Seven films down and two remaining -- it's been a hectic week and something of a mixed bag. As I've written in previous years, we normally try to schedule mainly foreign-language films which are less likely to surface on general release -- so let's get cracking with some capsule reviews:
First up was "Blood of my Blood" from the Italian writer-director Mario Bellocchio. The programme notes were a tad misleading and this somewhat schizophrenic film felt like two separate movies. The more involving first half is set in the l7th century where a comely maiden endures a barbaric witch-hunt when accused of seducing a priest who has killed himself. The latter's aristocratic brother arrives to observe the proceedings and in turn seduces a pair of homely sisters where he is boarding and the accused witch as well. Then suddenly the story moves to the modern day; the monastery has become a derelict prison inhabited by an actor with a bit part in the first half whom we are led to believe is some sort of bloodless vampire. In fact most of the cast are given new roles in the second part, generally unrelated to their previous personas. For example, the aristocrat is now some sort of conman negotiating to buy the building for a rich Russian developer. There are overtones suggesting that modern Italy is really one big madhouse, with people acting as irrationally as medieval monks, but the message is more than a little muddled.
"Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen" was a joyous treat from the multi-talented Takeshi Kitano, and a return to sparkling form after his patchy output since the unfortunately self-indulgent "Takeshis" (2005) (gosh was it that long ago?). This very droll story concerns a bunch of elderly retired Yakuzas (now supposedly banned) who decide to re-form their gang to deal with a bunch of business-suited modern gangsters who are terrorising the neighbourhood. Their leader, the one with the most brownie points from his past glories, is Ryuzo, played with a twinkle in his eye some 40 years on by Tatsuya Fuji the romantic lead in the erotic classic "Ai no Corrida". He and his pals still think of themselves as unbeatable tough guys, despite their failing bodies and minds, and find more and more outrageous ploys to confront the young baddies. Kitano only cameos as a tough local cop and I guess he's getting on as well, but not before proving to his many fans that there's still talent to spare in the old fella.
Our next choice was also Japanese, "Ghost Theater" directed by Hideo Nakata, the man who introduced the world to "Ringu" and father of the J-Horror phenomenon. This very stylish and actually quite spooky movie follows a theatrical troupe rehearsing a new drama, one that features a life-sized doll (or mannequin) as one of the central 'characters'. Suddenly there are an inexplicable spate of deaths in the theatre and our young heroine inherits the lead when the original leading lady ends up in hospital. However she too loses the role when she insists that the doll is 'alive' and a threat to the production. It all hinges on the backstory of this apparently indestructible doll and only a bloody rampage can provide a suitable ending -- although the last scenes imply that the horror may be far from over.
We chose the fourth movie "21 Nights with Pattie" since we have been charmed by the French actress Isabelle Carre who has been off our radar recently. She travels to a small mountain village for the funeral of her estranged and loose-living mother, only to find that the corpse has suddenly disappeared. All of the carefree villagers including the morbid local copper have different theories as to who would want the body and for what fiendish purpose. Carre is befriended by a local woman and tame nymphomaniac (the Pattie of the title) who regales her with all the sordid details of her many affairs. Then Andre Dusollier arrives for the now postponed funeral and Carre decides that he may well be a famous writer who in turn may well be the father she has never known. The local cop of course thinks that he is a renowned necrophiliac! With additional support from the ever-weird Denis Lavant and Sergi Lopez as Carre's dutiful but unloved husband, the reckless bonhomie of the villagers and the vision of her mother's ghost spark something inside her, and the film becomes a Midsummer night's dream of regained joie de vivre. A strange but charming film.
Tuesday was something of a disaster with two movies on the agenda (I really wanted to see a third, Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Lobster" but that is being released here this week). First we went to see the Chinese film "The Assassin" by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and one would have hoped that I had learned my lesson before now -- because I really hated his earlier films (most of which are idolised by the art-house crowd) as being slow and pointless exercises in tedium. However this co-production with Taiwan and Hong Kong promised a martial arts extravaganza and he did actually win best director at Cannes. I'll be dipped if I can fathom why! Now if the award had been for best cinematography, there might have been a point, since the photography was fabulous. Opening in sharp black and white and gradually morphing into glorious colour with wonderfully crisp details, the film is a feast for the eyes. But that's it...the story was episodic and unintelligible with the director insisting on extending each scene on hold until one begins to fall asleep. There was even a lengthy, loving panorama of a bunch of baby goats! Never again.
The second disappointment was provided by "Evolution", the first movie from French director Lucile Hadzihalilovic since her debut smash "Innocence" way back in 2004. That film was an eerie tale set in a girls' school, haunting and memorable. However her latest effort starts off promisingly but soon develops into what-the-f-is-going-on. Our 10-year old hero Nicholas lives in a strange seacoast community -- looking like something out of De Chirico -- populated solely by drab young mothers and their darling young sons. The sea exacts magnetic charms and while the boys frolic in its mysterious depths, the mothers nightly gather on the shore for some mystical ritual. But the boys are all 'sickly' and soon deposited in the local clinic -- also staffed only by women -- where (if I understood the story correctly) they are operated upon and impregnated to provide new young boys. Nicholas knows that something weird is going on and so do we, but the movie soon becomes confusing and uninvolving.
And at long last an English-language film, "Youth" from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. I am particularly fond of his 2004 movie "The Consequences of Love" and like most of his subsequent oeuvre, although I didn't really care for his Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty" or his previous English-language movie with Sean Penn "This Must be the Place". His latest film however is a winner on a number of scores. Firstly it gives a great late role to the 82-year old Michael Caine, who plays a renowned retired composer and conductor. He vacations every year at a Swiss health spa, and is joined this year by his daughter Rachel Weisz and his old friend Harvey Keitel (Weisz' father-in-law), a renowned director who is trying to finance his last film, his 'testament'. Other hotel guests (and there are many) included jaded actor Paul Dano, a meditating Tibetan who may or may not levitate, an elderly couple who never exchange a word, an obese ex-football icon, named Maradona, with a huge Karl Marx tattoo on his back, and an assortment of other wrinklies who are there for the treatments. There are many ins and outs to the motley assemblage, too many to detail here, including Weisz' husband leaving her for the singer Paloma Faith playing herself, a pneumatic but not-so-dumb Miss World causing eyes to pop, and Jane Fonda -- Keitel's previous leading lady -- begging off his latest project and made up to look like an aging hag. (I've seen her in other recent flicks and must assume that the make-up was heavy on prosthetics). However, basically the movie is a gentle meditation on aging and memory, and Caine and Keitel (who I normally just about tolerate) play off each other well. Again a beautifully photographed movie, using the Swiss locations to maximum effect -- playful and charming. I shall always remember Caine sitting on an alpine rock conducting a chorus of local cows.
The balance next time....