Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Michelle Yeoh, Skyfall and why philosophers love Thor - Reviews #156

A couple of these are in-depth, the rest are mostly jokes (you'll be the judge of that), as I had a busy weekend, without much time to scribble. This reviews update includes... Peter Lorre! James Bond! The return of ClintFest! But first, a Michelle Yeoh double-bill:



Reign of Assassins (Su Chao-pin and John Woo, 2010) - A reformed killer (Michelle Yeoh) with a new face gets a visit from her old gang, and must take up her flappy sword once more in this colourful wuxia film overseen by John Woo. It's Crouching Tiger-lite, but it's enjoyable, affecting and, at their best, the action scenes are a joy to watch. They all involve swords. Yeoh doesn't move with the same breathless speed that she once did, but, like Fred Astaire in the '50s, she's adapted to middle-age delightfully, and that peerless physical grace is still present and correct. Unlike Fred Astaire in the '50s, she could also still have you in a fight.

While the story, which sees various sword-wielding assassins vying to get their hands on the two halves of a corpse that will give them supreme martial arts abilities, is too confusing in places, it's agreeably personal in nature, with most of the characters getting a nice little sketch of a back story: one wants to open a noodle shop, another fears he isn't a real man, and newcomer Barbie Hsu is great fun as a promiscuous psychopath who's offed her fiance and his family, and now can't seem to keep her clothes on. As with The House of Flying Daggers, a third act twist that threatens to derail the whole movie instead provides a wholly unexpected but completely satisfying ending, which in this case should leave you with a tear in the eye and a stupid grin splashed across your face.

Of course, you don't just watch a martial arts movie for the plot, you watch it because you want to see people pretending to have a fight. At first, the action scenes here are infuriatingly mediocre, particularly in the imprecise way they're directed, so you can't quite see what's transpiring. But as the movie progresses, they improve exponentially.

Yeoh's scenes are typically superb - I could watch her just hopping up and down walls all day - and the scene in which she reveals her kung fu smarts is as superb as you'd expect, though perhaps the most memorable scrap has a chap called The Magician nattily employing a load of fire as he engages in a night-time duel. The scene, which sees no fewer than five assassins facing off (pun intended) in a courtyard, has a real whiff of Crouching Tiger about it, even if at that stage the human context hasn't been amped up as effectively nor are the characters as pure and well-defined for it to pack quite the same heavy emotional punch. But, really, what does? It's still an ace set-piece. And while there's scant evidence of Woo's fingerprints in this lively actioner, I do wonder if he suggested that tasty 3D-photo gimmick used to introduce the characters at the beginning.

Reign of Assassins is slightly too inconsistent in both its narrative and its fight sequences to approach the true classics of the genre, but it's entertaining, touching and has a fantastic pay-off. And without wanting to sound like a massive, creepy, lovestruck weirdo, it's just good fun hanging around with Yeoh for an hour-and-a-half - she's an excellent actress and the finest female action star on the planet by an almost insulting distance.

***



Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987) - There's an action sequence here - in which Michelle Yeoh decides to "distract" the enemy - that's among the most extraordinary things I've ever seen on screen: five solid minutes of eye-popping combat, stuntwork and feats of outrageous derring-do that sees her evading, fighting and escaping from a slew of soldiers, and is akin to watching the very best of Jet Li, Yakima Canutt and Buster Keaton all at once. It's worth the £2.99 that I paid for the DVD at least 10 times over. The rest of this period, Indy-ish adventure movie is quite fun too, hampered by a bitty, rather uninvolving story, some tiresome comedy and an unfortunate predilection for slo-mo, but with many incidental pleasures and enjoyable individual scenes. Can't say I think much of Yeoh's hairdo, mind. (3)

***



Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) - What the hell have they done to this Bond movie? It's got real characters, an interesting story, and even a good supporting cast. And wait, Bond can act? And his best gadget's a gun? It's almost like they made a proper film, and it only took them 50 years. Craig Not Bond (Daniel Craig) is James Bond, international man of misogny, who gets shot by a sexywoman (Naomie Harris), but survives to enjoy further encounters with sexywomen, and to do battle with a cyber-psycho (Javier Bardem), who's gunning for Bond's boss (Judi Dench). Chock-full of imagination and shot through with a Tinker Tailor-ish view of patriotism, it's exciting, amusing, even pleasantly sentimental at times, and though a smidgen of silliness remains and the offbeat final act goes on a bit, Mendes and his team still deserve great credit for trying something a bit different, particularly in the pay-off, while still retaining the requisite number of massive explosions. The whole piece is exalted by a great cast, with Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw all wonderful additions, and both Craig and Dench making the most of the hidden depths revealed across this unusually elegiac, reflective and grown-up action movie (that still includes a bit where a man gets eaten by a Komodo dragon). The name's Bond, and for once my reaction isn't to yawn in his face. (3)

See also: Casino Royale was my previous favourite; it was alright.

***

ClintFest '13:



The Dead Pool (Buddy Van Horn, 1988) - Have you ever wanted to hear Clint call Liam Neeson "love"? Stupid question, of course you have. Received wisdom has it that the Dirty Barry movies follow the law of diminishing returns. I disagree. The Enforcer, a daft, gimmicky flick pairing Clint with a female sidekick, is far more entertaining than Magnum Force - which squanders a fine premise and has no concept of its own muddled worldview - while the widely-reviled swansong, The Dead Pool, for all its many and glaring faults, is a whole lot easier to take than the disgusting rape revenge movie that preceded it, Sudden Impact.

Yes, the story here about a serial killer is daft (even with its then-novel twist), the script has an unfortunate tendency to explain its own one-liners - along with easy-to-grasp phenomena like celeb deaths coming in threes - and the guy playing the hospital psychiatrist seems to have been fashioned from the same block of wood that once produced Charlton Heston. But look at what else we get: Jim Carrey miming to Guns N' Roses as a hopped-up rock star, Liam Neeson sporting a proto-Qui-Gon Jinn ponytail as an egomaniacal horror director, and future indie darling Patricia Clarkson cooking up some surprisingly strong chemistry with the greying Clint, in her role as a saucy TV journalist.

Most excitingly of all, the film features one of the best and most surreal car chases in movies (though I'll acknowledge that I find almost all car chases deathly dull), as Clint is forced to speed around the streets of San Francisco, pursued by a toy car. And, of course, there's the solid entertainment value that comes with each one of these films: their winning formula, strong sense of location and charismatic central performance, which carry them through even when the improbabilities begin to pile up, the stock situations start to tire or the unsuccessful catchphrases ("Marvellous", "Swell") get trotted out one more time. You'd be hard pushed to argue that it's a great film, or that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as that unassailable original, but - at least until it tips over into nastiness in the final reel - it's good, silly fun: a diverting little curio undeserving of its dreadful reputation. And Clint calls Liam Neeson "love". Nope, no idea why. (2.5)

Trivia note: Clint becomes the first person to take a harpoon to a gunfight since Sterling Hayden in Terror in a Texas Town. Almost certainly. ***



*SOME SPOILERS*
Mr. District Attorney (William Morgan, 1941)
- Hurray, it's the New York Times' least favourite film of 1941! And to be honest, you can see why: the dialogue is dire and the story's even worse. Dennis O'Keefe plays a wannabe lawyer from a powerful family who becomes attached to the DA's office, thanks to his uncle's connections, then attached to the pretty newspaper reporter he keeps accidentally walking into (Florence Rice). That's all very well, a suitable set-up for a screwball mystery, but, from then on in, the characters' actions make no sense: he overrides a colleague to purposefully botch a case (while supposedly observing), the central couple reconcile immediately after she tries to write in the paper that he's hounded someone to suicide, and they wrap up the case of mystery man Mr Hyde (Peter Lorre) through a heady fusion of dumb luck, incoherence and unfunniness. There's one laugh in the whole picture (the DA's exasperated retort to O'Keefe when sending him back to his office), which is half the number of hideously misjudged gags: one about a stroke, and the other Rice's baffling exclamation in the climactic scene: "Don't waste ammunition, hit something - if it's only an innocent bystander." Err, what?

