Monday, 28 March 2011

Kick-Ass (2010)

I wasn't expecting too much from this movie about a would-be super-hero, but I was pleasantly surprised by its cheek, literacy, and off-the-wall humour and violence. When director Matthew Vaughn first turned his hand to directing with "Layer Cake" in 2004, after producing Guy Ritchie's quirky British gangster flicks, he gave us more of the same: flashy hardman action. Not my bag! However I should have suspected that he was capable of broader horizons with the very charming "Stardust" (2007) written with super-scribe Jane Goldman. The above movie is also the product of their continued cooperation and takes the gangster genre and turns it on its head by incorporating a comic book sensibility.

 Aaron Johnson, who first came into the public eye with his lead role as the young John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy"(2009) and his romantic liaison with that film's director -- Sam Taylor Wood, 23 years his senior and now the mother of his daughter -- plays Dave Lizewski, a gormless high school comic book nerd who craves being a superhero, despite not being endowed with any special talents; he just wants to help humanity... So he sends off for a hideous diving suit which he dons and goes off in pursuit of adventure. His first attempt to find and return a missing cat accidentally lands him in the midst of gang violence, followed by an encounter with the local bully's knife, after which he is smashed to a pulp by a hit-and-run driver. As a result, every bone in his body needs steel reinforcements, which gives him more of an edge in standing up against wrongdoers. The You-Tube generation lands his exploits on the net and he becomes Kick-Ass, the masked hero of his dreams, even if he still does not possess any noticeable fighting skills.

 He soon meets up with two highly-trained fighting machines: Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy and his young daughter Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. An ex-cop who has been framed for drug crimes and served prison time, Cage is out to avenge not just the honcho who put him there but any and all miscreants that cross his path. To this end he has trained Moretz in every kind of armed combat; together they are a whirlwind of mayhem. On one level theirs is simply a loving father-daughter relationship; it's just that their toys are knives and guns. For once, in contrast with his other recent roles, Cage underplays his obsessive avenger and is nearly likeable in his Adam West-like blandness. Moretz, on the other hand, in her purple wig and with her potty-mouthed dialogue is a dynamo in action. Despite the violence they engender, one wishes them well in their quest.

Their main quarry is the kingpin gangster icily played by Mark Strong. (I also saw him a few days ago as the big baddie in Russell Crowe's recent "Robin Hood" flick, although why we need another version, even as a prequel, remains a mystery to me). His wanna-be son who craves his dad's approval is played by Christopher Mintz-Plaisse, still something of a dweeb, but a long way from his McLovin in "Superbad". In order to please his father and bring down Kick-Ass, he gets Dad to bankroll 'Red Mist', equipped with all the modern gadgetry that money can buy, he becomes the new would-be superhero on the block.

The film has been criticized by many for its over-the-top bloodshed. If one accepts that this is really only comic book violence, not that different from Jerry splattering Tom, everything becomes so unreal that it becomes droll. Vaughn and Goldman have given us a fun-filled riff on the muscle-bound superheroes of other movies and one is fully aware that none of the violence is meant to be taken seriously. A sequel is on the cards, but how this would work with Johnson and Mintz-Plasse several years on and similarly an older Moretz is a moot point; and how would they cope with SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Cage's no longer being available is a separate problem. I do look forward to finding out.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Limitless (2011)

Some movies are like the proverbial Chinese meal: very tasty and enjoyable while you are dining, but leaving you feeling empty and unsatisfied shortly afterwards. We went to a preview showing for the above film which opens here this week and I didn't look at my watch once. In other words, it held my interest with its unusual storyline, flashily told by director Neil Burger in his fourth outing. His 2006 second feature, the excellent "The Illusionist", promised solid work in the future, and he certainly attacked the subject matter here with dizzying gusto, but whether the fancy camerawork was useful in providing anything other than mild nausea is something of a moot point. Several hours after viewing this concoction, its initial impact had faded and I was left pondering the implausibilities and logical plot-holes that had carried me along earlier.

The premise is intriguing. Having been told umpteen times that we all coast along using but a small proportion of our potential brainpower, what would happen if a simple pill could unlock our full capacity? Bradley Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a scruffy, non-achieving author with a severe case of writer's block. A chance meeting with his ex-brother-in-law, who has always moonlighted as a dealer (not in stocks and bonds!) gifts Morra with a simple transparent tablet, a designer drug called NVC. Immediately he is able to complete his book in four days, learn to play the piano, tidy his pigsty of an apartment, and bed his landlord's naggy wife who is dunning him for back rent. He finds the stash at the murdered dealer's flat and uses it to develop his 'four-digit IQ', amazing all and sundry with his remarkable abilities. He is now able to recall and adapt every piece of information to which he has ever been casually exposed, including being able to fight like Bruce Lee to see off a bunch of subway thugs! He moves from being a total loser to the bumptious best boy on the block.

