Sunday, 31 October 2010

London Film Festival Wrap-up

Well, another LFF bites the dust and allows me to return to my usual mishmash of film-viewing, a combination of new premieres on the satellite film channels (like this week's "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra" and the Rob Zombie's remake "Halloween 2", both exceptionally stupid and nearly unwatchable), favourites and 'gotta-sees' from my ever-growing collection, and whatever arthouse offerings have accumulated amongst the DVD backlog and from foreign-language channels. First, however, I am duty-bound to finish the two remaining film festival reviews -- to explain why I chose these titles and what I thought of my choices:

Biutiful (2009): This is the fourth full-length feature from the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and the first not to be written by the talented Guillermo Arriaga (who has now begun his own directing career). I thought his debut feature "Amores Perros" an amazingly brilliant calling card and although I reacted to his next two features, shot in English, with decreasing enthusiasm ("21 Grams and "Babel"), I was eager to have a look at his return to Spanish-language filmmaking, especially when I noticed that powerhouse compatriot directors Cuaron and Del Toro were listed among the producers. Set in Barcelona's less touristy environs (i.e.slums), the film boasts a magnificent central performance from Javier Bardem as a 'fixer' dealing with illegal immigrants, a single father struggling to provide a living for his two children and to protect them from their mentally-ill mother, a gifted medium who is able to communicate with recently departed spirits, and finally a man who has received news of his own impending death from cancer. There is no glamour and not much chance of redemption in his desperate existence in this seedy underworld milieu. Therefore his attempts to do the right thing in an increasingly hostile, malignant, and doomed life ultimately make for a truly depressing film. The one fact that emerges, however, is that Bardem is one of the great actors of our generation. If only he had applied his talents to a potentially more likeable movie.

Kaboom (2010): It was a matter of principle to see this film since it was one that the director Gregg Araki pulled from the recent FrightFest programme on the grounds that he didn't want his movie to receive its UK premiere in front of "a bunch of geeks". How diplomatic! After its international premiere at Cannes, it might have been more user-friendly to say that he had already decided to allow the film to be shown at this year's LFF. But if you want to trade insults about "geeks" (or freaks for that matter), after viewing this disappointing farrago, I am tempted to say that this auteur of independent 'queer cinema' only makes movies for a fringe audience and an easily-pleased one at that. I thought his recent "Mysterious Skin" showed a new-found maturity, after his 90's trilogy of teen trauma ("Totally Fucked Up", "Doom Generation", and "Nowhere"), but he seems to have regressed badly.

As a line from the film says, the end product on display here is "nuttier than squirrel shit". Pretty-boy lead Thomas Dekker has just begun university, together with his best gal friend, a lesbian who appears to have taken up with a witch. His character Smith may appear to be gay-inclined too as he ogles his buff roomie, but he is not adverse to rampant sex with whomever opportunity provides. We are teased by a mystery of disappearing co-eds, hostile animal-masked attackers, and growing unease and paranoia, where nothing is what it seems to be. However rather than playing on the potentials of this quasi sci-fi plot, Araki turns to a completely bonkers chain of events to produce an ultimately stupid, mind-boggling, and disappointing finale. Kaboom indeed!

In summary, I can't say that this year's festival was one of the better ones. Perhaps I was unfortunate in my choice of films, although all of them -- bar the Korean entry -- had their moments. None of them however really resonated with me to the extent that I will be counting the moments to their next viewing. However, distance lends enchantment, so they say, and my feelings could well mellow with time.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Five from the Fest

Five. That's how many sets of tickets I had for the London Film Festival since I last wrote, but I have actually only seen four of the films. The miserable 'winter' cold that is making the rounds had me sufficiently laid low on Monday that I couldn't face going out in the damp. I therefore did not go to see Catherine Breillat's erotic riff on "The Sleeping Beauty", especially since I was not overly enchanted by her treatment of "Bluebeard" last year (although I've just reread my review and it is vaguely positive). So Michael went off on his own and reports back that I didn't miss much -- and I believe him. So what did I see?

