Saturday, 29 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part Three

As a postscript to my previous entry, I can not believe that I omitted mentioning the delightful dog in "The Artist".  This Jack Russell terrier is as important a character as his master Dujardin, a crucial part of his screen persona and his best friend.  His antics are incredibly amusing and ingratiating and he even gets the opportunity to display some Rin Tin Tin bravado when he saves the washed-up actor from his burning apartment.  A more than worthy contender for the annual Cannes Dog (or d'og).

Now to the final four films or as it turns out the final three and a half -- explanation follows below:

First off, nothing but praise for the French film "The Monk" ("Le Moine") from the interesting director Dominik Moll.  While his first two films were effectively modern thrillers, this one is a period piece based on Matthew Lewis' 1796 gothic novel.  A well-cast Vincent Cassell plays the eponymous monk Ambrosio, a foundling raised by the brothers of an isolated Spanish monastery, renowned for his piety and unrelenting sermons.  When a masked youth seeks the order's sanctuary, Ambrosio soon finds himself tempted by illicit love and the devil's growing mischief, until in the end he finds that evil is indeed more potent than godliness.  Beautifully filmed in the stark desert wastes and with more than the occasional surrealistic touch, this film is not only well-cast but also impressively persuasive.

From there we went to the 'half-film' mentioned above.  The Festival always features a so-called 'surprise' film in its programme and I have never been tempted to take my chances with their selection, although there have been some worthy UK premieres in the past.  This year, as a membership reward, they offered a ballot for a free screening and I thought what-the-heck.  After sitting in the auditorium for some thirty-odd minutes, my thoughts were more like 'why am I sitting through this rubbish?'  The film in question probably sounded promising to the programmers, being the first movie for thirteen years from director Whit Stillman, who had a critical hit back in 1990 with "Metropolitan" followed by minor success with his second film "Barcelona".  Thinking back these were both very 'talky' movies rather than plot-laden and his latest, coyly titled "Damsels in Distress" is more of the same with a vengeance.  Set at a small college we are introduced to a group of friends and their rather uninteresting (and very talky) problems.  The lead female is Greta Gerwig -- definitely an acquired taste from her mumbledore movies (or whatever they're called) and the lead male is the Australian actor Adam Brody.  At roughly 28 and 32 respectively, they are both rather too old to play believable students and the balance of the completely unknown cast are only slightly more creditable.  Boring, boring, boring to say the least -- so out we went and we were not the only walk-outs.  Sometimes one feels that one should give a film a chance to see where it is going, but it was pretty obvious that this one wasn't heading anywhere of interest.

Number three was the fascinating Japanese film "Dendera".  If you have seen either version of "The Ballad of Narayama" (and my pick would be the 1983 remake), you know the backstory of the small rural village that sends its old folk once they reach 70 up the mountain to die of exposure, thereby freeing the villagers from feeding and tending the elderly.  Based on a novel by Yuya Sato, this film imagines an alternate scenario where the elderly women (but never 'scheming' men) are saved from death and incorporated into the all-female, self-sustaining settlement of Dendera founded some 30 years previously.  The village's matriarch Mei, now over 100, dreams of the day when she can lead her people down to their old village to attack and kill the men in revenge for their harsh rules.  The story begins for us when the 50th woman is rescued and Mei reckons she has sufficient womanpower for her plans.  However she has not reckoned with the problems of a marauding ravenous bear and her cub which decimates their food supply and also decimates Dendera's numbers nor with a killer avalanche en route down the mountain.  As the women's numbers decrease, each of the remainder attempts to find some solution to their problems and to guarantee Dendera's survival.  All in all this was a fascinating tale, but I must admit some dissatisfaction with the film's rather abrupt and unclear ending.

