Wednesday, 19 December 2012

What's on the box?

Shortly after I launched this blog, one of my readers suggested that it might be useful to comment on the attractions of the forthcoming Christmas week film delights and I have managed to attempt this each year since. However, as I have written previously it becomes harder each year to recommend films that you may not know, especially since virtually all the recent so-called blockbusters that the Freeview channels select to premiere will have been available to you at the cinema, on satellite, on DVD purchase or rental, or on the now frequently available 'anytime' streaming. 

This being the case, satellite premieres apart, there are only two movies being shown over the holiday period which I for one have not already seen, bar sappy Christmas-themed television movies or dubious kiddie offerings like "Dr. Dolittle - Million dollar Mutts"!!! The two films in question are Andrea Arnold's 2011 take on "Wuthering Heights" with a black Heathcliff and Film Four's showing of the Studio Ghibli release "Arietty",  a Japanese version of "The Borrowers" (not unfortunately directed by the incomparable Hayao Miyazaki, but still worth seeing). I shall watch both of these, but I know which I will probably enjoy the more, especially since there is the choice between the English-language version of "Arietty" or the subtitled original version. No prizes for guessing my choice.

While I shall avoid all of the other Freeview premieres, I can recommend the brilliant "Up" on New Year's Day, animations "Shrek Forever After" and "Tangled", Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", "Moon" ("Solaris"-lite), "Secretariat" (not well-rated by the Radio Times, but a very winning film about a very winning horse), and Jim Carrey's 2009 version of "A Christmas Carol" (although Alastair Sim he ain't!). In the 'meh' category fall "Julie and Julia", "Space Chimps", and Russell Crowe's weird take on "Robin Hood". To steer clear of, try not to be tempted by either "Four Christmases" or the dire "Couples Retreat". There is also the first terrestrial showing of "Lady and the Tramp" on Christmas Eve, well-worth a second or tenth look, if you don't own your own family copy.

Channel Four are premiering the films in the Stieg Larssen 'Dragon Tattoo' trilogy, but if you are someone who doesn't 'hate' subtitled films, you have probably seen these previously. They are also showing all three 'Lord of the Rings' movies, but re-watching any of these six films broken up by ads is not really my idea of a Christmas 'treat'.

So now that I've trashed the big guns, is there anything else? Matter of fact there is. BBC4 have a new documentary on "Screen Goddesses" screening on Saturday and are following up with three biographies, although only the Clara Bow one is new to television, Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor being repeats. They are surrounding this with a very skimpy supporting season of only three films: "The Prince and the Showgirl", "Cleopatra", and "One Touch of Venus" on Christmas Day; I shall probably take the opportunity to watch this rarely-screened Ava Gardner starrer from 1948 once more. The channel is also showing a second new documentary titled "Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory" which is probably worth seeing, although again the three supporting feature films are an equally sparing collection.

I shall also be watching BBC2's new drama "The Girl" on the 26th with Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, not a film but certainly of interest to any film buff and an appetizer to the forthcoming feature film with Anthony Hopkins as Hitch. They also have scheduled a reasonable selection of  Hitchcock classics, all worth seeing or re-viewing. The pick of that channel's programming however is a mini Charles Laughton season starting on the 22nd and tucked away in the late night schedules. Laughton remains one of my personal screen heroes and one of the most consummate actors ever. The season includes "Arch of Triumph" (judging by its time slot showing in the restored version), "They Knew What the Wanted" (a particular treat for me since my own copy is flawed), "The Tuttles of Tahiti", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "This Land is Mine" (be sure to set this 1943 gem if you do not know it), and heaven help us "Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd" (hardly a worthy inclusion).

Also scattered throughout the schedules at unsociable hours are gems from Ray Harryhausen, including "Jason and the Argonauts", "Clash of the Titans", "7th Voyage of Sinbad", and "Destination Moon". His stop-motion brilliance is always worth a look and I am only surprised that neither BBC2 nor Channel Four had the foresight to screen the new well-received documentary on Harryhausen.

