Monday, 29 November 2010

Irina Palm (2007)

This is one very peculiar film, both for its star turn and its subject matter. I have been trying to catch up with it for a while, having missed a showing two years ago on one of the minority channels -- and it has only just resurfaced. Although something of a 'Euro-pudding' with its German-born, Belgium-based director and multinational funding, it was made in English with a largely English cast.

What makes it unusual is its strange story and its lead performance from Marianne Faithfull, once the archetypal rock-chick and groupie, who subsequently forged a singing and film career -- although mainly in minor productions -- starting with her cult performance in "Girl on a Motorcycle" (1968). While once a good-looking lass, she has not aged overly well, and here she plays a 50ish widowed grandmother without any attempt at 'glam' and with little false modesty. Her young grandson is dying of some rare disease which has cost his family all of their meagre assets and the only hope is a specialist operation in Australia. While the surgeon's fee would be pro bono, money is needed for flights, accommodation, and the hospital. Faithfull's Maggie, having already sold her house, tries desperately to get further loans or employment, but is turned down everywhere. Walking through Soho she sees a sign in the window of a club looking for a 'hostess'. Thinking that means welcoming the guests or making the tea, she soon finds that it is a euphemism for a sex worker. Too old and plain to join the ranks of the pole and lap dancers, the club's owner Miki -- a wonderful turn from Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic -- sees her soft hands as the answer. She would be perfect as the unseen presence behind a wall giving hand relief to the male organs thrust through a hole. While appalled by the prospect, Maggie is enticed by the potential earnings and reluctantly learns her trade.

There is no graphic portrayal of what she does, with carefully-framed camera shots, although there is plenty of background nudity on the club premises. For a film about 'wanking', it is done in the best possible taste, even when she develops a medical condition labelled 'penis-elbow'! In fact she is so good at her job that the punters queue up for her services and she takes the trade name Irina Palm. Unfortunately it also means that the only friend she has made at the club loses her job for not being as 'in demand' and bitterly rejects her. (I must say that this part of the story didn't ring true, as surely Irina was not available 24/7). Taking advantage of her increasing trade value, Maggie borrows £6000 from Miki, agreeing to work for nothing for the next ten weeks to pay it back. Miki, a cold-hearted businessman, reluctantly agrees to this and despite his increasingly warm feelings towards Irina, threatens to kill her should she renege.

The fly in the ointment is her weakish son who demands to know how she raised the cash. When she refuses to share her 'shameful' secret, he trails her to the club, recoils in disgust, and forces her to stop working (or else no grandson access). He even threatens to return the 'dirty' cash, making one wonder why he is so reluctant to make moral sacrifices for his son's treatment while his mother's priorities remain steadfast. Meanwhile all of the local busybodies including so-called best friend Jenny Agutter (the only other well-known name in the cast and another actress now showing time's ravages) want to know where Maggie disappears to each day and why she is being so evasive. This lends a certain underlying humour to what might be considered a basically grim tale. We don't discover how her grandson fares, but we are finally left with another, and not unexpected, happy ending.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2010)

At the risk of alienating thousands of 'Potterheads', I must confess that I did not think much of the latest film. To clearly state my position, I am actually something of a fan. I have read all of the books, seen each film on the big screen shortly after release, and do have DVDs of all of them. However, despite the already numerous raves on IMDb, I am unable to enthuse.

So what is the problem? The main one is, I think, to have split the final chapter into two parts. I will not be cynical and conclude that this was done to make the franchise even more of a moneyspinner, although that is of course one net result. I will be charitable and believe that it was done to remain more faithful to the original text with a minimum of skipping and reducing the action. But I am not a purist. I didn't enjoy any of the previous movies any the less for their omissions; whenever a book is adapted for the screen, there are inevitably necessary changes and it is seldom that these completely ruin the finished film, which the cineaste must take on its own merits. By dividing the action into what may be two unequal parts, the director and his crew have given us a very, very slow movie, barely alleviated by the occasional set piece. In the previous movie we learned that Harry must locate and destroy a number of horcruxes to allow good to win over evil. In this film only one of the remainder was found and eventually destroyed, leaving a larger number to come in Part Two. In fact one wonders how they managed to fill up the best part of two and a half hours here.