Finally, number twelve, "Faust" from the director of the amazing "Russian Ark" Aleksandr Sokurov.  This film won the Golden Lion at Venice this year and it was a movie that I really wanted to love -- but regretfully I was unable to do so.  With a German-language screenplay, this is obviously a reworking of the Goethe masterpiece, forever immortalised to us in Murnau's silent film, but we found it nearly impossible to follow the ins and outs of the convoluted scenario as the impoverished and dour Dr. Faustus is seduced by the promises of the devil in the guise of a moneylender -- an interesting portrayal from Russian mime/clown Anton Adasinsky.  The quasi-medieval world is mixed with some very modern CGI effects and the very long and very sinuous telling lost me along the way.  This movie is the fourth in the director's tetralogy about the shortcomings of men in power and we had resolved to watch the first three movies which are coming up in the BFI's Sokurov season.  These are "Moloch" (Hitler), "Taurus" (Lenin), and "The Sun" (Hirohito).  However after the hard-to-watch "Faust", saved only by its majestic music, I'm beginning to wonder if I have the stamina to sit through those movies.  Time will tell...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part Two

Another four selections behind me now -- again producing some mixed reactions.  In choosing which tickets to apply for, I usually opt for titles that are unlikely to obtain any sort of widespread release, films by one or other of my 'pet' directors like Takashi Kitano (absent), martial arts flicks, anything to do with cinema history, and films starring a favoured actor like Gerard Depardieu (nothing from him either this year).  Maybe I should broaden my criteria, since for every 'gem', I usually manage to select a 'dud' as well, with the vast majority just falling into the 'pleasant enough' category.

First up was "Tales of the Night" (Les Contes de la Nuit) from the French modern master of animation Michel Ocelot.  I'm not completely sure why I selected this which was showcased as the 'Family Gala' (i.e. suitable for the kiddies), but it sounded imaginative and I certainly liked his earlier animations "Azur and Asmar" and "Kirikou and the Sorceress" for their bright colours and very stylized design.  This one had the added 'attraction' (?) of being made in 3D as well.  Using a form of silhouette animation, not seen since the heyday of Lotte Reininger's 1926 "Adventures of Prince Achmed", against brilliantly and psychedelically-coloured backgrounds, this film is certainly a tour de force.  However his telling of six different fairy or folk tales merged into much of a muchness after a while -- visually intriguing but dramatically lacking. I can certainly recommend this movie for its technique but not for much more for a mature audience.

"Let the Bullets Fly" is a joint China-Hong Kong production and apparently China's highest-ever grossing film.  It is directed by and stars one of the country's most admired screen actors, Jiang Wen (see his 2000 film "Devils on the Doorstep"), who plays a ruthless outlaw nicknamed Pocky Zhang (despite his unblemished skin); he decides to pose as the new official for the hamlet of Goose Town with its high taxes and easy financial pickings, taking the place of conman Ge You whom he has ambushed en route, along with the wife of the now deceased real mayor-to-be.  However they soon discover that the city is in the greedy, sticky hands of local ruthless warlord Huang, played by the one and only (coolest man in the world -- trademark) Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat.  Chow also plays his own body-double and great fun ensues as the three 'villains' strive to outbluff each other.  It is all a lot of cheeky well-filmed fun, but at 132 minutes it begins to outstay its welcome being rather talkier than action-laden.

The third film of this quartet was the main disappointment.  "Last Screening" (Dernier Seance), a French would-be thriller, should have been right up my street with its combination of a fanatic movie-buff as the hero who is also a deranged serial killer.  Written and directed by Laurent Archard, it stars Pascal Cervo as the young repertory cinema manager made even more unhinged by its impending closure.  We are given a certain amount of unhelpful backflashes to his relationship to his movie-obsessed mother, but little real explanation about why he goes about killing women, cutting off their ears with their dangling earrings, and sticking these on black-and-white photos of some of the screen greats.  The film was poorly paced with some unnecessary longeurs, such as one of the victim's endless twirling routine, and even at 81 minutes felt ever so long and pointless.  Something of a waste of time.

Had I been told that I could only choose one movie from the hundreds of films screening, it would have been the next one "The Artist", since I have been intrigued by it since I read about its Cannes premiere.  It is a lovingly-crafted, beautifully shot in black and white, paeon to Hollywood of the silent era and its star, Jean Dujardin, walked away with the Best Actor gong at the French fest.  I was first made aware of Dujardin, his co-star Berenice Bejo, and his director Michel Hazanavicius when I saw their "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies" in 2006.  I thought that spy-spoof of a movie a touch on the silly side and did not bother with its sequel.  However, they are all delicious here.  Dujardin plays silent movie idol George Valentin, undone by the coming of sound and Bejo plays young ingenue Peppy Miller, whose star rises as his crashes.  It is not quite "A Star is Born" scenario, since there is ultimately an uplifting (and highly believable) happy ending. Despite its subject matter of the popularity of the coming of sound, the film is shot virtually as a silent with intertitles, apart from its score and the very occasional and very telling use of sound effects.  Although it is a French film, it feels very American  -- there are no subtitles anywhere, and well-known normally English-speaking actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller lend fine (silent) support.  (Malcolm McDowell is also in the cast, but his scene lasts mere seconds).  All in all this is a delightful concoction and having been taken up by the Weinsteins, its distribution is assured.  Don't miss it!