The Book of Masters (2009): In its Festival previews, Time Out magazine was particularly scathing about this first Russian production from good old Walt Disney, suggesting that it should be avoided at all costs. However since I am traditionally a sucker for fantasy films, I was tempted to view one based on Russian folk tales and legends, and at least we were spared a plethora of talking animals and saccharine songs. Visually the movie was a feast for the eyes as storybook tableaux sprung seamlessly to life. If the the story was overly complicated and the characters a little uninvolving, at least the live-action effects were reasonably well done and the colourful landscapes enchanting. No doubt Disney will be releasing an English-dubbed version in due course, but I will not suggest for a minute that you speed down to the nearest showing when they do.

13 Assassins (2010): The Japanese cult director Takashi Miike is also usually a safe bet for me, although some of his more recent pictures in what has been a ridiculously prolific career have been less off the wall than earlier outings. In this movie the auteur has foregone his usual sparring at the bizarre and gives us a fairly traditional costume drama set in the 1840s. A group of concerned samurai seek numbers to eliminate the evil Lord Naritsugu before he achieves even greater political influence. The thirteenth is a cheeky but fearless bandit whom they encounter when they are lost in the forest en route to their quarry. The second half of the film which altogether is probably at least half an hour too long, is taken up with the bloody battle in a booby-trapped village before the Lord and his do-or-die protectors (vastly outnumbering our heroes) fight to the death. A big problem with this film is that I couldn't individualise most of the protagonists and therefore feel their loss as they fell one by one. However if spectacular and gory hand-to-hand battle scenes are your bag, you should have a ball with this flick.

Surviving Life (2010): The Czech director and animator Jan Svankmajer is another of my favourites and this is his first movie since 2005's "Lunacy", which I sort of disliked at the time but which I am dead keen to see again. This film from the master surrealist uses a combination of live actors melded into cut-out animation to produce a confusing but amazing essay on our dream life. The main protagonist, garbed in his pajamas throughout, consults an analyst to help him differentiate between his mundane waking life with his plain old wife and his double dream world with a beautiful woman. Watching from the walls are photos of Freud and Jung, who react with comic dismay at the various revelations. Like dreams there is little logic in the plot and its resolution, but lovers of the weird and the wonderful should feel right at home with Svankmajer's flights of fancy.

Sunny Side Up (1929): There were fewer 'Films from the Archives' this year to tempt me, most of them being fairly well-known to me, and indeed I had seen this confection previously. However that was many years ago and this new restoration from MOMA appealed, especially since I have recently been watching a run of Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell starrers (although this one is not from Borzage). An early musical outing for the sound era, this movie boasts a slew of classic oldies from DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, undermined by some pretty horrendous renditions in out-of-date singing styles from most of the cast. Gaynor can just about hold a tune (although her dancing is gormless), but Farrell -- reasonably appealing in his silent roles -- comes across as a great lummox with a squeaky voice in talkies. Still the film had its charming moments outside the clunky dialogue from the likes of El Brendel, especially in a few of the big production numbers. These included the bizarre sight of a host of half-garbed showgirls dancing to 'Turn on the Heat' as they moved from a melting Arctic landscape to a tropical paradise and the inclusion of a group of children taking off the emotions of the big love duet. The gal sitting to my left was chortling away with enthusiasm and I suppose it really is a movie worth seeing, if only to realise how more sophisticated the musicals of the 1930s would become.

That leaves two more films to complete this years delectations. Reviews to follow soon...

Friday, 22 October 2010

London Film Festival - Part One

It hasn't exactly been an auspicious start to my Festival attendance. To start with the second film which I saw yesterday, I would very much like the two hours plus of my life back. Korean movies have generally been something of a treat in recent years, so when I noticed "End of Animal" (2010) described in the programme as 'one of the most striking debuts in Korean film history', I thought I might have chosen a winner. I should have suspected the worst when I couldn't find the movie listed on IMDb, either under its English or Korean title, nor could I find out anything about its novice director Jo Sung-Hee -- who was in attendance at yesterday's showing (looking all of about 15 years old). I can tell you he gives Bela Tarr a run for his money in static composition and inaction, as one tries to fathom what is going on amongst the few characters who seem to have survived some off-screen and unexplained apocalypse predicted by an enigmatic hitchhiker. I suppose when IMDb eventually catch up with this 'gem' someone will give it a 10 out of 10 rating, but it won't be me!

