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Friday, 31 October 2014

The Way (2010)

I really am turning into some sort of soppy sausage! I often find my tears welling up when I watch certain movies which manage to tug at the old heartstrings, but I wasn't expecting this to happen watching a movie about a traditional Catholic pilgrimage. The above film caught me unawares...

Starring Martin Sheen and directed by his non-Charlie son Emilio Estevez, who also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Jack Hitt, this was obviously a project close to their respective religious hearts. Sheen plays widowed and relatively carefree California ophthalmologist Tom, whose biggest disappointment is that his only son Daniel (Estevez) prefers a footloose and feckless quest for adventure rather than a more settled way of life. On the golf course with his cronies, Sheen takes a call advising that Daniel has been killed by a freak mountain storm one day out on a pilgrimage journey -- the fabled El Camino route from St. Jean Pied de Port in France across the Pyrenees to Santiago de Campostela in Spain. Off he flies to bring home the body of his beloved son.

On arrival he has a change of heart and, having had Daniel's remains cremated, decides to undertake the 500 mile journey himself as an homage and in honour of his lost son. He has all the necessary gear if not the necessary fitness, but resolves to make the journey -- however long it takes. His plan is to sprinkle some of the ashes at graves and shrines along the way, before leaving the remainder at the journey's end cathedral; he is determined to complete the pilgrimage that his son died trying to complete. Estevez made the journey himself filming the action amongst real pilgrims and real hostels en route, shooting only in natural light. However to fill out the Sheen storyline,  Doctor Tom acquires some regular travelling companions: Yorick van Wageningen (the jolly 'I'm Joost from Amsterdam') who is doing the trek to lose weight but who takes every opportunity to liberally sample the food and booze on the way; Deborah Kara Unger as the jaded and cynical Canadian Sarah who sees the journey as her last chance to finally give up ciggies for good on arrival in Santiago; and James Nesbitt as blocked Irish writer Jack, who may or who may not be based on the book's author.

Sheen is initially locked into his own grief and dismissive of the friendly overtures from his fellow pilgrims, but shared efforts and hardships, including having his backpack with its holy box of ashes stolen by a gypsy boy, bring them closer. The backpack is returned by the stern father of the chastened lad and he convinces Sheen that he must continue his pilgrimage past the cathedral to the wild northern coast before spreading the last of the ashes -- not that I really understood why. Sheen's companions have every intention of ending their journey at the cathedral -- their missions accomplished or otherwise -- but in the end their new-found fellow-feeling keeps them with Sheen through the final tribute to his son. The doctor's quest is so heart-felt that at various stages of the journey, he (and we) see the late Daniel happily mingling with the crowd.

This is far too spiritual an endeavor to be lumped as another road movie and it doesn't really have the echoes of "The Wizard of Oz" that some have suggested. The movie honours a 1000-year old pilgrimage and it is clear that both Sheen and Estevez found it a moving and highly religious exercise. The standard greeting to pilgrims on The Way is 'buen camino';  indeed, father and son here have furnished the viewer with a very moving and very 'good road' for our own journey. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Three more foreign language films...

Here I was expecting to report on our last two choices for the London Film Festival and I find myself having to review a third foreign film as well.  First things first:

3 Hearts (2013) - Our penultimate Festival movie was this French one (again with Catherine Deneuve -- though not in the lead) and I'm not 100% certain why we chose it. Quite possibly the fact that I have a certain fondness for the Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde, ever since I first saw him in "Man Bites Dog" (1992) all those years ago, guided its selection. I certainly have no burning interest in the movie's two female leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Marcello and indeed Deneuve), although both are able actresses. Poelvoorde -- an unlikely romantic heart-throb -- has a chance meeting with Gainsbourg and love blossoms. However arrangements for a return meeting fizzle out and, broken-hearted, off she goes to the States with her second-best boyfriend. Soon Poelvoorde has another chance meeting, this time with her sister Mastroianni, and ends up marrying her, not initially twigging that he has wooed a pair of sisters, although the penny soon drops. How can he avoid the showdown, since he is too much of a coward to tell the truth to his new wife, especially since he still fancies Gainsbourg.