The final four to follow anon...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

London Film Festival - Part One

Four down; eight to go...and so far it's been a mixed bag indeed: two watchable obscurities, one hilarious oddball destined to do little business, and one major disappointment from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike.

The obscurities both come from the "Treasures from the Archives" strand of the fest ('lost' and newly restored or 'rediscovered' classics) and it is a little unusual for us to watch two of these two days in a row.  The first was "The Goose Woman", a silent feature from 1925 with impeccable credentials.  It was directed by Clarence Brown who went on to direct a string of 30s and 40s classics and starred Louise Dresser (already into middle age when she made her movie debut a few years earlier), Jack Pickford (brother of Mary and not overly charismatic), and rising star Constance Bennett (sister of Joan who both were memorable in films of the next two decades). The story concerns an erstwhile famous opera singer who lost both her career and her voice when she gave birth to an illegitimate son many years earlier and who has become a drunken slattern on her run-down farm.  She sees an opportunity to regain her celebrity when a rich neighbour is murdered and fabricates a story which unfortunately implicates her estranged son (who is of course romancing the successful actress Bennett).  Dresser's version of the events is supported by the state prosecutor -- the wonderfully named actor Gustav von Seyffertitz, until true but long-suppressed mother love breaks through.  The film as you may guess is something of a pot-boiler but a stand-out turn from Dresser just about saves the day.  Showing with this 83-minute movie were two Vitaphone shorts featuring former vaudeville stars and each more embarrassing than the next.

The second 'treasure' was a little-known, obscure feature from neo-realist Italian director Roberto Rossellini, completely at odds with his other films called "The Machine that Kills Bad People" (1952). One just doesn't think of this director as being able to handle satirical fantasy which is what is on display here.  Set in a small seaport town south of Naples where a broadly-drawn group of yanks have recently arrived to develop a hotel on the land of the communal cemetery, a photographer is visited by a strange old man who teaches him the secret of using his camera to kill those who just don't deserve to live.  Taking a picture of a picture in his studio, the subject suddenly expires (in the same unmovable pose) in another part of town -- these range from the bumptious village policeman, a very noisy donkey, a rich old woman and her greedy relatives, and an assortment of corrupt town officials who wish to divert a recent windfall of funds from the government to their own selfish ends.  The whole thing plays like some sort of peasant farce, striving to make its points about the deserving poor of the town (very Rossellini) versus the rich folk who live up the town's many steep staircases.  It certainly had its moments of comic mayhem along with its attempts to make some serious points from the director's personal credo; its rediscovery is very welcome -- if only as a palliative to Rossellini's more humourless films.  Showing alongside this was the newly remastered and re-colored Melies short, the familiar "A Trip to the Moon" which has been making the festival rounds, starting as the opener at this year's Cannes -- worth seeing for its historical importance, if in fact rather silly and crude. 

Next up was the hugely enjoyable and nearly impossible to categorize French film, "The Fairy", written and directed by three of its four leads: Dominique Abel, the Australian-born Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy.  I have not seen the team's two earlier films, but will certainly seek them out if this one is anything to go by.  The tall, skinny and gawky Abel plays the night clerk at a small seaside hotel, beset by interruptions as he tries to watch TV and eat his ketchuppy sandwich, particularly from a weird Englishman with his beloved Sealyham hidden in a plaid carry-all.  In walks the equally tall and long-limbed Gordon who announces that she is a fairy and that she will grant him three wishes -- two of which he requests immediately but the third of which is still pending by the film's end.  Romy's contribution is that of a more-than-short-sighted bar owner who keeps walking into the walls.  The main delights however come from the characters 'Dom' and 'Fiona' as they pursue their weird attraction and love affair in a series of acrobatic dances and Keatonesque set pieces, including Fiona's magically giving birth to six-month old child virtually overnight.  Hovering in the background are three black illegals who want to get to England and a pair of comic Keystone-ish cops. The innocent silliness is strangely infectious and while I do not see this movie doing much box office, I can certainly see it becoming a cult favourite.