This brings him to the attention of a ruthless financial tycoon, appropriately named Carl Van Loon, played by Robert De Niro on auto-pilot. Cooper, who has become omnipresent since his break-through role in "The Hangover" two years ago, does an adequate job, although nearly any youngish actor could have taken it on (although thankfully not Shia LaBeouf for whom the role was apparently originally intended). The two main female roles, Abbie Cornish as Morra's on-again, off-again girlfriend and Anna Friel as his ex-wife, are badly underwritten, leaving the two actresses as unformed ciphers. However, through Friel we learn that others who have toyed with the drug are generally dead or dying -- not that this deters Morra's growing dependency.

Thrown in are a number of idiotic sub-plots including that of a violent Russian money-lender who has found out about the drug, Morra's being framed for a murder that he may or may not have committed, and a mogul's mad and murderous P.A. pursuing Cooper and Cornish to get his hands on their supply. There's also evidence of Morra's growing paranoia as he hires bodyguards and rents a supposedly thief-proof apartment (which the Russians and his goons turn into confetti). It seems that half the world and his sister know about this remarkable drug and the ending, when it comes, is only satisfying in the very short term. Then, all the questions about what one has just watched start rearing their ugly heads. Enjoy the film for its 100-odd minutes' roller coaster ride, but don't think too much about it afterwards.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Potiche (2010)

The above film from prolific director Francois Ozon was the opening movie of a 3-day French film festival here and we were immediately attracted to it by the cinematic reunion of its two stars: Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. They have appeared together notably in the past, and since a new movie starring either of them is cause for excitement, seeing them together again was a strong incentive -- and, let me quickly add, a most enjoyable experience.

'Potiche' translates as an ornamental Japanese vase prominently displayed on a shelf, but is also used as the description of a trophy wife or trophy mistress. This is the fate of Deneuve, 30-years married to pompous and unfaithful Fabrice Luchini, who considers her late father's umbrella factory his dowry. They have a married daughter with two children, who bemoans her husband's constant business travel, and a vaguely bohemian son who has not yet decided what he wants from life, but who certainly has no interest in becoming an umbrella tycoon. The start of the film dawdles over Deneuve's relatively empty life, her childrens' indecisiveness, and her feckless husband's taking her happy hausfrau role for granted, while he has it off with all and sundry. When he is taken hostage by protesting workers at his factory, Deneuve enlists the help of his great enemy, the local left-wing mayor and MP Depardieu, who just happens to be a one-day romantic fling from her distant past. When the trauma of his deliverance from his workers' revolt causes Luchini to have a heart attack, Deneuve is encouraged to take over the factory's management in his absence. This she does reluctantly, but with the help of her kids and the legacy of her father's benevolence, she is a major hit with the workers, showing a previously unsuspected head for business as profits soar.

Set in 1977, the film's focus is firmly on the rise of feminism. Ozon's early movies concentrated on his own gay sensibilities, but his films since 2000 like "Under the Sand", "8 Women", and "Swimming Pool" show far greater versatility and seem to celebrate feisty, strong, determined women. Deneuve's blossoming as the factory's successful boss is resented by her husband when he returns to the scene, assuming that everything will revert to what was, including his casual nookie with his secretary. Fat chance, and Deneuve doesn't want to give up what she has accomplished. She only loses control when her daughter (firmly under the heavy thumb of her own husband) votes with her swarmy dad. Unfazed, Deneuve decides to divorce the swine and to stand as local MP in the upcoming elections, unseating Depardieu in the process.

