Friday, 27 November 2015

Pick of the Flicks

It's been a relatively quiet week -- only 16 movies seen (!) and none of them are clamouring for my or your attention. There was one 'classic' (only because it is now 100 years old) silent "Regeneration" (1915) from Raoul Walsh, the director with one of Hollywood's longest careers, and a couple of minor watchable horrors "AfterShock" (2012) and "I Spit on Your Grave 2" (2013). The balance fell into one of three categories: 'worthy' foreign films, a selection of recent releases, and at this time of the year Christmas movies. Generally I now try to avoid these, as too often overly-sickly, unless there is some good reason to watch them. Choosing one movie from each of these categories, here's a taste of what I've been up to:

"Lore" (2012): This movie is something of an oddity insofar as it has an Australian director (Cate Shortland) and an Australian production company, yet it is in German with an all-German cast. It's actually a hard and occasionally disturbing watch, since it follows the fortunes of l5-year old Hannelore in post World War II Germany, a powerful performance by the then 19-year old Saskia Rosendahl. Her hard-line Nazi parents have deserted the family to escape the occupying troops, and Lore is left to marshal her younger sister, even younger twin brothers, and baby Peter to her Grandmother's house in Hamburg in the North of the country. They set off across barren terrain, but soon abandon most of what they have carried with them. Also they soon exhaust their small supply of money and valuables. They are filthy, starving, and traumatised by the dead bodies on the path.

Everyone they encounter is mourning their dear Fuhrer and when villagers are forced to look at photographs of 'dead Jews' in exchange for stale bread, the consensus is that these are staged by the victors using posed actors. Everyone, including Lore, seems to be in a state of denial and she tries to keep her siblings' spirits up by singing the patriotic ditties she learned in Hitler Youth. Their temporary saviour comes in the shape of Thomas (Kai Malina), who has identity papers in which a yellow star is folded; he passes himself off as the elder brother of the family and manages to beg or steal sufficient food to keep them alive. Yet Lore can't help but think of him as 'a filthy Jew', despite feeling some sexual attraction. When he loses his papers (in fact they have been pinched by one of the youngsters to prevent his leaving them), he does in fact leave them to continue the gruelling journey on their own. Only when Lore studies his papers does she realise that the photo is not of Thomas and that he must have stolen them from a dead Jew. Whether he was actually Jewish or only a survivor of the camps is left open.

When the family -- minus one sibling, shot en route -- reach Grandma's they are back in the repressive Nazi environment in which they were raised. Lore's coming of age is now complete. She cracks under the strain of all she has witnessed and all the lies that she is no longer able to accept. The very epitome of a 'worthy' film.

Among this week's recent releases we can quickly dismiss the risible and not particularly erotic "50 Shades of Grey" and "The Opposite Sex", an unfunny battle of the sexes starring the no-longer young and ripe Mena Suvari. The surprise winner was "The Wedding Ringer" (2015) (a pun on Adam Sandler's early success "The Wedding Singer"). While derivative of so many other films with not so subtle nods in the script, this movie was surprisingly jolly. Josh Gad, a recognizable face from over the years, plays a nice, good-guy nerd who is chuffed as monkeys to be engaged to 'hot' Kaley Coco (nor me!). However as she and her parents make grandiose plans for the big day, Gad is being pestered to name his best man and to furnish seven groomsmen. He is forced to contact a professional fixer, played by Kevin Hart, fortunately toned down from the annoying motor-mouth he played in last year's "Ride Along". Hart agrees to pretend to be Gad's long-standing best friend, despite Gad having told his fiancĂ©e that Bic Mitchum (a name invented from the contents of his medicine cabinet) is a priest in the army chaplaincy service. Hart also finds seven assorted misfits to portray the groomsmen, including Jorge Garcia (the fat fellow from "Lost" who is still as fat and homely). These unlikely friends are briefed to portray an unlikely assortment of A-list professional types and professors, who must charm the prospective bride and her family, including mother Mimi Rogers and OTT Grandma Cloris Leachman.

Gad 's character, who has never really had a circle of friends, suddenly discovers the joys of male bonding and cutting free, and surprisingly, Hart too has been too busy to have much of a life outside his business hustling. One just knows that Gad will never be happy with the materialistic Coco, that the would-be marriage is doomed from the start, and that more fulfilling days await both male leads. Apparently the script was originally intended for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson cashing in our their 2005 hit "Wedding Crashers", but Gad and Hart prove inspired choices for this generally feel-good film.