So why the two stars? Well, for two of the stars. Rice is cute and appealing as our perky, sparky heroine, calling to mind her performance in the Thin Man rip-off par excellence, 1938's Fast Company. And Peter Lorre is just mesmerising. I'm a big Lorre fan - I'd have him in my five favourite actors of all time - but that fondness for his singular artistry isn't obscuring my judgement. His performance drips with menace and creeping malevolence, turning the movie from a stale programmer to something truly remarkable each time he appears. He has only three scenes, but those passages, shot in an Expressionistic style completely at odds with the rest of this bland movie, are visually superb and dramatically electrifying. We hear a lot about Hyde before he appears, but nothing prepares you for that ominous entrance - emerging from the shadows like Harry Lime - or his quiet, introductory spiel, the potentially banal dialogue lent a chilling air by Lorre's unapproachable delivery. And he even hides out after a murder by just inching up some stairs, as he had in the "first noir", Stranger on the Third Floor, the previous year.

O'Keefe, who would find a niche as a cynical, brutish leading man in Anthony Mann's superb noirs of the late 1940s, is simply miscast as our lolloping, effete lawyer, though there's a ridiculously strong supporting cast for a film from the cheapo Republic studio. Almost a dozen recognisable character actors appear in some form or another: camp southerner Grady Sutton, bespectacled Charles Halton, even gaunt, blonde-haired Billy Benedict, whose sole contribution is to walk down a corridor. Charles Arnt - who played a cheery banker memorably in I Love You Again - is neatly cast against type as, well, a banker again, but one driven to theft by pure animal lust. Joan Blair is also quite interesting as unrepentant bad girl Betty Valentine, overcoming some dodgy material thanks to a dose of unexpected charisma. She had a bit part in Citizen Kane, of all things, the same year.

Mr District Attorney is a patchy, brainless affair that begins with a crap "meet cute" and ends in a blizzard of incoherence and improbability, but it is worth it for Lorre's startling contribution, and Rice's best efforts to inject some sense of charm and realism into an almost wilfully scrappy hotchpotch of improbable plotting, inconsistent characterisation and deeply unamusing irascibility. O'Keefe returned six years later for a film with an identical name, based on the same successful radio series, though no longer playing for laughs. Not that he, or anyone else, get many here. (2)

***



Also, I found this great quote by Heidegger about how much he enjoyed the film Thor: "The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is." He's right, you know. He also likes it in Avengers when Hulk goes smash.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Delicacy, Donnie Yen and John Wayne's bottom - Reviews #155

This week's reviews update includes a martial arts masterpiece, a wonderful, disarming rom-com and a couple of old B-Westerns. Plus: other stuff.



*SOME SPOILERS*
Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008)
- This is, simply, one of the three or four best kung fu films I've ever seen, a back-to-basics classic with a realistic setting, a powerful story and a series of superbly-choreographed fight scenes that place an accent on technical skill, and possess a heartening reverence for visual clarity. There are no mystifying close-ups of unidentifiable feet, and the film benefits from both a negligible amount of wire-work and a complete absence of juvenile comedy, placing it in a bracket almost by itself. It's also rooted in a stunning evocation of time and place, complete with poignant, beautiful bleached-out cinematography that calls to mind old sepia photos.

Donnie Yen starred in Yuen Woo-Ping's groundbreaking Iron Monkey (perhaps the first film to properly spotlight the stylistic preoccupations that would find a worldwide audience through The Matrix and Crouching Tiger), and had supporting parts opposite Jet Li in the jaw-dropping Once Upon a Time in China II and Zhang Yimou's disappointing Hero. But, unlike Li, he hasn't had it all his own way. As Yen searched for worthy starring vehicles, so fans had to suffer dreck like New Big Boss, a film which boasts the unique distinction of having a story so mystifyingly convoluted that it makes The Tree of Life look like Under Siege. When Yen ventured abroad, it was to appear as the villain in Shanghai Knights, and then to choreograph the action scenes in Stormbreaker. The poor bastard.

Ip Man, happily, is the perfect vehicle for his talents, casting him as the eponymous aristocrat, a quiet, noble family man who is forced to give up his home, his lifestyle and his beloved Wing Chun martial arts after the Japanese invade in 1937. After a fun, fight-heavy opening, we follow Ip Man and his compatriots through all manner of physical, moral and spiritual degradation, a process of dehumanisation that reaches a symbolic pinnacle when the martial arts masters are offered rice to prostitute their talents in front of the military brass. Ip Man doesn't want the rice, not at that cost, but he would quite like to fight 10 Japanese guys at once, train a factory-full of workers to stick up for themselves, and face down the general in front of the whole town.

It's a story of great heart, masterfully-conceived and perfectly-paced, with numerous punch-the-air(/punch-the-baddie) moments, the dramatic entrances from Yen's near-mythic hero - fists clenched in fury - set-up with such intelligence and emotion that, when he appears, the spirits soar. Each fight scene serves a purpose within the narrative, and every one is viscerally, intensely exciting, Yip and his action director, Sammo Hung, respecting Yen's artistry to such a degree that he's frequently shown in full-length shot, cuts only made to better showcase his skill or to transmit the pure power inherent in those twisting hands and flitting feet.

Agreeably, Yen's hero is also one of the most sensitive and progressive in action movie history. He uses a style of fighting devised by a woman, refuses to fight until given permission by his missus, and dismisses the taunts of a thuggish brute who's just turned up in his house by saying that there is nothing wrong with a man who "respects his wife". Take that, '70s Clint, you chauvinist twat. The thuggish brute, incidentally, is Siu-Wong Fan, who I saw in the terrible Supercop 2 just the other day (see below). There he was a pleasant, slim, slightly vacant young man with big eyes, who turned out to be fairly handy in a scrap. Let's just say that he's eaten several few pies and a lot of creatine since then. And grown a little beard.

Ip Man is an exhilarating experience, one of those films that uplifts you through its sheer brilliance and makes you ask: "Why can't ALL movies be this good?" I never thought I'd type these words, but it's like Fist of Legend. Only better. (4)

***



Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip, 2010) - A silly, synthetic sequel that begins brilliantly, before turning into Rocky IV for reasons unknown. We pick up the story with Ip Man (Donnie Yen) pitching up in Hong Kong, where he establishes a rooftop martial arts school, attracting some rather cocky students. That promising story is dropped rather abruptly upon the arrival of a patently ludicrous English boxer called Twister, who insists on punching out the kung fu masters, and showcasing his loud, uber-confident and preternaturally gung-ho persona. Surely he's an American, then. If he were English, he'd be wearing cricket whites, constantly doubt himself and lose the climactic contest in a penalty shoot-out.

The opening 40 is riotously entertaining, peppered with superb action scenes, including a much-celebrated string of wire-work duels atop a table and - even better - a frenetic battle at a fish market that's among the finest fight scenes ever filmed. But then the one-dimensional villains arrive and the film starts to stutter, with much melodrama and a Chinese v Western boxing match between Twister and a very special guest that exhibits the latter's amazing two-footed flying kicks, but seems to go on for about three years. The movie builds, of course, to a high-stakes confrontation between the English boxer and our hero, but it's an ugly, unenjoyable and graceless affair full of ridiculous touches (Yen is told he's not allowed to kick his opponent, but only at the end of the third round?!), which dismantles the mythology around the title character.