A second problem is the over-emphasis on Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, Emma Watson's Hermione, and Rupert Grint's Ron. While the trio have matured in their acting skills over the seven movies, watching them on their seemingly endless and random quest does produce a measure of tedium. Most of the remaining and well-loved characters are given minimal screen time and some old favourites don't even get a look-in. Ralph Fiennes' noseless Voldemont and Helena Bonham-Carter's overeager Bellatrix are given some play, but most of the other characters seem treated as background decoration. Also I must agree with those who feel that Grint seems at the end of his tether and that he is growing bored with his role as the gormless although ultimately faithful Ron.

This is not to say that there are not some things for the viewer to enjoy in this dark entry, generally far from the fun and frolics when the movie was largely Hogwarts-set. There is one bit of inspired animation as the tale is told of the three brothers whose symbols became the Deathly Hallows, a modern-day riff on silhouette animation reminiscent of the great Lotte Reninger. Changing the cast into multiple Harry Potters to affect his escape at the film's start is also mildly amusing in a somewhat jejune way. Voldemont's CGI snake is well done too, although very probably a little too scary for the young 'uns. Unfortunately, much of the joy and most of the humour has been drained from the series as the emphasis veers towards racial purity (no more mudbloods) and the triumph of the Dark Side.

The film ends with a cliffhanger, reminding me of those old Saturday serials, shown to get the moviegoer back next week. However in this instance we have to wait until some time next year (rather than next Saturday) to discover what happens next. Those of us who have read the book know the answer. Viewers new to the series may not really care.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

There are some films which most people rave about which have left me on the chilly side of cold and I begin to wonder what is the matter with me. So I watched this Oscar-winning flick again (best original screenplay for Charlie Kaufman plus a best actress nom for Kate Winslet) and I remained unenchanted by it the second time around as well.

I can understand why it has its fans and why it is considered amongst the best films of the decade. Based on a quotation from Alexander Pope praising the blissfulness of an empty mind, free from all disturbing memories, we can all recall painful loves and losses and dream of being liberated from such distractions. However, this is to deny life with its many ups and downs. After a fight with boyfriend Jim Carrey, Winslet approaches Tom Wilkinson's Lacuna Corp. to wipe her memory of their relationship and to enable her to start afresh. When she no longer recognises the lovelorn Carrey and has taken up with a new, younger beau, he too opts for the Lacuna treatment. However in the midst of losing the bad memories, Carrey realises that there are so many deep-rooted happy times that he would want to recall that he tries to prevent their inevitable destruction.

With its non-linear structure -- the end of the film is actually at the beginning, but it takes the viewer a while to understand this -- the movie is self-consciously quirky and one struggles to follow the story. That in itself is fine, as one can use the colour of Winslet's messy hair -- she favours outlandish shades of green, blue, and red -- to pinpoint the actual times and sequence of the action. However well-done the film's dreamlike meandering might be, I for one did not care, as I found most of the characters annoying. In particular Lacuna's staff of Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and current flavour-of-the-month Mark Ruffalo were on balance both aggrevating and took up too large a chunk of the action. The latter, with his unwashed appearance, cavorting nakedly with Dunst whilst supposedly monitoring Carrey, verged on the nauseating. And as for the gormless Wood stealing both Winslet's underpants and many of Carrey's memories to woo her, ugh with a capital U. Oddly enough, the un-Oscar nominated Carrey probably gave one of the best performances of his career as the needy, nerdy Joel.

Writer Kaufman has produced some interesting scripts and director Michel Gondry is also a talent to admire, but I still find it nearly impossible to share the admiration that this movie instilled in so many other viewers. Between them, I think, they pulled the wool over some easily distracted eyes.

