Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tower Heist (2011)

I've said it before and no doubt I will say it again, but there are times when I am quite happy to park my brains at the door when watching a movie and to just go with the flow. Not that all escapist films will do this for me -- I have yet to give myself over to muscle-bound superhero flicks or to immerse myself in sappy rom-coms.  In fact usually this unsuspected enjoyment of what is actually a pretty dumb film comes unexpectedly -- and therefore affords double the pleasure.

One of the go-to guys in Hollywood for dumb films is Brett Ratner who has carved a megabucks career for himself without divulging a smart set of directorial skills.  He's given us the three "Rush Hour" movies, although for my money it is pretty hard to stop Jackie Chan being an entertaining presence, even if one is stupid enough to pair him with an annoying Chris Tucker. Ratner's "Red Dragon" was the least of the many Hannibal Lector films, but watchable despite his best efforts.  Much the same can be said of the rest of his output: finding the right cast can usually compensate for feeble storytelling or for flights of logic.  The above movie is a good example and I found it vastly engaging despite myself.

Ben Stiller (whom I usually find only marginally more tolerable than Adam Sandler) is the manager of an exclusive tower block in Manhattan, marshaling his huge staff to cater to every odd whim of the wealthy and eccentric tenants. Top of the tower lives Bernie Madoff-like Alan Alda, supposedly a Wall Street whizz, who is about to be investigated for massive fraud, but who is sufficiently confident in his own political connections to believe himself invulnerable. Unfortunately his financial machinations have wiped out the pension funds and life savings of the tower's 'little people', amongst them the doorman looking forward to his forthcoming retirement.  When the latter tries to end it all by jumping in front of a subway train, Stiller along with concierge Casey Affleck and elevator man Michael Pena decide to confront Alda.  They march into the penthouse where he is under house arrest and Stiller attacks the prize possession in his living room, Steve McQueen's immaculately restored racing car. Building supervisor Judd Hirsch promptly sacks the trio, since important residents like Alda, even if they are major crooks, are sacrosanct.

Stiller resolves to return to the penthouse to rob the funds which he is sure are hidden there and adds former resident (now evicted for financial failure) Matthew Broderick to his band of merry men. However since they really know nothing about crime, Stiller decides to rope in  a neighbourhood villain, wise-ass petty crook Eddie Murphy.  Murphy is delighted to be able to steal some twenty million, but it turns out he knows little more than his cohorts about cracking a safe.  So Jamaican maid "Precious" Gabourey Sidibe joins the mismatched gang. From this point onward the action gets more and more far-fetched as they manage to effect entry to the heavily-guarded apartment, discover the hidden but empty safe (at which point Murphy reveals that he wants all the loot for himself), and then accidently discover that the McQueen sportscar has actually been reconstructed from solid gold.  Elaborate shenanigans follow as they attempt to get the sportscar down to street level, including trying to load it on a window-cleaning heist and then trying to balance it on top of the building's elevator shaft, with the different 'perps' finding themselves hanging over cavernous spaces a la Harold Lloyd. I could get overly involved with pointing out all of the misuses of the laws of physics in the action, but you have to remember that this movie is a feel-good fantasy and is really just an excuse for amusing thrills.  There is no benefit in trying to work out the logic of the film's denouement, nor how the car ended up where it was, nor how the downtrodden staff eventually got their savings restored. Like old Greek drama, one must just accept the deus ex machina conventions to provide a happy ending for most of the cast and the necessary comeuppance for swarmy Alda.

Stiller was pretty good in this role although he will never be anyone's idea of an action man. He was provided with a budding romance with the female agent in charge of Alda's case, a likeable Tea Leoni. (We've not seen much of her in recent years and like all of us she's beginning to get on, but she's still a delightful actress). Murphy's role is something of an improvement on most of his latter-day outings, but he still seems to be slightly phoning in his shtick. It's always a pleasure too to see Broderick, although his late career is also not a patch on his early roles.  The rest of the players do what needs be done to keep this jolly outing on stream. I must say that  M*A*S*H  funnyman Alda, who always had a sardonic spin on his jokes, makes a convincing villain.  Seeing him getting his well-deserved but unexpected desserts is part of the movie's charm.  This film and its players will never be honoured with any awards for this outing, but it definitely falls into the category of a guilty pleasure for me.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

More Film Festival

And so another London Film Festival becomes history!  Let's have a few (or several many) words about the last three films we watched -- a modern silent classic from Spain and two from the fest's "Treasure" section where old movies are rediscovered or restored.