This movie wasn't necessary, but it could - and should - have been great. Instead, it squanders a sensational opening to emerge as a curiously joyless affair, no better than Jet Li's foray into similar territory, Born to Defend, and light years behind that extraordinary first outing. (2.5)

***



Delicacy (David and Stéphane Foenkinos , 2012) is a charming romantic comedy with plenty going on under the surface, which sees grieving widow Audrey Tautou - who's devoted herself to work after her husband's untimely death - feeling a strange attraction to an ungainly, balding Swede (Francois Damiens), much to the mystification of everyone else, including him. Tautou's films away from Jeunet tend to be either rather wonderful (like Priceless) or absolutely terrible and enlivened solely by her presence. While 2010's Beautiful Lies promised whimsical escapism but delivered only a refined form of cinematic stress, this potentially heavy, gloomy film does quite the opposite, tackling complex subject matter but emerging as a wonderfully entertaining romantic comedy thanks to real characters experiencing real emotions, a pair of lovely performances and a great lightness of touch. Tautou is typically affecting as the sweet-natured Nathalie, who represses her playful, tender side upon the death of her soulmate, and Damiens is simply hilarious as a man who can't believe his good fortune, and is frankly terrified by it.

The film starts in a heightened romantic vein, full of joshing and snogging, moves sure-footedly through tragedy - with the confidence and conviction to give us nothing else for 20 minutes - and then sparks up a romantic comedy, clambering over a couple of contrivances to provide not only a succession of big laughs but also some very real feelings, ending with an ambitious closing solliloquy that strikes just the right note: staying true to its story whilst also looking to the future. There's the romantic scene filmed against the Eiffel Tower that you might expect - though with an amazing punchline that's entirely out of the blue - but my favourite scene is one you won't have seen in any other romantic comedy. After an underwhelming introduction to Tautou's friends, happily lacking in crass Meet the Parents-style disaster, the pair return to her house, where they just sit happily and quietly in one another's company, before nodding off.

These are characters whose mutual attraction has as much to do with a shared sense of humour and a similar way of seeing the world as it does the physical connection that dominates the genre, and I think that's true in real life. For this affable, lanky, socially uncomfortable nerd, batting similarly out of my league with a funny, brown-eyed brunette, I found the film a welcome change: an unusually mature, intelligent and nuanced romance, albeit with a few clear concessions to broad comedy. It's also nice to see Tautou's preposterous talents used to their full. She's too rare a talent to have to wade through rubbish like Beautiful Lies. I watch a lot of romantic comedies (shut up); if only they all had this film's humour, wisdom and view of humanity. (3.5)

***



The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) - Another tale of two men tied together by love and loathing from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few directors from whom every movie is a must-see. And, as with his last one, the story is framed so tightly around these central characters that there's barely any room for anyone or anything else to squeeze in. But whereas There Will Be Blood was a gripping experience - that ill-judged ending aside - this follow-up is as erratic as its protagonist: a frustrating, pretentious and unsatisfying film that builds up a head of steam time and again, only to repeatedly fall away to nothing. Joaquin Phoenix is an unpredictable, alcoholic and horny World War Two vet still crippled by PTSD, five years on from being demobbed. Wandering by chance into the life of a cult leader and skilled manipulator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he falls under his spell, prompting numerous peculiar psychological experiments.

What power the film has comes largely from its performances. Amy Adams is decent but underused in an underwritten part, while Hoffman plays a man of menace and charisma with oodles of both, but it's Phoenix who leaves the greatest impression, with surely his finest performance to date. Gaunt, haunted and hampered by a slow mouth and a slower mind, his characterisation is coarse, violent, dislikeable and yet human, a man living in the shadow of past failings, but too inarticulate and fuzzy-minded to put things right. Unfortunately his efforts and the strong period atmosphere - created by an ingenious photography sequence and a slew of jazzy period tunes - are spent on a script that has a great many virtues and fine individual scenes, but even more flaws, with many sequences that are laughably written, elliptical to the point of parody or just plain boring. Anderson is out of his comfort zone, striving for the existential majesty of a Malick film, and frankly he seems out of his depth.

The Master is a film with an enquiring mind and an intriguing view of cultery - shown insightfully from the inside - but it's also extremely self-satisfied, entirely humourless and a good deal less than the sum of its parts. (2.5)

See also: My favourite Anderson film is still Punch-Drunk Love.

***


I thought it safer to Google the poster.

Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998) - Like every other boy who was 14 in 1998, I've seen two minutes of this film before. The rest of it's good too, probably better: a pervy, shallow but very entertaining neo-noir that plays like The Last Seduction made by FHM. Matt Dillon is a Gareth-Bale-faced guidance counsellor who's accused of rape by two students: a pair of lips with a blue bikini attached (Denise Richards) and a weed-smoking malcontent from the wrong side of the tracks (Neve Campbell). As his life is torn to shreds by Richards' wealthy mother and her society friends ahead of the much-publicised trial, he enlists the services of a lawyer and some time insurance fraudster (Bill Murray), who starts to look for dirt on the accusers, while cop Kevin Bacon sniffs around.

There's no depth to the characters and I do have an issue with the utilisation of such serious subjects in such a light-hearted film, but there's no quibbling with its entertainment value, and just as you think the momentum may be starting to flag, so the twists and turns start coming again, at breakneck speed, and don't you dare switch off once the credits begin to roll. Murray, who's not on screen for more than 10 minutes, steals the show as the low-rent but deceptively brilliant shyster, directed by John McNaughton, who drew such an interesting performance from him in Mad Dog and Glory, but who made his name with one of the best and most shocking films of the '80s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. George S. Clinton's swampy if repetitive score is another plus.

Incidentally, that scene (not the one with Kevin Bacon's penis), whilst a formative part of my adolescence, looks entirely gratuitous and a bit silly to grown-up eyes, not least because Campbell appears to be so incredibly uncomfortable, but it's still, y'know, alright. (3)

***


Not a great photo, but then it's not a great film.

Supercop 2 (Stanley Tong, 1996) - An idiotic, interminable spin-off from Supercop, one of the best actioners of the '90s, with Michelle Yeoh reprising her role as the high-kicking Inspector Yang, who pitches up in Hong Kong to fight bank robbers. She's always a joy to watch, with a balletic grace, an invigorating physicality and a cat-like ability to spring to improbable heights - or to fall from them, and land on her feet. Sadly the film has a terrible story, banal, ridiculous characters, and an abundance of abysmal dialogue (at least in the dub), with Yeoh simply given too few opportunities to do her thing. Many of the action scenes don't feature her at all, instead just offering endless footage of people firing machine guns. It's as if you've decided to watch a musical, and most of the songs just consist of people shouting (a bit like an Ethel Merman film, then). Jackie Chan, who starred in the original, appears only in a woeful three-minute cameo, dressed in drag. A couple of the fight scenes did briefly rouse me from my stupor, and Siu-Wang Fan isn't bad in a scrap, but this is still one of the most boring, confusing and poorly-directed films I've seen in quite a while. It's full of product placement too. I would tell you more, but I can barely see the computer screen through the smoke from these MARLBORO CIGARETTES BUY MARLBORO CIGARETTES BUY CIGARETTES CHOOSE MARLBORO DELICIOUS MARLBORO MARLBORO ARE THE BEST MARLBORO MARLBORO. (1.5)

***



Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) - It was John Wayne who started it all. Budd Boetticher needed a star for his next Western, Seven Men from Now, and his big-name producer had an idea. "Let's use Randolph Scott," said Wayne, "he's through". And so began a remarkable collaboration in which, to quote the director, he and his spirited team "shoved Randolph Scott up Duke's ass". Fans known them as the 'Ranown Cycle': seven lean, mean chamber Westerns usually featuring the athletic, stoic Scott as a bereaved gunslinger searching for redemption. The highlights, Seven Men, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, hold a strong case for being the best B-Westerns ever made, lit by breathtaking cinematography, Burt Kennedy's spare, poignant dialogue and a complex worldview that allows for a succession of fascinating antagonists. Ride Lonesome, which sees bounty hunter Scott escorting prisoner James Best to a hanging, accompanied by Pernell Roberts' mesmerising anti-hero and a debuting James Coburn, is probably the greatest of the lot: an action-packed, emotionally arresting oater that takes hold from the first, and just never lets go. (4)



Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960) - The last film in the Ranown Cycle is a fitting swansong: the saddest and most elegiac of the bunch, with a heavy human cost that recalls Douglas Fairbanks' farewell to swashbucklers, The Iron Mask. Randolph Scott stars as a mysterious stranger who frees a married woman (Nancy Gates) from captivity a year after she was swiped by Comanches. But with the Indians on the warpath and a reward posted for her return, the pair are soon forced into an uneasy alliance with a shady figure from his past (Claude Akins), and a pair of young gunmen with an unexpectedly human side. From the unorthodox opening to one of the greatest endings in Western history, Comanche Station is a masterful film, full of warmth and wisdom, but touched by an acute melancholia, and featuring a hero not unlike The Searchers' Ethan Edwards. Scott is more noble, certainly, and has a more progressive view of Native Americans, but he's a man consumed by his endless quest, which in the end isn't so different to Wayne's. (4)

***

Thanks for reading.

