REVIEWED BY DAVID WAINWRIGHT
Last night I saw an old classic at the local theatre - To Have And Have Not. This may be familiar to you, so I won't write at length, but if you need a reminder, it's the Howard Hawks classic from the early 40s starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan and Hogey Carmichael in which Bogart hires out his fishing vessel on the French island of Martinique during WW2 and he becomes embroiled in the local battle between Vichy France officials and Free French rebels whilst being seduced by screen siren Bacall. Noteworthy aspects of the film are that it was made as a result of a bet between Hawks and Ernest Hemingway in which Hawks wagered he could make a movie out of Hemingway's worst book. Hawks won, but only with a major rewrite of the work, producing some of the slickest screen banter ever between Bogart and Bacall. Bacall made her screen debut in this film at the tender age of 19. It is an astonishingly assured performance for a first movie with Bacall showing a maturity be
yond her years. It obviously impressed Bogart, because the seeds of his eventual marriage to Bacall were sown in the making of this film, and it shows in the smouldering scenes between them. Curiously, although Hawks eventually decided to use Bacall's voice in a singing segment with Hogey Carmichael, originally a 13 year old Andy Williams had been drafted in to overdub Bacall. It's a great film, though, especially for the sultry badinage between Bogart and Bacall.
My final offering was a film shown in the Art Wednesday slot last week, entitled Happiness. The title must be ironic, for it was anything but happy. It was a grim film, centring on the lives of an ageing couple, Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser, their fading marriage, their three daughters and the people in their lives. There were a number of threads running through the film. The three sisters comprised one who writes poetry, who tries to be profound, patronises her sisters but who leads a shallow existence, being turned on by an obscene phone caller. The second sister thinks she is in an ideal marriage with a fine home, three children and a successful husband who is a psychoanalyst. The third sister has turned 30, but has been unable to manage a single meaningful relationship in her life and is becoming more desperate in her loneliness whilst she has to suffer the pity of her older sisters. What none of them know, is that the middle sister is married to a paedophile who sexually assau
lts boys, and this eventually explodes the marriage when it's brought to light. The film seems to be about the emptiness of people's lives and the pretences that ostensibly respectable people go through in order to obscure their unhappiness. In amongst the bleakness, there were some amusing moments. In one of the links, the psychoanalyst is in session with the obscene phone caller who is pouring out his heart about his need to make the calls because people find him so boring in direct conversation, not realising that the analyst is deep in thought trying to remember all the chores he must do before he goes home that evening. I was disturbed, though, by the scenes between the analyst and his 11 year old son. The son asked his father some questions of a sexual nature concerning comments he'd heard at school, but what follows are some quite frank discussions about sex and when towards the end the son confronts his father about sexual assaults on his schoolfriends, the father's confession
is quite shocking. It wasn't so much what was said, but rather that a child actor was engaged in explicitly sexual conversation with an adult actor. It made for high drama, but I was uncomfortable with the situation. It was a very thought provoking movie, at times quite disturbing, and it certainly altered my mood from earlier in the afternoon. Other than those named earlier, the cast were unfamiliar to me, although I'd seen some of the faces before, but the acting was very strong in what were difficult roles. The film was released last year so may no longer be on the circuit, but if you do seek it out, you'll find it low on entertainment, but very powerful, occasionally amusing and at times moving and perhaps uncomfortable. So I can only hesitatingly recommend it as there is a good chance that it will leave the viewer in a sombre mood.
The Red Violin
Yes, it is very good. The child prodigy dying just before his audition was rather touching, and I've never seen violin playing as erotic as that in Oxford, but most poignant for me was the utter degradation of the poor Chinese music teacher, denounced and degraded before his peers. The violin playing itself was extraordinarily passionate. I don't think I've ever heard a violin undergo such a musical assault as this. There was just one drawback, though not of the film's making. I did a bit of reading about the film beforehand, and although the origin of the violin's redness was not expressly stated, enough was suggested such that I knew from the moment the violin was painted that the wife's blood was the source. It didn't spoil things, but it was obviously intended to be a shocking near finale.
I was rather taken by the characterisations of the local people of the mid-north. The Scandinavian influence was still strong, not just in the names, but also the in the mild reticence, the quiet, almost taciturn, yet good-natured chat, and especially in the accents. How accurate it is, I don't know, but there was a most definite Scandinavian quality to the lilt of the voices and the way they say yes - which was much more like yah. Is this how the Scandinavian descendents still speak, even after all the decades since large scale Scandinavian immigration stopped? This was in such stark contrast to the hapless thugs hired by William Macy to kidnap his wife. They were so brutally vile, whilst all around were these sweet-natured people. Frances McDormand was just lovely as the heavily pregnant police officer, and very astute, even when well-meaning people were giving her such useless information about the case. Were the Coen brothers using this backdrop of decent people and virginal lands
capes so as to make the callous killings look even more brutal and shocking? It certainly looked that way.