Blancanieves (2012): The Spanish title translates as "Snow White" and the film is a gothic and hispanic riff on the Grimm tale.  It would be a little glib to describe the movie as this year's "The Artist", but the success of that film possibly created an acceptable environment for another silent gem.  While this entry is neither as nostalgic or ultimately as 'feel-good' as the French charmer, it is a dazzling melodrama, burnished with sumptuous set design and filmed in glorious, crisp black and white. A renowned matador is distracted in the ring by his adored, heavily pregnant wife and is gored, initiating a series of tragic events.  The wife dies in childbirth after giving birth to a daughter, beloved by the crippled warrior. His life is soon dominated by his new, vain, and avaricious wife, the lovely Maribel Verdu, who swiftly plots her husband's death and, in best wicked stepmother mode, dispatches young Blancanieves to be killed by a huntsman. The girl is rescued from near death by a group of bullfighting dwarfs -- six of them as it happens, including a female. They reluctantly take her in and continue to perform at minor fairs and corridas; one day the talent that she has inherited from her father comes to the fore as she saves one her hosts from the horns of a charging bull.  Soon they become a celebrated act, until Verdu comes on the scene with her poisoned apple! Since this is not a Hollywood movie, we are spared the traditional happy ending, but are blessed with a charming and imaginative take on the familiar tale.

The Boys from Syracuse (1940): This film is another from my 'must see one day' list that turned out to be a massive disappointment.  The show with a wonderful score from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a big hit on Broadway in the late 30s.  However when Universal got their grubby paws on it, they managed to dumbdown an erstwhile sparkling gem into a rather dubious production.  The story is loosely based on the Shakespearian "Comedy of Errors" and is set in ancient Greece.  Twins, both called Antipholus, and their faithful twin servants, both called Dromius, have been long separated, each believing the other set dead.  When one pair come from Syracuse to Ephesus to rescue their condemned father, farcical (not) marital mayhem is meant to ensue. Apart from the very chunky script with its feeble attempt at updated humour, the main problem is with the largely B-cast.  Allan Jones, a popular tenor of the day (best remembered now for his "Donkey Serenade") takes on the lead role and makes a relatively good fist of churning out classic tunes like "Falling in Love with Love". However, his sidekick played by one Joe Penner is a total disaster in the role. (No, I never heard of him either, but I gather he was vaguely popular back then and that this was meant to be his big movie breakthrough; it wasn't and he died shortly thereafter). The female cast is led by Martha Raye (always an acquired taste) as the slave's 'wife' and Rosemary Lane (one of the minor sister acts) as Antipholus' 'wife'. There is some consolation in the casting of the minor roles with dippy Charles Butterworth as the Duke -- constantly preceded by a fanfare from his trumpeters -- and Eric Blore and Alan Mowbray as a pair of impoverished tailors. Possibly because of its score, the film has now been preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress, but it is far from a 'national treasure' on nearly every other level.

The Big Gundown (1966): This restored 'spaghetti western' was an unexpected treat.  For a start it is one of the very few in this genre that I have ever seen that was not dubbed, and watching the restored film in its original Italian improved matters no end.  Directed by Sergio Sollima, not quite in the same league as Sergio Leone, it is probably his best film and was previously only available in abridged versions on the international market.  It was one of the first Italian Westerns to move away from the story of an avenging hero riding into town to clean things up to more 'political' concerns.  Lee Van Cleef takes on one of his relatively rare roles as the good guy rather than the sneering villain, playing bounty hunter John Corbett.  He is being encouraged to stand for political office to further the ambitions of a local tycoon, but is first asked to hunt down a rogue Mexican called Cuchillo ("The Knife") who has been accused of raping and murdering a young girl.  This role is taken by the American Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian who soon became a fixture on the Italian movie scene.  As famed critic Dilys Powell wrote at the time, "the real stars of the film are Milian's sparkling teeth" or words to that effect.  He gives a cheeky performance as he continues to elude the determined Corbett, who eventually discovers that he may be pursuing the wrong villain. In the meantime there are some amusing distractions, like Van Cleef rescuing a 14-year old Morman lass from Milian's lascivious intentions, only to discover that she is the not so innocent fourth wife of the wagon train's leader.  With some stunning scenery and majestic photography, the film also features one of Ennio Morricone's most memorable scores.  One of the minor characters is an effete monacled Austrian baron, employed as the tycoon's bodyguard, who tinkles out "Fur Elise" on the ivories during his downtime.  Morricone brilliantly incorporates that theme in his stirring musical dramatics.  