ClintFest '13 will return in Reviews #156.

Ten things I learned from Michael Winterbottom

The excellent British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom came to give a talk at St Anne's College in Oxford yesterday. I didn't make notes, as I didn't have my journalism hat on, but I do have a memory. Here are 10 things I learned:



1. A recurrent theme of his films is people in exile. This, more than any other themes or stylistic preoccupations, is a thread running through his work.

2. He favours a "cinema verite" visual style largely because it makes it easier to cut together various takes. Often he'll film actors talking to one another for 20 minutes, then chop the best bits together during editing. He doesn't watch rushes.

3. He doesn't have any favourite directors, as there are so many diverse and random elements in the filmmaking process that he thinks it's a nonsensical concept. He does enjoy many of Steven Soderbergh and Gaspar Noe's movies.

4. If he could have made any film of the past few years, it would be City of God.

5. His favourite experiences have been making In This World and working with Coogan, particularly on 24 Hour Party People, where he vicariously enjoyed that Factory Records feeling. His most stressful and least enjoyable project was The Shot Doctrine, as he spent six months compiling archive footage, before being told that wasn't what was wanted.

6. The graphic 9 Songs was partly a response to the endless conversations on the set of Code 46 about what precisely could be shown during the sex scenes. He says he has an inclination to "annoy", rather than provoke, but doesn't understand why anyone would be resistant to the idea of seeing people "making love" on screen.

7. He abhors a film with a "journey of discovery", because life isn't like that.

8. The idea behind Genova was wanting to explore the relationship between a father and his daughters. They kept coming up with different endings, but never found one they liked.

9. Jude, his film based on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, finishes sometime before the end of the source material, because the 500-word book is so densely plotted that shooting it all as a two-hour film would have made it "absurdly melodramatic".

10. He will never cast a non-professional actor and then ask them to act. The idea should be that they are able to bring an insight to a character that a professional never could, but this can only happen if the character is close to their real-life experiences. Casting a mixture of big-name stars and non-professional actors creates an atmosphere that is conducive to great performances.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Maurice Elvey, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Clint going to a girls' school - Reviews #154

Yo homeslice. Mo' reviews all up in yo' grill, starting with my birthday present from Mrs Rick.



The Life Story of David Lloyd George (Maurice Elvey, 1918) - Intended as a morale-booster in the wake of World War One, this staggeringly ambitious British epic simply disappeared when Elvey and his team were paid £20,000 by parties unknown to bury it just prior to release. Considered lost for decades, it was found in the house of Lloyd George's grandson more than 75 years later, and finally screened in 1996. Such is the film's scale of ambition and level of success that silent film scholars argue that if it had been released in 1918 as planned, it may have altered the course of British cinema forever.

Viewed almost a century on, it's a remarkable achievement: storytelling on a grand scale. The sequence depicting a riot at Birmingham Town Hall utilises 10,000 extras, intelligently orchestrated (well, once some of them stop grinning); there are victory parades, fog-shrouded war scenes and symbolic tableaus: France's Marianne raises her sword triumphantly upon a Great War battlefield, we flash back into American history, and receive a visit from the ghost of premiers past. There are rural scenes of breathtaking bucolic beauty, and tours of wartime factories which, even if they go on a bit, offer a valuable history lesson, and provide a glimpse of Elvey himself.

Made with the blessing of Lloyd George's family, and featuring a distinctly hagiographic tone, the film begins by showing his genuine birth certificate and snapshots of his parents, shoots extensively at genuine locations, and features numerous details and anecdotes from his career, shared by friends and confidantes, alongside his notable political triumphs. From a humble background, he becomes a solicitor, before his gift for oratory finds him a place in the House of Commons, then the cabinet, and then the hot-seat. He fights for the poor, runs away from the Suffragettes like a big girl's blouse, and then inspires his nation to triumph against the empire-builders of Germany - while lamenting the human cost of the conflict - in what may be a slightly fanciful retelling of the Great War. (I also can't help but notice that the French celebrate his uplifting wartime speech in Paris by waving white handkerchiefs in the air; typical French.)

Lloyd George is played, as an adult, by Norman Page, with Alma Reville - Hitchcock's wife and sometime collaborator - as his spouse, and Ernest Thesiger, the great Golden Age character actor, best-known for The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, as Joseph Chamberlain. It's Page's show, though, he's rarely off-screen and proves a charismatic screen presence, with a perma-pointing finger.



Such is its antiquity that the flaws are obvious to the modern viewer: there's little dramatic tension throughout the narrative, the scenes of ordinary people's lives being transformed by the beneficent title figure are heavy-handed in the extreme, and where the writers don't have access to speeches from the late 19th century, they're resistant to speculation, and so simply show Lloyd George speaking with no intertitles. There's also a truly baffling scene in which the film breaks off from its story about social reform to let us know that Dave enjoyed a day off and scored a bogey on the first hole of the golf course, an impressive achievement that's then expressed pictorially. Sadly, no mention is made of Lloyd George's greatest attribute; greater even than his golfing prowess. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls how he was showing a group of students around the Strangers' Gallery at the House of Commons when he happened to mention the former prime minister. At this point he was interrupted by a very old man, who rose to his feet and announced, "Lloyd George had a prick like a donkey".

As a director, Elvey shows extraordinary promise, but also comes up short compared to, say, Griffith, due to a marked lack of close-ups. The film is rousing and frequently compelling, with an eye for a crowd scene and an ear (or another eye?) for a great line of speech-making, but it's missing the human touch that comes from photographing the face. Elvey is a whizz with a long shot and a wonder with a montage, but a film is often too aloof if you can't read people's expressions. Having said that, on one of the rare occasions when we do get a medium close-up, it's in order to view what must be the most unconvincing false beard I've ever seen. Lloyd George's dad looks like someone has affixed a doormat to his face.

For all the film's highlights - which while strung together rather episodically are great in number - stretching from little Lloyd George shaking his fist at a grown-up buying off the family furniture, to refusing to say the catechism at Sunday school, through speeches in the Commons, a genuinely funny scene about a big liar, and that huge riot, my favourite is by far the short procession sequence, tinted in red, lit by night fires and accompanied by the loveliest portion of Neil Brand's beautiful score, in which Lloyd George's supporters celebrate his election with a sign that reads, "VICTORY FOR YOUNG WALES". Shot from high above, masterfully-composed and effortlessly moving, it's the highlight of an inevitably dated but extraordinarily confident and mightily impressive landmark in British silent cinema. (3.5)

See also: I was alerted to this wonderful movie by Elvey expert Lucie, who spoke about it on the Silent London podcast.

***



CINEMA: The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012) - People Magazine's two sexiest men of 2011, together at last.

It begins as Drive, turns into Prince of the City and then becomes a film all its own, and all the better for it: an epic tale of fathers and sons, heading inexorably for that place beyond the pines. Ryan Gosling stars as a stunt biker turned bank robber, with Eva Mendes as his ex-girlfriend - and the mother of his child - and Bradley Cooper a dedicated cop who turns up on his tail. Their actions, whether pre-planned or decided in a split-second, echo down the decades, informing the lives of their children, one a gentle loner stoner (Dane DeHaan), the other probably the most irritating character ever in a film (Emory Cohen).