On to "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" from Miike.  His early films had a certain weird appeal in their crazy takes on the yakuza genre, but his later works were largely long-winded and rather tedious affairs.  Last year's historical romp "Thirteen Assassins" seemed to imply a return to form and this movie, shot quite unnecessarily in 3-D, promised more of the same.  Set during a peaceful period in the l7th Century and based on an earlier film, this opulent but slow-moving saga tells of the clash between traditional 'honour' and humanity.  Out of work samurai have been approaching noble houses, asking their permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyards, in the hope of being bought off with either work or a few coins.  In this box within another box storytelling, an older ronin has come to the House of Ii to make such a request; there he is told the story of another younger man who foolishly did the same and who was forced to try to kill himself with a bamboo sword (having been forced to sell his real one) and who is then beheaded by the stern clan lord. Then he tells his own story -- turns out the youngster was this man's son-in-law whose death also resulted in those of his grandson and daughter, and he has come to seek revenge.  While beautifully shot, with only the very occasional effective use of 3-D effects in the shallow and dark interiors, the story just creaked along and proved more exhausting than entertaining, with virtually no action at all before the final minutes.

More and hopefully a little more entusiastic reviews to follow in due course...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Skyline (2010)

As forewarned, it is now over a week since my last entry and while I am not exactly experiencing withdrawal symptoms, I thought I had better touch base before my marathon London Film Festival viewing commences tomorrow.  Since you ask, St. Petersburg provided a great if exhausting weekend.  It was one of the very few cities remaining on my wish-list of destinations; I am happy to have finally been able to visit The Hermitage -- overwhelming in scope and size, even if the art collection itself was a little disappointingly underwhelming. As predicted I saw no movies during my stay, but did satisfy another passion: In a city where even a simple snack is wildly expensive, DVDs (and I am not talking about pirate copies of recent releases which are apparently a thriving industry there) are ridiculously cheap -- well under £4 each.  Moreover, I was able to find copies of "Volga Volga". "Happy Guys", and Kin-Dza-Dza (all recently reviewed on this blog).  So Pretty Pink is a happy bunny indeed.

The above load of rubbish is only one of two movies that I have seen since my return and I've already forgotten the title of the other dreary mess -- something about a deaf girl beloved by a young musician who is dying of cancer.  (How do I sit through these?).  "Skyline" on the other hand was not a disease-of-the-week flick but purportedly a mainstream cinema release from 'The Brothers Strause' (Colin and Greg) whose only previous feature was "Aliens vs. Predator -- Requiem" (2007), which may give you some idea of the level of their idea of entertainment.  Both brothers have a long string of special effects credits from "The X-Files" forward and it is clear that whatever budget they had here went totally into the F/X in this alien invasion saga.

The money certainly didn't go into the non-existant script or acting talent.  You can tell that a movie is scraping the bottom of the barrel cast-wise when the leads' main claims to fame are television series of varying degrees of popularity.  Now I watch very, very little regular television, although I do get hooked by the occasional series, but I recognised the leading man (and I use the term very loosely), Eric Balfour as the druggy boyfriend from "Six Feet Under" many moons ago and the other semi-major male role as David Zayas, the Cuban detective from "Dexter".  The three female leads Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, and Crystal Reed obviously scraped beneath my TV radar as did the third male lead Donald Faison. 

And they, Folks, were the core of the action, a pretty uninteresting little group of friends, plus Zayas as the building's 'security' serving as some sort of microcosm of what was presumably meant to be happening throughout the city, country, or world.  The aliens have invaded without warning and we have little idea what they are after -- although sucking out brains seems to be part of the exercise; it is nigh impossible to avoid being drawn by their hypnotising little blue lights, as increasingly sizey aliens search the environment for more people to absorb.  At one point 'the army' or something send in a fleet of planes which are swiped down like so many annoying little gnats.  The message gets across: humanity is doomed, although we have not the slightest idea why.  There is some totally unintelligible action at the end which may or may not suggest that Balfour and his pregnant sweetie Thompson may actually survive, setting up the possibility (God help us) of a sequel.

