Monday, 31 January 2011

Random Thoughts on Random Viewing

It's not that I haven't seen a number of films over the last few days, it's just that increasingly I find that I don't relish going into any depth on any of them. Perhaps the time has come, as the Walrus might have said, to talk of other things... However I shall perservere with this journal in the hope of finding renewed enthusiasm. In the meantime, here are a few random thoughts:

Green Zone (2010): War films fall just about at the bottom of my viewing preferences, however well thought of they may be -- although I seem to make an exception for subtitled historical epics, having happily sat through John Woo's lengthy two-part "Red Cliff" last week. Generally, however, that genre ranks even below boxing sagas and disease-of-the-week potboilers. Yes, I suppose Matt Damon was just fine as the increasingly-disillusioned soldier in Iraq unable to find any WMDs, but did I care? I suppose one of these days I shall 'have to' watch "The Hurt Locker" as well.

The Room (2006): Even though this French horror flick has a ridiculously low rating on IMDb, it sounded as if it might be worth a look. Well it wasn't. For a start it was appallingly dubbed, as if that might find this trash a wider audience, and it was full of artsy-fartsy staging. The saving grace for what it is worth, is the presence in the cast of the Down's Syndrome actor Pascal Duquenne, so very memorable in "The Eighth Day" (1996) with Daniel Auteuil. Gosh, was it really that long ago -- where do the days and years fly??

My Name is Khan (2010): This Indian movie starring Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan was cut by some forty minutes for its international release, presumably scissoring all of the usual song and dance interludes. Khan plays an Asperger's syndrome idiot savant at loose in post-9/11 America. While actually quite watchable, the movie was artfully contrived and tweely manipulative with its banner-cry of tolerance. His character (a Muslim) wants to redeem himself with his lovely Hindu wife, who is grieving after her young son is killed by prejudiced teenaged thugs; his goal is to meet the president and to declaim "My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist". It still took over two hours for him to accomplish this end in the face of bigotry and his own psychological shortcomings (and that was without the singing and dancing!)

Invictus (2009): I understand that Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort "Hereafter" is attracting a number of negative reviews along the lines of 'what in the world made him approach this subject?' (to which the obvious answer is that he is well aware of his own mortality). The same question might have been asked about this film which focuses on South Africa in the years after Nelson Mandela's release from Robbins Island and his success in partially reuniting the divided country by winning the World Rugby Cup, despite ingrained animosity against the Springboks amongst the majority of his black countrymen. A worthy subject, impeccably played by Morgan Freeman as the charismatic Mandela and Matt Damon (again) as the Boer team captain with his cod-Afrikaans accent, but a rather strange choice for the versatile Eastwood. However, at this stage in his remarkable career, he is entitled to go where his heart leads him.

Harry Brown (2009): This is one exceedingly nasty movie from the always watchable Michael Caine, but again a rather strange late career choice. After his wife dies and his one mate, Tom Bell, is terrorized and then murdered by yobs on their council estate, Caine goes into Charles Bronson avenging mode, but with rather less style than the now derided "Death Wish" films. Local police detective Emily Mortimer has twigged that Caine's senior citizen is responsbile for the rash of murders on her troubled patch, but her snooty captain has his own views on zero tolerance for crime. It takes a riot, her severe beating, the death of her partner, and a lot more murderous mayhem for Caine to remain at large -- but hopefully not to confront us with a "Harry Brown, Part Two".

That's it for today. I shan't comment on Auteuil as the Marquis de Sade (definitely not in the '96 flick mentioned above, but in "Sade", 2000) nor on the two '30s films I watched for light relief nor on a couple of clangers like "Ninja Assassin" which made me decide that bed was the better option. Happy viewing!