I saw Celebrity last week, and although Woody Allen remained behind the camera as director and writer, Kenneth Branagh took over his acting mantle in splendid fashion. He had Allen's mannerisms, tics, hesitations and neuroses off to a T. Shot in black & white, it was a witty commentary on the shallowness of celebrity. Branagh plays a failed novelist who tries his hand at writing a screenplay and trying unsuccessfully (not surprising given the character's insecurities) to interest people in the movie business in his work. At the same time, he is divorcing his wife on the grounds that he is bored and feels confined, although in reality he has been having affairs. His wife is shattered by this, loses all confidence, tries a therapeutic retreat, and considers cosmetic surgery, yet a new man, Joe Mantegna, falls for her and elevates her into a job as a TV interviewer, in which she asks facile questions of the famous in Hello magazine fashion, yet ends up more famous than her former husband
. In the meantime, Branagh is using his new found freedom to take up with beautiful young women (very Woody, you might say), yet finding himself to be disposable by those he's infatuated with, yet readily dumping the woman who is prepared to commit to him, and preferring Wynona Ryder, a struggling actress, despite having stated that she isn't ready to settle down with anybody and in no time at all is off with a much younger guy.
The revelation for me, though, was Leonardo di Caprio. I had, until now, considered him to be lightweight, but he turns in a great little performance as a spoilt, hedonistic young film star, getting high on booze and drugs, trashing hotel rooms and his girlfriend, and having four in a bed sex with her, Branagh and a groupie, whilst Branagh tries to interest him in the film script. Di Caprio, though, is just living it up and is more concerned with sex, cocaine, booze and jetting off to his next film role than in Branagh's script, and brushes him off whilst feigning interest.
One great scene is when Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith in Cheers) is showing Branagh's former wife (I forget the name) how to give good oral sex - and then promptly chokes on the banana.
The main thread running through the film is the notion that those in the world of cinema, television and book publishing are mostly weak minded people with short attention spans, who deal with people in peremptory fashion, are manipulative of others for their own ends, ooze insincerity and lack gravitas. I found it very entertaining, but I have to say it is typical of post-Annie Hall Woody Allen, and that those who do not enjoy his typical brand of humour relating to therapy, superficiality and neuroses will find nothing new here to change their view of him. In the cinema, a tiny band of us were laughing, yet despite the drawing power of Di Caprio, Allen's humour finds few takers here. . His appeal has, for a long time, been a metropolitan one.
Eyes Wide Shut
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What a disappointment Eyes Wide Shut turned out to be. It's a long time since a film was this irritating. The Kubrick trade marks were still there - visually arresting scenes, fine film score - but the pace was just so leaden. The film was weighed down by the size of Kubrick's self importance. The long drawn out conversations between Cruise and Kidman made me want to shout out 'Get on with it!'. Why was Cruise reduced to repeating with incredulity questions put to him? Why was Kidman made to speak most of her lines in a state of intoxication? Just like being sober at a party, these people and conversations were just not interesting. Then we have a hole in the middle of the film in which Kidman becomes superfluous. And the laying on with a trowel of Kidman's fantasies in her dream. And has Kubrick only just discovered that 'fuck' is a naughty word? Profanity is fine for the sake of naturalism, but Kubrick was having Kidman say the word as if testing ou
t how it sounds. Then there was the obsession with Kidman's bottom. Pert it may be, but it was the star of the early part of the film. Finally, what was it really meant to be about? Was Kubrick's message that infidelity is safe when it is a dream or fantasy, but dangerous when such things are acted out? It doesn't require 2 1/2 hours to ram that message home. Despite assurances that the film was completed before Kubrick died, there were a couple of moments where the editing looked dodgy, and the abrupt ending looked liked something unfinished, not something done for effect. The film poster should have warned me. Many film posters give a hint as to the film's subject matter - maybe an image or something supplied by the copywriter. The Eyes Wide Shut poster only had a slightly seductive photo of Kidman and the surnames CRUISE KIDMAN KUBRICK in bold print, as if their names are all that's needed to make the film worth watching. Of course, I should have remembered that for me 2001: A
Space Odyssey is one of the most overrated of critic's favourites. That too was strong on visuals and music but with characterisations and plot that could send an insomniac to sleep.
