Wednesday, 27 July 2011

On Tour

***
The rather brilliant Mathieu Amalric co-wrote and directed this story of a troupe of American burlesque performers on tour in France. Amalric himself plays the tour manager. Great news, because ever since seeing the powerhouse performance of his left eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I’m always keen to see it (and the rest of his body) perform.

His directing style is loose. Improvisation is king and by this route he achieves a fresh and realistic feel. While the burlesque artistes are professionals - for all of them - this is their first acting gig. He draws pretty powerful performances from some of them too.

Ex-TV producer Joachim Zand (Amalric) has a train wreck of a life. He returns to his home country from the USA, bringing with him a bevy of burlesque performers, drinking, laughing, and cavorting around the coast of France. His job is, effectively, herding cats. While attempting to start anew, by means of this tour, he faces a lifetime of baggage catching up with him. For example, there is an uncomfortable plot thread involving his two estranged sons.

The burlesque itself is very entertaining, albeit more comical (and often spectacle) than sexy. The likes of Mimi le Meaux and Dirty Martini deliver knowing, contemporary twists on an old-fashioned art form. The routines are shot from offstage and from the very backs of theatres (i.e. from the point of view of those on tour) and done so evocatively you can almost smell the nipple tassel glue.

Although the film brilliantly evokes the spirit of Cassavetes and the Nouvelle Vague I can’t help but think the plot is a little slight. I feel I never really understood Joachim. But being something of a wounded animal he does have his guard up a lot so maybe that is intentional. Saying all that, Amalric is a undeniable talent to keep an eye on. Or maybe even two.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Another Year

****
I once stopped Mike Leigh on Great Marlborough Street in Soho. Ever the polite Englishman, I awkwardly gushed, “I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your films over the years.” He offered me his hand and said, “Well, it’s very nice to be bothered.” That remark sort of sums up Another Year – he makes all the bother seem enjoyable. Then again, you could say that of his entire back catalogue.

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a loving, and most notably, happy couple. The trouble is they’re surrounded by miserable people. Possibly more downbeat than Mike Leigh’s usual fare it is still very much a life-affirming story. The more Tom and Gerri give, the more they get. By which, I mean, they are richly rewarded with happiness.

Broadbent and Sheen are fantastic as the dream friends/ perfect Mum and Dad. There are so many good performances in this film but it’s frustrating – as with much of Leigh’s work - when some stray a little into parody. One of whom, was Lesley Manville. She received a lot of nominations but, personally, I found her a bit over the top. Notable mention to Martin Savage – although the role is small, he appears out of the blue like a heat-seeking missile. Having only otherwise seen him as the flouncy BBC writer who assists Ricky Gervais’s character in Extras, the intensity of his performance rendered him completely unrecognisable. (I had to look him up.)

By the way, the “A Film by Mike Leigh” credit is totally unnecessary. We’re well aware you’re an auteur, Mr Leigh. Actually, I believe the “A Film by” tag is always unnecessary. To be fair, he’s not the only culprit. (By a long shot.) For example, the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire was written by Simon Beaufoy, it was adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, yet was still touted as “A Film by Danny Boyle”. At least Another Year was written (and entirely so) by Leigh himself.

 

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

13 Assassins

****
Director Takashi Miike, he of insane shocks fame (see Audition and Ichi the Killer for examples) gives us something more conventional here - dare I say, old-fashioned. Doesn’t mean it’s not lacking in shocks. While not on an obvious horror bent, Miike has not softened in his approach. The body count is high and the blood flows freely. Some of the imagery is give-you-nightmares gory.

Said assassins’ target is unhinged psychopath Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), a feudal lord threatening to bring chaos to these ahem, peaceful times. The man is so evil, had the likes of Ghandi been in the audience even he (as we all were) would have been baying for the man’s blood. Ageing samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is hired to terminate his command with extreme prejudice and recruits a team of samurai badasses to do just that.

It’s an oft-seen emblem but one I’ll never tire of: a group of outnumbered men facing certain death for a noble cause. An obvious comparison is Seven Samurai but I like to think of it more as The Wild Bunch with swords. It’s also a witty script that maintains the samurai ethos and still speaks to philistines like me.

