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Highly Recommended Documentary About Film
Anybody interested in Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton or simply literature and/or cinema will want to watch and possess this 2-disc set. Made by film restorer Ross Lipman, Notfilm is an extensive and intensive documentary about the production in 1964 New York of the short movie, Film, Beckett's only foray into the Seventh Art. Via a series of accidental, but seemingly fated, events, the mantle of leading and almost only actor in Film fell on the shoulders of Keaton, then poor in both funds and health. By a twist of irony straight out of Borges or Kafka, Keaton famous for his impassive face was required by Beckett's screenplay to keep that face out of shot for almost the entirety of the movie.
Lipman's documentary contains interviews with some of the principals of the 1964 production; archive material, including out-takes, and tapes of production meetings involving Beckett, director Alan Schneider and cinematographer Boris Kaufman; interviews with other relevant figures, especially actor James Karen who both appeared briefly in Film and had been instrumental in recruiting Keaton, actress Billie Whitelaw famed for her interpretations of Beckett's stage roles, and Beckett's biographer James Knowlson.
For me, two personal highlights of the DVDs are the sound of Beckett's rarely recorded voice in the production meeting tapes, higher pitched than one might have expected; and the interviews with a frail but still luminous Whitelaw. One sweetly sentimental postscript to the 1964 shoot was that it resulted in an acclaimed appearance by Keaton at the Cannes Film Festival, his first at such an event, and only a few months before his death.
Strictly speaking, one of the two discs is the actual documentary Notfilm; the other is bonus material; but both are of equal interest and essential viewing. The producer is Milestone Film & Video (who, in parallel have also issued a restored version of Film itself).
For me, this film is truly awful. It tells the story of an English woman who writes simplistic, kitschy, romantic novels - think Barbara Cartland, but set in the 1900s. Its prolific, eponymous heroine, the daughter of a provincial grocer, has her first book published while still at school; and goes on to achieve fame and fortune, before meeting her inevitable nemesis.
Had the film contained irony, humour, imaginative visuals, original character insights or surprising plot twists, it could have been watchable, perhaps even admirable. But Francois Ozon, the writer/director, has used little or none of these; and instead has employed the sort of fairy-story, linear plot line, cardboard characters, melodramatic action and over-decorated interiors as one imagines appear in Angel's books. (Fortunately, we are given little by way of examples of her writing.) Incidentally, though on a technical level the film is mostly competent, there is a laughably bad piece of back-projection - or whatever equivalent is used these days - near the beginning, when Angel is in a carriage riding through London.
Even with these defects, the film might still have worked if Ozon had made his main character in the slightest degree likable or intriguing; had she been, say, a naive dreamer, who relates guilelessly to those around her and to her adulatory readership. We could then have understood and forgiven her ignorance of the absurdity of her writing. But it is hard for us to sympathise with Angel when she starts off as a hateful, materialistic, selfish brat; remains so throughout her period of success and lionisation; and hardly changes even when fate turns against her.
It would be easy to blame some of the film's flaws on over-acting by its principal, Romola Garai, but I suspect she plays her part exactly as Ozon wanted. The male lead is Michael Fassbender as Esmé, a stereotypical, garret-dwelling, Bohemian artist, who is the one object of Angel's adoration (besides herself). Also on stage are Lucy Russell as Nora, Esmé's sister, who genuinely admires and loves Angel; Sam Neill as Angel's publisher, who incredibly agrees to print her first schoolgirl effort despite her refusal to alter even one word of it; and Charlotte Rampling as his wife who is understandably baffled by his abandonment of his critical faculty.
Unless you're really stuck for something to do, I recommend giving Angel a miss. Instead, for those who haven't seen it, the recent Miss Potter is a far more credible and engaging portrait of a turn of the century female writer.
Æon Flux (2005)
This movie hasn't yet opened in the UK, but I saw it in Spain on a recent visit. I knew nothing about it except it was futuristic and starred Charlize Theron, and the latter was the "Unique Selling Point" for me! The beginning of the film was so simplistic in tone, I thought for a while that it was intended for very young children, especially as MTV had appeared as one of the funding companies in the opening credits. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the film - with its strong anti-cloning subtext - while remaining fairly childish, is aimed at adolescents and adults.
The plot involving a rebellion against a tyrannical, post-apocalypse regime is clichéd; and as usual in sci-fi fantasies the action involves a strange combination of high-tech hardware, mystic mumbo-jumbo, and old-fashioned shoot-'em-up violence. Also, as usual, all the young women wear tight, skimpy clothing.
In playing one of the leading rebels, Aeon Flux, Theron is called upon to use little of her acting ability; but does (unless it's her stunt double) display great energy and agility as she takes on the might of the regime's armed forces in an attempt to topple the ruling clique. She is aided by the not-quite-so energetic and agile Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo); while the overall director of the rebellion, known as the "Handler" is a heavily disguised Frances McDormand. On the other side, the "baddies" are brothers Trevor and Oren Godchild (Marton Csokas and Jonny Lee Miller) whose family have ruled the roost for centuries.
Possibly the weirdest character in the mix is the "Keeper", a wrinkly if ever there was one, whose age is supposed to be several times that of the actor who plays him - 60 year old Brit, Pete Postlethwaite.
As can be gathered, I thought very little of this movie; and feel - as others have remarked - that about the only useful purpose it serves is to make "The Island" look good.
