Saturday, 26 November 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

It is no secret that I have a soft spot for Woody Allen's movies and I was therefore heartened that his most recent film has done record box office in America -- unlike most of his output over the last many years which have at best reached respectable but not particularly startling grosses Stateside.  I will not deny that he has turned out the occasional clunker, but most of his films manage to sparkle on my moviemeter (I even liked "Jade Scorpion").  Perhaps this film's success is a growing resentment on the part of those audiences seeking grown-up entertainment in contrast to the likes of "Hangover 2".

This is Allen's second Paris-set movie and can be taken as a love letter to the City of Lights, both past and present.  It begins as a romantically filmed three minute travelogue of typical and less typical Parisian views before introducing us to Owen Wilson's lead character Gil, a jaded Hollywood scriptwriter yearning to turn out his own Great American Novel.  He is travelling with his fiancee Rachel McAdams (I prefer her as a brunette, not the shallow blonde she plays here) and her pushy, wealthy conservative parents.  After running into her friends from home, Michael Sheen -- playing a know-it-all pedantic visiting professor -- and his pretty vacant wife, who try to organise their stay in the city with a selection of cultural and 'fun' outings, Gil baulks one evening preferring to walk back to their hotel rather than 'go dancing'.  At the stroke of midnight he encounters a vintage car and its revelling occupants who whisk him into a time warp, landing him in the artistic Paris of the 1920s.  There he meets the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ditzy wife Zelda, Cole Porter, Picasso, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein (who agrees to critique his nearly-completed novel), and other glitterati of the period.  He also meets Picasso's latest sexual conquest played by Marion Cotillard who has boasted previous liaisons with Modigliani and Braque.  Gil is growingly taken with her on his subsequent midnight rambles (none of which McAdams is prepared to believe thinking him unhinged) and is tempted to stay -- if he could -- with this new love and her remarkable circle of friends.  However one evening the pair of them end up in yet another time period the Belle Epoque of the 1890s with the likes of Lautrec, Gaughin,and Degas; Cotillard elects to remain there, suggesting that all of us are capable of looking back and prefering idealised more attractive times.

The film is well-cast, but not as full of starry names as many of the Woodster's earlier movies, with a number of lesser-known British and French players.  However among the star performances we have Kathy Bates as a less pompous and less masculine Stein, the heralded appearance of Carla Bruni (Mrs. Sarkozy) as a museum guide (a completely acceptable and attractive performance), and the lately growingly-annoying Adrien Brody in a here spot-on embodiment of Salvador 'Da-lee'.  However the movie's main strength is Wilson's winning interpretation of the previous 'Woody Allen role'.  Unlike earlier incarnations like Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell, Wilson is not striving for a Woody imitation, although one can almost hear Allen in his cadences, words, and obsessions (not surprising since Allen did write the script).  However he makes the role his own with his winning combination of sweet reactions and innocent wonder.

I suspect the playing of this popular actor has much to do with the movie's relative success in the US, since the movie is charming rather than laugh-out-loud funny, apart from one truly delicious joke toward the end concerning the detective that McAdam's father has hired to report on Gil's midnight wandering. Perhaps I am underestimating the tastes and intelligence of the average American audience, but I suspect that a lot of the in-jokes possibly passed way over some of their heads.  I doubt that many of the modern masses remember folk like Josephine Baker or can appreciate the sly conceit of Gil's suggesting to Dali's friend Luis Bunuel the outline of the plot of the latter's 1962 movie, "The Exterminating Angel", to that director's dismissive disbelief.  Irregardless of this intellectual oneupmanship on my part, adult audiences have obviously warmed to the gist of Allen's time-travelling fantasy and they have shown themselves to be truly grateful for this sparkling and amusing entertainment.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Arcane Japanese 'Horror'

I know I've not written for a week now.  This was semi-deliberate as I wanted my next post to be a review of "The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen" (1938) for which we had tickets yesterday.  I suppose I shall forever be tempted by the screening of oddities, although too often the net result is not as wonderful as I had hoped in advance.  When I read that something called the Zipangu Festival at the ICA included this film which was described as a rare showing of an early Japanese horror movie, all of my buttons were pressed.  I tried looking it up on IMDb but nothing was listed under this title.  So I searched by the director's name (Kiyohiki Ushihara) and found a listing for "Kaibyo Nazo No Shamisen" but without any plot summary, ratings, or user reviews. Never mind, off we went, hoping for a film as exciting as the Japanese silent "Page of Madness" which we saw many moons ago.

