Friday, 29 August 2014

An Embarrassment of Riches...

Here I am back after my respite and I don't know where to start, with a number of films fighting to be selected for my beady-eyed scrutiny. As I wrote three weeks back, the next film on the agenda was "Guardians of the Galaxy" which was a jolly enough romp, but not really my sort of thing. It's a refreshing left-field offering among the plethora of super-hero flicks, but it will probably seem less fresh when we are offered the inevitable sequel in a year's time or so. I must say, however, that Vin Diesel makes a great tree!

Then there were the eleven -- yes eleven -- FrightFest films that we selected last weekend. This does indeed represent a conscious weaning on our part, since we would have felt obliged to watch most of the twenty-six films featured in the main programme (or alternates on the Discovery Screen) had we bought the weekend pass -- and frankly eleven were nearly too many. By and large I liked most of them, although there were a couple of iffy ones, but what struck me most of all was how unfrightening the majority were -- there was more in the way of fantasy than frights. There was very little in the way of gore (and we all know how much pppatty likes her gore). 

For tradition's sake I will write a bit about each of them over the coming weeks -- but not today. Instead, I want to touch briefly on a terrestrial TV premiere which I watched the day after FrightFest and which I thought was not only better made but also more scary and gripping in part than any of the Fest's offerings. The film is "Red Lights" (2012) and while comments on IMDb verge on the 'big swizz' end of the spectrum, I thought it was pretty super. Sigourney Weaver plays a respected ghost debunker, showing up false mediums and psychics over a 30-year career; her protégé is Cillian Murphy who in turn is mentoring Elizabeth Olsen. They have a fine old time exposing the frauds who are making money off the gullible, but Weaver is wary of having another go at Robert DeNiro's Simon Silver, who is making a comeback from retirement after another sceptic unexpectedly died while investigating him. Weaver doesn't want to know as Silver was able to rattle her in the past, but Murphy is crazy keen to have a go. Then Weaver drops dead! She was so good in the role that the heart could have fallen out of the film, but the intense Murphy manages to keep us watching. And I for one was totally unprepared for the big reveal....

The last of the day's reviews will be "Sin City 2 - A Dame to Kill For" which was actually included in the FrightFest programme, but which we didn't watch there since we knew it was about to be released broadly. So back to the cinema we went! Somewhere in my old reviews I wrote about the first film back in 2005 (and I am too lazy to search out the url) but my recollection is that I really, really liked it. And guess what, I liked the sequel as well. Now to be honest it has been receiving some pretty dismissive reviews and far be it from me to claim that it is a great movie; but it is an absolutely superb visual experience -- and for once even the 3D effects were more than gratuitous. OK maybe the dialogue is pretty poor (what do you expect from a graphic novel adaptation?) and the characters may be pulp stereotypes, but that is all part of its modus vivendi and all part of what makes the film fun viewing.

Eva Green gives a fearless and largely nude performance as the femme fatale of the title and newcomers Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt give substance to two of the three intertwining stories. Powers Booth makes a dastardly villain and it's a welcome return for the unrecognizable Mickey Rourke, a ghostly Bruce Willis, and bump 'n grinder Jessica Alba. Jamie Chung substitutes wonderfully for Devon Aoki with some great and let it be said brilliantly gory martial arts. The blood here seems almost aesthetic when it splashes bright white rather than crimson.  There is even a blink and you might miss it cameo from Lady Gaga. I'm puzzled why the movie has so many detractors. Maybe what was considered ground-breaking once has lost its charm in the intervening years, but I think co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have given us another movie to savour.

I promise to return to the other FrightFest reviews next week.  

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Spooky Bunch (1980)

I really got suckered into buying tickets for this film. The BFI's programme guide described it as "virtually unclassifiable", a horror comedy with "kooky dances and gruesome murders", melding the traditions of Cantonese opera with contemporary sensibilities. Before booking I checked out some specialist reviews and they all seemed to agree that this was a fresh fusion of historical traditions and a charming modern approach by London-trained director Ann Hui in her sophomore outing. Well, folks, let me tell you that this was one of the worst Hong Kong movies I have ever seen -- and I've seen some pretty awful ones!

The gist of the tale is that a third-rate opera company is invited by a rich old man, Mr Ma, to perform on a remote island on the condition that the lead role is taken by bit-player Ah Chi (Josephine Siao -- a popular actress who appeared in local films from the age of seven and who continued in supporting roles for some years to come). He wants his nephew and only surviving relative Dick to marry her to remove a curse placed by her grandfather that has plagued the family for years. Dick, played by pop star du jour Kenny Bee, is something of a lothario and is not ready to make a match with the very childish Ah Chi. However, not only is she something of a dimwit, but she also has (to my western ears) no talent for Cantonese opera whatsoever. The caterwauling performance is all but unwatchable and seems to go on forever.

