Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Woody finds his mojo, Lisbeth gets a mohawk and Peter Falk disses Albanians - Reviews #85



*SPOILERS for Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo*
CINEMA: Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
- He did it! He finally did it! Woody made a good film again! I actually want to give him a little hug. What a sweet, gentle, funny, winning, interesting, relevant, piquant, magical and thoughtful little film this is. So just as The Purple Rose of Cairo was a film that chose reality - for all its flaws - over fantasy, so this nostalgia trip has a few smart little observations to make about living in the past. Owen Wilson, typically excellent, is a Hollywood hack and aspiring novelist who travels to Paris with his shallow fiancee (Rachel McAdams). It's nice enough, but the city of which he fantasises is the Paris of the '20s - of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Dali. And out for a stroll one evening, that's exactly where he ends up, wandering into the past, where he converses with long-dead legends and sparks with artists' muse Marion Cotillard. There's the odd dry spot or antique celeb cameo too many, but this is still the best thing Woody has done since Anything Else - and arguably since since Sweet and Lowdown. Added to which, Adrien Brody is a superb Dali. "Rhinoceros." (3.5)

See also:



*SPOILERS*
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
- Allen's masterpiece begins with a little surface posturing (you've seen Ibsen, Woody? How terrific), but quickly reveals itself to be the most profound, perceptive and insightful of his many great films. Tracing the romantic fortunes of three actress sisters (Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey), its superbly-scripted episodes have a rare cumulative power, while the writer-director is at his nicest: understanding and empathising with his characters, and giving each a happy ending. This being Allen, we're not concerned only with love, but also with death - as hypochrondriac Woody (playing Farrow's ex-husband) wrestles with the big questions, flirting with Catholicism and Buddhism, before settling for the Marx Brothers - a subplot that contains the bulks of the film's laughs. A score of '30s standards creates the mood, while the exceptional ensemble nails every nuance of the dialogue: the cast boasting Golden Age luminaries Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan, Bergman favourite Max Von Sydow and Michael Caine. And how about that last line? It always makes me grin. And cry. (4)

***



*MAJOR SPOILERS, SOME OF THEM HAIR-RELATED*
Millennium Trilogy: Extended Editions (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)
- Being the original nine-hour TV extravaganza from which those three The Girl... movies were sculpted, complete with a tasteful, slightly spoiler-heavy animated credits sequence: the buzzing of a taser complete with lively music serving as a wonderfully cathartic metaphor. Dragon Tattoo (Parts 1 and 2) is obviously the best of the bunch, its frankly horrible mystery nevertheless providing a superlative showcase for Noomi Rapace as the endlessly fascinating Lisbeth Salander. Sequel Played with Fire (Parts 3 to 4) is a zippy, intriguing film that delves into her back-story and benefits from excellent acting, though it undeniably suffers from obstinately keeping Lisbeth and co-conspirator Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) apart for its entire duration. Once Salander's protagonist becomes a largely helpless victim in the final two-parter, the series loses something of its energy and its point. On the plus side, and for all its conventionality and fat, Hornet's Nest (Parts 5 and 6) remains an entertaining-enough final instalment: a conspiracy thriller mercifully light on horrendous sexual violence and blessed with a satisfying climactic half-hour. I fancy rocking a mohican if I'm ever hauled up in court due to the machinations of a shadowy organisation known as The Section. (4)/(3.5)/(3)

See also: Our review of the theatrical cut of Dragon Tattoo can be found here.

***



Manderlay (Lars von Trier, 2005) - This sequel to Dogville takes a good 10 minutes to get going - or else for one to acclimatise to its obdurant staginess - but once that's done, it's something pretty special: an exploration of American racism with an argument so incisive, so controversial and so cleverly arrived at that you've just got to marvel at von Trier's massive, swinging testicles. Bryce Dallas Howard is terrific in the Kidman role as gangster's daughter Grace, who pitches up at a plantation in 1933 to find that slavery is still in full flow. Taking over the property through a mixture of might and right, she attempts to turn it into a workers' co-operative, with mixed results, whilst feeling oddly drawn to proud, noble worker William (Isaac De Bankole). It's bracingly original and devilishly clever, with a denouement that's like being smacked in the gob. That's still nothing compared to the end credits: a montage of photos from American history - set once more to Bowie's Young Americans - including pictures of murdered Southern blacks, and a little baby in a Klan hood. (3.5)