It is not surprising that I could not locate the English title of this movie as I discovered that the film was subtitled for the first time for this showing.  So far so good.  However I am unable to tell you very much about this film.  Maybe it was the heavyish, wine-accompanied lunch that preceded it or maybe it was the persistent discordant drone of the ever-present shamisens (three-stringed lutes), but I found myself drifting in and out of the action.  As far as I could tell, a shamisen-player's dead sister appears to her in the form of a ghostly cat and it is incumbent upon her to avenge both that death and the death of her father.  How they died and who the culprit was escaped me.  Every time I surfaced she, having failed to 'lose' the tainted instrument, was playing at some sort of stylized performance involving a male dancer and another dancer in a monkey mask.  It seemed to go on forever as she continued to hallucinate, the monkey mask morphing into a cat morphing into her sister's ghost.  I expect these early special effects were indeed effective, but the film was hardly a 'horror' movie by even loose modern standards.  If anything I may be making the film sound more interesting than it actually was, but it left me feeling distinctly 'blah' -- and don't tell me that was the wine!!! 

So, since I have let the side down with the above review, let me think if there was anything more interesting amongst the other God-knows-how-many movies I have watched since I last wrote.
There were a couple of worthwhile documentaries "The Flaw" (2011) and "Cloud 9 - the Call Girl and the Governor" (2010), both very well done, but I tend to ignore docs in my reviews;  267- minutes' worth of Abel Gance's 1923 masterpiece "La Roue" (great creative filming of a very, very soppy story); re-viewings of previously reviewed films where I wanted to burn copies ("Monsters" and "Machete" -- still a guilty pleasure); the Indian movie "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" from 1971 (I am getting totally fed up watching these cheesy back entries in Dev Anand's filmography -- this time set amongst the hippies of Kathmandu!); a number of disposable TVMs and a selection of recent releases: "The Tourist", "Made in Dagenham", "Rabbit Hole" "The Resident", and "Never Let Me Go" (bad, well-done, boring, OTT, and very sad respectively); and three films unearthed from the cracks in the floorboards: Jarman's harrowing "War Requiem" (1999), Ben Affleck's 2006 "Man About Town" -- directed by the annoying hack Mike Binder, but not uninteresting -- , and a French flick also from 2006 "The Stone Council" with a very glammed-down Monica Bellucci and a brunette Catherine Deneuve (badly rated on IMDb, but I thought quite worthwhile).

And believe it or not, that's not all -- but it's all I'm going to go on about for today!

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Duel Project

Once upon a time there were two Japanese directors having a quiet drink when an unusual challenge was presented to them.  Each of them was to make a feature-length movie in one week, using a single set and as few actors as possible with the same theme: a battle to the death.  This resulted in two very different yet equally interesting films released in 2003, Ryuhei Kitamura's "Aragami" and Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "2LDK".  I wouldn't like to choose which is the better movie since both achieve interesting results within the confines of the challenge, but the latter proved to be the audience fave when the pairing made the festival rounds.

Kitamura remains the better known of the pair having had overseas breakout success with "Azumi" in 2003 and particularly with his 2000 film "Versus", a satisfying mash-up of the samurai and vampire genres done on a low budget.  The title character's name Aragami translates as the 'raging god of battle''. He has nursed a gravely-wounded samurai back to health in his isolated Buddhist chapel; he is tired of the eternal round and seeks a worthy champion to end his immortality. Masayo Kato, as the demon, goads Takao Osawa to challenge him to a duel, dropping the tidbit of information that his recovery was hastened by feeding him body parts from his close companion lying dead in the next room. Observing this initially verbal battle is an inscrutable beauty who fetches food and drink, but who is more often to be found sitting between them as a cool observer.  All of this builds up to a stupendous final swordfight between the two where we think at first that the samurai can never overcome his fearsome adversary; however (spoiler here) he is no longer completely human himself and ends up as the new demon of the temple, awaiting the swordsman who will release him in turn, and still watched over by the same strange beauty.

Kitamura does wonders with the one small set depending on atmospheric lighting to highlight the ornate (and slightly kitschy) carvings creating the illusion of space. He manages to stage the exciting cut and thrust of swordplay in this confined area by close filming and editing.  It is all beautifully and excitingly staged.

