Friday, 29 April 2016

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Like last week none of the films I watched this week really grabbed me, but unlike last week there weren't many that deserved even a few kind words. The above coming-of-age flick (a latter-day John Hughes type film) was probably the best of the bunch, although I was tempted to focus on "Bad Words" (also 2013) directed by and starring the usually amiable Jason Bateman. He plays a 40-something slacker who, for his own reasons, has finagled the rules to take part in a national spelling bee aimed at eighth-graders and under. It's a mean-spirited affair with Bateman at his least likeable bullying the kiddies and the officials, although he does eventually find some sort of redemption through his relationship with a friendless Indian child prodigy, winningly played by Rohan Chand.

Back to the subject at hand, based on a young-adult novel with a screenplay by the "500 Days of Summer" scribes, the film was a Sundance hit with best actor awards for its leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Both are now rising young stars. I first noticed Woodley as Clooney's snippy daughter in "The Descendants" and she has made a name for herself in soppy teen sagas and the Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant series which also features Teller. His breakout role was the young drummer in "Whiplash". While both display fine acting chops, and theirs are the stand-out roles in this movie's large cast, both of them are really too old now to be playing high school seniors, however young-looking they may appear. Mind you, Teller's sprinkling of teenaged acne does help the illusion.

He plays Sutter, a good-time Charlie, the life-of-the party popular jock who has just broken up with dishy girlfriend Tiffany, Brie Larsen (also too old for the role) -- just before her Oscar-winning role in "Room".  To make her jealous he takes up with Woodley's Aimee, a studious, na├»ve, and vulnerable girl who has never had a boyfriend; not a beauty at the best of times, despite starting her career as a child model, Woodley is drabbed down for the role. Against all expectations it develops into a full-blooded (and shyly sexual) relationship. They meet when he wakes up after a drunken evening sprawled asleep on her front lawn with a 'Dude, Where's my Car' vibe. He's failing geometry, she agrees to tutor him, and things develop from there. They both come from single-parent families and have difficult relationships with their mothers, one workaholic and one feckless (hers brings in extra cash by having a newspaper delivery route, which most days she gets Aimee to service). His is played by the currently ubiquitous Jennifer Jason Leigh, a far cry from her own iconic teenaged role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". 

The one disturbing feature of this tale is the amount of alcohol Sutter consumes each day just to bolster his confidence and his 'front' and the consequent amount of driving under the influence that takes place. Aimee begins their relationship as someone who has never had a drink, but she soon becomes quite dependent on the mini-flask that Sutter has gifted. He has been pestering his mother to let him contact his absent father and Leigh has resisted. He discovers his whereabouts from a married sister and off the pair go to find what turns out to be a happy-go-lucky but deadbeat Dad. Sutter now believes that his mother didn't want him to meet the man because she believes he is turning out just like him, shiftless and hopeless. He rationalises his drinking as a crutch  -- he is afraid of the pressure of other people's expectations. When Aimee is preparing to go off to college and hoping he will join her, he lets her broken-heartedly go alone because he genuinely believes he is no good for her. The film finishes with a will-they or won't-they sop to the viewer (which was not in the original novel).

While it's a more intelligent than most scenarios, graced with complex characters, much of the action doesn't ring quite true. It's as if we are watching an adult's conception of what it is to be a teenager. In this context, I do wonder how much longer Woodley in particular will be stuck in teen roles. She is only one year younger than Jennifer Lawrence who has broadened her range from the teenager in "Winter's Bone" and the 'Hunger Games' series to a variety of very different adult leading roles. So far the talented Woodley is not another Lawrence.     

Friday, 22 April 2016

A Potpourri of Pictures

It's been another of those weeks where no one film jumps out screaming to be reviewed, but unlike previous similar weeks I watched a number of movies worth mentioning (among the usual dross of course) -- so here goes:

"Little Fugitive" (1953): This one has been on my want-to-see list for ages. One of the first indies -- non-studio, black and white, low budget -- it was the dream project of professional married photographers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, and went on to win a Silver Lion in Venice and to be Oscar-nominated for best story. Non-professional child actors (neither of whom ever appeared in another film) play brothers -- the elder Lennie forced to look after kid-brother Joey while their mother is away. As a gag to get shot of the youngster, Lennie and his mates pretend that Joey has accidentally killed his big brother and the frightened child steals some cash and hops a subway to Coney Island. He mooches about stuffing his face with junk food and collecting bottles for the deposits to fund his passion for pony rides. Lennie meanwhile is terrified that he has 'lost' Joey and goes off in search.

