Friday, 18 December 2015

Sisters (2015) and Christmas TV Premieres

Traditionally I have always written about the film goodies that UK television viewers can look forward to over the Christmas period, and frankly I don't know why I bother, as it seems to get less promising each year. The schedules may be chock-a-block with movies, but so few of them are new to television and, by and large, the premieres are a truly dismal lot. Now I know that kiddies are capable of watching the same movie over and over ad nauseam, but I'm not sure that many adults fall into the same category.

Anyhow, before I get into the Christmas nitty-gritty, let me say a few words about the new Tina Fey-Amy Poulter movie "Sisters" (2015). I was looking for a suitable new movie to watch with my daughter on a girly afternoon out and settled on this. Being released the same week as the new "Star Wars" extravaganza it's not going to put much of a dent in that blockbuster's box-office, but we thought it might make for a sparkling afternoon's diversion. I was expecting something fairly adult and amusing after the tip-top review that it received from Kevin Maher in The Times, but we both found it only sporadically entertaining at best.

For their second co-starrer after 2008's "Baby Mama" (not one of this century's great comedies either), the gals chose to play chalk-and-cheese sisters upset to discover that mom and dad (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin) are selling their childhood home. They are horrified, especially as Fey, currently homeless, jobless, and estranged from her college-age daughter, thought she just might bunk with them for a while. Tasked with cleaning out the junk pile that was their shared bedroom, the pair seem to revert to their most infantile teenaged behaviour and decide that it would be a wonderful wheeze to throw one last party for all their old friends at the soon-to-be-gone family homestead.  Naturally this descends into predictable chaos and destruction, just about ruining the now unsaleable house. Not really the stuff of high comedy!

Blessed with a fast-talking, generally raunchy script, the film provides the occasional chuckle, but the mildly amusing sequences are interspersed with long, draggy, and generally annoying bits of shtick from a cast that is trying way too hard both to shock and to delight.

Anyhow back to the Christmas business at hand, there are remarkably few premieres overall in the hundreds of films on offer on terrestrial TV, and while for once I have not viewed about half of them, the only two which seem at all promising from my point of view are the cable-movie "Beyond the Candelabra" (BBC2 on the 28th) and "Sapphires" (also BBC2 on the 3lst). The rest are primarily two-star duds like "Diana" (26th on Channel 5), yet another yawny remake of "Romeo & Juliet" (BBC 2 Christmas Day), and "Nativity 2 - Danger in the Manger" (BBC2 on the 21st). I will probably watch -- but reserve judgment on several little-known offerings such as "WolfCop" (FilmFour tomorrow) and "Safe Haven" (BBC 2 on the 20th); however wild horses couldn't drag me to watch "Mrs Brown's Boys - D'Movie" premiering on BBC1 on the 31st.

Of the other new films which I have seen, if one ignores Christmas-themed television flicks and very basic childrens' animations featuring Tinkerbelle or Thomas the Tank, there is little to recommend. The best of the bunch are "Frankenweenie" on Christmas Day and the little Scottish gem "Sunshine on Leith" on the 30th. Of the new-to-television animations, "Brave" (BBC1 Christmas Day) and "Wreck-it-Ralph" (again BBC1 on the 1st) are both fine, but I was less enamoured of "The Croods" (BBC1 on the 26th) and "Turbo" (also BBC1 on New Year's Day). The remaining premieres "Purge" on the 23rd, "One Chance" on the 26th"Oz the Great and Powerful" (an over-rated mess) on the 27th, "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" (something of an oddity itself) on the 3lst, and "A Good Day to Die Hard" (one sequel too many) on the 1st are unlikely to rock many boats. I may have missed one or two new ones, but believe me they're quite missable! 

Never mind, there are always the good old reliables like "It's a Wonderful Life" to compensate for the lack of feel-good movies and plenty of black-tinged classics like "The Big Lebowski" and "The Trouble with Harry" to cut through the sugar. Sometimes it does indeed feel good to watch an old favourite that you've not seen for a while.

There will be no blog on Christmas Day next Friday, but I will try to return before the end of the year in time to wish you all a Happy New Year filled with good viewing.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Julianne Moore (sort of)

As a footnote to last week's polemic about dismal foreign language movies, let me add "Gente de Bien" (2014) to the collection. This Colombian film follows the fortunes of a young boy who is dumped on his impoverished carpenter father together with his faithful mutt. (It's not clear where the mother has gone walkies). They are invited to spend Christmas at the country home of a well-meaning rich client, but Dad feels like a sore thumb and goes back to the city with the dog (who has been crapping everywhere). The boy stays on and his hostess does everything within her power to make him feel at home, but the sharp-tongued youngsters in the family do their best to make him miserable. So he asks to return to the city too and arrives just in time to see his beloved doggy put down for inoperable cancer. Merry Christmas one and all!

Back to the subject at hand, I decided to touch briefly on Ms. Moore's sparkling and long-lasting career, since she featured in two movies that I watched this week. Now 55 but still looking good and still managing to be cast in a variety of flicks, she has been making films since the early 90s, starting with TVMs and small roles. She first came on my radar for her contribution to the Robert Altman ensemble in "Short Cuts" (1993) where she flitted about her home 'bottomless' and proved to the world that she is a natural redhead.