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Run Lola Run (1998)

I recall being impressed by this German film ("Lola Rennt") at my first viewing, but it has taken me all this time to go back for a reassessment. Yes, it is a very accomplished early feature from writer-director Tom Tykwer, who went on to make the absorbing English-language movie "Perfume" in 2006. He wrote it especially for his other half at the time, Franka Potenta; her memorable and literally colourful performance as Lola (with her bright red hair) produced a Sundance sensation and served as a calling card to Hollywood, landing her a major role in "The Bourne Identity" (2002) and its sequel.

The movie is a smart contemplation on the vagaries of life, attempting to reveal how our small actions and quick decisions impact on both ourselves and the world around us. When Lola fails to arrive on time at a pay-off meeting to collect her boyfriend and small-time crook Manni, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, the latter is forced to use public transport, carrying the bag of loot, prior to handing it over to the Mr. Big who is testing him. Nervous when he sees police approaching, he unthinkingly jumps off the train leaving the money on his seat; it is quickly appropriated by a tramp in the same carriage. When he and Lola finally make telephone contact at 11.40, he tells her that she has twenty minutes to find him the missing 100,000 marks or he will be killed, threatening to rob a nearby supermarket at Noon if she has not appeared.

The movie then seques into three near-enough real-time alternate 20-minute sections, as she runs through the city to find a solution. The first port of call is her rich, banker-father's office which produces startlingly different outcomes on each occasion, with the first two scenarios leading to the death of one of the two lead characters. The third sequence produces the necessary potentially happy ending for the mismatched couple. In each section, the timing differs by vital seconds, impacting on the flow of life both for Lola and her passers-by, brilliantly captured in 30-second flash montages, and small variations in different versions of the same scene.

Technically the film is superb. While Potenta and Bleibtreu are adequate in their roles, the real star is Tykwer's vision and camera work. The film melds colour and black-and-white photography, brief animated sequences, stills, and various speeds of slow and fast motion into a vast number of individual camera shots. The hectic pace to solve what should be an unsolveable problem is presented in a stunningly visual style. Whether the three scenarios are believable is less important than their involving presentation. The viewer is swept up in the whirlwind of Lola's determination.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Fighter (2010)

This film, apparently a hot contender in various possible Oscar categories, has yet to open here, but we went to a preview last night. Frankly, I am now rather surprised that the movie has been as well received as it has, since I find it hard to believe that it is justifiably in contention for Best Film of its year or for the numerous acting awards being considered for its lead cast of Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo or for its director David O. Russell.

This is not to dismiss the film out of hand, but for a start one needs be a fan of boxing movies -- of which there have been a huge number over the years -- and I don't really number myself amongst those who enjoy watching two men bash the living daylights out of each other. Based on real characters, the film has been a pet project of lead actor Wahlberg for many years, since it celebrates the life and achievement of one of his hometown heroes, the fighter 'Irish' Micky Ward. Ward, at the age of 31 has achieved very little under the tutorship of his older, ex-fighter step-brother Bale and the self-interested and overbearing management of his mother (Leo). With the encouragement of new girlfriend Adams, he breaks away from the family, especially since brother Dickie is in prison, and works with a new trainer to achieve his goals. However, as much as this is a movie about boxing, it is also a story about the strength, importance, and dynamics of family ties. Ward can not find the success he craves without acknowledging this factor

Bale has already won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor; since he is playing an irrepressible and irresonsible crackhead, it is the sort of showy role that attracts awards. It may indeed win Bale an Oscar, even if it is very hard to actually like his character. Leo, deservedly nominated for her role in 2008's "Frozen River", is equally unlovable in this film and I am not convinced that her acting here deserves recognition, as she rules the roost over her two sons and her seven harpy daughters. Similarly while Adams continues to show her versatility in playing the foul-mouthed girlfriend and is every bit as good as Bale in this lesser part, I don't see her walking away with a golden baldie either. In contrast to the various histrionics on display, Wahlberg comes across as a decent, solid but stolid chap. This is exactly the kind of man he is meant to be playing, but not the kind of character that wows critics.