Mammuth (2010): I know exactly why I chose this film, since any new movie with Gerard Depardieu immediately catches my eye; this one had the bonus of also featuring my new fave Yolande Moreau and boasted a nowadays very rare appearance from Isabelle Adjani. The storyline concerns Depardieu retiring from his job at a pork processing plant after ten years, (being given a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle as his farewell gift!), and his wife Moreau nagging him to get the necessary paperwork, much of which is missing from the casual jobs he has held in the past, to be able to draw a much-needed state pension. So he sets off on his faithful Mammuth motorcycle to visit previous work sites in pursuit of the elusive affadavits. What we have in effect is a French road movie with, alas, too many detours. The film which starts off as a jolly comic romp with Depardieu making a meal of his newfound leisure and Moreau doing her nagging wife thing soon becomes little more than a quirky drama with a number of random characters interacting with our generally hapless hero. There is a surprise appearance from Benoit Poelvoorde as a competing beachcomber in two totally unrelated scenes with Depardieu and a rather too long segment featuring an actress billed as Miss Ming, who also uses this as her kooky alternative artist's character's name. Adjani, whose gorgeous ghost keeps appearing then disappearing, plays Depardieu's lost first love, whom we eventually realise was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Again I should have worked out in advance that this film would not be completely to my taste, despite Depardieu's mindboggling performance, since the two previous movies from co-directors/screenwriters Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern were off-beat but largely unwatchable messes. First there was "Aaltra" (2004) which concerned two rival farmers who hate and cripple each other and then take off on a road-trip together in their wheelchairs. Then there was "Louise-Michel" (2008) which I positively hated, despite its also starring Moreau, about a sex-changed factory worker who wants to hire a killer to top the owner of the mill that has made her and her mates redundant, but ends up with a totally useless assassin. While their new film has a lot more heart, largely down the the strengths of the three main players, there were unacceptable longeurs and some very unnecessary artsy-craftsy cinematography amongst the anarchic and generally unsatisfying action.

I have written previously that Depardieu has absolutely no vanity as an actor, which is just as well as he has gone to seed and probably not just for this role. He lets his massive bulk all hang out, especially in one distasteful mutual masturbation scene with an elderly male cousin, and sports long dirty blonde curls hanging down from what is apparently a bald spot. Still his acting prowess has not dimmed and he remains as watchable as ever, even in the elephantine kaftans that he eventually dons. I have read that he accepted this role without the promise of any critical or financial remuneration and one really must salute such bravery.

Monday, 18 October 2010

3 on a Match (1932)

There are to date three volumes of "Forbidden Hollywood" DVDs churned out by TCM featuring pre-code films from the Warner Brothers stable and wonderful collections of (largely minor) movies they are. I have two of the three sets and may well treat myself to the third in due course, although none of the featured movies fall into my 'must-see' list. I have, however, been having a look at the five movies featured in the second volume, of which only the above film is new to me. But what a treat it has proved to be, brilliantly put together by director Mervyn LeRoy.

With a beautifully-worked montage of headlines and film clips we cover the passing of the years between 1919 and 1932, following our three heroines from their early primary school days together through to their more recent lives. The three are bad girl Joan Blondell -- a reform-school graduate, Ann Dvorak -- the rich, spoiled and popular one played by Anne Shirley as a youngster, and brainbox Bette Davis who is too poor to go on to high school and who trains as an office worker. When their paths cross again ten years later, Dvorak is married to wealthy lawyer Warren William with a three-year old son, but bored to tears with her pampered existence; Blondell is trying to make it as a showgirl, and Davis is ploughing on with her staid life. Over lunch, the myth of misfortune befalling the third to light their cigarette on a single match is debunked, but Dvorak's comfy life soon goes into a tailspin when she becomes number three. Looking for a break from her boredom, she inveigles her husband to let her sail to Europe with their son, but disembarks before the ship sails to begin a sordid affair with a ne'er-do-well whom she has just met (Lyle Talbot), barely noticing her dirty and hungry son (until William eventually finds him.)