As a footnote and possibly to prove that at heart I'm a cinematic philistine at times, yesterday I watched Gerard Butler in 2009's "Law-Abiding Citizen". While not delving the same convoluted depths as "Sunshine...", but nearly as preposterous, I found it the more watchable movie. I don't normally like Butler, but he was surprisingly good here, when he was not trying to play a muscled hero or a frothy rom-com love interest. I found myself rooting for his good-guy turned bad-guy to win, even if movie convention left victory to Jamie Foxx's unlikeable 'hero' (not!).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

For My Viewing Pleasure - Ha Ha

I have ranted previously about the dearth of attractive new movies each week on the satellite Premiere Channel. Most weeks Sky offers its subscribers five films new to television, although some weeks it is only four if they are premiering a 'big' attraction like one of the Harry Potter flicks (which of course most viewers have seen previously in one form or another). Sky's myriad other film channels seldom offer any premieres, although this has not always been the case; they tend to schedule the same old selections, jokingly lumped into into Indie, Modern Classics, Adventure, Horror etc. etc. I suppose I should be thankful for the chance to add some relatively recent releases to my ongoing cinema knowledge, even if some of these are instantly forgettable.

This week I had not previously seen any of the premieres and have now lapped up four of the five -- I can not yet bring myself to watch "Amelia" (2009), another worthy and Oscar-chasing peformance from Hilary Swank. As for the other four, while the selection was better than usual, they were on balance underwhelming:

Death Warrior (2009): To deal with the worst of the lot first, this clunker is something of a vanity project from a 40ish Argentinian martial arts lunk called Hector Echavarria (no, nor me!). When not making slo-mo naked love to his adoring wife, he is brutally knocking off a selection of opponents (played by real MMA fighters), all of whom are supposedly in thrall to a Russian mobster and who must fight to the death as millionaire punters around the world place their bets. I nearly switched off before Ivan the Terrible came on the scene, but he is so wonderfully overplayed by Nick Mancuso that this character nearly made the movie watchable. Nearly!

New Moon (2009): This second film in the Twilight series, beloved of the so-called Twi-Hards, was hardly my cup of tea. While I actually find Kristen Stewart's Bella rather fetching as she is torn between the dubious charms of pasty-faced Robert Pattinson's Edward (when did vampires begin functioning in daylight?) and muscle-bound Taylor Lautner's werewolf Jacob, it all became rather yawnful, especially with the film's not very crafty CGI beasties. Of course mind always wins out over matter and Edward is indeed her own true love. Only two more parts of the saga to go I'm told! Neither Michael Sheen's Tony Blairish vampire lord nor a red-eyed Dakota Fanning added much to this two-hour drag.

Paranormal Activity (2007): I believe this low budget docudrama from writer-director Oren Reli made a packet, as some not very discerning audiences apparently succumbed to its low-rent scares. Filmed in his own house and featuring two inexperienced actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Stoat (playing Katie and Micah of course), we were meant to be enthralled by the dubious charms of these slightly obnoxious yuppies as they try to track the possible demon that may or may not have been stalking her since childhood. If video footage of a couple tossing and turning in their double bed night after night, with the occasional bang or thud, rocks your boat -- great. However the shocks, such as they were, were too slow coming and the so-called scary moments were too few and far-between. Of course a sequel has just opened by popular demand!

Julie and Julia (2009): This was the most enjoyable film of the four, but not quite as winning as I hoped it would be. As I have admitted previously, I have finally been won over by Meryl Streep having resisted her early 'let's talk in a funny accent' roles; however her embodiment here of the classic cook Julia Child, with her overbearing and screechy voice turned out a little hard to stomach (if one sticks to food metaphors). I also like Amy Adams; here she plays a dead-end government office worker and would be writer who blogs about mastering the 524 recipes from Child's first volume in 365 days. The film leaps between their two lives without completely immersing the viewer in either. Julia turned to cooking as a pastime while living in Paris with her beloved State Department hubby, a sweet turn from the versatile Stanley Tucci, and we watch her ongoing efforts to bring French gourmandism to the American kitchen. Julie, on the other hand, has a whiny underachieving husband and is hoping to use her blog as a stepping stone to greater things for herself. In short she is not a completely likeable character, although it is hard not to fall for this winning actress. One hoped that the two stories might have intertwined by the film's end, but we are only told in passing that Mrs. Child was not taken with the younger woman's efforts (which Julie interprets as 'she hates me'). I researched this; apparently the truth of the matter is that the venerable Julia decided that Julie could not be much of a cook if she had so much trouble with recipes that she had tested and re-tested for any would-be gourmet chef.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Tenant (1976)