This is the sort of quandary that only occurs as a dramatic device in movies and the untenable contrivances soon begin to pall for the viewer. The film is well-acted by all four (Deneuve plays the girls' mother and she soon has her own suspicions), but there was nowhere for the action to go satisfactorily, to the extent that the ending becomes a 'what-if' device of its own.  In short something of a potboiler with the distracting thought throughout of how much Mastroianni really, really looks like her dad!

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014) - This Chinese movie was the Gala Performance in the 'Cult' strand of the Festival, but we booked to see it on its second showing the next afternoon; I was hoping for something of a gem, but was disappointed. It's based on the same classic novel that gave rise to the lovely Hong Kong movies "The Bride with White Hair" and its sequel in 1993, where Brigette Lin and the late Leslie Cheung created their own brand of magic. However director Jacob Cheung (no relation) has fallen prey to the 're-imagining' bug, rewriting the story on such a big scale with a myriad use of CGI that the doomed lovers are swallowed up by the grandeur of the design and the overly convoluted storyline. Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing has relatively little chemistry with her male lead and despite the credited 'artistic guidance' from Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark, the movie is not a patch on the earlier ones. If one is unfamiliar with these, it's a pleasant enough romp with some spectacular action sequences, but it's really a completely different ballgame -- and not for the better.

You would think that we would have had our fill of foreign-language flicks during the course of the Festival, but a rather positive review for a new Japanese movie tempted us back out to the cinema to see "Black Butler" (2014). Since it was only showing once a day at a single movie-house in a one-week window, we didn't exactly have a great deal of choice as to when we might see this film. I suspect it will now disappear from the scene until its inevitable DVD release. So, you may ask, was it worth the outing? Yes and no...

It's apparently based on a popular manga and has previously been released as an anime. This live action version is probably more accessible to the Western viewer, despite I gather the various liberties that the directors have taken with the original story. Briefly, our 'hero' Ayame Goriki, has witnessed 'his' parents' murder and vows revenge by selling 'his' soul to a demon in exchange for some supernatural help. The various parentheses are not really a spoiler, since the lead role is supposedly a boy but the actress playing the part is decidedly female in appearance. The demon is played with some cheeky devilish flair by the un-Japanesey-looking Hiro Mizushima. Together they must battle a fiendish drug cartel who are unleashing 'The Demon's Curse', a drug which causes its victims to die suddenly and horribly and to become mummified. Goriki must also get to the root of the original crime, before her own demon claims his due.

Again the action sequences are very well done and the two leads are appealing and likeable, although the possibly blossoming romance is both unlikely and probably out of keeping with the original manga. Nevertheless it's relatively good fun -- not a brilliant movie, but a cheerful enough one if ever it comes your way.

I won't promise, but I'll try to review an English-language movie next time!

Friday, 17 October 2014

More London Film Festival

As I'm sure I've said before, when choosing festival films to book, we usually go for those most unlikely to secure a cinema release -- which doesn't really mean worthy movies about Bulgarian tractor drivers, starving Scottish crofters, or the like, but usually interesting-sounding films not in the English language. So it will come as no surprise that three of the four pics seen since I last wrote are foreign-language films; and while the fourth may indeed be an American production, it is a recently rediscovered and restored semi-silent, and therefore unlikely to hit the local multiplex:

French Riviera (2014) - The French title of this intelligent film from director Andre Techine translates as 'The Man who was Loved Too Much' which tells you rather more about the movie than the wishy-washy English title. Based on real events in the 1970s, the story follows the fortunes of wealthy casino owner Catherine Deneuve, her ambitious young lawyer (Guillaume Canet), and her recently divorced daughter Agnes -- a brave performance from Adele Haenel. When Canet fails to manipulate the widow Deneuve into making him the casino manager, he focuses his charms on Agnes. While initially ignoring the married masher's attentions, she is gradually sucked into his manipulative grasp, especially since she has not been able to obtain her full inheritance from her cash-strapped mother; he brokers a deal with a local Mafioso which effectively destroys the mother-daughter relationship and Deneuve's control of the business. Once Canet has feathered his own nest, his interest in Agnes wanes as she in turn becomes more and more dependent and demanding.