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Dumas would have been pleased (perhaps)
This 1998 movie provides everything a swashbuckling cape-and-sword flick should - legendary heroes, a cruel villain, noble sentiments, touches of love and sex, some slapstick, picturesque scenery, sumptuous interiors and of course dashing swordplay (the last perhaps a little limited by the maturity of some of the principals).
It has also some reasonably intelligent dialogue, provided by writer/producer/director, Randall Wallace, and spoken in part by two of the finest voices in the business - Jeremy Irons (Athos) and John Malkovich (Aramis). Gerard Depardieu (Porthos) and Gabriel Byrne (D'Artangnan) are the other two of the original 3 + 1 Musketeers.
The villainy of the young King Louis 14 is provided by Leonardo DiCaprio, who may be too wishy-washy for some tastes, though he certainly has the veneer of elegance needed for the part. One niggle I have is, that it would have been better if he had been instructed to pronounce Athos either with a short a or a long a (preferably the former) and not alternate between the two.
The plot, like the Dumas novel on which it is based, has no less, and no more, credibility than is appropriate for this type of film - for anyone interested in the real events and rumours surrounding the Man in the Iron Mask, I recommend this website - http://www.royalty.nu/legends/IronMask.html
One aspect of the film I find amusing is that in this version of a quintessentially French story, the only French actor in the quartet of heroes, Gerard Depardieu, plays the part of a uncouth, lecherous buffoon; while an Englishman, an American and an Irishman provide the grace, heartfelt speeches and depth of character. I wonder how that went down with the audience in France.
Broken Flowers (2005)
World-weariness may suit Murray, but not me
Can't say I particularly liked this Jim Jarmush film, mainly because I don't much care for the sort of middle-aged, world-weary cynic Bill Murray here plays to perfection (as he did in Lost in Translation). Indeed, to my mind, one of the reasons Murray is so popular is that he has helped give this jaundiced, negative attitude - so easy to adopt for both young and old - a good name.
Anyway, in this movie Murray is Don Johnston, a successful writer - though of what is hard to imagine - who, on the very morning he finds himself deserted by his current, temporary girlfriend, receives an anonymous letter intimating that he may have a son of nineteen. Encouraged and aided by Winston (Jeffrey Miller), his great friend, family man and lover of detective stories, Don then goes off in search of the four women he thinks could possibly be the mother of this mystery son.
These four women, their differing homes and family/friends provide most of the visual and character interest of the movie. They are given some of the best lines; are ably played by Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy; and for me are the best reason to see the film. Though certainly physically marked by his experience, Don appears to finish the movie as emotionally impervious as when he started; and the "open" end of the film - though not uncommon in Europe - may be a little unsettling for an American audience.
As indicated in my review of that film, I prefer Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking, which has a superficially similar plot-line; but is warmer, more hopeful and visually interesting.
Drew enchants as a fiery Cinders
This 1998 movie is a delightful take on the Cinderella fairy tale, largely due to the personality and talent of Drew Barrymore who effortlessly blends innocence and feistiness as Danielle de Barbarac who, after her father dies, is downgraded to a servant by her harsh and greedy stepmother (Angelica Houston). Also in attendance of course are two stepsisters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) though they are far from ugly, and the latter has quite a lot of sympathy with poor put-upon Danielle.
Enter a handsome, dashing Prince Charming, in the form of 16th century real-life Henri (Dougray Scott), son of the French King, Francois I (Timothy West). He falls for Danielle, under the impression that she is a noble lady, not a commoner and menial, and lots of misunderstanding and intrigues ensue. One of the cleverer aspects of the film is the presence of Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) who was in fact brought to France (where he died) by Francois. Another realistic surprise is some sharp social criticism - voiced by Danielle - partially based on Thomas More's book, Utopia, whose publication pre-dated Henri.
Where, however, the screenplay is a fairy tale of its own is that Henri far from being charming was ruthlessly cruel when he became King Henri II; also, needless to say, there was no Danielle de Barbarac in his life. The film was shot in France, with lots of picturesque scenery and châteaux to admire. Finally, another good reason to view this movie is a brief appearance by Jeanne Moreau in her 70th year; but this was by no means her final film - according to IMDb, she's made another 15 since then!.
True Lies (1994)
In an unchanging world of terror, only Arnie has transformed himself
Not being an Arnie fan, I gave this one a miss the first time round, but write this review now, 11 years after the film's making, having recently seen it on TV.
True Lies is a comedy action-thriller, based on a pretty deplorable idea. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top American ass-kicking secret agent; but from before and throughout his marriage to wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) Harry has maintained the fiction to her and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) that he is a meek and mild computer salesman. Perhaps even more deplorable is that when after some 15 years of lying Harry finds out that Helen is possibly seeing another man - partly due to his own neglect of her - he becomes incensed, and uses all the resources of his agency to subject her to, not one, but two terrifying ordeals, the second with some unsavoury sexual overtones.
Director James Cameron just about gets away with this distasteful storyline because (a) there's some reasonable comic acting by Arnie and Jamie - remember this was before Arnie revealed his full powers as a humorist by becoming Governor of California; (b) Helen is allowed to sock Harry pretty hard, several times, when at the end of the second ordeal she finally recognises him; and (c) the film then immediately moves into full action mode, as Harry and Helen are kidnapped by terrorists, led by menacing fanatic Khaled (Marshall Manesh).