So it was a good ending to the week! Now it's back to the less esoteric pursuits of life...or perhaps not that mundane at all.  We'll see...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An Oriental Marathon

I promised to write about some of the new films viewed at this year's London Film Festival, so here comes the first installment.  For some reason best known to ourselves, we chose to view four Far Eastern movies (actually one Korean and three Japanese) back to back on two consecutive afternoons.  Since each of them clocked in at two hours plus and since none of them proved to be indelibly memorable, this became something of a hard slog.  Or rather, enjoyable in part mixed with 'enough of this' in another part.  So here goes:

Doomsday Book: This was the Korean entry and sounded intriguing from its blurb in the Festival programme -- a three-parter examining the potential end of the world or the death throes of humanity. It began life some years back as two short films by well-known directors Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-sung, but then sat on the shelf when funds ran out.  Eventually they collaborated to complete the trilogy in its current form -- and while all three films have intriguing concepts, they don't really come together as an intrinsic whole. The first "Brave New World" was something that could have slotted well into FrightFest, a somewhat nauseating riff on zombies taking over the world.  A studious young man is left at home when his family goes on holiday with a list of household tasks to perform in their absence, including recycling the waste and getting rid of the kitchen slop bucket. We then see how all this effluvia works its way into processed foods, turning the population into a ravishing horde of half-dead flesheaters. Double yuk! The second part "Heavenly Creature" is somewhat more cerebral.  In the near future when robots are commonplace, a Buddhist monastery discovers that their creature, purchased to look after the mundane tasks, has apparently achieved Nirvana and become Buddha incarnate. Their quandary is whether this is a defect in its design or a holy miracle, and the technician sent in to investigate has a secret of his own.  The final part "Happy Birthday" is deeply silly.  A young girl steals her billiard-mad uncle's favourite ball and tries to order a new one on the internet; somehow this turns into some kind of galactic mistake as a ten-kilometre wide 8-ball wings its way to earth, threatening to destroy civilisation.  The family retreat to their provision-packed survival shelter on the girl's birthday, to emerge some ten years later to a changed world.

The Samurai That Night: I don't quite know what I was expecting of this Japanese film, the 'Samurai' in the title having caught my attention, but that was something of a red herring, as the film barely resembled the samurai dramas of old.  Instead we have the rather inept manager of a small ironworks, who dreams of avenging his wife who was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver some five years previously -- that's when he's not involved in listening to her last answerphone message over and over again while stuffing his face slurping pots of ready-made custard. The loutish Kijima has served time for this crime, but is now back on the streets while our unlikely hero sends notes threatening his life on the anniversary of his wife's death. This first film from stage actor and director Maasaki Akahori barely held my attention, and while nicely enough made did not flesh out sufficiently to fill its two hour slot.