In stark contrast, I much enjoyed the teen movie Go. The cast was completely unknown to me and I'm not usually keen on teen films, but this had been well spoken of so I'm pleased to say I gave it a chance. Based around a group of youngsters in LA, it tells three stories which happen contemporaneously but are interwoven. The first is of three friends who work at a supermarket, one of whom is having money trouble. So when a couple of guys ask about her British friend, who's gone to Las Vegas for the weekend, she decides to step in and obtain the ecstasy that they had anticipated buying from him. So she contacts the dealer herself and arranges to buy 20 tabs to sell on at a profit. She later finds that she is being set up by the police and has to flush the evidence, but now is unable to pay what she owes the dealer. Meanwhile the Brit is off to Las Vegas with three mates where they intend to live it up on food, booze and sex. But two of them overdo an all-you-can-eat diner and end up
ill in bed. The Brit and his pal, a black guy, play the casino, the Brit has sex with a couple of girls he found at a quickie wedding reception, then the pair of them drive off, in a 'borrowed' red hot sports car, to a girlie bar, where they get into trouble with the girls, a shooting takes place, and they are then on the run from the boss of the establishment. Back in LA, the two guys who are part of the police operation to catch drug dealers are in fact a gay couple who are TV actors but are having to work off their own drugs misdemeanour by helping the police to catch bigger fish. Hence they are wired up to catch the supermarket check-out girl, hoping that she will be recruited to catch the dealer. The three stories all come back together at the end. This is a very cleverly worked film, clearly told and often quite amusing. Although bad things happen, it has a feel good quality that was very charming. I still cannot tell you who's in it, but it comes highly recommended. I just h
ope it's still on release in your area.
This was a compelling film which had me choked come the end. As I wrote before, it follows a troop of British soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front of World War 1, preparing for the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in the history of the British Army, in the summer of 1916. It is very much an ensemble piece which portrays the fears, naivety and courage of the ordinary soldier in the face of senseless slaughter and an almost criminal optimism on the part of the British generals, convinced that this push will meet with little opposition because, this time, the Germans are thought to have been shelled to oblivion. There is comradeship, cowardice, sniper fire, shelling, insubordination, banter and squabbling. By the time the men have to go over the top, they have become real characters, so to see them mown down is quite harrowing, but then your mind thinks of the many thousands of real men who met their deaths in this fashion over 80 years ago and I couldn't help but be mov
ed. If I have a criticism, it's probably that the conditions portrayed were not sufficiently squalid. There seemed insufficient mud compared with old photographs with which we are familiar, but maybe on the eve of the Battle for the Somme, the battlefield hadn't yet been turned into a quagmire. Perhaps that was to follow. Although the film dealt with the problem of keeping soldiers occupied in the period of boredom that preceded a push, I was nevertheless transfixed.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the full title of the latest in a fad for movie versions of the Bard's works. I note the use of attribution in the title. Presumably, it is to distinguish it from all the other Midsummer Night's Dreams. This one, though, is played more faithfully to the original than most modern Shakespeare films. Even so, it has been transferred to turn of the century Tuscany, yet nevertheless has a theatrical feel to it. Starring Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Michelle Pfeifer, Stanley Tucci, Bernard Hill, John Sessions and many more, it contains sparkling, playful performances by all concerned. I shall not pretend to be familiar with Shakespeare's text, so I cannot say how accurate it is in this regard, but this production was quite magical, with Stanley Tucci's Puck delightfully impish, whilst Flockhart and Friel were very spirited, mud wrestling included, as the two lovestruck young women driven to distraction by the spells of th
e fairies. Rupert Everett has a snog with Michelle Pfeifer - a real bit of acting as far as he's concerned, and the landscapes and filmsets are at times breathtaking. All in all, an entertaining piece of elevated, whimsical, cultured theatre.
Playing By Heart
It has been around for a few months, but belatedly turned uu, just for the one day. It is an ensemble piece, consisting of seemingly unrelated tales of melodrama which are drawn together by gradually revealed connections. Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands play a long-married couple of TV celebrities, making plans for their 40th wedding anniversary, but concerned over his newly discovered illness, and in conflict over her finding a concealed photograph from her husband's past in his writing desk. Gillian Anderson (X-Files) is a single divorcee, a career girl living a lonely life, no longer able to trust men after a succession of unhappy relationships and not knowing how to deal with an architect, John Stewart, who enters her life and threatens her carapace. Ellen Burstyn is the mother of a seriously-ill son, Jay Mohr, and when she flies in to be by his hospital bed, he makes her confront unpalatable truths about them both. Dennis Quaid is living the life of a drunk who is also
a serial liar, trying to get the sympathy of vulnerable women by weaving tales of tragedy over his martini cocktails. Angelina Jolie plays a fashionable young woman dumping her current boyfriend and hitting on a young man, Ryan Phillipe, in a nightclub but puzzled as to why he tries to keep her at arms length, maintaining an aloof and disinterested demeanour which intrigues her even more. Finally, we have a sexually uninhibited married woman, Madeline Stowe, who is determined to keep emotion out of an illicit relationship she is having with a married man, Anthony Edwards. He, though, wants to bring love as well as lust into the bedroom, putting at risk not only his marriage, but also his faith. The fun is trying to work out how these tales are connected, but having said that, it is a mostly serious piece with raw emotion rising to the surface. I was very impressed by the performances, exploring the nature of love and relationships. The way in which the tales are brought together is
quite cleverly done, but having so many parallel lines to follow requires a degree of concentration and also short-changes some of the stories which do not have time to develop properly. That said, it is an emotionally engaging piece for which a box of Kleenex may be required. On a scale of five, I'd give it four.