Cianfrance's follow-up to the remarkable Blue Valentine is a vividly-directed movie full of invigorating action sequences, moments of pathos, and surprises in both plotting and characterisation. Yes, it strikes false notes on occasion and threatens to get bogged down in genre rehashing at others, but it's cerebral, emotional and visceral in the tradition of something like Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and has a sense of ambition that keeps it afloat - as well as some of the best performances we'll see this year. Gosling is extremely good, if doing something we've seen rather too many times, Mendes gives arguably her first showing of note, and Cooper builds on the goodwill he began stockpiling in Silver Linings with an extremely unusual, effective performance (and by wearing a nice shellsuit). There are also impressive supporting turns from the red-eyed Dane DeHaan, and particularly Ben Mendelsohn, as Gosling's confidante, while Middle-Aged Spread's Ray Liotta appears to have turned into Ed Balls.

Though the narrative is beset with a certain bittiness, there are a great many fine scenes, and the film acquires a considerable cumulative power as the emotions rise in the final third, culminating in that stunning scene at the titular spot. Having said that, I do have a problem with the film's message. As a teenager, I would have found Gosling's stylish, self-destructive hero an admirable and exciting alternative to his son's strait-laced adoptive father, but now I just think he's a bit of a prick. The idea that we should side with someone just because they look really fucking cool smoking a cigarette is one that I've largely dispensed with, and the suggestion that someone's bond with their biological father effortlessly and unquestionably overrides one with their loving, adoptive dad is hideously offensive. I do admire the film's sense of grandeur, though, its scope and scale, the energy of the action interludes, the artistry of much of the storytelling, and the intensity of the performances. And obviously the two really cute babies and the dancing dog. (3.5)

***



The Verdict (Don Siegel, 1946) - This superb Warner whodunit, set in Victorian London, stars Sydney Greenstreet as Scotland Yard's finest, who finds himself out of a job after sending an innocent man to the gallows. As he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, another body is found and the investigators begin to drown in a sea of red herrings. Siegel's first film behind the camera sags slightly in the middle, but it's astmospheric, meticulously-plotted and boasts a pair of stunning performances from Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, stealing the show as usual as the hero's macabre best friend. (3.5)

***

ClintFest '13



The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971)
- The worst thing about the American Civil War was that nobody got to have any sex. Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood is picked up in the woods, dying, by a girl picking mushrooms (Pamelyn Ferdin, who voiced Lucy in the Charlie Brown cartoons). Though her father perished at the hands of the Union, she takes him back to her schoolhouse, where the brooding invalid becomes a target of love, lust or both for the lonely, sex-starved, all-female inhabitants, including an incestuous headmistress (Geraldine Page), her naive protégé (Elizabeth Hartman) and a transparently horny coquette (Jo Ann Harris). Siegel's film may not paint on the broadest canvas, but it has as good a feel for the Civil War as any film I've seen, from the sepia-toned credits to the vivid snippets of battle, and, most tellingly here, the realities of living with but not within the conflict: tying a ribbon to your gate as a code for passing soldiers, consuming rumour and counter-rumour of the latest shifts in dominance - a war shadowed in the schoolhouse - and trying to balance one's humanity, or selfish needs, with one's duty. This vividly-recreated world is a backdrop for mind games and power games heated by a bubbling cauldron of awakening sexuality, and heading who-knows-where. It's a highlight of ClintFest so far, and jostling with Dirty Harry as the best of the Siegel-Eastwood collaborations. (4)

See also: If you only became aware of ClintFest '13 mere seconds ago, you can catch up here, here, here and here. Or not. Your choice. ***



Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Douglas Hickox, 1970) - This perverse adaptation of Joe Orton's play takes complex, loaded material that should really be played as a black farce, with elements of satire, kitchen sink drama and offbeat chiller, and turns it into a blunt, garish sex comedy, full of wobbly women, lascivious, lip-smacking businessmen and aggressively bespectacled old men shouting: "Bollocks!" It's as if The Servant had been taken off Harold Pinter and turned into Confessions of a Servant, starring Robin Askwith. Peter McEnery - who played Boy Barrett in Victim, the groundbreaking social drama that led to the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain - is Mr Sloane, a toned, blonde-haired murderer who charms his way into the house of a flabby, sexually frustrated housewife (Beryl Reid, far too old for the part and being outrageously irritating), shags her, and then sets about seducing her wealthy, repressed older brother (Harry Andrews). There's enough of the censor-baiting play, its themes and its sardonic one-liners to make it just about tolerable, and Alan Webb is amusing as the ailing Dadda, but it's far too broad, simplistic and ugly-looking to really score, and the scenes where the three main players really click into gear - McEnery asking Andrews for guidance, or Reid staring at her withered reflection in a mirror - are far outnumbered by those consisting of nothing but hamming and repetition. The bowdlerised ending is just an embarrassment. (2)

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Glenda Jackson, Trance, and flying daggers - Reviews #153



Of course the only thing anyone's really watching this week is Glenda Jackson's excoriating, yet deeply-moving takedown of Thatcher and her legacy. I've watched it four times already - speak for Britain, Glenda! - and never have the words "thousands" and "extra-ordinary" been bellowed over the sound of mewling right-wingers with such stentorian, earth-shaking intensity. I always did like her. I suppose I should review some films now.

***



*SPOILERS IN THE FINAL PARAGRAPH*
The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, 1971)
- The Hired Hand is a New Hollywood masterpiece from Peter Fonda, a reflective Western in which redemption comes not through revenge, but romance, in all its selfish, selfless glory. Its title comes from the stone of story at its centre, in which Fonda tries to atone for walking out on his wife (Verna Bloom, shorn of all vanity) by signing on as her hired hand, accompanied by his friend Warren Oates. That set-up suggests gender battles or sexual power-games, but what we get is something altogether quieter, subtler and more persuasive: a story about forgiveness, dependence and the healing of wounds, with an almighty kick in the tail that takes genre mythology and proceeds to do something unforgettable with it. The relationship between the reformed, gentle Fonda and his strong, unrepentant wife only accounts for perhaps a third of the running time, but gives the film such heart that it can justify the numerous asides and self-contained vignettes: a fatal shot from out of nowhere, an early-morning mission of vengeance and the shattering of a tranquil idyll as a young girl's dead body snags on a fishing line.

Fonda's Easy Rider is a great film, because it captures a feeling, epitomises an entire period and exploded an outmoded cinematic status quo, but it isn't a very good film. It's tacky, juvenile, boring and full of ridiculous visual quirks that make no narrative sense (there's a reason why no-one uses those juddering transitions it attempted to initiate, and it's that they're pointless and crap). The Hired Hand, however, is a film touched with that refined, adventurous brilliance that seemed to be in the air in '70s Hollywood. It's visually outstanding, but it's more than that: it's like Monte Walsh - William Fraker's film about the "last cowboy" - but loaded with longing and sexual angst, and equipped with some trippily avant garde imagery that still stays true to the genre, Fonda, photographer Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Frank Mazzola simply kicking Winton C Hoch's eye-popping compositions up a notch. The most remarkable has Fonda and Oates talking by a corral. As they turn gradually to silhouettes, close-ups of their faces illuminate the sky behind, tinted by the setting sun. It's a jaw-dropping trick that pitches them as Western icons, larger-than-life, greater than contemporary folk heroes and at one with the sprawling plains and vast skies that are - or were - America. Fonda isn't interested in a conventional narrative, more in evoking an atmosphere, and as he slips from one episode to the next, he layers one piece of footage - a body twisting in a river, horses stalking along the trail - over the next. It's odd, then, that some of the interior scenes in the early part of the film look flat and cheap, if not '50s-B-Western shoddy.