With a minimum of dialogue and acres of Cinema Verite on the crowded Coney beach and the adjacent Steeplechase Amusement Park, this is a wonderful evocation of a time and place long gone. The adventures of young 'fugitive' Joey are sweet, endearing, and just a little scary.

"Rubber" (2010): I confess: exploding heads in movies are one of my guilty pleasures and this weird outing has three super ones, along with a final exploding body! It's a very silly movie which seems to covet cult status -- but it really isn't quite good enough, not unless you are prepared to buy into having an abandoned rubber tire as a serial killer. Yes, said tire goes on a murderous rampage in a desolate desert environment destroying flora, fauna, and all else that gets in its way, before recuperating by watching TV and going for a swimming pool dip. Yes, very silly indeed, but occasionally funny too in a very juvenile way.

"Standoff" (2015): Basically a two-hander, one-location thriller with Thomas Jane's suicidal ex-soldier bluffing professional assassin Laurence Fishburne that he has more than a single shell left in his gun. Yes there are other characters, particularly a young girl called Bird who can identify Fishburne and whom Jane feels obliged to protect. It's remarkably well-acted for what is really a B-Movie -- and tense with it.

"Elsa and Fred" (2014): Surprisingly the most enjoyable of the week's offerings, with wrinklies Christopher Plummer and Shirley Maclaine falling in geriatric love. Plummer plays an ornery old fart moved into a small apartment by his bossy daughter Marcia Gay Harden and Maclaine is the free-spirited, kooky next door neighbour -- actually a little too self-consciously kooky for my taste. She's obsessed with "La Dolce Vita" and sees herself as a latter-day Anita Ekberg ready to cavort in the Trevi Fountain. Apparently based on a 2005 Argentinian film which I don't know, the project was intended for Maclaine and Michael Caine until he dropped out. His replacement Plummer  does a lovely job, however, and there are useful roles for George Segal, James Brolin, and Scott Bakula as well.

"Age of Uprising, the Legend of Michael Kohlhaas" (20l3) is a French film starring the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in a revenge story very similar to his in "Salvation" which I recently reviewed. However this is much longer and rather less involving. Our hero eventually manages to satisfy all of his perceived grievances -- in exchange for being beheaded. Not a great deal of fun that...

Finally "Filth" (2013) and probably the less said the better. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, James McAvoy is the whole show as a dysfunctional, dissolute, and despicable Scottish cop using friend and foe alike to secure an undeserved promotion. At once surreal, sex-driven, and very nasty, this is a movie to vaguely admire but not to enjoy.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Lilting (2014)

This is a lovely little film which most movie-goers will never have the opportunity to see. Alternatively sad, funny, bittersweet, maudlin, uplifting, and heart-breaking, it riffs on how two very different people who deeply loved the same person cope with their devastation on his death.

Pei-Pei Cheng, a veteran Hong Kong actress, gives a remarkable performance as a Cambodian-Chinese widow Junn living in Britain for many years, but never adapting to the new culture. The focus of her life since her (from the sound of it wastrel) husband's death has been her only son Kai, who has resolutely coped with all the practicalities for her; she has never bothered to learn English, despite being proficient in various Chinese dialects. Kai is gay and has recently moved in with his boyfriend Richard; reluctantly he has 'parked' his mother in an old-folks home which she hates, since he can not bring himself to 'come out' to the hidebound lady. He plans to finally bite the bullet and confess all, so that she can move in with them, when he is killed by a drunken driver.