The Blair Witch Project
You've probably read so much about TBWP, that there is little that I can add to what you already know. Three film students go into the forest in Maryland to investigate a phenomenon known as the Blair Witch. Armed with video and cine cameras, they interview townsfolk about both an old folk-tale of the Blair Witch and also a horrific crime of about 50 years beforehand in which the Blair Witch was implicated in the gruesome murder of some children in an isolated house. The three students then go backpacking off to the forest in search of evidence for the witch for their project. Whilst there, they lose their bearings, and in an increasingly fraught state, they try to make their way back to civilisation in a welter of self-recrimination and a growing dread that something evil is closing in on them. When one of the party goes missing, the other two start to break-down in fear, but they too are never to find their way back to their car, parked on the forest fringe. The legacy of the trip
are the film and video recordings of their exploits, discovered one year after their disappearance.
Much has been made of how TBWP has set a record for the number of times over that the box office receipts have recouped the production costs. It has also been much remarked that budget constraints forced the participants to invent a new kind of psychological horror film in which studio trickery is virtually absent. But I wonder whether those impressed by these aspects have properly considered whether the film is any good. The hand held camerawork gives the work the look of an authentic student film project, but the jerky movement in a cinema becomes dizzying after a short time. The poor editing, again for reasons of authenticity, is still poor editing and gives the whole film an air of shambolic amateurism. The three principles act out the roles of snotty students so well that there is little reason to warm to them, so that their fate, although not deserving, does lose its power to shock because the viewer struggles to care what happens to these irritating people. The lack of malevol
ence in the film is compounded by poor characterisation of the Blair Witch and risible noises off-screen. We never see this creature, but nor are we given a description which should lead us to be scared of it and the night-time sounds of this thing are about as scary as a snuffling hedgehog. Where the film does score well is the genuine affectation of rising terror on the part of the three students, especially Heather, who turns in a particularly poignant last will and testament from the confines of her tent, silently crying and dripping tears down her nose, the one time in which it's possible to feel sympathy for their plight.
I hope this film is a one-off. Within its constraints, the makers have done quite well, but I wouldn't like to think that others will attempt to make a virtue of low production values. I wasn't frightened at any time and I think, in part, that this is due to the events depicted having happened one year previously. Because it is made like a documentary, there is no sense of the here and now, so instead of sharing in the events, they are being watched at a temporal remove thus killing any feeling of immediate threat. So full marks for effort and maximising the film's revenue, but all in all, it still looks like a home made piece of student film making and I did leave the cinema feeling that I had been duped by hype, albeit a groundswell of hype from other cinemagoers, rather than from the marketing department.
Pushing Tin features John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett. Being three of my favoured actors of the present, I had reasonably high hopes for this film, and in the main, I wasn't let down. There had been mixed reviews, so my expectations had been tempered, but the quality of the cast overcame any misgivings about some absurdities in the plot.
The setting is air traffic control, controlling the airways around New York's three airports from Long Island. John Cusack plays the top controller, married to the lovely Cate Blanchett, and having a good rapport with his colleagues, making jokes about the high attrition rate in their profession and keeping his cool as aircraft pack the skies above by singing favourite songs. The marriage is a happy one, and I should add here that Blanchett is utterly convincing as a New York housewife, contentedly breezing through life in the arms of a loving husband and child. Onto the scene comes the enigmatic Billy Bob Thornton with his much younger, beautiful (and boozy) wife. He's the new recruit to NY's ATC, but his taciturnity, and the reputation that follows him from airports elsewhere in the States, at first leads to curiosity in the part of his new workmates. But when his prowess in ATC is revealed, as well as his recklessness in cramming aircraft into small slots, a bitter rivalry between
him and Cusack develops, threatening their jobs, their sanity and also their marriages, as both wives find something appealing in the other's husband.
I enjoyed the film, but it has to be said that there is a silly contrivance employed, involving a bomb alert, to bring the rivalry to a head. Nevertheless, it has a reasonable quota of drama, thrills and humour. The acting is at times outstanding, particularly Blanchett, completely concealing her Australian origins, and the rapid fire instructions skilfully given by Cusack and the other ATC's to the pilots. Thornton, in what has become his trademark, says a lot by saying very little. Also worth looking out for are the scenes where Thornton stands immediately beneath a Jumbo as it lands and gets completely blown off the runway by the immense air turbulence. I wasn't convinced, though, that rivalries between controllers would be allowed to build up to such dangerous levels. I'm quite prepared to believe that tiredness and stress contributes to ATC errors, but surely not personal bitterness. One final point. A short time ago, I saw a TV documentary about New York's ATC which contradic
ts what was shown in the film. Pushing Tin has the landings and take offs controlled centrally from Long Island, but the documentary has each of the airports (JFK, Newark and La Guardia) controlling their own landings and take offs with Long Island coordinating the three airports and handling the more distant traffic. I take it that the film is in error. Pushing Tin, by the way, is the ATC euphemism for guiding aircraft into their slots.