It is something of a conceit to compare movies with fine wines and to say that some grow better with age. However certain films do seem to improve each time that I return to them. I have probably seen the above film directed by and starring Roman Polanski at least twice previously, but I was struck by how accomplished a piece it is after watching it again recently.

Despite having an alternate French title (Le Locataire), being set in Paris, and having been produced and shot by a French crew, I do believe that the movie was actually made in English, since the main cast are obviously not dubbed. I am prepared to be told, however, that some of the minor parts amongst the very large French supporting cast were in fact post-dubbed. And what a bizarre lead cast it is, including Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet, Lila Kedrova, and Shelley Winters. Polanski plays a timid naturalised French citizen, Trelkovsky, who hears of an apartment that may fall vacant in the block run by Douglas. It seems that the previous tenant, a young woman called Simone Choule, has thrown herself from its fourth floor window and is dying in hospital. Anxious to secure the flat for himself, Polanski visits Choule's bedside where he meets her friend Adjani, only for them to hear terrified screams from the heavily bandaged patient.

Trelkovsky moves in and soon makes enemies amongst the motley collection of tenants and the conceirge (Winters), who accuse him of making unnecessary noise and needlessly moving his furniture. When he finds a human tooth buried in a hole in the wall and when he notices different neighbours standing ominously in the communal toilet across the courtyard for hours on end, he becomes more and more wary and suspicious. Polanski returns to themes from some of his earlier films including the paranoia manifest in "Repulsion" (1968) and the cross-dressing from Cul-de-Sac (1966), as Trelkovsky begins to don Choule's left-behind clothes and makeup. He even goes out to buy a wig and high heels. He gradually feels himself becoming Simone and being driven to suicide by his oppressive neighbours, as he believes she was, staring out from his window for hours, preparing himself for the final leap.

Polanski is never off-screen and gives us a bravura performance. We begin to feel his terror as his world closes in on him. The creepiness of his environment becomes tangible and claustrophobic, but the viewer can not draw his eyes away. One then begins to wonder whether there was in fact some previous relationship with the dead Choule, whether they are two parts of the same person, and whether there is a inevitability about Trelkovsky's fate.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Jennifer's Body (2009)

It is probably fair to say that the critics had their knives out for screenwriter Diablo Cody's sophomore effort after her Oscar win for "Juno". That film found favour, not just for Cody's snappy and hip dialogue, but for its smart casting, particularly with Ellen Page, who brought her words and insights into teen emotion to vibrant life. Unfortunately despite more of the same here, dressed in the trappings of a would-be horror film, much of the dialogue falls flat with a cast that is trying just a little too hard.

Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried play a pair of mismatched 'best friends' since childhood, although it is hard to see what binds Seyfried's sensible character Needy (not that she is 'needy' in the least) to Fox's teenaged femme fatale. When they go to hear a new band with a 'salty' (i.e. hot and sexy) lead singer at the local dive, the joint inexplicably bursts into flames. The girls escape, but many are left dead. Fox then takes off in the band's van and it eventually emerges that these wannabe popstars reckon that they can get Satan on their side if they sacrifice a virgin. Big joke, since Fox is self-evidently an experienced and knowing trollop, and she emerges from their ceremony as a razor-toothed succubus with a taste for young male flesh. That's the so-called 'horror' part of the story as she begins to munch her way through a foreign exchange student, a jock, and the class nerd to keep herself looking fit. Unfortunately, even with the occasional lashings of blood, the film is neither sufficiently scary nor suspenseful for any horror aficionado.