"2LDK" on the other hand has a contemporary setting and manages to limit itself to only two players.  The title is shorthand for small rental adverts offering 'two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen'.  Sharing this (to my mind) rather spacious apartment are two would-be actresses the wide-eyed virginal Nozomi, fresh up from the countryside looking for big-city fame and fortune, and the vampish, more-knowing Lana, with her dyed hair and beauty queen background.  Both are reading for the same movie part and, as it turns out, both are involved with the same man.  Building on the petty grievances of flat-sharing such as Nozomi's anally marking all of her food (including each egg) in the shared refrigerator and Lana's casually using whatever she wants at the moment, we become witnesses to the growing hostility between them.  This is largely achieved by their verbalizing their real thoughts about each other direct to the audience as they fruitlessly try to preserve the niceties of conversation.  Nozomi views Lana as an over-the-hill slut, while  the slightly unstable Lana (whose last chance is the pending role) views her flatmate as a talentless wannabe.

The action soon escalates from slapped faces to more and more violent attacks with a variety of weapons, from everyday household appliances and cleaning agents through icepicks, flame-throwers, swords, and chainsaws.  (It is probably best not to wonder why an apartment occupied by two young ladies should have such an assortment of weapons available.)  In the end, setting us up for the film's final irony, neither of them need worry anymore about becoming a film star.

Both directors responded imaginatively to the challenge given them, even if both films are relatively short -- between 70 and 80 minutes.  Kitamura has the larger cast, but uses his very small set brilliantly.  Tsutsumi manages to hold our attention with only two characters spinning relentlessly out of control, but does cheat somewhat by having the girls' impossibly spacious apartment as his battlefield.  He remains the less internationally-known of the pair with only his 2008 movie "Twentieth Century Boys" (the first film in his own franchise) making any dent in overseas markets.  Kitamura continues his relative success, although I'm not sure that making the English language "Midnight Meat Train" in 2008 with Vinnie Jones amongst others is worthy of too many kudos. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Patchy Premieres

I'm back to having a wee moan about the weekly premieres on the main Sky film channel -- their other nine have a nifty line of repeats and more repeats.  Unlike most weeks, there were actually a full five flicks this week that I'd not already seen, unlike last week when there were all of two, neither of which I particularly wanted to view.  Of course, PPP being PPP, I did watch them both: "Africa United" a fairly sugary tale of three youngsters making their way the 3000-odd miles from Rwanda to South Africa to get to the Soccer World Cup (much of which I saw on fast-forward) and "Paranormal Activity 2".  I can't begin to believe that this actually made money at cinemas -- which it did -- since the first film in this series was about as scary as corn flakes and this second one was a fine example of watching paint dry with absolutely nothing happening until the last five minutes.  No doubt P.A. 3 is en route...

Anyhow, what about this week's five?  As usual something of a mixed bag with not a lot to get excited about:

First up was a Hallmark Channel product called "A Dog Named Christmas".  Given its origins, you would be right in guessing that it was a healthy, family drama with a feel-good punchline.  A pleasant but somewhat intellectually-challenged young man living on a farm with his parents hears that the local animal shelter is urging the community to 'adopt a dog for Christmas' and not only manages to convince his folks to let him do so (father Bruce Greenwood has doggy-issues in his background), but also convinces the family's married offspring, their friends, and neighbours to do so as well.  Naturally the chosen dog, whom he has promised to return to the shelter on December 26th, turns out to be a heroic charmer ultimately melting even Greenwood's hard heart.  A totally watchable film, especially if you love dogs, but otherwise pretty yuck as cinema.

Then there was the "big" premiere of the week, director Tony Scott's "Unstoppable" starring the Denzel and Chris Pine.  Based on a true incident from 2001 (but reminiscent of earlier movies), we have veteran train driver Washington and his novice conductor Pine risking their necks to stop a runaway train laden with dangerous chemicals from wreaking havoc on the communities in its path by preventing its derailing.  To give Scott his due, there is no denying his skill at getting our adrenaline flowing and to make us savour the growing tension, but again it wasn't exactly brilliant film-making.  Both leads did an adequate job, as did Rosario Dawson back in the control room, but there were a number of loose ends, especially with the subplot of a bunch of school kids taking an educational train ride, who were never actually in danger.  Anyhow the end credits tell us that the Washington character who was working out his 90-days notice was told that he could keep his job.  So there you go...another happy ending.

The week's third film was the one I actually liked best although it is something of an obscurity and a real mish-mash of talent: "The Warrior's Way", which advance reviews suggested would be abysmal.  Produced and filmed in New Zealand, the movie is the first and only feature written and directed by someone called Sngmoo Lee (nor me) and stars a Korean, Dong-gun Jang, alongside Yanks Kate Bosworth and Danny Houston (as the big baddie), and Aussie award-winner Geoffrey Rush.  Our hero is an invincible swordsman in exile with a small babe in America's 'wild, wild west'. He's hired by Bosworth as a laundryman but ends up teaching her fighting skills so that she can avenge herself on Houston and his murderous horde of outlaws who killed her husband and child.  In this same small community we also have a stranded colourful troupe of circus artistes, amongst whom is Rush's perpetually drunken sharpshooter.  What makes this movie so remarkable is the flair with which the director has staged the setting, with stylised sets reminiscent of von Trier's "Dogville" (2003), and his skill with the martial arts elements, especially with flocks of ninja warriors descending from the sky in pursuit of the rogue swordsman. In fact all of the action sequences are both brilliantly handled and exciting -- far more so than one would expect from this film's mongrel components.