From then on, it's formula, formula, formula; and SFX, SFX, SFX until the closing credits, with the usual nuclear warhead threats, multiple killings of the baddies, hair-raising escapes by our heroes, and a few laughs along the way. The final episode, with Harry doing amazing manoeuvres with a VTO fighter aircraft, stretches credibility beyond breaking point, but in this sort of movie WTF.
What IS credible and depressing about this film is that although it was made 11 years ago, and a full 7 years before 9/11, if the screenplay were submitted to Hollywood today, not one word or piece of action would need to be changed - same terrorists from the same part of the world, threatening to use the same hardware, for the same reasons.
A master class in getting fired!
The leading figure in Factotum (which means a jack of all trades) is Henry Chinaski. The movie, written and directed by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian, is based on the novel of the same name by Charles Bukowski, who died in 1994. Like Chinaski, Bukowski was a drunk, indulged in casual sex, and liked to gamble; and most of Bukowski's books, including Factotum, are based on his own experiences in and out of blue collar worker. Also, like his creator, Chinaski is a writer, albeit unpublished as yet. Nevertheless, it is probably best NOT to approach this film as a partial biography of Bukowski, but simply as a fictional movie based on his writings.
Chinaski, played by Matt Dillon, is the ultimate, irresponsible goof-off, living just above the level of skid row, who gets work when he needs cash for booze etc, but invariably gets fired within days or weeks. Told not to smoke in a particular workplace, he lights up once the boss is out of the way; asked to make a delivery, he drives the van away while it's still connected to an electric plug, leaves the van door open and drifts into a bar. Even outside work, he behaves perversely - notably leaving ointment on his private parts overnight, when he's been told that one hour is the absolute limit! And Chinaski, though initially appearing mildly passive, is not averse to violence, even to women.
The man's sole redeeming features are his belief in himself as a writer, and his persistence in writing and submitting his work. (His main redeeming feature should be his actual talent for writing, but the film gives us little evidence of this, except for a few Bukowski quotes, which in any case are mainly about his belief in himself.) .
Dillon fits this role like a glove. By turns, he sleepwalks, staggers and rampages through the movie - that is, when Chinaski isn't drinking in bars or sleeping it off with or without a woman. And, because this is fiction rather than biography, Dillon can mitigate his deplorable behaviour and slovenly dress simply with his good looks and dark eyes. One suspects that in real life Bukowski was far less likable than his cinematic alter ego.
Chinaski's main squeeze for most of the movie, bravely and quite unglamorously portrayed by Lili Taylor, is Jan who shares her lover's fondness for alcohol and a slacker life. In one sequence, when he has split from Jan, Chinaski encounters a glossier woman, Laura (Marisa Tomei), who introduces him to a more bourgeois world; but this doesn't last long, and he soon reverts to his usual round of drink and casual jobs. (Incidentally, I found the sound quality in the whole Marisa Tomei sequence quite poor, and missed much of the dialogue.)
I'm not too sure what anybody uninterested in Bukowski (or Matt Dillon) will make of this movie; but if you're looking for somjething in English other than blockbusters, rom-coms, costume dramas etc - this is it. And, whatever your view of the movie, if you haven't already done so, read some Bukowski - you'll love it!
Billy Elliot (2000)
Billy Elliott is a moving, uplifting, and often exuberant, drama about motherless young Billy (Jamie Bell) fulfilling his dream of becoming a ballet dancer, in the process overcoming the objections and prejudices of his father and brother (Gary Lewis and Jamie Draven).
It is also a piece of magic realism, with political overtones. By setting their near fairy tale in the context of a close-knit mining community, and more specifically against the backdrop of the 1984/5 miners' strike - a defining moment of modern British economic and social history - writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry are able to refer to gender and class issues, without turning their work into a political tract, and without losing focus on the central human drama.
The film is realised near flawlessly. Bell achieves a convincing blend of adolescent bewilderment and defiance; if his dancing is not quite as good as we might expect, the storyline explains this away by saying that at this early stage his attitude and drive are more important than his technique. The dancing set pieces, clearly inspired more by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly than by Nijinksky, are performed with gusto, mainly to pop songs by T-Rex.
Lewis and Draven put gritty realism and passion into their roles of a father and son committed to their community and to the miners' cause. They make us feel their despair as they realise that this cause is lost; but also their endurance as they come to terms both with Billie's aspirations and their own uncertain futures - within a few years most UK coalmines would be closed. (The colliery in Easington, the real-life location of the film, closed in 1994.). The scenes of violence between strikers and police are presented uncompromisingly and authentically, but with the occasional touch of humour.
Julie Walters provides an outstanding performance as Mrs Wilkinson, the dancing teacher who recognises and fosters Billie's talent; and helps him resist his own and his family's inhibitions. She is perfect as the chain-smoking, straight-talking mentor, who has her own personal disappointments and hurts, which she hopes Billie's success will help heal. To we outsiders watching the movie, Mrs Wilkinson appears as an integral part of the local community; but it is made clear that in the mid-80s, as far as Billie's family and friends are concerned, she is a middle class outsider, almost as alien as another species.