Being made in the wonderful years before the Hays Code put a damper on such things, we view the wages of adultery, child neglect, cocaine usage, and kidnapping. As Dvorak's life becomes more dissolute, the other two actresses begin to fill the gap in the life of the young boy and William's. When the boy is grabbed again by a desperate Talbot to raise money to settle a gambling debt with mobster Edward Arnold, his gang of toughies (including new boy Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and an unbilled Jack LaRue) horn in on the action. Only a final sacrifice of nearly forgotten mother-love on the part of Dvorak can resolve the action.

Although often billed as a Bette Davis feature, she in fact has the least showy part in this film, since it was yet early days for her Warner Brothers contract, and the strongest role is Dvorak's. The child actor given an inordinate amount of screen time comes across as a hard-to-stomach, obnoxious curly-headed brat, a male Shirley Temple if you will, but without any of her cheeky charm. When Dvorak, who came to prominence in 1932 with "Scarface", one of her eight (!) films for the studio that year, discovered that the kid was getting the same salary as hers, she bitched like hell. The unfortunate result is that the studio rewarded this talented actress's rebellion with a run of less attractive roles in increasingly minor productions, to the extent that she is hardly remembered today. However this movie, along with "Scarface" proves that they punished an actress who should have given us even more great roles to cherish. Oddly enough, it was the young Miss Davis who flourished at the studio, at least until such time when she too had a moan about their casting decisions and miserly pay packets.

Guess what? Yes, the London Film Festival has come around again and will be taking up much of my time for the next week or so. There weren't that many films in the programme that sparked my imagination and I have only booked for nine of the many, but you can rest assured that my next entry will begin my reviews of this year's delectations.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Skin Game (1971)

There are at least two films with this title althought the 1931 movie is "The Skin Game" -- an early, wordy, and atypical film from Alfred Hitchcock based on a Galsworthy play about property speculation. The one under discussion here couldn't be more different, being a jolly and now politically-incorrect farce about slavery. Then again any movie starring James Garner is fated to be something of a romp.

I have always had a soft spot for this unaffected actor both in his film and television roles, all of which he plays with a twinkle in his eye and often with his tongue firmly in his cheek, a la "Maverick" and the two "Support Your Local Sheriff /Gunfighter" flicks. Here he is teamed up in what is actually a 'buddy movie' with Louis Gossett Jr. (billed as Lou Gossett, which makes him sound far less serious). Who would have guessed that the latter has a fun sense of humour, since so many of his later roles have veered towards brash seriousness; he also --let me add -- has a full head of hair! They play a pair of conmen in the years before the Civil War who have developed a profitable 'game' after toying with less successful ones. Although freeborn in New Jersey, Gossett pretends to be Garner's slave, whom he repeatedly and reluctantly must sell to the highest bidder, before busting his friend loose and taking off for the next town. Along the way they attract the attention of Susan Clark's fast-fingered pickpocket and grifter, who becomes Garner's love interest, although usually one step ahead of him. When they mistakenly revisit a town where they have been before and are recognized, Gossett is bought by evil slave-dealer Ed Asner and ends up in the household of Andrew Duggan; here he needs to be taught how to act like a real slave to avoid the ever-threatening lash. Meanwhile Garner and Clark in the role of missionaries search for their friend amongst the plantation owners, claiming that he suffers from a highly contagious disease, for which only they can sell the preventitive serum.