As for films four and five, the fourth one "London Boulevard" was so forgettable that I had trouble remembering what it was called or what it was about within a day.  Ex-con Colin Farrell is hired by David Thewlis as a bodyguard for Keira Knightley's actress superstar and must fend off the larcenous ambitions of Ray Winston's Mr. Big.  Yawn...   Number five, "Puncture", came across as a made-for-television effort, although with current flavour-of-the-month Chris Evans in the lead, this was possibly a 'real' film.  Again based on a true story, it tells of Evans as hotshot lawyer Mike Weiss and his more grounded partner taking on the crusade of getting the hospital buying cartels to purchase a new type of life-saving syringes.  Meanwhile druggie Weiss is fighting his own demons in the form of his uncontrollable drug habit (which eventually took his life) a la Gosling in "Half Nelson".  Sorry...more yawns.

The annoying fact is that Sky manage to offer a pretty up-to-date selection of appealing movies on their pay-per-view Box Office, but many of these never make it to their regular subscription channels, where the weekly premieres tend to be padded out with made-for-TV dross.  It's just as well that I'm not totally dependent on them for my viewing pleasures. Even if I do try to watch all of their new offerings, there is always a miscellany of non-Sky channels and the growing DVD backlog to enhance my choices.   In fact, I never seem to catch up -- which is actually a good thing in this instance.  Keeps me busy and off the streets!!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Many interesting flicks without big studio marketing bucks behind them struggle to get any sort of distribution, flicker brightly but briefly when discovered, and then are destined to fade into the misty realms of memory. 

This movie written (based on her novel) and directed by Rebecca Miller -- daughter of Arthur -- is a good case in point.   Since 1995, it is her fourth outing as a director of her own work; I have seen two of her three earlier movies, but I am pushed to recall much about them. She had an earlier brief career as an actress in bit parts and is also the co-writer of the screenplay for the rather dreary (and also non-memorable) "Proof" (2005).  Taken with her first career outings in the graphic arts, she is something of a 'renaissance' women, but unlikely to be remembered as one of the cinema greats.  I know it's early days yet since she is still under fifty, but her track record to date doesn't promise any sort of cinema immortality or any deep affinity for the genre.

In this film she has garnered a remarkably starry cast, many of whom have very little to do -- again burning bright in their small parts and then fading into the background.  Stand up Julianne Moore in another lesbian role, Winona Ryder (getting hard to recognize) as the heroine's neurotic friend, Maria Bello as her hyperactive, speed-addicted mother, and the lush-bodied Monica Bellucci as a former wife of Mr. Lee (the always watchable Alan Arkin).  However the movie belongs to Robin Wright (here still billed as Robin Wright Penn) playing Arkin's much younger wife and facing her own midlife crises as the couple downsize to a Connecticut retirement community after his three recent heart attacks. The screenplay focuses on the various traumatic events that have made her the woman she is today with her younger self played by Blake Lively (not really a believable young Wright).  Bored by her new environment, with the height of excitement being pottery classes, and overly concerned with Arkin's health, she finds herself sleep-walking and sleep-stuffing-chocolate-cake-in-her-gob.  She also has a slightly fraught relationship with her two grown children, especially her daughter who appears to hate her -- much as she grew to hate her own mother.

She finds some solace in the company of her neighbour Shirley Knight's ne'er-do-well son, played by a fairly competent Keanu Reeves, with a lifesized head of Jesus tattooed on his chest.  Events come to a head when she discovers her supposedly devoted husband's ongoing affair with Ryder and his subsequent final heart attack.  Part of the film's problems stem from combining the roles of mainly middle-aged players into a coherent whole.  Wright doesn't seem quite old enough to have lasted through the best part of thirty years of marriage (to the extent that for a while I thought she was the stepmother of Arkin's kids), and we are asked to believe that Reeves is some fifteen years younger than she (when in fact he is all of two years older!).  One is never bored in the company of these various characters and their self-absorbed problems, aided by some clever, sharp dialogue, but in the end one wonders if we really care about any of them.  The simple answer is probably 'no'.