One issue which the film tackles head-on is traditional heterosexual male abhorrence of homosexuality. This attitude clearly underlies the shock of Billie's father and brother when they discover his interest in ballet. They would be even more horrified if they realised that his best friend was discovering gay tendencies in himself. It is typical of the sensitive direction that without labouring the point the film indicates by its close that attitudes towards gays changed radically during the 1980s and 90s along with the industrial landscape.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
Digging the dirt in murkiest Africa
This is one of those films the Brits do so well - adapted from a British novel, in this case by John le Carré; set in an African country, once a British colony; and dealing, inter alia, with deep treachery by the British Foreign Office. Except, as it happens, apart from its two main leads, Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener is hardly British at all, and in particular is directed by the Brazilian, Fernando Meirelles, previously best known for City of God, about young people living in a violent, poor quarter of Rio de Janeiro.
The detailed plot, involving dirty dealing by the drugs industry, aided and abetted by senior figures and institutions in both the UK and Kenya, should not be taken too seriously. These days, any drugs company marketing a medication known to have dangerous side effects would be risking crippling law suits. Nevertheless, within the normal limits of cinematic credibility, the screenplay is convincing, and certainly the vulnerability of the African poor to almost any cr*p dumped on them by outside forces or their own Governments is true enough.
Fiennes is well cast as Justin Quayle, a diplomat in the UK High Commission (embassy) in Nairobi, who is intelligent and sensitive, but essentially detached from the world around him, except for his beloved garden. Weisz is quite brilliant in her portrayal of his passionate wife, Tessa, a health-care volunteer, who discovers and investigates the drugs conspiracy, at the cost of her life. One lapse in the plot and characterisations (possibly present in the original book which I haven't read) is that Quayle's diplomatic work is left too vague. Some reference to his actual job might have allowed a deeper exploration of the contrasts in attitude of Justin and Tessa, who like many married couples have only their love in common. Other noteworthy cast members are Danny Huston as Justin's oily superior; and Bill Nighy, in a sinister role, as a senior civil servant, whose mild exterior conceals the frigid hole in his chest where his heart has been extracted.
Visually, the film is compelling, with many scenes of local deprivation contrasted with the comfortable lives of the diplomatic corps. Also, when appropriate, Meirelles doesn't hesitate to depict Kenya's spectacular scenery. (Given the plot, it was perhaps surprising and brave of the Kenyan authorities to allow filming in their country.) Heightened (digitally enhanced?) colour adds to the visual and dramatic impact.
Overall, this is a high class movie, raising some important issues, whose form and content are equally above average.
Don't Come Knocking (2005)
Top class Wenders
Don't Come Knocking, like Wim Wenders' 1984 film, Paris Texas, is set largely in the western deserts of the USA. And like the earlier film it concerns a man too fond of drink, who is searching for a lost family and for lost meaning to his life. But the two films have quite different "feels" to them; and while usually one might expect Wenders' later piece - made in his 60th year - to be more melancholy and pessimistic, in fact it is far lighter and more hopeful in tone than the earlier work.
There's also an interesting comparison to be made with Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, made just about the same time, and also about a middle-aged man looking for a child he never knew he'd fathered. But, again, while Bill Murray's character in that movie is the epitome of world weariness and cynicism, Sam Shepard who wrote DCK, and plays the lead, invests his character with more curiosity and perhaps more regret, about the alternative life he might have had but missed.
From the moment Shepard, as Howard Spence a veteran film star, rides his horse off the set of a western and just keeps going, the movie is full of quirky episodes and quirkier characters, possibly the weirdest being Tim Roth's insurance investigator in ice-cold, rather than hot, pursuit of Howard. Then there's Gabriel Mann as Earl, a modern folk singer, and possibly Howard's son; Fairuza Balk as Amber, Earl's faithful, cookie girlfriend; and, most captivating of all, Sarah Polley as the mysterious, ultra-serene Sky. Also in the mix, and playing less eccentric roles, are Eva Marie Saint as Howard's mother, and Jessica Lange.
This is one of the most watchable films I've seen in recent months, and represents Wim Wenders at the top of his considerable form. The camera-work includes both awesome landscapes and Edward Hopperesque townscapes; but essentially the film like most great movies is character-driven. Shepard and Wenders have created people we really care about and for whom we want the best.
One reading of Don't Come Knocking is possibly that, like Harry Dean Stanton's Travis in Paris Texas, Howard cannot escape the hopeless life he has chosen for himself; but I detect in the closing moments of DCK a hint that his own choice may not turn out to be his final destiny.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
A spoof maybe; but the genuine 24 carat article
What an enjoyable film this is! And for so many reasons - it outdoes Tarantino in post-modernist touches, and matches him in violence; it's hilariously funny most of the time, with lightening fast dialogue; and it plays variations on several familiar genres, including the classic 40s film noir, the Hollywood exposé, and the buddy-buddy movie.
On paper, much of the screenplay is formulaic - the duo who don't get on, but have to; shoot-outs where our heroes are miraculously invulnerable; bodies which mysteriously disappear and re-appear; and a labyrinthine, opaque storyline. But this hardly matters, when every aspect is handled by the director and his team so cleverly and originally. Even the plot makes sense by the closing credits - well, sort of!
What makes the film work, above all, is the casting and pairing of Robert Downey Jr as Harry Lockhart, a small-time crook on the run in LA, with Val Kilmer as tough and cynical, private eye, Gay Perry, whose first name, for once, is more literal than ironic. Downey, in particular, is brilliant, investing his character with a depth and subtlety, you just would not think possible in such a fast-moving, action- and gag-packed movie. That Lockhart has scenes which allow Downey to display his tender and vulnerable side is due to an ingenious plot, which brings in genuine love, not just sex, interest, with Michelle Monaghan as Lockhart's childhood sweetheart and failed starlet. (Take it from me, the film isn't nearly as slushy and hackneyed as my last sentence makes it sound!)