It seems that Grandpa Ah and Mr Ma were responsible in the distant past for poisoning a whole platoon of soldiers with some tainted drugs and they, together with a long dead femme fatale, want their revenge. The first indication of the presence of vengeful ghosts occurs when the lead opera hero is possessed by another screechy female, one Cat Shit (modestly translated in the subtitles as Cat Poo!). This Bowdlerism was about the only vaguely amusing feature of the excruciating 93 minutes. Unfortunately every time some promising comic action seems imminent, one of the characters drops down dead. In the end the local audience is replaced by the spirits of dead soldiers, until a local priest exorcises them, leaving Ah Chi and Dick to face a wonderful future together -- or not, since the 'kicker' is that one evil spirit still lurks in the body of a local child.

This movie was released the same year as Sammo Hung's "Encounters of a Spooky Kind" which began the trend in Hong Kong for a whole run of supernatural, highly amusing, and beautifully realised ghost stories. I was conned into thinking that the above film would be equally entertaining, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

This may be my last blog until late August, despite the fact that I will be seeing "Guardians of the Galaxy" early next week and would normally write about it. I shall be away for a while, visiting family, and when I get back its the annual FrightFest blow-out over the Bank Holiday weekend. I know I wrote that last year's marathon would be our last and indeed we did NOT buy the weekend pass this year. As a compromise to our gradual weaning, we have chosen tickets for a selection of the films being showcased -- no early starts, no late evenings -- and we are hoping for the best. No doubt a full report will follow...

Friday, 1 August 2014

Friends with Kids (2011)

Before I get too involved with my reactions to the above trifle, I must report that I have finally got hold of a DVD of "The Dybbuk" (1937) -- stuck in my memory from a viewing many moons ago. It's an important work insofar as it is one of very few surviving Yiddish films made in pre-war Poland. It's more a musical than a drama with a heavy emphasis on liturgical and folk music, and not overly interesting cinematically. The tale of star-crossed lovers unknowingly betrothed before their births, can only end in tragedy. He woos Satan to win her, and dies for his sins; she willingly accepts his departed soul into her body (the dybbuk of the title). All the rabbinical tribunals in the world can not separate these two. My copy, produced by the Bel Canto Society of New York was a little sparing with the subtitles, but it's an easy story to follow albeit rather strange, different, and, yes, memorable.

Getting back to the film above, I actually sort of enjoyed it while watching it. It was only afterwards when I began to think about it, that I decided that I'd had the wool pulled over my eyes and that it was probably a load of rubbish. Written, directed, and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, in retrospect I feel that the movie was a vanity piece of the first water. She plays Julie, a high-flying career gal pushing forty who fancies motherhood, but not marriage. She's seen how having kids has wrecked the lifestyles of her two best friends, to say nothing of their marriages, and decides that having a wanted child outside of wedlock is the obvious answer. Her best (platonic) mate Jason played by Adam Scott (not an actor I know but pretty likeable) also fancies having a kiddie and obligingly impregnates her. They decide that they will share the expenses and the nurturing of their son Cole and that they will be able to remain good mates, since of course they don't fancy each other. Ha, ha, ha.

So there you have the bare Hollywood bones for what any idiot can predict will be the movie's denouement. However, the dialogue is generally smart and the other two couples -- hot off the success of "Bridesmaids" are Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm. These charmers, combined with would-be new paramours for Julie and Jason played by Edward Burns and sexpot Megan Fox keep the film starry and pretty watchable, as long as one doesn't look too closely at the many clichés sprinkled along the way. I understand that Westfeldt has been in a relationship with 'Mad-Man' Hamm since the late 90s and no doubt he helped secure the attractive cast.

The film starts off well, but becomes more and more predictable, and it is hardly the feminist tract that some would suggest. Unfortunately, Westfeldt devotes far too much screen time to her appearance and her chatter, and uncharitably one becomes only too aware that her rather frozen face is the result of an overabundance of botox and/or surgery. Ironically, the money men decided to feature the popular Wiig (who actually looks more attractive than usual here) on the film's promotional poster, rather than she. More known for her stage and television work, Westfeldt does possess a quirky talent which first came to the fore in her script for "Kissing Jessica Stein" back in 2001. As an actress, she was fine in that movie, but I can't help but wish that she'd given the lead role in this film to another actress, one not quite so full of herself and her 'charm'.