It seems that the season for Christmas-themed movies (generally TVMs) starts earlier each year, and I try to only watch those with something special to commend them. I chose "Snowed in at Rosemont" (2015) (aka "Rosemont") for its senior cast of Grace Zabriskie (on my radar since "Twin Peaks" back in 1990, but a screen presence from the late 70s) and Brad Dourif -- for once not playing a creepy weirdo. They have something of a love-hate relationship as Josephine, the owner, and faithful handyman Abe of a now-closed mountain resort, once renowned as the haunt of presidents and gourmets. Zabriskie has retreated into misanthropy after her daughter and grand-daughter were killed in an air crash many years ago and her husband subsequently committed suicide. Into their lives come an 8-month pregnant young woman and the young man from whom she begged a lift at the last service-station. Their car has come off the road in the severe snowstorm and they trudge their way to Rosemont, where Josephine reluctantly takes them in, egged on by Abe. However she can't bear to look at the girl who is the spitting image of her dead daughter. 

When the baby arrives early -- the lodge is still snowed in -- the cantankerous pair deliver the boy, and Josephine's cold heart begins to melt. There is even talk of re-opening the resort on the profits from the vintage wine-cellar. She becomes increasingly convinced that the girl is her long-lost grand-daughter and refuses the local doctor's offer of a blood-test; she wants no scientific evidence for what she knows in her heart to be true. Ayla Kell and Brendan Michael Coughlin, who play the young pair (who of course fall in love) were unknown to me, but they do a reasonable job. However the strength of the film relies on its older players, not just Zabriskie and Dourif, but also the ever-visible Lochlyn Munro playing the baddie who impregnated the girl and who wants to sell the child, and TV-regular Michael Gross playing the kindly doctor. Since it all comes to a climax under the ginormous Christmas tree in the now cleaned-up lounge, the Christmas credentials of this likeable movie are established.     

Friday, 20 November 2015

Spectre (2015)

I said at the end of last week's entry that I'd review the Korean 'classic' "A Swordsman in the Twilight" (1967) unless something better turned up. Well it has (sort of -- see below), but I should write a few words on 'Swordsman' regardless. Sorry to say it was a bit of a disappointment with little to recommend it. The black and white cinematography lacked the crispness of the best old movies and the cameraman had obviously never heard of deep-focus photography. The villain reminded me of a latter-day Korean Bela Lugosi with his mocking eyebrows, and our hero who had sworn revenge had two good chances to kill him earlier than in the final non-thrilling showdown. Also I wish someone could explain to me how he could have unwittingly killed his wife and daughter behind a wooden screen, when his arrows into the screen miraculously were lodged into his loved ones when the screen was removed with the arrows intact. Huh???

As for the latest James Bond, there are two ways to view such films. You can either sit back and wallow in the exotic locations, excessive violence, and mindless sex, or you can look at the film objectively and discover a bloated mess. This viewer wavered between these two extremes, admiring certain of the set pieces and the general standard of the acting, and then sitting there wondering how much more of this is there? 150 minutes is the answer to the last question.

Director Sam Mendes has given us a generally well-photographed travelogue -- Mexico City, London, Rome, snowy Austria, Tangier, and the African wastes for no logical reason except to keep the action moving with boats, planes, trains, and helicopters. The opening sequence filmed in the middle of the Day of the Dead celebrations was spectacular, but the subsequent and continuous explosions and devastation produced diminishing returns. Craig who is far from my ideal Bond goes through the motions (and at 50 plus he has threatened not to return for a fifth outing), but he comes across as a well-groomed thug, which is exactly what he is, despite our being given vague indications of a softer, more contemplative underlying soul. The lovely Monica Bellucci playing the widow of the villain Bond has killed in Mexico is being flaunted as the oldest 'Bond Girl' ever, but her brief turn was largely irrelevant to the plot and could easily have been omitted. She was only there to prove that Bond is still an irresistible 'babe magnet'.