I shall be away or otherwise engaged for most of the next fortnight, but I'll see you all again in the new year. Meanwhile with best wishes for the holidays and for a peaceful and happy 2013, I remain your cinematic friend Pretty Pink Patty. Bye for now...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Over the years there have been plenty of books considered 'unfilmable', where the movie rights have been snapped up early, only for various ambitious projects to die in creative limbo. However with the continuing refinements in CGI technology, nothing is impossible any longer, if a director has the creative vision to make the written word leap off the page and become a tangible screen reality. Ang Lee has tackled the presumed impossibity of filming Yann Martell's prize-winning novel of a teenaged Indian lad adrift at sea for 227 days with only a ravenous adult Bengal tiger for company. Moreover he has created ravishing images to hold our attention and to challenge our beliefs for over two hours. "Life of Pi" may indeed be, the first 3-D film to become a best picture Oscar winner, and deservedly so.

Having read the source novel and now seen the film, I wouldn't like to debate which is the better -- since they are obviously the same basic story but with different emphases and both experiences remain worthwhile. The backstory is that of a boy raised with his older brother and cultured parents in the French-speaking part of India, where his father has created a beautiful zoo in the park of the local botanical gardens. When financial funding falters, causing the family to emigrate to Canada aboard a Japanese cargo ship together with the unsold animals, the teenaged Pi (named after a Parisian swimming pool, but that's another story) resents being uprooted. However he is even more 'at sea' literally when a deadly storm causes the ship to flood and sink, killing his family, and leaving him alone in a lifeboat with only a wounded zebra, a fierce hyena, and an impish orangutan. They are soon joined by the tiger with the delicious name of Richard Parker, who makes quick meals of the other animals, and with whom the forced-to-be-resourceful Pi must strike a modus vivendi. As Martell wrote, "I had to tame him; it was not a question of him or me. We were figuratively in the same boat". The main theme of both the book and the film is the task of finding harmony in this world with seemingly uncontrollable forces.

First-time teenaged actor Suray Sharma does a remarkable job of filling Pi's slight frame and he has been given the difficult task of making the bulk of the movie move so swiftly. Richard Parker may be computer-generated -- and brilliantly so -- but he becomes as real and believable a character as young Pi, and Sharma makes us believe in their careful coexistence. He is left to hold the film together as the framing story told by the now middle-aged Pi (Infan Khan) to would-be writer Rafe Spall could nearly have been omitted without destorying the film's pleasures. The only 'name' actor in the cast is Gerard Depardieu who has what is at best a minor cameo as the ship's surly cook, but whose character becomes important in the film's denouement. As a schoolboy back in India, Pi was attracted to various religions merging his original Hindu upbringing with tenets from Christianity and Muslim faiths -- and as the adult Pi tells Spall, his is a tale meant to strengthen our own faith and perhaps to gain a better understanding of God. Not all viewers will take this lesson away from the film, but all of us should find our belief strengthened that everything is now cinematically possible.

When Pi eventually washes up in Mexico and Richard Parker disappears into the jungle without a goodbye nod, the Japanese shipwreck investigators do not believe the story of his journey with the tiger nor how they found a toxic island inhabited solely by thousands of nodding meerkats. So he invents another version of the events which had him adrift in a lifeboat with a sailor, his mother, and the murderous cook until such time as he was the only survivor. They buy this story, but we do not, finding it even more difficult to credit that the religion-obsessed, vegetarian boy would turn cannibal to survive. We prefer the first version of his adventure as told in Martell's book and as brought to the screen here, whether this is the real story or not. Some people have put forth a theory that Pi and the tiger are one and the same character, contrasting our humanity and our quest for survival vs. the animalistic instincts that are buried deep in all of us. This is an interesting theory strengthened by the fact that the tiger's original name was "Thirsty" and that there was an earlier scene when young Pi is dared to enter the local Catholic church to taste the holy water, only to meet a priest offering a glass of water, saying "you must be thirsty"!!!  I think I prefer the tale of Pi and the fearsome Richard Parker as told. 

It would be remiss not to comment on Lee's use of 3D. The start of the film which focuses on the various inhabitants of the zoological park is cleverly and amusingly photographed and there are also some beautifully surreal and cool shots of ocean life during the long voyage. However one soon begins to forget that one is watching a 3D film -- which in itself is good and which speaks well of Lee's directorial skills. The film would probably be just as satisfying in its 2D version, since Pi and Richard Parker are such well-drawn characters that we don't need a third dimension to believe in them as rounded realities. 


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

After my initial enthusiasm when I started off blogging nearly every day back in 2005, the frequency has gradually reduced to weekly -- normally on a Wednesday. However, had I done this yesterday, I would have felt obliged to write about the new James Bond movie "Skyfall" which we saw (out of a sense of duty to some extent) last week. However knowing that we would be seeing the above new film from writer-director Martin McDonagh yesterday afternoon, I felt that it would make the more interesting review. 