In her first lead role after her decorative turn in the two "Transformers" movies, Fox's acting chops are not really stretched or tested. She looks great and sexy, but the film is overly careful with her teasing non-nudity. And I have no idea what her would-be lesbian make-out scene with Seyfried was in aid of, other than Cody's throwing everything but the kitchen sink into her poorly structured screenplay. Yes, there was the occasionally clever line (I for one was taken with Fox's being invited out to watch "Rocky Horror" and retorting that she doesn't like boxing movies), but the script was striving too self-consciously to be both 'with it' and knowing. Seyfried was marginally the better showcased actress, as she alone became aware of the changes in her not-so best buddy. However, the plot took her finally over the top in completely unbelievable ways. If this was meant to set up a sequel, forget about it folks.

The film is largely an all-girls effort from Cody (who was also one of the producers), the two female leads -- none of the male roles are that strong, and the director Karyn Kusama. This was only her third feature after her success with "Girlfight" back in 2000 (a film I found impossible to warm to) and the messy sci-fi flick "Aeon Flux" in 2005. She brings little to the table in terms of helping the viewer to decide if they are watching a black comedy or a failed horror flick. Ultimately the film may find its fans, but it is really nothing more than a disjointed tale about a flesh-eating cheerleader!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

El (1953)

I have written previously about one of my favourite directors Luis Bunuel and the strange period that he spent in exile between the end of the Spanish Civil War and his triumphant recall to Spain with "Viridiana" in 1961. He did not leave for political reasons but rather to find work, and after a short and fruitless sojourn in the United States, he landed in Mexico in the late 40s, eventually taking Mexican nationality. Oddly enough everyone continues to think of him as a Spaniard and he is most lauded for his later works back in Europe. However his Mexican output runs the gamut from cheapjack quickie productions (where he was definitely a director-for-hire) through some enduring classics.

"El", also known as "This Strange Passion", is definitely the work of a master, even if it is the product of a rushed, three-week shoot. The story of a rich and devout older man (with an apparent shoe fetish) becoming infatuated with a young woman and luring her from her fiance becomes a haunting study of jealousy and paranoia. The film is not a thriller in the Hitchcock sense, but rather a mesmerizing slow-burner, drawing the viewer into the doomed marriage between urbane Arturo de Cordova's Francisco and his feisty wife, the Argentinian actress Delia Garces. Although there is little reason to suspect that theirs will not be a happy life together, one soon begins to notice the cracks: his insane jealousy, his possessiveness, and his obsession that the world is against him as he pursues a hopeless lawsuit to recover his family's lost properties. Any man who even speaks to his wife is perceived a would-be Lothario and any civility on her part is seen as sluttishness and a cue for violence. As they rattle about in their magnificent Art Nouveau home, one wonders how much she will stand before running home to Momma. However, even her dear mother and the family priest are inclined to accept his explanations rather than hers and to take his part.

De Cordova gives a stunning performance. A leading man in Mexican films since the 1930s, he was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s as the next hot 'Latin Lover', but none of his Hollywood movies did justice to the talent he displays here. His is far from a sympathetic character, but his growing madness is fascinating. Bunuel allows us to view Francisco's seemingly hostile world through the character's own eyes, before snapping us back and forth to reality. By the film's end, when Francisco has retreated to the 'safe' environment of a monastery and his wife has remarried, we still can not believe that he has found peace with himself, nor do we know for certain whose child is the young boy in the final scenes.

In closing let me quickly mention a fascinating French film I watched last night, "Avril" (2006). I was not familiar with the director nor any of the cast, apart from Miou-Miou as an aging nun, but the story was beautifully told. Avril is a novice, raised by a strict order of nuns since she was a baby, and locked away to spend her last two weeks in contemplative isolation before taking her final vows. Released by Miou-Miou (whose own motivations become apparent later) and told that she has a twin brother, the artistic Avril uses those two weeks to discover the outside world and to be seduced by the joys of life. And with a potentially cliffhanger ending, the film does not take the usual French tactic of leaving the viewer guessing, but has the grace to indicate its likely outcome. Recommended.