess of 'thank goodness, that's now gone from the backlog'. Still a few choice words on each of them might be in order, if only to refresh my own fading memory:

Ghost Town: Ricky Gervais may have cracked the U.S. market, although I gather his most recent outing has been something of a box office disaster, but he has never cracked it with me. Still, his first film in a lead role here created a few small smiles with its story of a dentist who nearly died on the operating table and who can now see dead people (as it were), all of whom want him to perform some post mortem favours for them. Cute concept, but possibly better with a different actor.

High School Musical 3: Being the completist that I am, I had seen the first two made for Disney Channel outings on the box and recall writing about the first of these inexplicable phenomena some time ago. The third one made for cinema release did massive business, but despite having slightly better production values, was actually more of the same. Enough already! But I fear we can now look forward to "College Musical" to keep milking the same old cow.

Nights in Rodanthe: By my calculation this is the third pairing of Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and although both of them are getting on, they still make a handsome couple. This romance of two 'lost' souls finding brief happiness together and then tragically losing it was, in the end, something of a downer. I prefer my viewing to leave me feeling good about there!

Taken: This film did quite well at the box office I believe and it was certainly a departure for Liam Neeson to play quite such an in-your-face action hero. Here he is a retired special-ops agent, trying to re-connect with his 17-year old daughter, who lives with her remarried mother and her very rich new husband. When she is abducted in Paris by a gang of white-slavers, Neeson springs into action and seemingly kills most of the local thugs and destroys acres of property in his attempts to rescue her. I didn't keep track of the body count before the requisite happy ending, but it was staggering.

City of Ember: I barely managed to keep my eyes open during this futuristic film set in an underground city to which the population has been committed for 200 years in the attempt to save them from the impending perils above ground and how a few brave youngsters manage to find the daylight again. With roles for Bill Murray, Toby Jones, and Tim Robbins amongst a largely British cast, this was possibly a better movie than it seemed at the time. That's the trouble with 'just resting my eyes'.

Get Smart: I had a similar problem with this movie and I shall avoid the obvious review of 'get smart and watch something else'. It seemed a heck of a lot more watchable than the silly TV series on which it was based and Anne Hathaway makes a fetching secret agent. I can't quite say the same about Steve Carell, but I could suggest far worse casting. (Like maybe Ricky Gervais, ha-ha).

The Express: This was one of those uplifting sports biopics of a 1950's-1960's black footballer who brought glory to his team at Syracuse University and to his coach, Dennis Quaid, while generally helping the cause of his race -- and who then tragically died young of leukaemia. Bummer! However, it was reasonably engaging and well put together, but overly stretched out for its two-hour plus slot.

Can I go back to sleep now?