 I suppose I must write a few words about the Bond anyhow to add to the mountains of praise that it has been receiving from all quarters to say nothing about the heaps of money it's been earning. Yes, it was diverting and largely a fun watch, but I don't buy into the myth that it is a welcome return to the Bonds of old.  I didn't know they had disappeared, since the character has evolved with each new actor taking on the lead. Having said that I still have some trouble accepting Daniel Craig as Commander Bond -- he's a little too rough-cast for my taste. The fabled 'Bond girls' were something of a washout in the latest film, but Judi Dench's M has had her role beefed up for reasons which are soon apparent. Javier Bardem, as always, does well as the camp villain, but he's not half as menacing as he was in his Oscar-winning role in "No Country for Old Men" (2007). There are the requisite number of supposedly hair-raising chases -- some of which seem very derivative -- before Craig bundles Dench off to his childhood Scottish home in the attempt to protect her from the vindictive Bardem. There, aided by his family's old gamekeeper (an unrecognizable Albert Finney) they set up some "Home Alone"-reminiscent 'traps' for Bardem's invading horde. Certainly worth seeing to keep abreast of the 50-year old canon, but not the be-all and end-all of Bond's screen adventures despite the return of a few feeble quips.

To get back to the subject at hand, McDonagh's first film, 2008's "In Bruges" was such a breath of fresh air and such an oddball success, that his fans have been awaiting his sophomore effort with panting anticipation. The good news is that it is finally here for our delectation, but the bad news is, despite its entertainment value and its blood-soaked scenario, it seems more of an undeveloped holding excercise than a full-blown or well-thought out successor to the first movie. The basic story is that boozy Irish screenwriter Colin Farrell, now based amongst the kooks of Hollywood, has developed severe writer's block over his new commission. He just can't get into the development of his seven psychopaths screenplay and seeks help both from the bottle and from close friend Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, a failed actor, has a lucrative sideline with his pal Hans (an aging, cravated Christopher Walken, but as good as ever) in dog-napping to claim the grieving owners' posted rewards. However he has independently snatched the beloved shih tzu of Mafia boss Woody Harrelson, to put pressure on the powerful lover of his occasional 'bit on the side'. Harrelson, playing a psychopathic and ruthless gang leader in all other respects, is absolutely dotty about the animal (adorably possibly the best thing in the film) and unleashes a bloodbath to get it back.

It seems to me that McDonagh has possibly tried to overcome his own minor writer's block and has taken various, occasionally half-baked, ideas that have come to him and thrown them at the screen in the hope of achieving an acceptable whole. What we finally have are a series of vignettes in search of a story, with side excursions into the tales of some of the other 'psychopaths' Farrell is considering for the final screenplay, including an Amish minister, a Vietnamese priest, and the current 'Jack of Diamonds' killer who has been busy knocking off minor Mafia goodfellas. Farrell is at heart a peaceful soul and wants the gory first-half of his script to morph into more thoughtful reflections somewhere in the desert; Rockwell baulks at the movie not finishing with a violent shoot-out ("we're not making a f-ing French film" he quips). Soon the main characters and the pooch actually find themselves in the desert on the run from Harrelson and his henchmen where the action grinds to a talky halt before continuing to its murderous end (or not, as the end credits would have it). McDonagh has a wicked way with words and the sharp dialogue mixed with weird-o characters provide ample entertainment. What they do not do is make a cohesive and particularly satisfying film.

The female roles are generally underwritten (a fault screenwriter Farrell is accused of) and Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are totally wasted, falling into the category of cameos, with which the movie is lavishly sprinkled. Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg play hitmen mown down in the film's opening minutes. Harry Dean Stanton just has to stand there glaring to be the Amish 'psychopath'. Tom Waites has a slightly larger role as a rabbit-petting ex-serial killer, searching for his long-lost female partner in crime. 'Precious' Gaborney Sidibe has a few anxious moments as the one responsible for losing the shih tzu in the first place. Some viewers have claimed to see a fleeting shot of a real screen psychopath Crispin Glover and for all I know there may be others.

Given In Bruges's cult success, lots of actors seem anxious to work with the director a la Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, but McDonagh has not given us as much here as we all think he is capable of . However this film will have to do until something more fully realised comes along from his very talented pen.