Then Agnes disappears and Deneuve spends the next 30 years and all of her fortune trying to establish her daughter's fate -- which is unknown to this day. She suspects murder and eventually brings Canet to trial. Her performance from the aging glamourpuss of the 70's to a bitter and impoverished old woman in the final scenes is without any conceit for an actress who was once one of the screen's great beauties. This long film stays watchable albeit more than a little leisurely and the end titles bringing the viewer up to date seem tacked on in haste.

Cub (2014) - This Belgian film was a late addition to our original selection since it sounded like something that we might have chosen at FrightFest had it been showing there. It concerns a Cub Scout pack's camping expedition in a dark forest, led by two overbearing, bumptious pack leaders. Our attention immediately focuses on young Sam who seems something of an outcast and ill at ease with all of the others. Folktales speak of a werewolf who roams the woods, but the scout leaders dismiss this as little more than campfire chills; Sam thinks differently. However, there are far worse threats lurking in the shadows, as the expedition members discover to their misfortune. In truth the story was more than a little muddled and the action difficult to follow (or rationalise) with the dark cinematography. (I shudder to think how unwatchable this movie would be on the small screen). I'm glad we saw it but it was far from the best horror/slasher movie ever.

The World of Kanako (2014) - The Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima was responsible for such excellent films as "Confessions" and "Memories of Matsuko", so it was a no-brainer to select his first film in four years. The elderly Tetsuya was amazingly on his first visit to London and jokily introduced the movie via an interpreter, inviting comments at a Q & A to follow -- not that we stayed for this. I can just imagine the questions the audience might have had for him, since this stunning film was full of complex twists. The hero, a recently fired police detective, gives good psycho as he rampages through the film at the behest of his estranged and divorced wife, to discover what has become of their darling daughter Kanako who has gone missing. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that she might not have been the little angel that her parents remember and that she may well have been more of a devil to her schoolmates, teachers, and besotted boyfriends. Tetsuya keeps the action and cartoony violence flowing, possibly a little too long (I was beginning to think that the movie would never find its ending), with some brilliant cinematography and use of pop music, combined with lashings of mind-blowing and eye-blinding flashing images. It is all quite a tour de force with some strange characters -- in particular a lolly-sucking, fresh-faced policeman -- who counterpoints the increasingly bloodied anti-hero in his obsessive quest for Kanako.

Why Be Good? (1929) - Finally we have this curio which should have been a whole lot better and more entertaining than it was. In 1929's Hollywood, all of the studios were getting on the sound bandwagon, so it seems more than a little strange that this newly re-discovered movie is in fact devoid of dialogue. It boasts a Vitaphone 16-inch disc music track and sound effects. which don't really sit well with the silent era large-gestures acting style and copious inter-titles. It's the sort of combination one expects in the early 30's from the backwaters of China or India (or from Charlie Chaplin!).

Apart from the hype in the programme, we were curious to view this movie to see a leading role for the little-known Colleen Moore, a popular flapper of the period, who retired from the movies in 1934. She plays a shop-girl and would be swinger, an energetic dance contest entrant, who is really a good girl under her sexy, knowing fa├žade. She's madly in love with a millionaire's son (after one short encounter!), but his Daddy tries to warn him off 'that sort of girl'. It's all rather predictable and stilted, and Moore comes off as the poor man's Louise Brooks. She's certainly not as good looking and even lacks the "it-ness" that makes Clara Bow's films so appealing. I'm all for discovering lost movies, but this really is little more than a strange and mildly diverting curio.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

As mentioned last week the London Film Festival is now in full swing. There wasn't much that immediately caught our attention and we eventually settled on seven movies -- from yesterday's choice above through the weekend of the l8th-l9th. So you'll get one review today, four next Friday, and the final two the following Friday. I just hope the next six movies engage me rather more than this Chinese one did.