The Sixth Sense
He plays a children's psychiatrist who is intrigued by a troubled eight year old boy, Haley Joel Osment, who sees ghosts, but is unable to convey his fears to his mother and is subject to ridicule at school, where he is considered to be a freak. The boy's mother, Toni Collete, is worried about her son's abnormal behaviour and feels threatened by those who she suspects are critical of her abilities as a mother. Willis has demons of his own to overcome. In the opening scenes of the film, we see him shot in front of his wife, Olivia Williams, by one of his former patients, Donnie Wahlberg, who has now grown up and blames Willis for failing to cure him. Willis sees his new patient, who exhibits similar symptoms to his assailant, as a means to redeem himself, but in his obsession to overcome doubts about his own ability, he feels his wife becoming ever more distant and although acknowledging that he has been neglecting her and fearing that she may seek comfort elsewhere, he cannot let this
This is a quite chilling thriller, helped by a haunting music score. Although the pace is funereal at times, it doesn't lose the sense that something is building. Willis plays his role straight, without any of the tongue in cheek that he often brings to his films. Osment is especially good as the boy. There is a real feeling that he is scared both by what he sees and by the ridicule he fears were he to reveal what troubles him. He plays this bottled up, isolated, friendless child with great maturity and conviction. At various times throughout the film I felt my spine tingle and the twist near the end completely surprised me.
The Tichborne Claimant
It is based on a true Victorian story and features a lorra, lorra luvvies, such as Stephen Fry, Sir John Gielgud, Robert Hardy, and some others who are familiar as whiskery Victorian faces, if not names, as well as Anita (Eastenders) Dobson, Dudley (Lovejoy) Sutton and John (Boycie, Fools and Horses) Rous. The black servant, John Kani, of a wealthy landowning family is despatched to Australia to try and track down the long lost heir to the family fortune. When he writes back to say that the heir cannot be found, the family reply that they have no further use for his services, so they suggest he makes a new life for himself in Australia. Feeling rejected and bitter, he advertises in Australia for a claimant to the position of heir and when he finds a suitable candidate, the servant negotiates a deal with the gentleman, an uncouth butcher, Robert Pugh, to share the fortune to be inherited if the servant successfully passes him off as the rightful heir. The servant teaches the butcher all
he knows about the real heir, his family and the proper manners and etiquette fitting for a Victorian gentleman, and they return to England to lay the claim. The family elders suspect that a trick is being played on them, but the heir's mother is convinced that she has been reunited with her son. After she meets with misfortune do the others plot to deny the claimant's authenticity. This leads to an elaborate plot to conjure up as many people as possible who will vouch for the claimant, but when this fails, an expensive trial follows, which the claimant has to finance by offering shares in the estate to those who will help finance his court case, but the odds are stacked against him and the servant by the power and influence that is wielded by the family elders.
If it wasn't based on a true story, it would have seemed rather preposterous, but the cast play their parts with great gusto, so one is prepared to overlook the absurdity of it all. There is a sense of the Ealing comedy about the film, although it is a little heavy handed on the class rigidities of the day. I have to say that the plot was so well crafted, that at times I was almost convinced of the authenticity of the claim myself. All in all, it is an entertaining romp, and touching at times as the butcher and the servant develop a need for each other in the face of adversity. If it does turn up in your neck of the woods, it's worth watching just to try and recognise familiar faces, but I think you will enjoy the film as well.
East Is East
Salford, Manchester, 1971 is the setting for one of the funniest films I've seen anywhere this year. East Is East concerns a family comprising a Pakistani father (Om Puri), an English mother (Linda Bassett) and their seven children, six sons and one daughter, living in a small terraced Victorian house with outside loo. The parents run a fish and chip shop with help from the children, but are not wealthy. The father tries to raise his children in the Islamic faith, but is undermined by his wife's easygoing attitude to religion, his children's rebelliousness and the secular temptations of a non-Islamic world around them. Comic situations arise from attempts by the children to hide their irreligious behaviour, as well as snubbing Islamic conventions, such as cooking sausage and bacon when father is out of the house, the daughter playing football in the street with the local boys, one of the sons having snogging sessions with his white girlfriend and secretly getting drunk at a local disco
. The youngest son looks like Kenny from South Park, permanently clothed in an anorak with a huge 'fur' lined hood, and for one so young, he is a marvellously comic figure. One of the local girls, lusting after one of his older brothers, bears a strong resemblance to one half of The Fat Slags out of Viz comic. When two plain Pakistani girls and their mother and father from Bradford are introduced to two of the sons by the father with a view to marriage, the ensuing scenes are as comical as you are likely to see anywhere. I was a little concerned that the film may be overly mocking of Islam, and an Indian friend of mine, though not Moslem herself, said that it may well be offensive, but she found it funny too.