For Love's Sake: I always make a point of seeking out each new film from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike, although I have found his eclectic approach to filmmaking a mixed bag.  Some of his output has been wildly and weirdly entertaining, while other forays, particularly his take on the spaghetti western starring Quentin Tarantino, have been massive disappointments. Here he adds a pop musical to his bow, setting a Shakespearian tale of doomed romance to the Japanese pop songs of the early '70s when the film is set.  Based on a manga and with an anime preface and tailpiece, the story follows rich-girl Ai who recognises street-punk Makoto as the boy that once saved her during a skiing accident.  She recognises him by the distinctive scar on his forehead; others taunt him that it makes him look like a well-known comic fighter, forcing him to respond all the time with his fists flying.  She wants to redeem him and he wants to be left alone.  She convinces her parents to pay for him to attend her wealthy prep-school where he lasts about five seconds before flattening one of the teachers.  He then is dispatched to a rough trade school full of young gangsters.  The girl-boss is purportedly one gorgon called Gumko (because she constantly chews gum), but in truth the real boss is more deadly.  Miike mixes some extremely delightlful musical interludes -- and all of the cast sing well -- with some brutally prolonged fistfights, where Makoto flattens all comers, be they male, female, old, or young.  While the film starts off entertainingly enough, it does begin to drag in its second half when the fights begin to outnumber the kitschy music, but as a genre-bending piece of bravado, it is largely another success for the mad Miike.

Helter Skelter: This film's director Mika Ninagawa is one of Japan's best-known photographers and this is her second feature after the masterly "Sakuran" released five years ago. She obviously has a photographer's eye (pace: Chris Doyle) and the movie is a visual feast of colour, costume, and set decoration.  Unfortunately these eye-pleasing thrills are wrapped around a somewhat uninvolving tale of top model Lilico, the product of cosmetic modification.  As her manager says, 'All that is hers are her eyeballs, her ears, her fingernails, and her pussy'.  She is worshipped by thousands of wannabes, but fears the up-and-coming competition embodied by a natural beauty.  She abuses and humiliates her all-too-eager assistant, even making love to the former's boyfriend while she watches, and plots to destroy her would-be boyfriend's new fiancee. Meanwhile detectives are trying to build a case against the rogue plastic surgeon who made her and others like her, but who has ensured that continual treatment is necessary to avoid the inherent rot that continually manifests itself. Again based on a manga, this flashy film soon wears out its welcome and contrives to have multiple endings, each of which would have served as a final coda to the action, especially since it is virtually impossible to empathise with its unsympathetic heroine.

Finally for today, and as a change of pace, let me tell you about the next film that we watched, the restoration of a 1920 picture from Norway "Gipsy Anne", regarded as the first indigenous feature from that country.  While of some historical interest, this rustic melodrama of the crossed love between a gypsy foundling, a landed childhood friend, and an older suitor was somewhat dreary and not particularly well-made. Despite starring the famed actress Aasta Nielsen in an early role, she looked far too old for the hard-done-by heroine. The plot contrivance of burning down the farmhouse that her 'love' was building for his rich intended, letting her poor muggins admirer take the blame for her transgression and being sent to gaol, and then going off to America (where all are equal - ho ho) with him on his ultimate release was just too much of a potboiler to swallow. Yet I understand that the movie was a big hit locally on its release -- probably because there was no other local product with which to compare it.

More to come next week...

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Holy Motors (2012)

Following on from my last entry where I wrote that high-brow critics tend to be more glowing than is often deserved for many arthouse productions -- often the more obscure, the more glowing, this new film (his first for 13 years) from auteur Leos Carax is an interesting case in point.  Premiered at this year's Cannes, it split its audience between two camps.  There were those who thought it was a work of infinite genius and those whose boos echoed to the rafters.  As a supposedly surreal movie-going experience and with its many references to cinema history, it sounded just my cup of tea, and off we went to see it.  I find myself now schizophrenically split like the Cannes viewers, between thinking it is something more than remarkable and thinking it verges on being a pile of artificial twaddle.

For some historical background, Leos Carax is the pseudonym of Alexandre (Oscar) Dupont and is an anagram of Alex Oscar. Carax became an arthouse darling in his twenties with three films, all starring his alter ego (or perhaps alter id) Denis Lavant, playing a character called Alex in all of them:"Boy Meets Girl" (1984), "The Night is Young/Mauvais Sang" (1986), and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf" (1991).  This last film while completely absorbing came in well over budget and was a financial flop; Carax made no further films before the little-seen "Pola X" in 1999 (which did not star Lavant).  That actor is back with a vengeance in Carax's fifth feature, here playing the remainder of the anagram, Monsieur Oscar, a protean character with no true reality that one can grasp; Carax gives us nearly two hours of visual fireworks with deliberately, I think, no discernible plot or purpose, other than to emphasize the truism that one man in his time plays many parts.  Carax himself has said that the film is not telling a story nor narrating a life; it is merely showing us what it is like to be alive.  Or something like that!!