I guess we chose it, not just because it was a Berlin Golden Bear winner, but also because it sounded something of an oddball and not at all the sort of film that one associates with the typical Chinese fare. With its talk of various body parts turning up on industrial conveyor belts in different parts of the country and the suggestion that a serial murderer might be at large, it seemed more than a little promising. Unfortunately despite some bravura sequences, the tale does not quite hold together nor survive its many longueurs in the telling.

Writer-director Diao Yinan achieves a fairly stylish production and some interesting wintry scenery, but not a completely coherent story. Our policeman hero Zhang is invalided off the force after being wounded during a spectacularly bungled arrest and finds his solace in the bottle. From 1999 when the tale begins, we travel with him through a long tunnel and emerge five years later for the mystery's continuation. No longer a cop, he is still fascinated by the reappearance of body parts, in this instance with ice skates attached. All of the victims seem to link to the widow of the first corpse five years back, a comely lass working in a local laundry; he becomes obsessed with her and her possible role in these macabre murders. The explanations when they come are a little out of left field and not very satisfying, especially since to my Western eye both the hero and the 'maybe' villain looked pretty much the same. The final arrest is accompanied by a dazzling display of fireworks, for no apparent reason. The movie therefore ends in this blaze of glory forcing the viewer to ignore much of what has inexplicably come before. Quirky, yes. An unusual look at Chinese small-town life, yes. But gripping film-making, no.

Actually I should like to close by mentioning my most enjoyable discovery of the past week -- the Douglas Fairbanks 1922 silent version of "Robin Hood", which I'd not seen before. Apart from Fairbanks' fabled athleticism and the interesting casting of Wallace Beery as King Richard (as bulky and bawdy as the usual Beery persona) and Alan Hale in the role of Little John (the same role he played in the splendid 1938 Errol Flynn version), this long (133 minutes) production had the most extraordinary sets, costumes, literally cast of 1000s, and attention to detail that could put most modern film-making to shame. Each frame, with its inky blacks, wonderful tinting, and elaborate set design made a series of aesthetically pleasing stills, which combined into a truly magnificent and exciting whole. A masterpiece!      

Friday, 3 October 2014

Two for the road...

No not the old Albert Finney/Audrey Hepburn charmer, but a title to celebrate the fact that I actually went to the cinema twice this week to see two new releases. Apart from attending film festivals (and by the way the London Film Festival is imminent), visiting an actual cinema more than once a week (and on average it's not even that) is unusual for me. By way of some explanation, most weeks there are few new movies that entice me -- and judging by the various trailers I saw on these two excursions, there's not a heck of a lot coming up to whet my appetite either. However the advance publicity for "Maps to the Stars" and "Gone Girl" fuelled my enthusiasm, so off we went... and now it's judgment time:

To start with David Cronenberg's 'Maps...' based on a vitriolic screenplay from scriptwriter Bruce Wagner, this is a master-class in serving up Hollywood in a black shroud. Each of the very unlikeable characters manifests an aspect of the La-la Land scene that manages to both fascinate and horrify the viewer. It is a movie that it is impossible to actually like, yet one whose brilliance is very easy to appreciate, while shuddering at the excesses on display. Julianne Moore won a Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal of a washed-up, yet still self-deluded Hollywood leading lady. Hers is a brave and no-holds-barred portrait of a holy monster, full of unwarranted self-adulation and incapable of genuine emotion or regrets. Into her household comes a new 'chore-whore' assistant in the drab shape of burns-victim Mia Wasikowska; one suspects from the get-go that she is not quite right in the head. Without giving too much away, it turns out that she is the recently-released-from-the-nuthouse daughter of phoney self-help guru John Cusack and his 'wife' (actually his sister) Olivia Williams, and the sister of their monstrous, spoiled, foul-mouthed 13-year old movie brat Evan Bird. Unsurprisingly most of the characters are haunted by ghosts from their pasts, who materialise at inappropriate moments, and who loom large in framing the action. The only would-be 'normal' character is limo driver Robert Pattinson (Wagner apparently had a similar job during a short spell in Hollywood), and frankly I had my doubts about him as well.