Fonda is superb, while Bloom, one of the best things about Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, gives a remarkable performance as a woman who refuses to repent after looking for sexual solace in his absence, but yearns to be loved - and not just wanted. It's only during her pivotal speech that I feel she falters, but perhaps subsequent viewings will be kinder. And Oates? Well, Oates is simply sensational. Perhaps only Jason Robards ever combined the scuzzy, the world-weary and the roguishly appealing as well as the toothy, grubby, bearded Oates, and as a good guy fighting the lust coursing through his body, he damn well walks away with the film. The Hired Hand is one of the great movies of the '70s: a unique, unsentimental vision that doesn't seek to dismantle the Western, as Altman would with McCabe and Mrs Miller, but to take its iconography and its stock characters somewhere new. The gunfighter still rides to the rescue. The showdown still happens. And his body still falls to the floor with that same sickening thud. But then a hired hand returns to a homestead and closes a door, and we realise that there was never a Western like it, and that none ever gave us an ending like this, in all its simple, beautiful and perfect ambiguity. (4)

***

A Zhang Yimou double-bill:



House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004) - A blind showgirl and the undercover agent sent to catch her run away together, pursued by scores of soldiers AND OH MY WORD, WILL YOU LOOK AT THOSE COLOURS, I THINK MY EYES HAVE AN ERECTION. Zhang Yimou's stunning, vivid, extremely green contribution to the wuxia genre is like opium for your optics: beautifully designed and filmed in colours both bold and gentle, vibrant but never garish, its vast widescreen frame filled with an abundance of detail: drums, trees and ribbons all seen as if seen for the first time.

There's also like a story. Zhang Ziyi stars as a blind, dancing prostitute and enthusiastic insurgent - allied to a revolutionary movement called the House of Flying Daggers - who's trying to bring down the authoritarian government. The government, however, has other ideas, as captain Andy Lau arrests her and then sends his pal Takeshi Kaneshiro to break her out of prison, inveigle his way into her confidence, and so trap the whole House. It's a great set-up, with something of It Happened One Night about it - though the stakes are higher -and for over an hour the film carries confidently along that path, its story of romantic awakening finding time for a song, two dances and a flurry of fights. Then five minutes of twists send it careering off in another direction. That change of tack looks unpromising at first, threatening to skew our sympathies, but boy does it ultimately deliver. (Just to confirm: yes it does.)

Wuxia movies are, of course, comparable to musicals in their construction, and if Fred and Ginger's first starring vehicle, The Gay Divorcee, was a sophisticated comedy with periodic concessions to superlative song and dance, then Flying Daggers isn't really a martial arts film, more a love story of epic proportions (it must be, look at that snow), with kung fu interludes. Those interludes are a mixed bunch: exhilarating to begin with - particularly during the rough-and-ready prison break sequence and Ziyi's flight through the woods - then too samey, too gimmicky and too overloaded with fantasy elements and baddies moving in Oompa-Loompa unity to really engage. By the time our heroes are trapped inside a prison of lusciously green bamboo that's just come at them from three dozen angles, you're marvelling at the look of the film, while wondering if perhaps we could just get back to Ziyi kicking people in the head.

The problem may be that the cast lacks many proper proponents of martial arts, meaning a lot of close-ups, quick cuts and some busy, CGI-led direction that follows the flight of objects: more 42nd Street (where the camera dances) than Top Hat (where Fred does). Having said that, the editing is absolutely virtuosic - a wonder to behold - with one notable exception: what kind of pervert puts jump cuts in a sword duel? In some ways the film reminds me of Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, sharing that breathtaking visual originality, rich romantic sensibility and fondness for a nice field. Like that movie, while it offers countless entertaining diversions and a litany of quirks, it succeeds because of the strength of feeling generated by its central love story. In terms of obvious influences, Flying Daggers is enough of a one-off to escape easy categorisation, but I do wonder if the early scenes in the brothel were inspired by Satyajit Ray's bright, brilliant satire of colonialism, The Chess Players.

Yimou's film stutters a little at the beginning of the final third, as plot twists send the story juddering to a halt, and I wish certain action scenes didn't feel as synthetic, but its first 80 is brilliant, its ending is unforgettable and between that there's enough swordplay, sentiment and spellbinding cinematography to keep you nothing short of enraptured. Ziyi is in scintillating form, displaying that combination of the earthy and the ethereal that served her so well in Crouching Tiger - as well as that predilection for a) Dressing up as a boy, and b) Showing everybody her shoulders all the time - though while Kaneshiro makes a good fist of his cliched part, Lau has a rather lacklustre crack at a more interesting one. Flying Daggers is flawed, yes, but it's remarkable too: engaging, enthralling and simply extraordinary to look at. (3.5)



Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002) - At last, a film extolling the virtues of a brutal, oppressive regime! I haven't seen one of those since Triumph of the Will. Do you know what that smell is? I'm not sure, but I think it might be fascism! Jet Li, exhibiting all the expressiveness of a Botoxed cyborg, is a minor government official who wins an audience with the king after crushing the state's three most notorious dissenters. But all may not be what it seems, prompting much Rashomon-ish remembrance, each vignette given a striking colour scheme and a directorial style all its own. Yimou's first martial arts movie is big on spectacle, with a cast of thousands, and its epic sweep is allied to stunning, distinctive photography: the scene in which the world turns red as Zhang Ziyi perishes is one of the most breathtaking bits of visual artistry ever to grace a cinema screen. At a more prosaic level, Hero is also notable for featuring only the second screen teaming of genre icons Li and Donnie Yen - whose previous film together was the greatest kung fu movie I've ever witnessed: Once Upon a Time in China II - and reuniting the leads of Wong Kar-wai's incredible In the Mood for Love, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.

A shame then, that Hero - despite that uniquely arresting imagery and a hugely promising pedigree - is such a hollow, misguided venture: shallow and aloof, with a hideous totalitarian undercurrent that dominates both the tedious opening and a climax that would have had Stalin licking his lips. You know his line about one death being a tragedy, but a million deaths being a statistic? That's this film. Enjoy! It's also a movie where you see things happening, but you don't really feel them. Characters die, betray or are betrayed, but they seem distant and hard to relate to, while the story is fractured, convoluted and hard to understand. And while Yimou is a magnificent filmmaker, he's no action director. There are mesmerising shots throughout, which extends to the action sequences, but the fights themselves have little energy and no rhythm: choppy and feverishly edited in a way that's both distracting and pointless.

If you have Li and Yen, you don't need to cut endlessly, or have your camera flying through the air, you just hold steady and shoot. Yimou may be the superior stylist, but he could learn a thing or 10 from Tsui Hark about how to make a mythic martial arts film while establishing a visceral intensity in the fight scenes. Flying Daggers was certainly a step up in terms of choreography and spatial coherence, but once the fists start flying (or, indeed, the outsized pieces of bamboo), these films start floundering. There a couple of exciting moments during Li and Yen's monochrome fantasy duel, but this film just isn't a very good showcase for these talented martial artists.

There are virtues all over the place in Hero, but aside from the way the film looks - which is unequivocally fantastic - each one is met by a vice; y'know, like yin and yang. Periodically, the story latches on to some idea of clarity and wonder, the script matching the visual invention that drips from every frame, but these moments of incisiveness are scattered and disconnected, and not helped by characters dying and coming back to life with alarming regularity. The orchestral score is rousing and memorable, but it's also rather repetitive. And while Ziyi and Maggie Cheung are actresses of extraordinary emotional attractiveness, and both are excellent, they're ill-served by that confused, confusing, bitty and ultimately rather tiresome story, an oddly inconsistent performance from Tony Leung and uniformly lacklustre ones from the rest of the male cast (particularly Li, who has been replaced by a blank-faced automaton). Having said that, the king does make a noise like a motorbike when he runs around, which is hilarious. I had high hopes for Hero, but it didn't come close to matching them. Gobsmacking photography aside, it's a bit of a mess. And a dangerous one at that. (2.5)