Not all, though, is played for laughs. A failed arranged marriage ceremony brings shame on the father, who is also troubled by the India/Pakistan war taking place thousands of miles away. He is determined that his children should be good Muslims and turns nasty when his authority and beliefs are challenged, but you can't help but sympathise with a man whose whole way of life and thinking is being undermined by irreverent and disrespectful children. There's also a racial bigot across the street to contend with, although he is somewhat of a caricature. As far as I can tell, the period detail is just about right, although I'm unconvinced that a family in these circumstances would have suffered so little racial intolerance, but the main reason, for me, why this film works so well is that the main characters are utterly believable, lending credibility to the comic capers and allowing the viewer to empathise with them, something the likes of Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger seem to
Fanny & Elvis
This is a romantic comedy set in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, featuring Kerry Fox and Ray Winstone as an unlikely couple, on the rebound from their respective spouses. Having met when their cars collide, they are hardly enamoured with one another, but when they are thrown together by the circumstances of their failed marriages, they falteringly come to an arrangement to have the children she's worried that her ticking biological clock will soon deprive her of. Whilst with her husband, career paths and then her attempts at reinventing herself as a novelist have pushed children to the back of the queue, so when he leaves for the other woman, she frets that she has left it too late. She launches upon a rather desperate attempt to find a father, with the help of her token and oh so predictable gay lodger, leading eventually to Winstone, a man she finds crude and vulgar, but who turns out to be a tough nut with a soft centre. She finally falls pregnant, but misunderstandings involving her, her
husband and Winstone result in him leaving her, not realising that he is the prospective father. Eventually, the truth is revealed to him thus allowing for an all too cute ending.
It is a humourous film at times, but takes an overly predictable route to a rather contrived Millenium finale. It's as if the ending was thought of first and then the writers endeavoured to find a way by which a beginning and middle could to crafted so as to reach the desired result. Winstone shows he can do more than be thuggish or threatening, being quite sensitive at times, but the gay lodger is a cardboard cut-out figure, a means by which the writers could inject cutting remarks here and there. There are some tiresomely repetitive dream sequences in which the men in her life figure in daydreams which echo Wuthering Heights. Entertaining enough in its own small way, but I'm afraid it also puts yet another nail in the coffin of millennial overkill.
All About My Mother
Madrid and Barcelona are the backdrops for All About My Mother from acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. This is a curious piece about what happens to a single mother, who tries to piece her life together and seek new purpose after the tragic death of her teenage son in Madrid. She attempts to locate in Barcelona the long lost father of her child, a man she has concealed from her son, but to whom she must now give the terrible news. Once in Barcelona, she encounters a strange menagerie of transvestites, transsexuals, prostitutes, a theatre diva, a drug addicted actress and a pregnant HIV positive young woman with an insensitive mother and Alzheimer afflicted father. It is a tragi-comic film, peopled by all kinds of troubled characters, but the nub of the film is a consideration of motherhood and the kinds of obstacles and tragedies that women are faced with in being mothers, how they cope with it and the black humour that surfaces in the darkest of moments.
It's an emotionally engaging film, small in scale, but dealing with the problems encountered with great sensitivity. It shows how the human spirit, more specifically that of women, is strong and will bounce back from terrible misfortune and bad luck. The characters that survive this film to the end are shown as resilient people, indomitable in the face of unhappiness. It is a heart tugging, absorbing affair, and you'll yourself taking in the subtitles almost subconsciously, because the film speaks from the heart.
The Astronaut's Wife
The Astronaut's Wife features Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron as husband and wife in a film which strongly echoes Rosemary's Baby, which you may recall featured Mia Farrow discovering she's carrying the Devil's child. Theron even goes as far as sporting a boyish barnet highly reminiscent of Farrow's of 30 or so years ago. Depp is an astronaut on a Shuttle mission which narrowly averts disaster. There is a two minute blackout following an explosion in which Depp and his colleague are engaged on a space walk. Neither spaceman will talk about what happened during those two minutes, but Depp's colleague is profoundly disturbed, and this fear transmits to his wife who warns Theron that something is terribly amiss. Theron, though, has no qualms until disaster strikes her friend and husband, whereupon she starts to question things herself, but Depp is not forthcoming. She becomes pregnant with twins, giving her greater cause for apprehension, until she is approached by an ex-NASA official,
who causes her great distress by revealing the findings of his research into the space accident; claims that result in his dismissal from NASA.