***



Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) - George Clooney gives his best performance to date in this light-but-serious drama that uses the insular existence of a "downsizing expert" to examine the selfishness of modern America. As we learned from North by Northwest - which saw Cary Grant triumphantly arresting a desperate slide into mediocrity - that suntanned smug-suaveness is only interesting (and indeed bearable), if you rupture it, at which time it becomes heartbreaking. The film has something to say, and says it through singular iconography and a distinctive vernacular, so you can forgive it the occasional misfire or loose end. What's harder to take is Reitman leaving out the brilliant "spacesuit" dream sequence cut to Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, a perfect visual metaphor that would have lifted the film onto a whole other, ahem, plain, in the same way that heightened Mamas and the Papas climax elevated Morvern Callar to greatness. (3.5)

***



Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006) - Clever, Charlie Kaufman-esque comedy about an inland revenue agent (Will Ferrell) who begins to hear a disembodied voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his life - and predicting his death. Hoping to get to the bottom of things - and so thwart his impending demise - he enlists the help of literature professor Dustin Hoffman, who suggests he turn his life into a comedy by pursuing an improbable romance with tattooed baker Maggie Gyllenhall. The first half is simply brilliant, full of great jokes and outlandish ideas which are superbly realised, but the film doesn't deliver on that promise, failing to engender sympathy for Ferrell's plight and so appearing strangely aloof and detached as the gag-rate slows. It's still an interesting movie, and there are a couple of genuinely hysterical scenes - Ferrell repeatedly double-taking while brushing his teeth, and later being quizzed by Hoffman about which genre he might be living in ("Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited?") - but it's neither engaging enough to be another Purple Rose, nor bold enough to approach the warped, delirious mayhem of, say, Synecdoche, New York. (3)

***



*SPOILERS FOR FIRST 20 MINUTES*
Ghost Town (David Koepp, 2008)
is a surprisingly successful attempt to turn Ricky Gervais into a Hollywood romcom lead (who's next, Dudley Moore? Oh right), conventional without appearing compromised, and agreeably lacking in lazy anti-Britishness. Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who dies on the operating table and returns to life to find he can see ghosts - and they all want his help. The most overbearing is tuxedoed adulterer Greg Kinnear, who's desperate for him to break up the marriage of ex-wife Tea Leoni. There's a bit of Sixth Sense in there, a lot of Groundhog Day and a chunk of Amélie, but Ghost Town does ultimately carve out a small niche of its own, with a fair few laughs (the funniest bit has Gervais being continually interrupted by doctor Kristen Wiig) and some reflective moments from the star that provide the unexpected highpoints. Karl Pilkington said it was good. I should have believed him, but he's been wrong about things before. Like Stephen Hawking being an alien. "I'm not Stephen, I'm just a brain." (3)

***



*SOME SPOILERS*
John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996) isn't really in the same league as The Rainmaker, trappings of trashiness serving to blunt the impact of its essentially interesting narrative about race and justice in the Deep South. Matthew McConaughey is a Southern lawyer who springs to the defence of a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) accused of a double-murder, after he guns down the rednecks who raped his 10-year-old daughter. The crusading attorney - who has personal reasons for taking the powder-keg of a case - becomes a target for thugs, while assisted by the usual ragtag band of misfits: a liberal law student (Sandra Bullock), a brilliant old soak (Donald Sutherland in fine form) and a twinkingly immoral pal who deals only in divorce cases (Oliver Platt). McConaughey is very good - this was back in the days when he looked like he might become a really interesting actor - and he features in the film's four best scenes: talking to Bullock in the diner, to Sutherland in the courtroom corridor, to Jackson in his cell the night before summation, and finally to the jury - recounting the rape in sickening detail. The film's celebration of vigilante justice is unpalatable, and a subplot about the rebirth of the KKK is essentially just Mississippi Burning 2 (which no-one wants), but there is enough in the fast-paced narrative and typically strong cast to grip. (3)