Continuing in sentimental mode, it would be nice to think that Downey Jr has or can overcome his personal problems, and can now forge ahead with his big screen career. In the meantime, he and director/writer Shane Black deserve every credit for this hugely entertaining movie.
The Libertine (2004)
Johnny Depp triumphant as repellent Johnny Wilmot
The Libertine takes as its subject John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), an English 17th century courtier, who was a drunken, womanising rake (with a taste for the occasional man or boy) and a writer of obscene verses, which made fun of his peers, including his friend, King Charles II (John Malkovich); but who, at the same time, was a sublime poet when he chose. One major lapse of the movie is that it makes little of this last aspect of Rochester's character; focusing almost exclusively on his seamy side. (The real Rochester was also a war hero at one period in his life, but the film seems to make no reference at all to this.)
Though more than a tad stagy (betraying its origins as a play), and possibly not making as much of its "hero's" contradictions as it might (how could such a proponent of personal freedom so strongly defend the monarchy?) the film provides a compelling portrait of Rochester, and of the times in which he lived. No elegant, sparkling, pastel-tinted, period piece, this - the light is dim, the colours drab, and if FX smells were yet available, the director - ex-commercial director, Laurence Dunmore, at the helm of his début feature - doubtless would have used them. Few of the characters are outstandingly attractive, and even the actress Elizabeth Barry (played by Samantha Morton), who becomes Rochester's ingénue and mistress, wears little make up, and is unglamourous by today's usual standards.
But above all, this is Depp's movie, though he is ably assisted by the prosthetics technician responsible for constructing his ravaged face, crumbling under the effects of drink and the pox. Once more, Depp demonstrates that his versatility has few bounds, and he is equally compelling as the handsome, manipulative seducer at the film's outset, who confides to us "you won't like me"; and as the repulsive, broken figure at its end, wearing a silver cover to protect his decaying nose, who overcomes his infirmities to make a bravura speech to the House of Lords, in favour of the right of succession of the King's catholic brother.
It's ironic, but evidence of Depp's vast range, that his recent Golden Globe nomination is not for this role (though perhaps the film was not eligible) but for Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! For my part, Johnny's Rochester deserves every accolade available, including the Oscar, and Governor of the US state of his choice!
Match Point (2005)
London no match for New York
It's a little odd that for the time being at least Woody Allen has transferred his affection from New York to my home town, London. Following Match Point, he's well into his second London film (Scoop), and a third is said to be on the stocks. The point is, he may love London, but it's not clear that London or the UK generally loves him. Yes, they adore the classics, like Annie Hall and Manhatten; but they were never keen on his "Bergman period" efforts such as Interiors; and his latest offerings have generally been panned - I had to see and enjoy the bad taste of Hollywood Ending in Paris, as to date (late 2005) it's not been released in the UK.
All the signs are that Match Point will be well received when it opens here early in 2006; but personally I wasn't too sure. (Again, I saw it in the French capital, which gets many English-language films before London, and whose cinema scene makes ours look provincial.) It seemed to me that Allen may have been mildly infected by whatever bug caused Robert Altman to make Gosford Park. His film is so, so English, with almost all the characters talking in posh accents, and living posh life-styles (apart from the stereotypically, cardboard police detectives); and if there was even one of Allens trade-mark wisecracks, I missed it.
Sure, much of the milieu has to be high class, since a main theme of the film is how far a poorer (though not that poor) chap will go to climb the social ladder; but Allen might have shown a little of London's seamier and steamier side, to complement the series of shots of pristine tourist attractions such as the Tate Modern, South Bank arts complex, "Gherkin" office block, and Notting Hill. Overall, the film struck me as rather stilted and lifeless; and if it's Hitchcockian, it's the Hitch of Dial M for Murder.
Nevertheless, the film is deftly made and watchable, with more than a few surprises along the way, and all the principles filling their roles adequately, though I wasn't entirely convinced by Scarlett Johannson as femme fatale. Incidentally, one of the odder pieces of casting is the comedy actor and TV star, John Fortune, as the almost non-speaking chauffeur, though I note he is uncredited on IMDb.
Needless to say, since it is Woody Allen, it's a "must see" movie; but personally I hope for better from Scoop, and eventually would prefer to see him return to and do his work in the more familiar territory of Manhatten.
Cidade Baixa (2005)
This is a mesmeric movie about the corrosive effect of an attractive and sensual woman's intrusion on the close, almost intimate, relationship between two men. Set in the seamy underworld of the Brazilian port of Salvador de Bahia, the film takes its name from the lower (baixa) quarter of that city. One of the few "touristy" shots in the movie is of the lift connecting the Cidade Baixa with the Cidade Alta, a treasure house of colonial architecture, of which we catch but one brief glimpse in the film.
To my mind the film is as notable for what it doesn't state explicitly, as for what it does. Neither of the two male protagonists refers to the fact that they are of different colours; but it is hard to avoid the thought that this plays a part in the rift which develops between them, and is foreshadowed by the savage cockfight between a black and a white bird in an early scene.
The film is uncompromising - and entirely non-judgemental - in its depiction both of the criminal activities of its men, and of the prostitution of the women. We may not approve of what we are seeing, but "this is how it is" the film tells us. The acting is of the highest standard, with Alice Braga (niece of Sonia) outstandingly sexy; and the fast-paced and close-up camera work glues the viewer to the screen.