Depp does very well in conveying benign malevolence, if that's not a contradiction. He is quite convincing in being all charm on the surface, but with an undercurrent of something sinister. Theron is very pretty, but the character is not allowed to properly explain what troubles her. She has a past which adds to her mental disturbance, but this is not properly explored, thus there doesn't seem enough justification for her initial trepidation at the pregnancy, although sufficient reason comes to light later. Nor is it clear why she is unsure of her husband when he switches career from astronaut to aeronautics consultant; she questions him as to why he is participating in a new military aircraft project but the reason for her concern is unclear, other than a vague attempt at hinting it is out of character for him. So there is a bit of muddle in the characterisation of Theron's part that makes her seem a little hysterical before she eventually has good cause to be so, but overall, this d
oesn't detract too much from a gently paced, diverting psychological thriller.
I think that Fight Club is fantastically unreal and stretches credibility almost beyond reason, but it is a fabulous fable, an absolutely intriguing film that had me utterly entranced and which I've installed as one of my favourite films of the year. I was completely unprepared for Brad Pitt being the alter ego of Ed Norton. It is the kind of twist that tempts me to see the film again so that I can reinterpret the film in the light of what I now know. I thought both of them were excellent, as was Helena Bonham Carter. It was a complete departure for her and I thought she handled it well. I suspect that its other worldly quality may be a reason for your dislike of it, but for me it was a quite compelling piece of film making that asks all sorts of questions about the kind of society we live in. Is it saying that despite all the civilising effects of career demands and the consumer society, men are just as barbarous as ever? Or does the society we live in today stifle men's basic char
acters so much that they seek outlets in ugly form? Is the headlong rush to keep up with the demands of work and to acquire ever more goods and property instrumental in a deep dissatisfaction with the quality of life? And where do women fit into this worldview, why are they largely absent from this film? Are men becoming ever more alienated in a world in which women are moving into areas that were once male bastions? Perhaps you thought that the attempt to ask questions of the viewer in this way was pretentious, but I would urge anybody to see this, albeit with a warning that it is ugly, violent and deeply disturbing, and so should be avoided by the sensitive and squeamish. Would you expand on your earlier objections to this film? I would be interested to know why your views diverge so much from mine on this one.
Not one that I would have bothered with on my own, I agree with you that it's a rather dreary tale. Why does Ford so tediously broach the suggestion to Scott Thomas that their spouses were having an affair? What is the purpose of the subplot in which Ford puts his career on the line by breaking police procedure during the course of the investigation into the murder charge levelled at his fellow officer? This seems incidental to the main thrust of the film and is only a device with which to show that Ford is under great strain. Why does Scott Thomas suddenly and inexplicably do a volte face and fall for Ford, a man who hitherto had been an irritant to her? There seems to be no reason for this and so is not credible. As you and Nicky walked out well before the end, you missed Ford being shot as a denouement to the subplot, but this served no purpose other than to give Scott Thomas an excuse to rush to his hospital bed. Then the film fizzles out, with the relationship having come to an
end and the prospect that they will go their separate ways. So I can assure you that there were no injury time goals to enliven the dull nil-nil draw that you lost patience with.
What can I say about a film in which not a great deal happens, and when it does, it happens tediously? It blows tepid and cold and although not overtly bad, it has no passion, Ford and Scott Thomas do not ignite, the subplot has no bearing to the main story and the film makers obviously struggled to find an ending. It runs for over two hours, but it could easily shed thirty minutes with no great loss. Unless stuck for something to do on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Grimsby, I think it would be more exciting to peel vegetables or dust cobwebs. You are right about Ford too; he does seem to have aged rapidly. For the record, none of the three friends I was with could find anything positive to say about it either, so thumbs down all round.
Anywhere But Here
It's very much a 'woman's' film, if I'm still allowed to use such an expression, with plenty of tears (them not me). Susan Sarandon and Natalie Porter play mother and teenage daughter and it's their relationship that's at the heart of this film. Hailing from a backwater in Wisconsin, Sarandon longs for excitement and a new direction, so she ups sticks and takes herself and Portman across America to San Francisco in anticipation of a new life of thrills and opportunity. Portman, though, is content with her life, surrounded by family and friends and resents her mother for uprooting her. What follows are their fights and reconciliations as they try to adjust to their new surroundings, Sarandon finding that California doesn't provide the good life she had expected and Portman, often homesick for Wisconsin, discovering herself as she comes of age and coming to terms with her mother's obsessions and erratic behaviour. The film relies very much on the mother-daughter relationship, but lackin
g a strong storyline, it meanders somewhat. Sarandon is also looking like a particularly scrawny chicken these days, which is nothing to do with the film, but it needs saying. It's a pleasant enough movie but lacks focus.
1799 is the year and New York is the setting for the opening events of Sleepy Hollow, the gothic horror starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. Depp plays a New York constable, keen to introduce more scientific methods of crime detection to the city's law enforcement. Regarded as a nuisance by the city authorities, he is despatched to Sleepy Hollow, a small Dutch community in upstate New York, to investigate three murders. The locals tell him of a headless horseman that decapitates his victims and makes off with the heads. Depp is unwilling to entertain such superstition and is determined to prove that a mere mortal is responsible for the killings, but his rational beliefs are challenged by the supernatural phenomena he witnesses. Ricci is the beautiful daughter of the village 'elder' and she assists Depp in his investigations.