Since then she has appeared in countless major and indie movies and always makes a strong impression. Her filmography includes such gems as "Boogie Nights", "The Big Lebowski", "Far from Heaven", "The Kids are Alright", and "Map to the Stars". She finally won a long- overdue Oscar for 2014's "Still Alice". I caught her this week in two films where, if the truth be known, she wasn't given a lot to do and took second place to at least one of her co-stars. The first of these was "Non-Stop" (2014) where her role was secondary to geriatric action man Liam Neeson, playing an air marshal trying to uncover a psycho killer on a long-distance flight. As long as one didn't dwell on the plot holes, this was watchable pap, but Moore was purely 'arm-candy'. (This was one of two films aired this week starring Neeson, and I can barely recall the contrived plot of "Taken 3", which somebody probably thought was a good idea after the success of the first two in the series)

Moore had far more to do in "What Maisie Knew" (2012), a modern take on the 100 plus-year old Henry James novel. In this film she plays a would-be pop star, but not one that has had much success in her singing career. She and her husband (Steve Coogan -- an annoying actor to say the least) spend most of their time together arguing and have little time over for their adorable daughter Maisie -- a sympathetic and totally un-childstar-like turn from young Onata Aprile. Divorce is on the cards and he bunks off with their former nanny (Joanna Vanderham). It's not that they don't 'love' little Maisie, but they are both too self-obsessed with their own careers. Because Moore is often on the road with her group, the judge awards joint custody, and Maisie is bounced between the two households. Moore has now married a young and handsome bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) and relies on him more and more to look after the child. On one occasion when she is contracted to go touring at short notice, she drops the child at the bar on a night when Skarsgard isn't even on duty -- that's how good a mother she is!

Coogan, meanwhile has married the nanny, who also is largely responsible for looking after his daughter just as she did when in the couple's employ. It becomes increasingly obvious that their marriage is also on the rocks. The problem is that Maisie loves her mother and father, but she also loves Skarsgard and Vanderham who give her the time and affection she craves. They too find that they are attracted to each other, and the film ends with their looking after Maisie together at a remote beach-house, while Moore is off pursuing her lukewarm career and Coogan has returned to London. However, it is clear that this happy but unlikely family unit is destined to be short-lived when Maisie's real parents pursue their 'rights'. 

As usual Moore gives an impassioned and impressive performance as Maisie's neglectful mother, but the movie belongs to young Aprile, whose performance is heart-rending.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Some pretty so-so foreign films

Last week I mentioned 'worthy' foreign films and perhaps I should explain what I mean by this. Generally speaking I will watch any non-English language movie that is broadcast -- whether on terrestrial or satellite television -- since I assume opportunities for seeing such films are naturally more limited than those for the latest blockbuster. I have never been put off by the prospect of reading subtitles, even if these don't always quite convey the meaning of the words being spoken.  And yes, over the years I have viewed a wonderful assortment of foreign delights. I have also watched a number of foreign movies which fall short of actually being entertaining, but which make me feel a slightly better person for having watched them. These are the flicks that I label 'worthy'. However, if truth be told, I have also seen a number of -- to put no better description upon them -- boring movies.

I will of course continue to pursue my search for gems among the dross, but could really do without so many of the 'so-so' movies that come my way. In the last few weeks I have seen five foreign films which have made me wonder why the broadcasters in question decided that these would be movies really worth the time: stand up and bow BBC4 and to a lesser extent FilmFour. These are the films in question:

"A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A True Love Story" (2013):  A Japanese period piece where the second son wants to pursue his martial training; however, on the death of his older brother, his top-chef father insists that he maintain the family tradition and honour as a 'kitchen samurai'. A marriage is arranged with a headstrong divorcee (i.e. a 'ruined' woman) who has a great sense of taste. Reluctantly he learns from her and we get to watch loads of vegetables being artfully prepared -- for two hours!

"Beyond the Hills" (2012); This Romanian flick from director Cristian Mungiu, who gave us the lauded "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" back in 2007 clocks in at two and a half hours. Orphaned girlfriends from childhood go their separate ways when they are cast out of the institutional home, with one becoming a nun and the other living a wild life in Germany. The latter travels back to Romania to try to get her BFF to come away with her; the nuns, however, decide that she is violent and possessed, ultimately killing her with their misguided attempts at exorcism.

"The Deep" (2012): The director Baltasar Kormakur made some well-regarded policiers in his native Iceland before moving on to Hollywood with the current release "Everest". However this earlier film relates the true story of the sole survivor of a fishing-boat shipwreck. Our hero, against all odds, manages to swim ashore rather than freeze to death in the icy waters. Everyone wonders why he alone survived and finally decide it is because he is fat!

"Me and You" (2012): This is the first movie from respected director Bernardo Bertolucci since "Dreamers" (2003), and is a true disappointment. Our 14-year old hero (a singularly offputtingly acned youngster) is a misanthrope, avoiding all social situations. He tells his mother that he is going on a school ski trip, but uses the money to buy supplies and to hide out in the basement of his apartment building for the week in question. He also buys an ant farm to watch -- that's pretty off-putting as well. But his older half-sister finds him and decides to go cold-turkey from drugs, vomiting all over his meant-to-be private space. OK, they begin to bond and try to get each other to promise that they will turn over a new leaf. It's not going to happen...

"West" (2013): This German film set in the paranoid 70s follows the fortunes of an unmarried mother and her slightly precocious son who defect from East Germany, hoping to find a new and better life in the West. The refugee centre where they are housed is some many miles away from her dreams for their future. Just as in the repressive East, American interrogators continuously question her about her supposedly dead lover who may have been a Stasi agent, and her growing paranoia threatens to destroy everything. All very well-acted but really pretty depressing.

To be fair, each of the above films had a few moments making them a potentially worthwhile watch. That's more than can be said for "Movie 43" (2013) which I also saw recently. This series of vignettes has to be one of the biggest wastes ever of a large and generally A-list cast in pursuit of bad taste. I wish I could erase from my mind the image of Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman on a blind date where she is appalled by the swollen testicles hanging down from his neck. I kid you not...