Richard is played by the very able actor Ben Whishaw (himself gay), who first entered my radar in 2006's "Perfume" (a wonderful film) and who is now a quirky Q in the Bond franchise. Richard wants to get closer to Junn, not so much as in trying to take Kai's place in her affections, but as a way of keeping his love for his dead lover alive. He hires a Mandarin-speaking interpreter (Naomi Christie) to help bridge the communication gap between them, but is wary about being overly open about his real relationship with Kai, whom he initially describes as his 'best friend'. Whether Junn was actually aware of her son's sexuality but managed to deny it is less apparent than her jealousy of Richard's closeness to her son. Had Kai lived and had the three of them found the strength to accept the realities of their existence, Junn might have found herself with two sons to love. 

Their interpreted 'conversations' don't really succeed in their finding common ground; we hear the anger in Junn's voice when it escapes from her musical Mandarin lilt and the frustration in Richard's when he can not break through to her. In desperation he blurts out the truth of his relationship with Kai. Her final words are that memories are all that she has and must be kept alive 'to comfort me in my loneliness or they will fade like the face of my (dead) husband'. They both grieve for the person they loved best but seem unlikely to ever bridge the chasm between them, despite an uplifting final scene.

The first feature film from Cambodian-born, British-based director Hong Khaou, it is apparently based on a two-hander French play. Wonderfully photographed by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the movie has a lighter touch than the above capsule may imply. Junn has an admirer at the home, Alan, played by sitcom comic stalwart Peter Bowles. He's really just a dirty old man yearning for some slap and tickle, but initially Junn is flattered by his attentions. Only when they borrow the interpreter for some more intimate confessions does it emerge that he thinks her breath reeks of garlic and she thinks he smells of urine! She now wants to avoid the amorous old coot, but Richard encourages her to give him a second chance, as he hopes she will give him as well.

Finally a word or two about the remarkable Pei-Pei. I saw her quite recently in the martial arts classic "Come Drink with Me" (1966), where as a 20-year old she played Golden Swallow (disguised as a man) who is out to rescue an official -- actually her brother kidnapped by thugs -- and she acquits herself memorably as an action heroine. She can also be seen in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). However neither of these prepared me for her dignified, grief-stricken turn as Junn.  

Friday, 8 April 2016

"The Bald Hairdresser" (2012)

If the above sounds an unfamiliar and unlikely title for a movie, you can be forgiven for not recognising it, since the film in question from Danish director Susanne Bier was released to the English-speaking world as "Love is All You Need". This may be a sappier sounding title, but the above original intrigues. It is also accurate -- albeit unappetizing.

The film's female lead, played by Trine Dyrholm, has just completed a hospital course of chemotherapy and is waiting to learn if her cancer has been contained. She works as a hairdresser and a glamourous blonde wig disguises the fact that she is currently as bald as a coot. She goes home and is horrified to find her husband, Kim Bodnia, humping away on top of his young mistress. Now, in the normal course of things I could accept this scenario as a stepping stone for the action to follow. However, since obsessively watching 'Scandinavian Noir' TV series has become part of my recent way of life, I had trouble accepting Dyrholm's conniving art gallery owner from "The Legacy" being married to Bodnia, the Danish cop partnering the Asperger-ish Swedish cop Saga from "The Bridge". When one has spent several years and several series in the company of these actors, their characters become quite rooted in one's mind. It would be like discovering that Ted Danson's Sam Malone is actually married to Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe Buffay!

But I digress...  Dyrholm's Ida (not-so-cute) meets Philip (Pierce Brosnan) when she bashes into his car (several times) in an airport parking garage. It seems they are both en route to Italy where his son is about to marry her daughter. They end up travelling together, and since everything is going wrong for her at present, the airline manages to lose her suitcase for good measure. Brosnan is a workaholic widower, still mourning his long-dead Danish wife, and a very distant father to his son. Now the whole family must come together for the current happy event, which includes his man-eating sister-in-law Paprika Steen (first seen in 1998's "Festen") and Bodnia, who has brought along his loud-mouthed and slutty paramour.

The scene is set for several family show-downs as well as the growing friendship between Ida and Philip, starting when the middle-aged Dyrholm bravely emerges from her sea-swim totally nude and bald. The various ugly tensions, especially between Ida's soldier son and her boorish husband, are counterpointed by the beautiful sunny Italian scenery and the promise of gracious living. In the end, for reasons that I won't disclose, there is no wedding and the cast of characters go their separate ways. Back in Denmark, Bodnia begs Ida to take him back -- and reluctantly she agrees to do so. However Brosnan (or James Bond/Remington Steele) can't forget Ida, turns up at her beauty parlour, and agrees to open the letter she has received from the hospital but has been too timid to open herself. He wants to spend his life with her, whether it's for years, or months, or weeks. The End!