The bare bones of this tale do not reflect the charming performances from the two leads. Still handsome and trim in her 60s, Deneuve is not the great beauty that she once was, but remains a skilled performer. There is a bit of business about Depardieu's possibly being the father of her son and he is chuffed as monkeys at the prospect, before she disillusions him with details of her many other liaisons. However before this revelation alientates him, they have a number of playful scenes together as he admits that she remains the unrequited love of his life. He may be a bit of a man-mountain physically nowadays, but their dancing together at the local, slightly risque, disco (where her husband would never take her) is as joyous as watching Oliver Hardy's unsuspected grace. Full marks to M. Ozon for reuniting these performers and giving them such well-rounded roles for their late careers.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Comedian Harmonists (1997)

If you had asked me before I viewed the above German film yesterday whether I had seen it before, I would have said 'yes' -- but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Reaching back into the dim recesses of memory, I am fairly certain that I have seen a documentary about the singing group in question -- a group of hugely popular, world-renowned entertainers, who came together in the late 1920s and whose careers ended as a victims of irrational Nazi mandates. I certainly had not seen this 129-minute reconstruction by director Joseph Vilsmaier of the remarkable group's rise and fall.

A young, impoverished actor and would-be musician named Harry Frommermann decides to put together a German version of the then-famous American a-capella group 'The Revellers'. He advertises for singers, but a pushy meeting with bass-singer Robert Biberti (arriving on his doorstep dressed as a monk, moonlighting from his work as a movie extra) sends off the no-talents queueing to audition; between them they find three other strong singers and a pianist. They hone their unique trademark of using their vocal talents to imitate various musical instruments, so that the audience hears not only some wonderful singing, but also the impression of a full orchestra backing them, and they became a runaway success. Immensely popular both in their homeland and abroad, warning signs begin to emerge as the Nazis consolidate their power.

It happens that two of the group are overtly Jewish and a third is deemed Jewish by the Hitler's controversial racial laws. Their pianist is married to a Jewish woman and a very Aryan woman has converted to Judaism to marry one of them. Despite their broad fan base amongst the German people and even amongst some high-ranking Nazi officials, they are eventually banned from performing in public. This occurs after a triumphant visit to New York from which they willingly returned to Germany (Harry less willingly than the others), thinking that their fans would never allow their persecution. Far too soon the three Jews are forced to flee the country for America, leaving the other three to try to pick up the pieces of their careers. I don't know what actually happened to the six in question in their later lives -- whether they had any subsequent success of not, but I intend to find out.

The director probably took a certain amount of poetic license in telling their story, such as creating an apparently non-existant triangle between Harry, Robert, and a young student for its dramatic effect. However, the movie carefully recreates the period, not stinting on the shadows and paranoia that will overwhelm Germany, mixing these forebodings with some wonderfully delightful re-created musical performances. I was not familiar with any of the lead cast, but they all did an excellent job of becoming the very believable, talented, and human harmonists. The only actor I knew from before was Gunter Lamprecht, here playing the small part of the impresario that gave the group their name (based on their comic bits of stage-business); he took the lead in the fantastic 1980 German TV series "Berlin Alexanderplatz" which also dealt with the fraught Germany of the past,

The film is not perfect and contains certain anachronisms (for example, the US armed forces were still segregated in those bad old days), but its heart is well and truly in the right place. If the group's final concert and their 'auf wiedersehen' song seems remarkably reminiscent of the Von Trapps' departure in the "Sound of Music", it still creates the necessary teary, chokey response in the viewer. On balance, this is a remarkably involving and largely enjoyable film about some legendary entertainers and I can highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

To someone of my generation, the title of this film suggests a testimonial or paean to a brand of ciggies, rather than a purportedly true story of gay love. Apparently the nearly unbelievable tale is based on reality, as told in the non-fiction book by Steven Vicker. Adapted for the screen by "Bad Santa" scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and co-directed by them with a wonderfully light touch in their debut outing, the movie is far more entertaining than I would have imagined. Of this week's Sky Premiere debuts, I was expecting Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" to be the pick of the bunch, but I found it preposterously told, muddled, and unsatisfying; the above unheralded movie (with its subject matter limiting its wide release) was far more fun.

It is the story of one Steven Russell, immaculately played by Jim Carrey, who throws in his straight life as a cop, husband, and father to wallow in the hedonistic lifestyle that he believes his gay sensibilities warrant. As he soon discovers, a flamboyant way of life needs lots of ready cash, so he indulges in various cons and scams to finance living high on the hog. Think of "Catch Me if You Can" camped up. Of course he lands in pokey where -- across the room -- he catches sight of the would-be love of his life Phillip Morris, in the bleached blonde shape of Ewan McGregor. Soon he is pulling strings to get transferred into McGregor' cell and on his release to spring his lover through various paralegal shennanigans. Once they are both at liberty, Steven carries on with more outlandish postures and unashamed fiddles to provide a luxurious life for him and his beloved Phillip. When the law is ready to close in once again, Phillip is unforgiving and takes off in his shiny red sportscar (one of a matching pair Steven has provided). It is only through the most unbelievable set of actions that Carrey's conman manages to escape from jail and win back Phillip's affections. To say any more would be to spoil the surprises of the film's denouement -- but outrageous is the best and only description. It's harder than hell to credit that this is all based on truth.