Rezervni deli (2003)
Bleak but honest
I haven't submitted a review to IMDb for several years; but have been driven to do so by the extremely negative review above. Spare Parts is an uncompromisingly harsh and downbeat social drama, with scarcely a "pretty" visual or joke in it. It takes a cold, realistic look at many facets of modern life, such as illegal immigration, industrial pollution, what people are willing to do to get money, and our constant search for love and friendship in the most adverse circumstances.
By not taking sides, and by refusing to demonise characters who in other films would be depicted as villains, the director, Damian Kozole, has rightly implicated all of us in the various ills of society with which he deals. All in all, this is a fine film of its genre, and deserves a wider audience.
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Forget the occult- see it for its gentle story and fine performances
Whatever the characteristics of the Stephen King story on which it is based, this movie emerges as an unusual, sensitive, character-driven tale about young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) graduating from childhood innocence and ignorance to adolescent culpability and awareness, in 1960s smalltown America, under the tutelage of mystery-man and father-figure Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins). Though, superficially, some of the occult aspects of the original have been retained, the film sits firmly in the realm of realism - Brautigan's "extra-sensory powers" can be explained by his having exceptional faculties of intuition and character-judgement, implicit in the quiet authority that Hopkins brings to the role.
One of the film's quirkier aspects is that it initially teases us about its focus. Its starting point is when middle-aged Bobby (David Morse) learns about the death of a childhood friend Sully (Will Rothhaar); but this particular friendship figures little, and far more attention is paid to Bobby's calf-love for Carol (Mika Boorem). A little more on the relationship of Bobby and Sully would have been welcome; though the latter does figure in a poignant short sequence, when he is leaving for a holiday with his parents, which embodies what is missing from Bobby's dysfunctional relationship with his harrassed and erratic mother (Hope Davis).
One of the dangers of films dealing with teenage "rites of passage" set in previous times, is that they can be overly nostalgic, confusing subjective fond memories of childhood with objective assessments of the particular era. I don't think this happens here - the paranoid cold-war atmosphere and various social downsides shown in the movie act as an antidote to middle-aged Bobby's natural regret for the loss of his friends and of his own youth.
La pianiste (2001)
Huppert superb in disturbing case-study
Regrettably, Michael Haneke's film, set in Vienna, crosses the subtle border line between psychological drama and psychiatric case-study. While we may watch the movie, with a mixture of fascination and discomfort, to see what music teacher and accomplished pianist Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) will do next, there is little point in wondering why she does it, since the reasons for her irrational behaviour seem to be buried deep in her psyche, and have little to do with the circumstances or people around her. Initially, we may deduce that her behaviour is due to her domineering mother (Annie Girardot); but later we may think that her mother is more victim than perpetrator.
To be specific, Erika's behaviour includes self-mutilation, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, and exhibitionism in the sexual arena; as well as cruelty, harshness and hypocrisy in her everyday life. True, several of these traits are probably only latent, until Erika encounters Walter (Benoit Magimel), a brash young pupil, who genuinely finds her attractive, and is only too willing to have the straightforward sexual coupling with her, that many would think she truly craves. But instead, she will only settle for an unconventional liaison, that she then finds herself unable to fulfil. The film ends with a gesture that I won't give away because it would rank as a "spoiler", but which in any case is as puzzling as most of Erika's conduct.
A definite reason to see the movie is for Huppert's brilliant performance. One has to admire the sheer dedication to her art that led an actress of her calibre to accept such an unpleasant and unsympathetic role (and probably for money that would count as small change in Hollywood). You might think another plus would be the piano music, mostly Schubert. But, to my ear, apart from a bravura piano duet, much of the music is heavy and unattractive, though I don't know whether this is due to the choice of pieces or their execution.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Well crafted and enjoyable but lightweight
This is a well-made, entertaining film with excellent performances, but it is let down by a lack of substance. Tom Cruise is perfectly cast as Jerry Maguire, a sports agent seemingly as superficial and go-getting as any in his business, until one day he gets back in touch with his conscience, issues a touchy-feely mission statement, and is duly fired by his corporation. Renee Zellwegger is as sweet as only she can be, playing widowed mother Dorothy, who follows Jerry into the wilderness and into a relationship. And Cuba Gooding Jr earned an Oscar for his stand-out role as Rod Tidwell, a fearless wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, and the only client to stick with Jerry.
The problem is that while Jerry may be a tad more personable than fellow agents, the film fails to demonstrate that his change of heart leads to his doing business any less materialistically or more ethically than they do. Clearly, he isn't helped by Tidwell, who is portrayed as charismatic, straight-talking and family-loving, but also fixated on getting big bucks - as exemplified in the great "Show me the Money" scene. Indeed, if the film has any message at all, it is that there is precious little scope for ethics in the sports agency business, and that Jerry's moralistic crusade is doomed to failure - but it's unlikely that this is what writer/director Cameron Crowe was actually trying to say.
Correspondingly, on the romantic front, the movie is rather lightweight and vague. Jerry and Dorothy have their inevitable getting togethers and breaking-ups, but on none of the occasions is there a great deal of passion or thought. Again, we could put a cynical spin on the movie - Dorothy only wants Jerry as a father for her cute son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki); and Jerry wants a son more than a wife - but it's doubtful if that's what Crowe wants us to think.