With its heavy use of the N-word and its making light of serious issues, this is not a movie which would receive a green light nowadays, but thank goodness this was less of a concern back in the '70s. It is a thoroughly enjoyable affair, a truly amusing watch, and to hell with political correctness!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Couples Retreat (2009)

Have you seen a movie where you wanted to slap everyone up on the screen? I don't mean films where there is one very annoying character who needs a right seeing to, but a film where virtually every character makes your skin crawl at one stage or another. Such is the case in this supposedly 'high concept' movie, except for 'high concept' read 'stupid'. It's the tale of four couples, one of which (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) feels their marriage falling apart, largely because of her failure to conceive. To work out their problems, he has signed onto the waiting-list for a tropical resort famous for resolving marital difficulties. The catch is that he can not afford the tariff, but if he can bring along three other couples, they can each go for half-price. So he bullies Vince Vaughn and wife Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau and wife Kristin Davis, and a fat black friend Faizon Love (since this is an equal opportunity movie) who has recently separated from his wife and who is trying to get involved with a young foxy bimbo, into dropping everything and to come along with him, promising them that they can avail themselves of the resort's wonderful facilities and that they do not need to get involved in the psychological programmes.

Ha! The resort which is run by martinet French looney Jean Reno (I hope the paycheck was worth the idiocy, Jean) and staffed by a bunch of authoritarians has other ideas. If all the couples don't take part in the therapy, they can just buzz off without recompense. So while no marriage or relationship is ever quite perfect, the protagonists allow holes to be picked in each of theirs by the most annoying group of counsellors you care to imagine, bringing each of them to the brink of collapse. Vaughn and Akerman probably started with the strongest marriage of the bunch, despite his commitment to business not leaving sufficient time for house and family, while Favreau plays a horny hound-dog lusting after the nubile females at the nearby singles resort and his wife also appears not immune to extracurricular activities. Love appears to be intended as largely (no pun intended) comic relief in what is actually a singularly unfunny comedy.

So who's to blame? Vaughn and Favreau have a long-standing movie relationship and presumably friendship, dating back to 1992's "Singles", and they have taken on co-producer and co-writer caps on this abortive film, so much of the blame must be laid squarely at their door. I mean does Favreau really imagine himself as a prone-to-masturbation satyr irresistible, when given the chance, to a flock of fetching beauties? Does Vaughn really think that being scraped by a tame shark warrants diva-like tantrums? Do the pair of them think that a running joke about a child peeing or defecating into a showroom non-functioning toilet is the height of sophisticated humour? Do they really believe that deep-rooted marital problems can be happily resolved in the last five minutes of a movie to provide an unbelievable happy ending? Between them they seemed to have wrested control of the movie from first-time feature director Peter Billingsley. The latter is probably best known for his acting role as young Ralphie in the 1983 cult classic "A Christmas Story". While I am not suggesting that he should rest on his laurels and I understand that he has had a not unsuccessful career as a producer, I do not foresee a brilliant future for him as a director if this film is anything to go by. On the other hand I believe it was financially successful, probably because of (disappointed) expectations from the name cast. However I can't recommend this humourless farrago to anyone who actually likes any of the stars so annoyingly showcased here.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Crying Fist (2005)

After war movies, for which I have very limited tolerance, my next least favourite film genre is boxing movies. With war films which I usually have to force myself to watch (and goodness knows I have given up in the middle of many of them), the basic concept is to take a bunch of loveable -- or not so loveable -- guys and kill them off one by one. With boxing films, there is usually an underdog for whom we are meant to root and one then has the spectacle of watching two men beat the living hell out of each other. Not my idea of fun! However, since there are exceptions to every rule, I have occasionally kind of admired some war flicks; rather less frequently I can just about stomach some boxing films.

The Korean film under discussion from the eclectic director Seung-wan Ryoo has its quota of bloody bashing, but it remains watchable for being an unusual riff on the common theme. In effect there are two separate storylines which play out side by side but which only come together in the final scenes. The first protagonist is a washed up boxer in his forties played by Min-sik Choi, the infamous 'Oldboy', whose glory days were winning a silver medal at the Asian Games back in the '90s and who has sunk into penury, debt, and drunkeness, estranging his wife and young son. He earns a crust by busking in a public square as a human punching- bag, entreating the passers-by to pay for a minute (two minutes for women) of thumping him, as an outlet for their frustration, aggression, or despair. The second protagonist is a young punk, played by the director's brother Seung-beom Ryoo, whom I have only seen previously in bit parts. He lands up in gaol after a violent robbery, where the prison boxing coach notes his killer fists in impromptu punch-ups and encourages him to join the team as one means of controlling his violent temper.