I'm happy to have seen this movie, but I will not be amongst its cheering section when the Oscar wins are announced.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Suprisingly watchable 'bad' movies

There are normally five new movies to satellite on Sky's Premiere Channel each week, as I have bemoaned previously -- the bemoaning generally relates to their overall quality and the fact that I have previously viewed most of the better ones. I hadn't seen any of this week's offerings, of which I have now watched four. One was a cheesy animation, "Planet Hulk (2010) -- the less said the better -- and the one which was meant to be the best of the bunch, "The Book of Eli" (2009) from the Hughes Brothers, starring the Denzel, was I found barely tolerable, with its post-apocalyptic sepia landscapes and equally muddled action; in fact I had all I could do to stay awake.

That left two 2009 films neither of which seemed the least bit promising: "Gentlemen Broncos" and "Did you Hear About the Morgans?" I knew virtually nothing about the former other than its being by the Utah-based director Jared Hess and unlike much of the world I found neither his debut film "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004) nor his second film "Nacho Libre" even remotely entertaining. Just because something is quirky doesn't necessarily mean that it is funny. Yet this effort -- and I've yet to work out the relevance of its title -- was albeit a generally awful movie, not without its amusing moments. Michael Angarano, whom I positively hated in the 2008 Jackie Chan/Jet Li confection "The Forbidden Kingdom" is actually pretty believable as the rather sweet high school would-be sci-fi writer whose (frankly amateurish) novel is swiped by a bumptious successful author in need of new material. That role is taken by Jemaine Clement, half of the popular New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, playing a pretentious swine who is easy to hate. Angarano's mom is played by Jennifer Coolidge, a would-be nightgown designer of some of the unsexiest lingerie ever; she is no longer the original MILF, but still very likeable in her goofy sincerity. The rest of the eclectic cast including Sam Rockwell and Mike White are of disturbingly variable talent, but don't totally distract from the silliness of the plot. The fact that Clement's so-called improvements to the stolen manuscript result in equally remarkably awful science fiction -- the two scenarios are acted out in part during the movie, with Rockwell eschewing the ridiculous hero originally called Bronco -- add a layer of humour to the proceedings. I wouldn't choose to see this film ever again, but it was relatively painless.

As for the 'Morgans' movie, I had read a number of reviews, all of which seemed to agree that the film was really, really bad and that there was no chemistry whatsoever between its leads Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant. They play an estranged high-powered, New York-based couple who witness a gangland murder and who, as potential witnesses, are given protective custody in the back-of-beyond plains of Wyoming. The gist of the scenario is how their exposure to the simple delights and down-to-earthiness of the good folk there helps them to reconcile and to face up to their marital difficulties. Yuck, and double yuck. While I would be the first to agree that Parker and Grant make a totally unbelievable couple and while I find her preening presence more and more difficult to take seriously in her films, Grant retains the boyish charm with which he made his name. Although he keeps threatening to stop making movies -- especially ones as potentially stupid as this one -- his dry sense of humour and way with a sarcastic line still work and still make me chuckle. The local couple with whom the fish-out-of-water New Yorkers are billeted is played by folksy sheriff Sam Elliott and his gun-toting wife Mary Steenbergen, two remarkably likeable actors, and an additional reason why this film is not quite the disaster that it might have been. However, I can well understand why its reviews were as lukewarm as they were.

That leaves the fifth film to come, Andy Serkis as Ian Dury in "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" (2009). Can't say that I am looking forward to this with bated breath, but as the above comments prove, you never know in advance just how the mood will take you while actually watching a movie.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Men who Stare at Goats (2009)

I've seen this movie twice now and I am still undecided whether it is as good as some folk would have it. The basic concept is brilliant and supposedly based on "fact" as covered in the original book by Jon Ronson. It goes something like this: The rumour that the American army had a pyschological mind-training unit was picked up by the Russians, who then founded their own, forcing the U.S. to actually create such a unit. Selected soldiers were trained by Vietnam vet Bill Django to become 'psi-warriors', special Jedi soldiers who could actually prevent warfare through their mental powers. Taking this eccentric premise with Jeff Bridges in full "Dude" mode as the drug-riddled, hippy dropout Django, creating his own love-in with war, and George Clooney as the strongest of his trainees, the film plays as more of a series of scenes, many in flashback, rather than as a coherent story.