M. Oscar is collected from his suburban home and family each morning by a stretch white limousine driven by the elegant and elder Celine, French movie icon Edith Scob (more of that later), who drives him to his various 'appointments' throughout the day.  The limousine's roomy interior is a mobile dressing room where the athletic, muscular Lavant morphs into many different characters during the course of the day's 'work'.  He moves from becoming a female street beggar, ignored by the passing throngs, to becoming a hired assassin to being an elderly man on his deathbed. At one stage he enters a film studio, dons a motion capture suit with lights and engages in a dance of virtual sex with a female partner before the pair dissolve into fantasy apparitions. The most outlandish of his guises is Monsieur Merde, a character reprised from Carax's brief segment in the 2008 portmanteau film "Tokyo!" Here Lavant becomes a grotesque underworld goblin with a glass eye, lanky hair, and filthy long fingernails, who terrorises a cemetery fashion shoot by eating flowers and licking armpits, before abducting the supermodel Eva Mendes and carrying her off to his lair where he dresses her in an billowing burqa.  In contrast some of his other incarnations verge on the boring, including his scene telling a teenaged 'daughter' that she should be more aggressive to woo friends and a seemingly endless scene in a deserted department store where Kylie Minogue in a Jean Seberg wig warbles away before jumping to her death.  At the end of the day M. Oscar goes back to his surburban villa where his family have become a pack of chimpanzees and the stretch limo retires to the Holy Motors garage where it chats with the other parked limos about their respective days, reminding the viewer of a twee kiddy fantasy.  

A movie buff can have some fun picking out the various cinema references, influences, and homages other than the Jean Seberg wig, from the 1000 faces of Lon Chaney through the many Chaplinesque bits of business (falling off a treadmill, applying makeup a la "Limelight") through the several visual interludes featuring early cinematography capturing a man in motion.  Some of these are subtle or subliminal, while others seem overly blatant. For example, at the film's end the elegant Celine wears an Alida Valli shiny trenchcoat and dons an opaque mask to remind us that she was the damaged daughter in "Eyes without a Face"/Les Yeux sans visage" (1960).  Carax himself appears in the opening scene walking through a forested wall and emerging into a cinema (shades of Cocteau here) as if to announce 'this is my world of illusion'.  At times the film seems like the story of the emperor's new clothes all pointless artifice, but at others, like during a musical accordion band interlude, it gives us an unexpected feeling of elation at the thought of being alive and sentient.  When M. Oscar is asked why he carries on being Oscar, he replies that he does so 'for the beauty of the gesture'.  It is this philosphy that underwrites Carax's talents for the audience that can see the forest for the trees, but this is far from an easy exercise. 

It's London Film Festival time again, but a shorter programme than previous years.  I shall only (ha-ha) be seeing eight or nine films during its ten-day span and shall report back about the best of these in the not too distant future.  

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Foreign-language films

A good proportion of my film-watching and indeed my own collection is made up of movies 'not in the English language'.  I would hate to live somewhere like Germany where the vast majority of films get dubbed before they are deemed suitable for local consumption and I have never found subtitles any sort of distraction to my viewing pleasure -- although I know there is a vast world of filmgoers out there who avoid subtitles like the plague. However I have long been puzzled as to why some foreign-language films win a cinema release, however limited, out of the presumably hundreds made each year.  Most of these are only seen by audiences in their own countries or regions; at best they may get festival exposure or at worst they may eventually appear direct to disc or disappear completely. So how do a ragbag of foreign films scrape into our cinemas?

I've posed a question to which I really do not know the answer, although I am grateful for all comers.  However it would appear that local critics are prepared to give non-English language flicks the benefit of the doubt,  far more than they are willing to do for many mainstream movies (granted many of these are pretty dire anyhow!). To illustrate this point, let me examine two films I've viewed within the last week, both of which from memory received glowing critical reviews: "Miss Bala" (2011) from Mexico and "The Maid" (2009) from Chile.  While I was happy to watch both movies, I remain puzzled as to why either should have made the distributors' cut whilst other contenders languish unseen and I was also puzzled as to why their reviewers were so positive.