Then there was the heroine of the piece, French actress Lea Seydoux whom Bond has promised her dead father to protect. She reluctantly accepts his help, but after a never-ending fight sequence on a train with lead heavy David Bautista (echoes of "From Russia with Love") in which she takes part, after Bautista has been thrown from the train, her first question is 'What do we do now?' The answer of course is vigorous rumpy-pumpy. Her accented English, along with that of chief baddie Christoph Waltz, made the dialogue a little difficult to take in, and I could understand Americans having trouble with some of the plummy British accents as well. Mind you they did offer good support in the shape of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and in particular Ben Whishaw's Q.

As for Waltz who normally makes a memorable villain, his screen time was limited to some twenty minutes, and I got the feeling that he was phoning in his performance as he subjected Bond to some brutal, but ultimately pointless, torture. However resurrecting Spectre's mastermind Blofeld after some forty years, and then not killing him off, was interesting in the overall Bond canon and could well figure in the inevitable sequels, with or without Mr Craig and/or Mr Waltz.

Friday, 13 November 2015

10th London Korean Film Festival

I don't really spend my days moving between film festivals -- appealing as that idea sometimes seems -- but the ones I favour do follow upon one another. Last year was the first time we sampled this ambitious celebration of Korean cinema, which travels the world. The organisers managed to schedule some 40 films in 13 days at venues across London with various strands focussing on the work of one or two actors and one or two directors, along with recent popular hits and some classics revisited. This last strand is of particular interest, since I for one know virtually nothing about Korean cinema before it smashed into world art-house consciousness in the '80s, offering us an endless string of memorable and often quirky crime, fantasy, and historical movies.

"Miss Granny" (2014) was a surprise hit at the Korean box office and is something of a heart-warming fancy. Mal-soon is a tetchy 74-year old who lives with her workaholic son's family, where she is just about tolerated by her daughter-in-law and her grandson. When she overhears their discussing whether the time has come to park her in an old folks' home, she fears the worst. Visiting a photo studio called 'Forever Young', she decides that she had best pose now for her funeral portrait while she still can. She doesn't believe the compliments of the flattering photographer who tells her that he can make her look fifty years younger, but on leaving the studio she finds to her horror that she is indeed now the spitting image of her 24-year old self.

Afraid to go home, she is at a loose end. Her family can't understand why she has vanished. Only the elderly beau who takes her in recognises something of his would-be sweetheart in the woman's manner. She may have a young person's body and face, but she has retained her somewhat uncouth granny personality and way of talking; he tries fruitlessly to match her youthfulness by changing his lifestyle and manner of dress for trendier ones.. She manages to connect with her grandson who fancies becoming a rock-star, and with her help as a singer, his group get their first breaks. Even her neglectful son begins to recognise her when he finds some pictures of himself as a baby in his mother's arms. Life is now more fun than it has ever been, but she discovers that should she bleed, the surrounding skin starts to show the signs of aging. The crunch comes when her injured grandson needs a transfusion and only she shares his rare blood group. Here come the spoilers...the decision to save her grandson is a no-brainer and in her own skin she is reunited with her now loving family, the pop group find the fame they crave with another singer, and her motorcycle-riding beau has found his own way to the 'Forever Young' photo shop. All rather sweet...

The actress playing the young Mal-soon (Shim Eun-kyung) also pops up in our second choice "Masquerade" (2012). The idea for this historical drama came from a missing fifteen days in the annals of the Joseon Dynasty many moons ago. The somewhat arrogant and petulant king fears an attack on his life and instructs his Chief Secretary to find a 'ringer' to sleep in his quarters each night. Both the king and his doppelganger, a lowly acrobat, are played by one of the most popular Korean actors Lee Byung-Hun. I have commented previously on this handsome devil, whom I have called the Korean Alain Delon, and I've noticed him in "Bittersweet Life" (2005), "The Good, the Bad and the Weird" (2008), and "I Saw the Devil" (2010). He also, for what it's worth, can be seen in some Hollywood junk like this year's "Terminator Genisys". However he outdoes himself in this film where he creates two very distinct and compelling personalities.

When the king is in fact poisoned and taken away to recuperate, the acrobat who knows nothing of royal etiquette is pushed into impersonating the king in his absence. At first he is impressed by his new finery and delicate food (although he is astounded by the court's fond obsession with his bowel movements!), but as he becomes more involved in the affairs of state, he soon becomes more empathetic to the needs of his 'subjects', who are being milked by greedy aristocrats and landowners. The changes in his personality are noted by the previously ignored Queen, the now largely rejected concubines, and by those court officials with the most to lose. The overriding questions are can the recovering king allow this impostor to live and will the ruse be discovered before his return. I won't answer these questions here, but would encourage you to find the answers yourself by seeking out this very successful movie.