Adding to the above likeable cast -- Clooney is great at playing goofy and the Dude abides-- are Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey, as well as an assortment of eccentric minor players. McGregor plays a heartbroken Midwestern local newspaperman whose wife has left him and who wants to prove to her and the world that he is a fearless journalist. He craves to become embedded in Iraq but plays a waiting game in Kuwait until he meets Clooney's Lyn, who is about to enter the country on a 'mission' revealed to him in a 'vision' and who reluctantly takes McGregor along and into a series of mis-adventures. These include becoming stranded in the desert, being held by a group of minor criminals, and eventually coming across the remnants of the old unit, now headed by Spacey. The latter is the villain of the piece, jealous of being upstaged by more powerful talents and responsible for Bridges' earlier dishonourable discharge. After Clooney's own departure, he placed a death hex on him, which Clooney firmly believes with kill him (although possibly not for another 18 years!).

The film is full of similar improbable and often amusing scenes, including Lyn's actually killing a goat by staring at it (for which he is full of remorse), and some sharp dialogue which raises the occasional smile. However this first feature from actor-director Grant Heslov, promises more than it delivers. As mentioned above, Bridges and Clooney are good value in enbodying their offbeat characters, but Spacey remains something of a cipher and it is a mystery to me how McGregor has maintained the career that he has had, since his character both here and in many of his other movie forays comes across as flat. It is perhaps an unfair putdown to suggest that the movie is sub-Coen Brothers, since it does have its definite moments. What it does not have is a cohesive structure that engages the viewer's interest throughout.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Orphan (2009)

Michael, in his comment on the post below, queried whether I would be writing about the rather super silent from director Marcel L'Herbier that we viewed recently, suggesting that it was superior to just about everything else seen over the holiday period. I do not disagree with his conclusion, but will forgo commenting until I have managed to view the whole film (if ever); unfortunately the setting ran about before the end of this longish epic -- some 175 minutes or so -- and although I could guess at the ending, I do need to see it first. The film in question is listed on IMDb as "Living Dead Man" (1926), but is a little better known under its French title, translated as "The Late Mathias Pascal". Based on a Pirandello novel and starring the eminent Russian actor Ivan Mozzhukhin, it tells of a man's 'second' life after he is believed dead. One of these days....perhaps.

Other recent viewings have been a variable batch, ranging from the well-done Sophie Marceau-starring WW2 "Female Agents" (2007) through a very strange and very long Bollywood fantasy "Krrish" (2006) to the nearly unwatchable sequel (or squeakquel as they would have it) to "Alvin and the Chipmunks". However, I have chosen to make a few comments on the above 'horror' movie, which is one that I have been meaning to see since its well-reviewed release. Generally falling into the 'evil children' sub-genre which dates back to "The Bad Seed" (1956) and which includes"The Exorcist", "The Omen", and "The Brood", as well as a long list of derivative B-movies, "Orphan" manages to be an interesting riff on this theme.

After losing their third sprog in childbirth, loving but troubled couple Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard decide to adopt an older child to join their son and hearing-impaired daughter. At the local Catholic orphanage they are strangely attracted by the reserved, talented Esther, supposedly a Russian-born tragic waif, and welcome her into their family. It is not long however before one begins to understand that something is strangely amiss, as she clobbers a bird that her new brother has accidentally shot or as she begins to insinuate herself into her new sister's life or indeed when she murders nun C.C.H Pounder, whom she sees as a threat between her and her wonderful new family. Played as a precocious 9-year old by the very able 12-year old actress Isabelle Fuhrman, the denouement does indeed hinge on the child's actual age -- but it would be too much of a spoiler to discuss this further.