I am hardly a great Carrey fan despite liking some of his early work; his later films are a little frenetic for my taste, although he can, when he tries, underplay to good effect. In this movie, he may be enacting a larger than life character, but his playing is believably grounded. As for McGregor, as I wrote elsewhere recently, he has been coasting through most of his latter-day roles without making much of a positive impression. In this film, however, he is remarkably good and one can believe in his very feminine and very needy character. Apparently some movie-goers were put off by the thought of two straight actors playing gay oddballs -- and the film does not stint on their sexual attraction and affection -- but this just proves that both Carrey and McGregor are better actors than I have previously believed. In short, I found it a far more enjoyable romp than watching Leonardo DiCaprio going crazy (sorry, Marty!).

Thursday, 3 March 2011

True Grit (2010)

While clearly a product of the Coen Brothers' quirky mentality, the above film is on the surface one of their more mainstream and accessible movies. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards -- and won none of them, so perhaps I should briefly comment on this week's ceremony and examine the film in respect of its failed nominations.

I must confess that I had seen very few of this years contenders before Oscar Night, but I have read sufficient reviews and commentaries and seen numerous clips of the various films to form some strong personal opinions. One movie I did see was "The Fighter" (reviewed below) and while I understand why Christian Bale's showy performance caught the voters' eye, I think that Melissa Leo's win was influenced by her previous best actress loss; for my money, the unnominated Mark Wahlberg gave a better performance than either of them.

But back to "True Grit": like a lot of people I have fond memories of John Wayne's crowd-pleasing performance back in 1969, which won him his only Oscar. While my memory of the film itself is now a little hazy (must watch it again, Pat), I do believe the Coen boys when they say that their version is far more faithful to the original Charles Portis novel (note to self: must read). Apparently great chunks of the film's dialogue were taken straight from the printed page, and that may be one reason why their movie lost out on the best adapted screenplay award (plus the fact that Aaron Sorkin's script for "The Social Network" was so timely). "True Grit" also lost in the sound editing and sound mixing categories -- one of these days I will understand the difference between these two and discover why they are even award categories. Further losses were for art direction and costume design, both of which were won by the very successful, colourful, and entertaining "Alice in Wonderland" from Tim Burton; however I can understand the movie's inclusion amongst the nominees. as the film's details possess a fine eye for time and place.

Moving on to the main awards, Hailee Steinfeld did a remarkable turn as Mattie Ross and was more of the right age than Kim Darby in the earlier film; if any of the characters demonstrated what 'true grit' really means, it was she, in a fearless performance. However first-timers seldom win the major awards -- although it has certainly happened occasionally in the past -- and one can only hope that we will see more of this fine young actress in the future. As for Jeff Bridges' nod for best actor, which would have made him a winner two years running, despite thinking that he is one of Hollywood's finest actors and something of an original, a win this year would have been a travesty. I was frankly not all that taken with his turn in last year's "Crazy Heart", but that role allowed greater versatility and pathos than his shambling, mumbling turn here. This is not to say that he wasn't both watchable and oft-times amusing (far better than Matt Damon's conflicted Texas Ranger), but it was hardly great acting in what was a very strong year.

Which takes us to the losses for Best Picture and Best Directing: while the two categories have occasionally provided wins for two different movies, one is back to the old conundrum of how can a best movie direct itself? It was clear from the get-go that the final contest would be between "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech", and I too would have opted for the winning latter. This British film will probably remain a timeless classic in the years ahead when Facebook has become something of an internet relic. On those grounds alone, the Coens' reworking of "True Grit" will probably also win the test of time.

This brings me to the movie's last Oscar loss: cinematography. The Coens' regular colleague Roger Deakins has been nominated by the Academy a total of nine times and has never won. I find it hard to understand why the filming of CGI-generated special effects in "Inception" was considered a greater achievement than the achingly beautiful and poetic cinematography on display here. He wuz robbed!!!

In summary, this new version of an old favourite may not have been an award-winner, but it is a major achievement and can proudly take its place with the brothers' finest films.