Our final choice which we'll be viewing tomorrow is "A Swordsman in the Twilight" from 1967, one of the aforementioned classics, and purportedly a martial arts masterpiece. Whether I review this next week or am tempted by upcoming distractions remains to be seen...

Friday, 6 November 2015

In-flight Movies...again

Yes I'm back from a most amazing stay in New York the details of which form no part of movie blogging, except to say that visiting with old childhood friends after many years is a surreal experience unlike any other. The least interesting part of my absence was revisiting in-flight movies after a two year-plus hiatus -- and while I may well fly long-haul again in the future, I just might not feel inclined to report on miniaturized viewing again, especially since the selection featured very few recent releases.

The first case in point was my feeble attempt to watch "Ant-man". You might joke that a tiny hero is just the thing for the smallest of screens, but frankly it feels as if I didn't see the movie at all. I had a go since Paul Ruud is amongst the most charming of modern actors, but his shrinking by scientist Michael Douglas to create an unstoppable ant-sized hero was little short of unwatchable. I'm not saying it's a rotten film. I am saying that one needs a rather larger screen to appreciate super-hero antics, even when they're teeny-weeny powerhouses. Then again, I've just about had my fill of super-hero flicks anyhow.

I next watched "Woman in Gold", the well-received tale of holocaust refugee Maria Altmann (played by a subdued Helen Mirren) trying to claim back the Klimt portrait of her aunt -- a painting looted by the Nazis -- from the recalcitrant Austrian government. She is assisted in her quest by inexperienced lawyer Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds in a more serious role than his forays into super-heroism), grandson of composer Arnold, who has his own axe to grind. It all seems to be an uphill battle, until their unexpected triumph; the fact that Altmann promptly sold the masterpiece for a pot of gold is neither here nor there. The only trouble with watching this small drama on the small screen is that the German-speaking passages (of which there were many) were furnished with even smaller subtitles which remained unreadable! A recommendable movie regardless.

My third choice on the outward flight also boasted subtitles, but fortunately these were legible. Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat enjoyed a not terribly brilliant Hollywood sojourn after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, but he has been off our screens for a while now. That's because he's returned to making the sort of movies in Hong Kong that created his image. Now 60 years old -- and he doesn't look it! -- he is still the coolest man in the world, far cooler than Steve McQueen the so-called 'King of Cool' ever was. The movie on offer was "From Vegas to Macao 2" (otherwise known as "The Man from Macao 2") not that I even knew that the first of these films (2014) existed. They are very jolly follow-ups to the hero Chow created long ago in "God of Gamblers" (1989) and its sequels. Full of chop-socky slapstick and featuring Chow's robotic manservant, they are a good giggle and full of wonderful effects. Chow remains among the most charismatic actors ever, even if the movies he appears in are fatally silly.

I was less ambitious on the shorter return leg, probably because I was overdue for some much needed shut-eye. I managed to watch "The Age of Adaline", a fantasy in which Blake Lively's heroine has remained in her late twenties for the last eighty odd years, after a freak electric storm. Her daughter, the mature Ellen Burstyn, is now visibly older than the mother she can not acknowledge publicly, as Adaline must keep changing her identity to keep nosey authorities at bay. She continues her strange deception until she falls for the handsome young man who has been pursuing her. Reluctantly she goes to meet his parents, Kathy Baker and Harrison Ford, who immediately recognizes her as his long-lost love from years past. Not bad.

I finally fugued in and out of "Ex-Machina" which is top-class science fiction starring three of this years flavours: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. I shouldn't worry about having missed bits of the movie since it is being shown on satellite television next week. (If I had remembered that, I probably wouldn't have chosen it). The seemingly straightforward yet convoluted story has genius scientist Isaac recruiting young technie Gleeson to interact with his latest advance in artificial intelligence embodied in robotic Vikander, a wonderful piece of CGI design. Their various agendas are at odds with surprising results, but it's a gripping tale. I shall watch it again to discover what ins and outs of the story I sleepily missed.

Next on the agenda is the 10th annual Korean Film Festival which we attended for the first time last year. We've already viewed our first selection -- a fascinating oddity "Miss Granny" -- but I'll review that movie and our second choice next Friday.