With a literate script, fine acting all-round, especially from Farmiga playing the fragile and ex-alcoholic wife, who is more attuned to Esther's strangeness than the initially forgiving Sarsgaard, the film does indeed provide a series of shocks, becoming much more than a blood-soaked horror movie. The real horror here is more deep-rooted in the psychological and physiological quirks of the very scary orphan, so frighteningly portrayed by Miss Fuhrman.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Due Date (2010)

Happy New Year to us all! I just did a count and was suprised to find that I actually viewed some 25 films (!) in the fortnight since I last wrote. I'm not counting those films shown for the entertainment of my younger guests, one of whom wanted to view "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" three days running, despite having been given a copy in her stocking at home. As for my own choices, not much stands out from the morass which included some stinkers like "All About Steve" (pitsville Sandra), "Post Grad", and "St. Trinian's 2". Two Jackie Chan movies "The Spy Next Door" and the rather better "Robin-B-Hood" were entertaining enough if you like Jackie, but hardly Chan classics. I didn't think that "Up in the Air" lived up to its hype and Julian Fellows' "From Time to Time" played more like a TVM than a big-screen directorial debut. Four French flicks were not overly wonderful either, although Romain Duris' "Arsene Lupin" was sufficiently stylish to make me want to dig out my 1932 version with Barrymore brothers, John and Lionel -- not that I've done that yet. As for the rest, including several oldies (but not particularly goodies), there is little to recommend.

But back to the film under discussion. Feeling rather housebound over the holidays, we had a cinema day out on New Year's Day. There wasn't much that tempted me amongst the available choices, but since a good laugh is always welcome, we chose the above-mentioned movie which seems to have tickled a few funnybones. Unfortunately I was only very moderately amused; perhaps I am losing my sense of humour in my dotage -- or perhaps it just wasn't that great a film. Mirroring the rather superior "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" from 1987, chronicling the cross-country journey of mismatched travellers Steve Martin and John Candy", this movie paired the usually reliable Robert Downey Jr. with flavour-of-the-month Zach Galifianakis. Directed by Todd Phillips after his breakout hit "The Hangover", which also starred Galifianakis, the studios were obviously hoping for more of the same.

Downey was probably miscast as the uptight executive trying to get back home before his wife is due to give birth to their first child, who finds himself lumbered, though rather contrived circumstances, to having to travel with shlubby pothead Galifianakis, after he finds himself on the airlines' "no-fly" list and without any money or identification. It becomes a road-trip from Hell insofar as just about everything that can go wrong, unsurprisingly, does go wrong. The rather simple Galifianakis fancies himself as an actor making it big in Hollywood -- the zenith of his ambition is to appear in "Two and a Half Men" -- and he is travelling with his late father's ashes in a coffee tin and his titchy pet dog. I'm tempted to say that the dog was the best thing in the film, were it not for the fact that we are treated to a shot of the animal "masturbating" in time with his master as the best way of falling asleep. As for the fate of his dad's ashes during a coffee break at the home of cameo-ing Jamie Foxx, don't ask!

Downey bears the brunt of the film's physical indignities, being bashed up in a car crash, beaten by a paraplegic, shot, and arrested by Mexican border control, while the chubby galumph just sails through the chaos. Naturally the two bond by the film's end, although one would have thought that the twain could never meet. However loveable one was meant to find Galifianakis, his would-be appeal was completely wasted on me. The one possibly unintended, although probably deliberate, bit of irony in the film occurs when Downey, having inadvertently switched cases with his fellow traveller, is arrested for drug possession. He swears to the authorities that he has never, ever, ever touched drugs. Ho, ho, ho, given the now clean Downey's checkered past -- now that's funny!