It's a pity; Crowe could have made a stronger film if he'd given his characters some tougher choices, and had been willing to sacrifice a bit of the fun for some real conflict - conveyed by action as well as words.
Last Orders (2001)
A poignant well acted drama, though questionably nostalgic
Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Graham Swift's novel about a group of elderly men fulfilling the dying wishes of a friend, and taking his ashes from London to a seaside resort for final scattering, is warm and touching. Focusing on the dead man, Jack (Michael Caine), we follow his life mainly though the memories of his wife (Helen Mirren), his best friend Ray (Bob Hoskins)and his son Vince (Ray Winstone). The personalities, histories and inter-relationships of Jack and the others are revealed and examined in detail - warts and all. The overall feel of the film is that lives matter even when they appear inconsequential, and that love and friendships are valuable even if they don't always run smoothly.
Much of the film's interest lies in the fine acting of a top quality ensemble which, in addition to those already mentioned includes Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings. One of the problems for the makers of film, and for the audience, is that some of the flashback scenes feature the main characters when they were young adults, who have to be played by young actors. The fact that Caine et al have had such long careers, and we are so familiar with their faces, makes this aspect especially problematic, but the surrogates are generally acceptable, especially J J Feild as the young Jack, and Hemmings' son Nolan as the young version of his role.
In relating Jack's history, the film also relates 50 years of British history, and unfortunately there is more than a hint of misty-eyed nostalgia. Many scenes look backward to "attractive" features of English life that have gone (such as the idyllic Kent hopfields of the 1930s) or remind us of past glories (like the scene in Canterbury Cathedral). I would have welcomed some recognition that the "old days" had both bad and good sides, and/or that Britain has a vibrant present as well as a glorious past. On the whole, however, the film is more to be seen as a poignant and positive character-driven drama, rather than for any socio-political content.
Il portiere di notte (1974)
Worth seeing but not for any insights into fascism
Liliani Cavani's 1974 film, set in 1957 Vienna, is a puzzling and uncomfortable study of a sado-masochistic relationship, and is worth seeing for the performances of Dirk Bogard as night porter/ex-SS officer Max, and especially Charlotte Rampling as former concentration camp inmate Lucia. But it would be wrong to draw from it much in the way of generalised messages about fascism, concentration camps, or the holocaust. That some Nazis were sadists is hardly a revelation; that among their millions of victims a few might have enjoyed being dominated shouldn't surprise us; and that such a relationship should voluntarily be renewed after the war may be unlikely, but not entirely incredible.
So far as we can see in the film, the only point of contact between Max and Lucia is their physical relationship, based on mutual cruelty and pain, which we are shown via graphic, sometimes shocking, images. Apparently, they have no real desire to go beyond this physical relationship, which they lock themselves into, until it leads to their deaths. (They could easily evade the "siege" of their apartment by a group of ex-Nazis, if they so wished.)
The film enters the area of the overtly political in its sub-plot about this group of ex-Nazis, who try to come to terms with their pasts by confessing their crimes to each other; while at the same time taking direct action to "file away" both incriminating documents and awkward witnesses. The film leaves this story unfinished, with these fascists going about their business; in view of the recent resurgence of the extreme right-wing in Austria, this seems an appropriately open ending.
Music is prominent in the film. One scene takes place at a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. As well as reminding us of the sublime heights to which man can rise in contrast to the depths we have witnessed in the concentration camp scenes, Mozart's opera seems relevant because, like this film, it deals enigmatically with themes of good and evil, imprisonment and freedom. Also relevant is the song Lucia sings in the key scene where she imitates Marlene Dietrich's Lola in the Blue Angel; it was written by Friedrich Hollander and, roughly translated, it is about how the singer finds it difficult to choose between good and bad times, because happiness and sadness go together.
The Truman Show (1998)
A satire fit to stand alongside 1984
When I saw Peter Weir's film on its release, I was so engaged by Jim Carrey's wonderful performance as Truman Burbank, that I regarded the film overall as positive and life-enhancing. Seeing it again three years later, I find it a much bleaker experience. Ed Harris as director Christof is such a megalomaniac manipulator that he has perhaps drawn attention away from everybody else involved in the conspiracy against Truman, from the merest technician to the actors playing his best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) and his wife Meryl (Laura Linney).
But not only are the production team and players involved in the conspiracy, but so are the millions of viewers of the show. So while we may applaud Truman's brave decision to enter the real world, we should be clear that he will find it full of voyeurs of low intellect and even lower moral standards, who for 30 years have been willing to be entertained by spying on him and depriving him of a real life.
Some people might think that the film's satire is too severe, but I think it is fully justified. Day after day TV puts out programs every bit as inane and manipulative as that depicted in the film. It might be argued that, unlike Truman, the participants in "confession" TV and such programs as Big Brother are volunteers and know exactly what they are getting into. But in a sense they do not, since most of them are unaware of the ridiculous and unattractive sides of their characters which they will reveal to the cameras, and which are the real point of these programs.
The Truman Show stands comparison with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four as a satirical polemic against totalitarian interference in people's lives - but the threat now comes as much from the media as from Government.
A compelling tribute to Shackleton and his men
This is a worthy drama, relating in reasonably accurate terms, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic in 1914/16. Ironically, though this expedition failed, it probably gained more fame for its leader than if it had succeeded. Amundsen had already reached the South Pole in 1912; and Scott had tragically perished with his colleagues in the same year; so Shackleton's aim was not just to reach the Pole, but to cross the continent. But his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the pack-ice and eventually went down. Shackleton's fame rests on his untiring efforts to lead his team of about 30 men to safety, which after two years he finally did - not a man was lost.