Except for a moment of unnecessary, and glaringly-obvious, CG animals, the film is very pure. Unlike the otherworldliness of Crouching Tiger and Hero, this is more grounded in reality. (It is based on a real event.) Doesn’t mean to say it isn’t a spectacle. It is. The climactic battle is relentless. Michael Bay sprang into my mind while watching (although I tried to fight it) namely, his destruction of Chicago in a recent little film based on a popular child’s toy. Actually, I’m proud to say I haven’t seen Transformers 3: The Search for Plot but I hear it similarly builds to a wild climax. That, I hope, is where the similarity ends. The slow pace of the build-up makes this climax so much more satisfying. (Although, the samurai recruiting scenes are very cool in their own quiet way.) The ultimate battle is structured beautifully. Each different fight is unique and leaves you screaming for more cinema like this.


American Heart (1992)

****
More from The Dude Abides season at the NFT demonstrating not just Jeff Bridges’ ability to pick roles but to champion interesting projects. (He also produced the film.)

Martin Bell has only ever directed one feature work of fiction and, impressively, this is it. Inspired by his documentary Streetwise, American Heart takes a close look at those inhabiting the seamier edges of Seattle society. It's gritty and often unpleasant albeit sharply observed and dryly funny. The film is populated by street kids, pimps and prostitutes but it is a powerful father/son story that is the focus.

Jack Kelson (Bridges) has just got out of jail and wants to put the life of crime behind him. His estranged son Nick (Edward Furlong) shows up wishing to share this new start. Initially Jack resists but they get a room together in a cheap hotel and their bonds develop. He gets a job as a window washer and, unsurprisingly, the straight life proves to be tough. The ensuing fallout tests their already-fragile relationship.

Muscular and long-haired, Jeff Bridges looks and feels every bit the hard-drinking, tough guy, former thief. Edward Furlong – here just a year after Terminator 2 – proved again he had an absurd talent for such a young man. He achieves a balance of toughness and vulnerability in a very moving performance.

I’d never heard of this film, which admittedly, made it an even better watch. It’s a rare treat these days, for so many of us, to go in un-primed for a film. Even films premiering at festivals will have some kind of buzz – good or bad - surrounding them. But creeping in under the radar with little fuss this is indicative of Bridges moniker (till recent Oscar glory) as Least Appreciated Actor in Hollywood.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Cutter’s Way (1981)

**** 
I hate this cliché but what the hell... they don't make 'em like this any more. If they're not big enough words for you, then here’s another sweeping statement: Alex Cutter is one of the greatest characters ever committed to celluloid.

I saw this as part of the Jeff Bridges retrospective at the NFT, The Dude Abides but it's John Heard as the eponymous Cutter who steals the film. The role would have been a gift to any actor. Thank heaven it wasn’t wasted on Heard. The one-eyed, double amputee 'Nam veteran staggers around on his stick, raging against the world and everyone in it. The yin to his yang is Richard Bone (Bridges). Bone is a handsome, stylish ladies’ man while the eye-patched Cutter is a shambolic drunk and, in his own words, “a cripple”. Bone is charming whereas Cutter enjoys being rude. Bone is diplomatic and Cutter is consistently inappropriate.

One rainy night in Santa Barbara, Bone witnesses a murder and suspects it is a local wealthy businessman. Cutter insists they bring him to justice and pursues the opportunity with Ahab-like zeal.

Bridges holds his own in the less flashy role. He should be commended for not being acted off screen by such a lunatic performance. Similarly, think Cruise in Rain Man or Wahlberg in The Fighter both lending overlooked support, respectively, to the oscar-winning Hoffman and Bale. No such acknowledgements for Cutter’s Way, however. Its release was botched by United Artists and was ultimately bulldozed at the box office by the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Arthur, and that other eye-patch flick, Escape from New York. While I have no problem with any of these films, it is indicative of an ending of a golden age of cinema. Cutter’s Way is a seventies hangover with that decade’s depth and sense of purpose. Suffice to say, it was widely shunned by eighties audiences.

NB: It is readily available on DVD and an essential part of any film enthusiast’s collection.



Saturday, 9 July 2011

Henry’s Crime

**
It looked good on paper: a gently comedic caper led by a likeable cast and headed by a talented director. The film is well-intentioned but let down by a duff script. There are moments nearing sweet, tender, and poignant but they don’t quite reach. Again, it’s nearly-but-not-quite funny. The characterisation is paper-thin and clichés abound. It has only just come to my attention that it was written by Sacha Gervaisi, who scripted The Terminal. I notice they didn’t put that on the DVD.