Director Bier has created a warm and ultimately moving family drama -- and one roots for the two refreshingly mature leads to realise that happiness awaits them, despite previous traumas. I've seen a number of the director's films over the years and they are usually complex and satisfying dramas. However, her most recent directorial stint was for the not completely satisfying BBC serialisation of John Le Carre's "The Night Manager" starring that bloody, omnipresent Tom Hiddleston (see below).

Friday, 1 April 2016

High-Rise (2015)

I didn't exactly hate this movie, but I didn't like it much either. Tempted by the reviews which claimed that British director Ben Wheatley and his regular screenwriter Amy Jump had managed the impossible in bringing J G Ballard's 1975 novel to the screen, we gave it a go. It's always been thought that the book was unfilmable -- and it should have stayed that way if you ask me.

Wheatley is increasingly well-thought of as one of the best directors in the country, but I didn't particularly like any of his earlier flicks: "Down Terrace", "Kill List" (I tried watching it twice), the period piece black-and-white "A Field in England", or the would-be black comedy "Sightseers". There is a cruel streak running throughout his films, not leavened by a light touch, and this latest movie is easily his nastiest. Set in the 70s, the tale is obviously meant to be taken as some sort of parable on the Thatcher years as well as our society today.  'The Architect' dreamer, Jeremy Irons, has created a towering high-tech building which is meant to provide everything the tenants could desire -- from state-of-the-art kitchens and waste-disposal systems, from the supermarket to the pool, from the health spa to the squash courts. He lives in the top penthouse with his spoiled wife, surrounded by lush green gardens roomy enough for her pet white horse and various other farm animals; she can play at being Marie Antoinette to her heart's content. The lower floors are occupied by a hierarchy of classes, with the plebs near the bottom and the would-be aristos towards the top. The main cast of characters includes Luke Evans and his heavily pregnant wife, Elizabeth Moss, with their brood of kiddies, semi-courtesan Sienna Miller and her introverted genius son (who may well have been fathered by Irons), and a nasty lot of toffs led by James Purefoy. Our hero (and I use the word very loosely) doctor Tom Hiddleston has just moved into a flat on the 25th floor.

I confess that I am getting fed up with Hiddleston's omnipresence in film and TV nowadays, with his displaying his slim but buff body at every opportunity. Apparently some ladies lust after this would-be heart-throb, but his appeal leaves me baffled. I understand that he is angling to become the next James Bond when Daniel Craig finally packs it in, but I do hope a better alternative will arise to save the franchise.

Anyhow, back to the subject at hand, things start to go wrong almost immediately -- the lights fail, the lifts don't work, the garbage becomes backed up, and despite being surrounded by acres of free parking, the inhabitants of the tower seem unable or unwilling to leave their microcosm of society. This is where I lose the plot as outlined. There seems to be no logic as to why they are unable to go outside or why their automobiles soon become burnt out wrecks; in fact we actually see Hiddleston go to his office in a nearby research hospital on several occasions. Things go from bad to worse in a kind of a "Lord of the Flies" world, where the rich in-bred bullies try to impose their will on the lower ranks through mayhem and murder. The analogy used in the movie is that of a children's birthday party run riot. The white horse and the many pet dogs soon become the only remaining sources of nourishment, although the diminishing number of inhabitants never seem to run out of cigarettes. It is the l970s remember...and everyone seems to smoke non-stop.

There's two hours of compulsive madness, non-stop carousing, casual sex, and mob-led bloodshed without any likely resolution in sight. One hopes we can look forward to a rosier future than the one created by Irons (and Ballard) in their ivory-tower master-plan for society.

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To end on a cheerier note, I have finally managed to watch the recent Academy Award animation winner "Inside Out".  It's a brilliant work of absolute genius. I just can't understand the many writers who have given it a one-out-of-ten ranking on IMDb. Draggy? Boring? They must be mad or weird or both.  Or is it me?