Kenneth Branagh, who physically resembles Shackleton, plays the man in full British hero mode, though at the same time he displays his human side, and the obsessive streak which drove him first to organise the expedition in the face of much opposition; and then to make a priority of saving himself and his men, when the Antarctic crossing became impossible. It was as though Shackleton could feel the ghost of Scott urging him on.
Much of the first of the film's two parts is taken up with Shackleton's private life; not only do we meet his wife Emily (Phoebe Nicholls) and children, but his mistress Rosalind Chetwynd (Embeth Davidtz), and his brother Frank (Mark Tandy) who embarrassingly was serving a gaol term for an unconnected fraud while Shackleton was trying to raise money for his venture. But most of all in the first episode, we learn how difficult it was for Shackleton to convince private sponsors and organisations like the Royal Geographical Society to support him.
The expedition itself is covered in the second part, when we see how after the Endurance became stuck, the team had to camp on the ice for months before rowing 800 miles in small boats, to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton with a few others sailed, again in a small boat, to South Georgia. Even then, he had to scale and descend a difficult mountain to reach help. We then cut to the rescue of the men on Elephant Island, and we are informed only via voice-over that this eventual rescue was achieved only at the fourth attempt. It would have been more satisfying to see some of this final portion of the tale related in visuals, with some of the preliminary scenes in the first episode being cut - but production and budgetary considerations probably played a part in this.
All the acting is of a high order; but particular mention should be made of Matt Day in the key role of Frank Hurly, the Australian photographer (who shot both stills and moving film); and Ken Drury as McNish, the carpenter, the one man to argue with Shackleton about his plans and actions. Much of the action was shot in the snow and ice of Greenland and Iceland, but in the event not as much as was originally planned, and on occasion the transition from location to studio shots is apparent.(See the TV documentary - Shackleton: Breaking the Ice - about the making of the film.) Nevertheless, the film as a whole is convincing, exciting and at times moving.
Wag the Dog (1997)
More accurate than a smart-bomb - and funnier
Most people know the plot of this outrageously funny movie by now. A political spin doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert de Niro), and a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), both well endowed with chutzpah, set out to create the illusion that the USA has gone to war with Albania, as a distraction from a Presidential sexual peccadillo. Made and released before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, it is not clear whether the movie's makers had great insight, or inside knowledge; either way, that episode adds to the interest and relevance of the film.
De Niro and Hoffman are both brilliant, though understandably the latter seems especially to relish lampooning a film-world type he must have encountered many times in his career. Anne Heche is just right as a Presidential aide who previously thought she was streetwise, but faced with Brean and Motss realises she's a tyro in the kidology game; and Woody Harrelson has a wonderful role as the man picked to play the war hero who just happens to be a psychotic convict. Willy Nelson is also in the movie, apparently playing himself, but in reality(?) as a character called Johnny Dean; he also wrote and performs some of the great songs, including the stirring "I Guard the Canadian Border (I guard the American dream)"!!
Among the targets of the satire are clearly the US political establishment, the broadcasting media and Hollywood; but there is a danger that the primary target may be overlooked, and it is worthwhile remembering the derivation of the film's title. Normally, the dog wags the tail because the dog's smarter than the tail; but if the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog; and there can be little doubt that the dog being wagged by Brean and Motss is the viewing and voting public.
La flor de mi secreto (1995)
Another bumpy, colourful ride on Almodovar's rollercoaster
The title of Almodovar's later film, All About My Mother, was a nod of respect in the direction of the 1950 Hollywood film, All About Eve, which contains Bette Davis's famous line - "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night". This quote could well appear at the start of most of the Spanish director's films, certainly Flower. Here, the rider on his emotional rollercoaster is Leocadia (Leo) Macias (Marisa Paredes), whose marriage and life are in crisis. She is not as young as she was, and her handsome husband Paco (Imanol Arias) has lost interest and is about to leave her. The "secret" of the title is that Leo writes romantic novels under an assumed name, but hers is not the only secret revealed in the movie.
Spoiled and self-centred Leo is not the most likeable of women; her sister Rosa (the wonderful Rossy de Palma) who looks after their aged mother probably deserves more of our sympathy. But the nicest people don't necessarily provide the most interesting stories; and Almodovar isn't trying to enlist our pity, but our understanding. If, according to the oft-quoted screenplay dictum, character is defined by action, then what he shows us is a courageous character who overcomes her self-pity, and takes up life and love again. Leo comes to terms with her loss, in much the same way as the mother in film's opening scene finally accepts that her son is dead. But that episode turns out to be a repeatable training session for doctors, so perhaps Almodovar is warning Leo that loss of love can take place more than once, or possibly he is suggesting to the audience that they regard Leo's story as a training session for life.
This unashamed melodrama is conveyed via magical acting, great camerawork, and above all intense colours. There are a few specifically Spanish touches, including a sequence where Leo and her mother return to their idyllic, picturesque family village, and a flamenco dance (to Miles Davis music). As usual, there are also reminders of the downsides of modern urban life, though some of the references to drugs and unemployment are a little forced and superfluous. All in all, this is a great pictorial story teller telling perhaps not his greatest tale, but certainly one worth listening to and seeing.