With a local amateur competition upcoming, both men train for the title in their weight category, hoping to find a kind of redemption in the discipline and a kind of glory in the outcome. As expected our two anti-heroes end up matched against each other in the final bout, which obviously only one of them can win, and we segue into the usual violent fisticuffs, but with each of the two becoming punchier and bloodier as the fight progresses. I will not include the spoiler of which of them actrually wins, although both achieve a kind of catharsis and grace by the film's end. I will however say that had I been one of the judges awarding the victory on points, my vote would have been with the loser.

This is an involving and well-made film which I can recommend to your attention -- even if it is about boxing!!!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Pride and Prejudice

If I said that I don't really watch television, that would be a lie, since I watch the majority of the films I see via the television screen, whether they are delivered by satellite broadcasting or by DVD. What I really mean is that I see very few programmes actually made for television. I have in the past been 'hooked' by certain series, such as "Soap", the original "Forstye Saga", "Cheers", "Lost", and currently "Dexter", but I never watch 'reality' programmes and hardly ever watch the bulk of what constitutes TV fodder. I therefore have missed nearly all of the 'heritage' films and mini-series derived from the classic English writers, although oddly enough I have acquired many of these on giveaway DVDs.

Take the 1995 six-parter of "Pride and Prejudice". I was certainly aware that Colin Firth segued into a nationwide lust object when his Mr. Darcy appeared emerging from an impromptu swim in a clinging wet shirt, but I was never tempted to find this out for myself. However I did get around to watching this over a few days last week and found myself surprising drawn into this very superior production. I did not find myself lusting after Mr. Firth, but I thought he did a first-class job as the supercilious Darcy vs. Jennifer Ehle's sparky Elizabeth Bennet. Since the writers had over five hours at their disposal, they were able to include all of the original novel's ins and outs of plot, without any of it becoming tiresome. The casting was spot-on, although Alison Steadman's flighty Mrs. Bennet made my ears ache (as indeed the role demanded) and the actors playing Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins were also subtly brilliant. All in all I was impressed.

This got me to thinking about the many other versions of this story: it has been a television play/series umpteen times and has also been a feature film twice. To be frank, I can remember absolutely nothing of the 2005 production starring Keira Knightley, although I know I have seen it, so it can't have left much of an impression. Then I remembered that I have a copy of the 1940 Hollywood movie and I thought I should have another look to see how it compared.

Well, obviously the plot needs to be condensed when reduced to under two hours and I thought the obvious attraction between Darcy and Elizabeth was too blatant without the constant verbal sparring of the longer version. However, being a buff of older Hollywood character actors, the casting was something of a treat with the five Bennet sisters all played to the hilt by established screen actresses (although I must say that Greer Garson was a lttle long in the tooth at 36 to play the 21-year old Lizzy). Mary Boland as the mother was nearly as annoying as Steadman, but Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper were the perfect Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins. Even Laurence Olivier who I often find the ripest of hams was fine as Mr. Darcy, although I think Firth managed to out-Olivier him. The happiest casting of all however was reserved for Lady Catherine in the shape of the wonderful Edna Mae Oliver, even if the film's ending was altered to have her approve the forthcoming Darcy/Elizabeth nuptials. I probably would have enjoyed this rewatch more had I not just seen the mini-series and therefore been aware of the unnecessary tinkering with the plot and the curtailing of both the various characters and action.

So for once I find myself in the unusual position of actually preferring what in my pride I have labelled "TV fodder"; this prejudice is indeed ill-founded when it comes to this particular mini-series. I guess I am getting soft in my dotage...