This is the first movie that cult director Cronenberg has shot outside of Canada with five days in the States and 24 in his native Toronto. His casting is impeccable, right down to the minor roles, and Moore, in particular, while still in remarkable shape for a 53-year old, is not afraid to show us the tolls that the years have taken. I would quibble however with some of the director's use of gratuitous nudity which added very little to the horrific tale; in particular I could have done without Moore's three-in-a-bed shagging culminating in the male partner's full-frontal masturbation, or the highly unflattering shot of Williams in her bath. In contrast and ironically, a farting constipated Moore on the toilet did effectively contribute to her self-absorbed characterization. However, most of the action is just a titillating tease to the horrific denouements the film has in store for us.

And then there is "Gone Girl" which currently has an unheard-of 9 out of 10 approval rating on IMDb, despite only having been on release for a few days. The comments and most of the reviews I have read verge on unqualified raves for slick director David Fincher, who I personally think has made a couple of brilliant movies and a number of over-rated potboilers. Going against the tide I am inclined to put his latest movie in this second category. Based on a wildly popular novel by Gillian Flynn, who, as screenwriter as well, has managed to open out the book's structure of diary entries to a more cinematic rendering, it is nearly impossible to review the film without revealing the 'big twist' that comes in the middle -- not at the end of the story. However I shall refrain from this 'spoiler' in case you're one of the few people who have not yet read the book.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play golden couple Nick and Amy, both writers who have lost their high-powered New York jobs and who have relocated to Nick's hometown in Missouri. There is the odd suggestion that not everything is rosy in their supposedly perfect marriage. Then on the afternoon of their fifth anniversary, Nick returns home to find their mini-mansion in a shambles and Amy missing. Cue nosey intrusive police officers, Amy's high-flying parents who have made their fortune from their series of kiddies' books featuring 'Amazing Amy', and enough volunteers to staff an army who join in the hunt for the lovely missing lady. According to the rising local hysteria, mainly because Affleck does not seem appropriately sad, and egged on by trial-by-television journalist Missy Pyle, the general conclusion is that he has murdered his wife. Just about everything seems to be conspiring against him which is where the no-spoilers-allowed rule comes into effect. All I can say at this stage is that the movie's judicious use of flash-backs leads us to the conclusion that perhaps Amy was not quite the perfect wife nor the wholly innocent victim, and that the marriage might have been cracking at the seams.

I think Affleck was just about perfect in the role of the poor shmuck whose life is snowballing out of control. However I have my doubts about Pike. The consensus seems to think that this is the 'break-through' role for the British actress and that she deserves an Oscar nod. I'm not saying she won't receive this accolade (though a BAFTA seems in the bag), but I found her performance patchy and much of her dialogue inaudible. Mind you I had some trouble with the dialogue generally, both because of the occasionally overwhelming music, but also because of the rather strange use of funny Southern accents by much of the cast. I never though of Missouri as being a particularly Southern state, but there you go...

I'm sure the film will do good business -- much better than 'Maps...' I suspect, but I really didn't care for it at all -- too leisurely and with one of the most totally unsatisfying finales and resolutions that I have encountered for a while. If you asked me to rate these two new films with the other two I have seen at the cinema in the last month, I would still put the Woody Allen film as the most enjoyable, with "Lucy" and "Maps" close seconds in terms of well-made and absorbing flicks, and this one right at the bottom of the heap.