***



Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1962) - Three of the most idiosyncratic and interesting actors in movie history combine for this fascinating but flawed D.H. Lawrence adaptation. Dean Stockwell doesn't go near a regional accent, but does do a good job in the overwritten part of a sexually-charged young artist from Nottingham troubled by familial responsibility and the sexual repression of his true love. Trevor Howard overdoes it a bit as his eternally bellowing coal miner father, who "acts low because thee think I'm low" (or words to that effect), apparently having wandered in from an altogether different movie. I just kept thinking of the cleverly inverted Python sketch, Working Class Playwright. So the film belongs to Wendy Hiller in one of her sporadic, effortlessly devastating big screen appearances, incorporating a couple of little breakdowns that made me whimper. Which other actress has ever made you feel - actually feel - something of the loss of a child, or the ruination of another? The script is often too long-winded and thematically jumbled for the film to approach greatness, but there's no questioning the power of individual scenes and the whole thing is wonderfully-shot by Jack Cardiff - a couple of hideous back-projection shots aside. (3)

***



*SPOILERS*
Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)
is a bit overbalanced by Guest's obvious turn as a camp theatrical producer, but this tale of am-dram hopefuls waiting for a Broadway bigshot is quite nicely done, especially in the opening scenes, which have a Parks and Rec feel. It also avoids turning the climactic show into a series of calamities - a clear pitfall - building up goodwill through some clever, throwaway jokes and its gallery of likeable schlubs. Its main failing is that it can't ever hope to touch the Bilko episode that also deals with the staging of a small-scale historical play - probably my favourite ever. I think Guffman is supposed to be a mixture of Godot and a MacGuffin. (2.5)

***



Clerks II (Kevin Smith, 2006) - I saw this more out of hope than conviction - a director notable for his diminishing returns, revisiting the only great film he's ever made? - but it wasn't bad. Well, the inter-species erotica was appallingly unfunny, Randal is too much of a bully in the early exchanges and much of the best stuff is locked away in the deleted scenes, but there are a handful of neat routines, the bit in the jail is genuinely touching and the set-piece about Randal's grandmother is one of the funniest things I've seen all year. Smith also seems like a thoroughly nice chap, which makes me feel bad about disliking so many of his movies. (2.5)

***



*SKIP THIS REVIEW IF RUDE WORDS OFFEND*
Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)
- Very silly but largely entertaining sci-fi yarn about a world in which emotions are banned (yeah, I know). It all looks and feels oddly amateurish, though it moves at a fair clip, and the action sequences, Christian Bale's performance and the scenes with his kids are pretty effective. I only really watched it for the titan that is Emily Watson - she doesn't have much screen time and is doing a very quiet Irish accent, but offers a couple of nice moments amidst a large amount of complete and utter fucking nonsense. (2.5)

***



Bowfinger (Frank Oz, 1999) - Pretty good comedy about a down-at-heel wannabe movie producer Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) whose plans to make alien flick Chubby Rain are shot down by superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). Undeterred, Bowfinger begins to follow him, staging scenes around the terrified star, who becomes convinced he's the target of pod people. When Ramsey checks into a cultish rehab centre, Bowfinger needs a Plan B - and turns to dorkish Ramsey lookalike Jiff (Murphy again). It's scattershot stuff but there are a few inspired moments of silliness and some decent satirical barbs, while Murphy gives probably his best performance of the decade in a dual role. Martin's pretty good too, though just when you think he's not going to indulge that unfortunate penchant for terribly unfunny mock-kung fu, he gives in. (2.5)

***



Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) - Meh. This was what all the fuss was about? Still, it turns out that weapons launched by the Americans never harm innocent civilians. I suppose that is news. Gwyneth Paltrow always seems to land these old-fashioned, appealing characters (see also: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), but lacks the smarts or the spark to do anything with them. (2)

***


Yeah, the excellent period detail doesn't really come across in this poster.

Tune in Tomorrow... (Jon Amiel, 1990) - Radio soap opera writer Peter Falk helps (or hinders?) the course of true love between news writer Keanu Reeves and his sort-of-aunt Barbara Hershey in this '50s-set comedy. Falk is actually quite annoying, Reeves' New Orleans accent is terrible and the plot is very hard to understand, though the relationship between the leads is sweet, there's period atmosphere in spades and it has spoken opening credits - very cool. A subplot about Falk's hatred of Albanians starts off amusingly, then becomes markedly less so as its language becomes horribly reminiscent of anti-semitic Nazi propaganda. (2)

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