***



Splash (Ron Howard, 1984) - This I liked. Produce trader Tom Hanks. who fears he may never fall in love, is reunited with the mermaid he met when he was eight (Daryl Hannah). She arrives at the Statue of Liberty, starkers, and while he doesn't know her secret, painfully unfunny scientist Eugene Levy does. According to a copy of Empire lying about in my front room, this movie filled Charlize Theron with lust, and you can see why. It's a headily romantic movie with lovely performances by the leads, an enjoyable one from John Candy as Hanks's wide boy brother and an abundance of dry, low-key comedy, which partly explains why Levy's endlessly shouty supporting turn feels so completely out of place. Perhaps the film goes a bit too gloomy for a bit too long during the customary "down time", but it's still one of the decade's best rom-coms. And while I laughed a lot, its greatest strengths are an old-fashioned sensibility that overrides its '80s trappings, and an unshakable conviction in its wonderfully appealing central romance. (3.5)

***



Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2005) - Kung Fu Hustle is like a martial arts movie as imagined by Frank Tashlin: a dizzying genre mash-up turned live-action cartoon that slings everything at the wall, from Tommy Guns to spoofery to sparring matches, and comes up smelling of bonkers. The story, if you can call it that, sees a slick urban gang of be-hatted, machine-gun sporting hoods trying to crush a poor rural district under its heel. Unfortunately for them, there are an improbable number of retired kung fu warriors working in a single village square. As the mobsters get their arses handed to them, reformed good guy (writer-director Stephen Chow) attempts to ingratiate himself with the gang, spurning the advances of the mute girl he once tried to save from bullies. With a film this frenzied, freewheeling and full of energy - something like wuxia's answer to Hellzapoppin', or Chuck Jones - of course not all of it hits the target, and Yuen Woo-Ping's purposefully OTT fight scenes work best when they at least pay lip-service to reality, but it's frequently funny, has a genuinely sweet romance at its centre and is impossible to second-guess, which is a welcome trait in any movie. (3)

***



CINEMA: Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) - This reminds me of the time I shaved my pubes to impress James McAvoy. Mr Tumnus plays an auctioneer hospitalised during an art theft committed by Vincent Cassel and his gang. They think he knows what happened to a priceless Goya but, since he's now an amnesiac, they send him to a pouty hypnotist (Rosario Dawson), and from then on it's twist, twist, twist, naked Dawson, twist, naked Dawson again, another twist. The latest from one of Britain's most reliable - if not greatest - filmmakers is a flashy, well-directed thriller that's happy to give its audience a bit of credit, cutting between scenes from different timeframes, dropping tantalising clues as to its direction, and yet still keeping a couple of surprises up its sleeve. It does a reasonable job of shifting our sympathies as the back stories hove into view, and exhibits Boyle's handiness with an action set-piece, boasting a handful that throb with kinetic energy and dissolute discombobulation, soundtracked by a thumping score.

It's been called "Hitchcockian", but it's not quite. There's a little of Spellbound in there (art, amnesia and vivid dreams), but it has a whole lot more in common with the '60s thrillers Charade and particularly Mirage, both written by Peter Stone and said to bear the mark of the Master. Where those films are superior, though, isn't just in the crackling dialogue, it's in reeling you in with gimmicks and even gags, then giving you characters to empathise with and root for. Trance doesn't really do that. McAvoy and Cassel are passable and Dawson is quite good - while shot in that adoring, slobbering way that can only mean "this actress is my girlfriend" - but the film would rather give you another twist than a human feeling, and the effect is much like the way you pine for something savoury if you spend a day stuffing your face with cake. (Yes, I am quite greedy.) Trance is consistently entertaining, keeping you guessing much of the time, but it's more Shallow Grave than Slumdog: a malevolent rug-puller that just about delivers the goods as a mystery, but offers little that will linger after the credits have rolled. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading. I'll do a bit more ClintFest in a little while.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Crouching Tiger, Thora Birch in a hole, and still more from ClintFest '13 - Reviews #152

I watched a few movies over the Easter break. Now I'm going to tell you about them.

A couple of rewatches:



Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) - I hadn't seen Ang Lee's metaphysical, phantasmagorical epic kung fu love story since it blew me away at the cinema as a 16-year-old; remiss of me, I know. Twelve years on, and fuck me it looks good. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh play quiet, lovelorn warriors, kept apart by a shared sense of honour, whose tentative steps towards romance are interrupted most abruptly by highly-strung, arse-kicking governor's daughter Zhang Ziyi, and the high-pitched psychopath she calls master.

The script is blessed with a rare profundity, dealing with massive themes in a way that's elliptical yet grounded, and the methodically paced story - which includes a ludicrously ambitious half-hour flashback sequence dealing with Ziyi's formative romance - is offset by exuberant fights of fancy in which Yun-Fat or Yeoh zip skywards to pad speedily across rooftops in pursuit of the excitable, foul-mouthed little tyke, trading kicks and punches with her as they go. There are also more earthy - though no less remarkable - skirmishes that take place at ground level, including fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping's nod to his own work in The Matrix, as Ziyi firmly grasps her stolen sword, the Green Destiny, and Yeoh goes at her with everything she can find: a lance, a pole, a big ball on a stick (sorry to get all technical on you) and finally a dock-off sword of her own.

These fight scenes attain a breathless intensity, especially when the remarkable Yeoh is involved, fuelled by a pounding traditional score and their timeless context: if you feel inexorably tied to these characters, weighed down as they are by these emotions, then it matters more when they're fighting for their lives. There's also something truly fantastical about that first action sequence, as if Jet Li had suddenly turned up in A Short Film About Killing: 20 minutes of steady, timeless talkiness and then an explosion of wonder, as Ziyi's masked thief heads for the clouds. Having said all that, Crouching Tiger didn't reinvent screen action in the way that prissy critics claimed back in 2000. They'd just been too sniffy to watch a wired-up wuxia film - like Once Upon a Time in China or Iron Monkey - until the director of The Ice Storm deigned to make one.

What Lee does bring to the genre, though, is a serious-mindedness and a firm grasp of mythology that's too often missing from kung fu films. When the film wants to be funny, it is (well, apart from that completely incongruous gag in the middle of the frenzied Yeoh-Ziyi HQ battle), but it has little of the mugging and none of the weak comic interludes that drag down too many martial arts movies. Its characters are remarkable, their thoughts concerned with lofty ideals, but they are also recognisable human beings, played to a tee by proper actors.

When you cast Chow Yun-Fat in a kung fu film, you forego a certain skill and athleticism (I think he's doubled in some long shots exhibiting Li Bu Mai's technical prowess), but gain immeasurable weight and authority. Ziyi is a trained dancer, not a martial artist, but she has an acrobatic grace, and negotiates her character's dramatic complexities with admirable skill. And Yeoh, well, she's both a great actress and the definitive female action star of the last couple of decades, so she's alright. I've always held that Armando Ianucci was correct, and that a man has truly reached adulthood when he knows what a radiator bleed key is. Perhaps, though, it's the moment when he watches this film and thinks that while Zhang Ziyi's not bad looking, she's no Michelle Yeoh. (Last time, it was: "Wowsers, that Zhang Ziyi is gorgeous; who's that old woman?") In support, Chang Chen is good as "Dark Cloud", the bum-fluffed desert bandit who engages in a Bringing Up Baby/Ashes of Time hybrid of a burgeoning love story with Ziyi that fuses the battle-of-the-sexes, period romance and "I've-got-your-comb"/"Fuck off, give it back" genres.

Crouching Tiger is one of the great films of last decade, often claustrophobic in scale, but epic in its treatment of human emotion, and chock-full of magic, magnificence and good old-fashioned fucking mayhem. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful - hell, it is beautiful - and where it's going, we don't needs roads, or even floors. Goodness knows how it took me 12 years to rewatch it. See you in 2025, when I'll probably think Jade Fox is hotter than Michelle Yeoh and be begging her to stick her poisoned dart in me. (4)

***



Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) - A film so great that even Chris Tucker is good in it. I loved Silver Linings to pieces when I saw it at the cinema - entranced by its originality, performances and rich sense of character - and it's even better second time around. I wondered if there might be padding somewhere, but there isn't: every scene serves the story and that dramatic spark lit in the opening scene never fades. Bipolar Bradley Cooper is released from a psychiatric hospital eight months after almost beating someone to death, and tries to get his life back on track, looking to overcome his illness by finding "silver linings" in the everyday. Meeting self-confessed "slut", Jennifer Lawrence, the two strike up a bargain: she'll get a letter to his estranged wife (thus sort-of-circumventing a restraining order), if he'll be her partner in a dance contest.