Henry (Keanu Reeves) unwittingly becomes part of a bungled bank job and goes to jail. On his release he plans to rob the same bank with his cellmate (James Caan) - his logic being he has already served the time for the crime. To do this, and without giving too much away, he needs to perform in The Cherry Orchard in a theatre nearby alongside his girlfriend Julie (Vera Farmiga).

Although I know a lot of people do, I don’t have a problem with Keanu. From Ted Logan to Jack Traven to Neo, I’ve always liked him on screen (NB: when the casting has been right). Here it’s not so right and he flounders in the role. Caan and Farmiga do the best they can with the material.

We can’t blame everything on the script. Director Malcolm Venville should have done something better with it. It is his job to make the script, just as with every other component part of the film, work. Some things that occur are so hokey it’s embarrassing. For example, the theatre company run rehearsals with the entire cast in full costume weeks before opening night. In cinematic terms, the heist doesn’t quite work. And that’s without being too nerdy about it. There are some glaring logistical errors I can’t imagine anyone will miss. Venville bathes the film in heavy grades of blues and green. This is fine for a car advert but here it does nothing but detract from the intentionally-glum locale of Buffalo, NY.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Four Lions

****
It's no surprise that the dream team of Chris Morris and Peepshow writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong has produced a very funny script. Of course, the film is in no way offensive to anyone except perhaps those defending the rights of morons. (I'd say Four Lions is not really about Islam. It's about getting things wrong.) The staggering levels of stupidity are just priceless but more of that later. Still, it takes balls that clang to make jokes regarding a notoriously humourless religion like Islam. As far as I am aware there is no Fatwa issued on Morris. Phew.

Four Lions follows the misadventures of a small group of fanatical moslems hellbent on blowing something up. The initial plan, hilariously, is to bomb a mosque "to radicalise the moderates". They settle for detonating themselves on the London marathon thus ensuring their place in paradise. It's a kind of Suicide Bombing for Dummies except the dummies are the suicide bombers. Just when you think they can't do anything more retarded they do. It's a lovely dynamic, the way the group follows the "knowledgeable" ones - Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Barry (Nigel Lindsay) - with unquestioning, wide-eyed enthusiasm. It's a similar tradition to the local defence force putting their trust in Captain Manwairing or Harry Dunne hanging on Lloyd Christmas' every word. The performances here, portraying the dumb and indeed, the dumber are just wonderful.

It is evident the writers really know their subject matter. The DVD extras include a pair of darkly disturbing documentaries involving British moslems and the difficulties they face. I don't doubt the research involved was exhaustive because it shows. Morris et al certainly know their Koran. Some of the jokes cleverly reference Islam, some are just brilliantly silly. There is much hilarity gained from the characters incomprehension of why exactly they're doing what they're doing ("I think I'm confused but I'm not sure"). 

Morris' directs the action capably in this his debut feature. He often lets the scene go on a little longer than the perceived wisdom might suggest it should. It makes us, the viewer squirm a little and brings to mind his work on the fantastically bizarre TV show, Jam.




Friday, 1 July 2011

Potiche

****
Potiche is a word for “decorative vase” but also a term for “trophy wife” and Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is just that. When her husband is taken hostage by the workers at his umbrella factory she takes over and is given a chance to unlock her potential. The year is 1977 and womankind still has a lot to prove, especially in this provincial French setting. Amidst the rampant sexism she goes from strength to strength in this feelgood French flick. Fabrice Luchini gives good sleaze as her husband and Gerard Depardieu plays the local mayor who has some nice chemistry with Deneuve.

The film’s seventies theme offers a camp charm. It’s not a particularly subtle comedy (it has all the hallmarks of a play and was adapted from one) but the key players do not descend into farcical performances. Deneuve in particular gives a quietly effective performance. While her unfabled beauty may have diminished, her acting has only got better.

Alongside the main equal rights issue, Potiche gives us a look at a politically-divided 1970s France. This aids the film’s jocular nature, supplying us with some fun - let’s face it – stereotypes and director Francois Ozon gets away with it because it’s a period piece. Nothing offensive occurs, mind. It is sweet and un-cynical but at the same time has an important (and still relevant) message. Sometimes it takes a story from more prejudiced times to throw a spotlight onto the same problems occurring today. But first and foremost it’s a real giggle and I’d recommend this to anyone old enough to read the subtitles.





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