To give credit where credit is due, the special effects were generally pretty superior and I particularly liked Faison getting smashed with a heavy metal thump when he tries to escape in an open-topped car.  Obviously, given the brothers' technical expertise, they spent their budget in a way to give us a showy spectacle.  However we could have done with a more clear-cut storyline, some vague indication of hope for humanity, and some characters that we might actually care about.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The English Patient (1996)

I can recall not being overly taken with the lengthy adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's equally sprawling novel when I first viewed it.  However since it managed to capture nine Academy Awards out of its twelve nominations, making it one of the most successful movies in Oscar history, I decided to take a fresh look to discover what made it so award-worthy.

It might be useful to first examine the three categories where it did not win, namely best actor for Ralph Fiennes, best actress for Kristin Scott Thomas, and somewhat surprisingly best adapted screenplay.  I have not read the original novel which I gather had been considered unfilmable, since it is apparently a collection of random thoughts and impressions.  From this the film's director Anthony Minghella managed to script a coherent scenario of doomed, forbidden love between Fiennes' Hungarian Count Almasy and Scott Thomas' adulterous wife of poor old Colin Firth.  Almasy was a real person who was indeed part of the loose group of colleagues exploring the desert in the 1930s, but since he survived World War II, dying in Austria in 1951 and was quite probably homosexual, the film's story is at best a piece of highly romanticized fiction -- not that it is any the less interesting for that.  It was Fiennes' second Oscar nomination and there is no denying that his part is well-acted, especially as he lies horribly burnt and dying under Canadian nurse Juliette Binoche's tender care; however the award that year went to Geoffrey Rush for his much showier role as the mad yet talented pianist in "Shine".  Scott Thomas lost to Frances McDormand in "Fargo" and I would not dispute the fact that she quite probably did not deserve to win for what was largely a mechanical and somewhat wooden portrayal.

The one acting Oscar went to Binoche for best female support, although I would argue that her role was as important, if not more so, than Scott Thomas'.  This win was a colossal upset since the odds-on-favourite was Lauren Bacall for her first-ever nomination for "The Mirror has Two Faces"; everyone and especially the likeable Bacall expected a shoo-in as being 'her turn' (and I can still picture her teeth-gritting losing face), but there is little doubt in my mind that Binoche's dynamic turn was a worthy winner. 

Of course the film won best picture and best director for Minghella, easily beating "Fargo", "Jerry Maguire", "Secrets and Lies", and "Shine".  Considering these films in retrospect, I could picture "Fargo" -- a wonderfully entertaining flick from the Coen Brothers -- being the victor, but the overall impressive production values of "The English Patient" do on balance outshine the loser's.  No doubt this is why the film also won for art direction, cinematography, editing, sound, and original dramatic score.  The movie is brilliantly filmed, capturing the expanse and mysteries of the Sahara, with a majestic score to match.  "Fargo" may well be the more enjoyable watch, but this film captures the epic scale required for romanticized storytelling, and one can admire the skill that went into its production without necessarily 'loving' the movie.

Oddly enough one category where the film was not nominated was best make-up and one might have expected some recognition for the face-distorting make-up that Fiennes must have suffered during large stretches of the scenario.  It must have been good preparation for his hideous physiog as Lord Voldemort (although no doubt that was all CGI!)

By and large I am glad that I decided to watch this film again, although some of the smaller pleasures come from its supporting cast, particularly from Naveen Andrews as a Sikh bomb-disposal expert (and Binoche's unlikely lover) and a shifty-looking Willem Dafoe as a crook seeking revenge on Almasy's possible traitor.  The screenplay is well constructed constantly moving between its now and then scenes, drawing the viewer into the motivations for the not-at-all-English patient's supposed memory loss, creating sympathy for him where possibly little is due.

A word to the wise: Entries will be rather sporadic over the next few weeks as I am going away for my birthday this long weekend and I don't think I'll be watching many movies in St. Petersburg -- not the one in Florida!  When I return, I then have twelve sets of tickets for the London Film Festival beginning next Thursday.  I promise to cover all of the fest's undoubted delights, but will need to do so when I am able to grab a few spare hours.  Watch this space...