For all the praise heaped on Lawrence, an actress of almost supernatural talent, I think she was lucky to get the Oscar ahead of Wallis - I suspect it has something to do with the old "I fancy her" criterion. She's excellent, but not Hushpuppy-excellent, and really it's Cooper's film. He dominates the movie with a complex, layered and ultimately unforgettable characterisation that does everything you want it to, and then some, never crossing into melodrama or cliche; always ringing true. There aren't many such revelations in cinema: where apparently limited, one-note performers suddenly rip off the lid, and out pours this explosion of talent - Ben Stiller in Tenenbaums and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love are other rare examples - and so when it happens, it's invigorating to witness.

The supporting cast is also superb. De Niro is better than he has been in years and Jacki Weaver (looking a lot like Brigitte Mira) gives a superb performance as Cooper's mum - it's nice to see the Academy nominate such an unshowy performance - while Tucker, appearing as a nervy patient who's obsessed with a) The law, and b) His hair, confounds all those who thought he was a load of old rubbish. Like me. I suppose I better add him to that "revelations" list. Tentatively.

Silver Linings is a bold film and a brilliant one, expertly walking a tightrope, as it neither mythologises mental illness nor mines it for cheap humour. Yes, the gnawing unhappiness of Melancholia may be more akin to most people's experiences of depression (not the bit where the world ends or where she shags someone on a golf course, the other bit), but I find Silver Linings an inspirational and captivating film: funny, romantic and blissfully entertaining, yes, but with a point and a purpose that makes it truly great. That and the fact that Chris Tucker is good in it. (4)

***

ClintFest '13

Yeah, this is still going on. You can join in if you want. You just have to watch some Clint Eastwood films. That's it.



Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel, 1970) - A mercenary (Clint Eastwood) and a sweary, resourceful nun (Shirley MacLaine) - who he rather fancies - try to outwit lowlifes, Indians and the French, and so make his fortune, in this Mexican-set Western. The episodic story, by B-Western legend Budd Boetticher, is good but erratic, and the same goes for Ennio Morricone's score (which includes an earworm of a theme for MacLaine) and Siegel's direction - a sumptuous tracking shot one minute, a clumsy, uninteresting composition the next. It's good fun, though, with some nice moments of pathos and comedy, and excellent chemistry between the leads. Eastwood is excellent, gradually expanding his familiar, taciturn persona with flashes of vulnerability and even a nice little song, but MacLaine is even better, and I mean Apartment-good, tackling her character's intentional contradictions, and very real faith, with intelligence, imagination and great beauty of spirit. (3)



Tightrope (Clint Eastwood, 1984) - There's a sign on a nightclub door in this film that says: "If nudity offends you, don't come in", and it's good advice, what with all the clothesless women slinking around, getting into jacuzzis or oiling themselves up and wrestling on stage as a midget referee adjudicates and Clint watches. (Yes really.) He plays a cop, divorced and with two young kids, who's trying to track down a sex murderer, while accidentally getting really horny every time he has to go and interview anyone. All that changes when he strikes up a genuinely affecting friendship with tender, understanding anti-rape activist Genevieve Bujold. This creepy thriller is tawdry, sordid and often just plain old horrible, but it's also very well-acted - particularly by Eastwood and his real-life daughter Alison - features a distinctive jazzy score and offers some interesting insights into love, lust and "the darkness inside all of us". Like Sudden Impact, it shows that the mid-'80s Clint just couldn't keep away from fairground equipment at night. And like so many of the star's later movies, it studies and subverts the prejudices rife in his earlier work - in this case the way that films like Coogan's Bluff and High Plains Drifter took rape so alarmingly lightly. (2.5)

***

Other stuff:



Police Story 3: Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992) - Hong Kong "supercop" Kevin Chan (Jackie Chan), who as you'll know alternates incredible feats of derring-do with getting whacked in the balls, takes on his most OTT assignment yet, battling drug traffickers with the help of high-kicking Chinese military official Michelle Yeoh. They go deep undercover, getting involved in a prison break and a hilariously excessive jungle shoot-out, and the result is one of the most purely enjoyable actioners of the '90s. In its shortened US cut (which contains incongruous hip-hop and dubbing, though at least the stars do their own voices), the film consists of a string of astonishing action set pieces, held together by the merest suggestion of plot, and interrupted only occasionally by some surprisingly bearable comedy. Jackie is great, being swung across the city by a helicopter at the climax - only to end up atop a moving train, like his hero Buster Keaton - but Yeoh completely steals the show, offering a series of staggering stunts and fight scenes. Like Jackie at the start of the original Police Story, she latches onto a lorry and refuses to be budged, but that's only the start of it: there are artful leaps through windows (another Keaton speciality), split-kicks at head height, and a gobsmacking piece of daredevilry near the close, as she lands a motorbike on that speeding train. I'm keen to see the authentic HK version of the movie, but this isn't bad for now: a popcorn movie of the highest order, and perhaps the only time Jackie's been bested on screen since he stopped working with Yuen Biao. (3.5)

***



The Hole (Nick Hamm, 2001) - Wooden teenagers play out Rashomon very badly in this risible horror-thriller, which is clunky and embarrassing in that special way that only British films can be. Thora Birch - speaking in a very Aussie "English" accent - emerges from a disused bunker covered in blood. She'd climbed in to try to snare the emo of her dreams, but her three companions - rounded out by long-headed rugger player Laurence Fox and the 16-year-old Keira Knightley, flashing her tits for no discernible reason - had put their lives in danger to avoid a geography field trip. What an extremely credible set-up; now let's find out who's telling the truth about what went on down there: Birch or a potentially malevolent nerd who sounds like Tony Blair. Birch - who gave such an extraordinary performance the same year in the decade's best film, Ghost World - is quite good, and there's a well sexy scene where a green-faced Knightley vomits profusely into a toilet, but The Hole is a thin, unrewarding and ultimately pointless exercise entirely lacking in thrills, scares and, in its second half, anything even resembling real human emotion. (1.5)

***


Oh look, it's the back of Olivier Gourmet's head again.

The Son (Dardenne brothers, 2002) - A fastidious, haunted carpenter (Olivier Gourmet), who helps young offenders, takes on his son's murderer as an apprentice in this draining, often stunning drama from the Dardenne brothers. That fascinating premise is given mature and unsentimental treatment that compares favourably with the similar In the Bedroom. While, in my limited experience, the Dardennes' films tend to end with a fraught confrontation in a wood, followed by a brief, understated moment of catharsis, it's never quite clear where this story is heading or what the protagonist's plans are - if indeed he knows. Their movies are so richly realistic as to sometimes appear humdrum, providing a meticulous presentation of everyday monotony. And here some of the photography choices are downright peculiar: I've certainly never been better-acquainted with the back of an actor's head. But they clearly believe that you can only understand a character by understanding their way of life and the rhythms within it, and that you can only observe such things properly by literally following them around.

They also clearly feel a great affinity with young offenders, unusual in today's world, repeatedly portraying them as victims of society, so it's interesting to see the story told from their victims' side. My only complaint is that the film, while startlingly original and beautifully acted, is ultimately too restrained for its own good - certainly its selfish, unrepentant teenager is harder to side with than Rosetta or The Kid with a Bike. The decision to have him lament only the time he spent behind bars is a curious one that fatally undercuts the denouement. There's a feeling that this should have been a truly great film, whereas it's only a very good one. Actually, that's not my only complaint. The idea that a table football champion would play without keeping one hand on the goalie is ridiculous. What do they take us for, idiots? (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.