The Mexican film, like Warner Brothers used to boast in the 1930s was 'ripped from the headlines', and was apparently inspired by an actual instance of a local beauty queen being arrested with an assortment of drug-war villains. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura a young Tijuana lass, who together with her best friend wants to enter and win a local beauty pageant to become "Miss Baja California" as an escape from their drab existence. The night before the contest the pair are caught up in a shoot-out in a local nightclub and when Laura tries to find her pal the next day, the friendly local (corrupt of course) cop hands her over to the mob From there things go from bad to worse for her as she is used as a drug mule and sexual toy.  However although she has missed the deadline for the contest's heats, she is allowed back into the competition and is eventually the actual winner, despite her being far from the best looking or most vocal contestant.  It is quite clear that her win is the product of the mob's pressure on the organisers, rather than any particular talent on her part. However she is still too involved with the local crims to relish her win and rather passively I felt continues to go along with their demands.  Part of this is her genuine fright and her understandable desire to protect her younger brother, but she is too willing a dupe to become a sympathetic character. 

When she is asked to prostitute herself to a local bigwig whom the mob want to murder, she avoids being raped by telling him that there is a plot against his life.  For her trouble she gets beaten to a pulp by his aides and ultimately arrested with the rest of the villains.  Perhaps this is a true picture of the current Mexican scene just south of the border, where no one can be trusted and where no one really cares for those lives blighted in passage, but it was hardly the kind of entertainment that the average cinema-goer would choose for a good night out.  In the end Laura is turned loose, still handcuffed, to await whatever new fate might befall her.

The Chilean film was somewhat more involving with a strong central performance from Catalina Saavedra as the plain fortyish frump Raquel who has worked for the same upper-class family for the past twenty odd years. She has no life whatsoever outside the family home and truly believes that they could not manage without her and that their large brood of children, whom she has raised and whom she continues to look after, love her like a mother. However she is not one of them -- she eats her meals alone in the kitchen, is too shy to join them at table when they want to celebrate her birthday, and has become more and more estranged from the eldest daughter.  In addition her health is not what it was -- she has fierce headaches and fainting spells, and while her mistress would not dream of sacking her, she is keen to bring a second maid into the household to lighten Raquel's workload.

This is unthinkable to our heroine.  When a young Peruvian lass is hired, she makes her life a misery by grumping at her non-stop and by making her feel like a dirty intruder, disinfecting the bathroom whenever she has a shower! She soon departs and is replaced by an older dragon, recommended by the wife's mother.  This one is subjected to the same cold shoulder, but fights for her place -- so the maid just locks her out of the house.  When she climbs back in via the roof, fists begin to fly as the two come to blows, managing to trample the model ship that the man of the house has spent the last year creating.  Bye-bye helper number two.  The next to arrive is plain but vivacious and capable Lucy who, when the locking-out-of-the house technique fails, chooses to sunbathe topless on the front lawn until our grumpy heroine lets her back in.  Slowly the newcomer breaks through Raquel's cool reserve and defenses and they become friends; she even invites the lonely woman to join her boisterous family at Christmas -- the first time the maid has spent the holiday apart from the household. On their return there is a sea-change in the sour old Raquel and she gets the family to help her plan a surprise birthday party for Lucy.  However Lucy announces her intention to leave as her Christmas visit home reminded her just how much she misses her own family -- and Raquel is devastated.  However the last scene shows her going out for an evening jog, just as Lucy used to do, perhaps leading us to believe that at long last she realises that there is more to life than waiting hand and foot on a family that is not one's own.

The writer-director Sebastian Silva has created a well-drawn portrait of the maid's empty existence, but it is frankly a far less well-rounded and less entertaining picture than the recent American film "The Help".  This takes me back to where I started.  Why were these two films given their chances amongst recent releases? Why in their potential appeal to the art-house crowd were they given a green light while others, probably equally as good or possibly even better have fallen down between the cracks unlikely to ever see the light of day outside their home markets?