Thankfully, it's played very much tongue-in-cheek and wears a wry smile on its face, otherwise it would have been a hoary old tale. Tim Burton directs and Danny Elfman provides the score, having worked together previously on Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and the movie is stamped with their trademarks - dark and forbidding visually with some technically excellent special effect accompanied by a swirling, galloping and menacing soundtrack. A great, mainly British, supporting cast adds a touch of class to the proceedings - Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Richard Griffiths, Michael Gough and Christopher Lee are joined by Christopher Walken - and all play their parts with gusto. The main weakness is Christina Ricci, sadly miscast as an entirely unconvincing 19th century country girl, but Johnny is typically Depp - eccentric, quirky; just right for the gloomy and eerie surroundings. His roles are always interesting, even in flawed films - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Astronaut's
Wife and the great Edward Scissorhands immediately spring to mind - and he gives this film an edge that makes worth seeing what in the wrong hands could easily have been a tired retread of a Hammer horror movie. It won't be the best film I shall see in 2000, but it's the first and you might very well enjoy it as well if not taken too seriously.
Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones have a very good screen chemistry. Sean is tempted by the smouldering Catherine, but he maintains his cool in this clever, plot-twisting puzzler. It never lets up in teasing you about who is being double-crossing by who. I almost lost track of who was on the side of law enforcement and who were the criminals. There's also some very Bond-like use of gadgetry and fingertip thrills in the vein of Cary Grant and Eva Marie-Saint on the face of Mount Rushmore. This is well worth seeing.
Ewan McGregor plays Nick Leeson in the biopic Rogue Trader, based on the ghost-written autobiography of the same name. Anna Friel plays his wife, Lisa. The story unfolds rather ponderously, and doesn't really reveal anything about the collapse of Barings that anybody who followed the original news reports wouldn't already know. I've not read the book, but the film tries to portray Leeson sympathetically as someone who gets out of his depth to a background of Barings management depicted as complacent on one hand and recklessly pursuing profits on the other. I thought the film flunked any attempt to show that Leeson wasn't the only loser in this story. The plight of Baring's shareholders was completely ignored, and the management were shown to be deserving of their misfortune. Let's face it, Leeson deliberately tried to obscure his actions, avoided difficult meetings, ignored phone calls. He even forged documents to pretend that he was trading on behalf of a client. I was surprised that the
downfall of Barings wasn't shown as a symptom of hubris brought on by the Thatcher/Major years. The business culture or climate was only weakly linked to any prevailing political ethos. Backed by Granada Television, the temptation of portraying this as the result of the effects of 'that wicked Thatcher woman' or some such nonsense, must have been quite strong. I just see it as a case of a rather traditional bank trying to catch up with the world of derivatives, futures, etc. and employing young, ambitious people from backgrounds and with attitudes rather different to those of the banks incumbents, and not having installed a rigorous system of checks and balances which may very well have prevented the outcome: Barings was sold to the Dutch IMG group for £1.
Gods and Monsters
stars Ian McKellen as the ageing English film director James Whale, most familiar for directing Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein in the 1930s, as well the musical Showboat. He is in retirement with failing health and is being cared for by his East European housekeeper, Lynn Redgrave. She is a dutiful woman, but is a devout Christian and cannot accept her employer's homosexuality. Into their lives comes a new gardener, Brendan Frazer, and that's when life becomes complicated. McKellen takes more than a passing interest in Frazer, a womanising ex-marine, and asks him to sit as a model to sketch his portrait. They then develop an uneasy relationship, with McKellen's condition giving rise to troubling flashbacks of his old film career and his time in the World War 1 trenches, where he fell in love with a fellow soldier. The situation builds into a torrid climax and tragedy, and should have ended there. Sadly, an unnecessarily cute finish was tacked on which undermined what had
happened before, and is symptomatic of film makers being reluctant to forego a happy ending. Nevertheless, there are strong performances all round, with barbed humour and powerful emotions acted out, but if only they'd cut the last five minutes.
More recently, I saw an old classic, Jezebel, with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. It was made in 1938 and is set in New Orleans in the 1850s. It's the kind of melodrama not made any more, with rather theatrical performances, but stirring nevertheless. Davis plays a strong-willed, selfish and spoilt young woman in the care of her aunt and a guardian. She is engaged to be married to Henry Fonda, but leads him a merry dance with tantrums and a determination to flout the conventions of genteel female behaviour of the times. She embarrasses him just once too often when they attend a society ball, and he determines that the engagement must finish. She resolutely believes he'll come back to her, but he takes a posting in Boston for the bank he works for. A year later, she has becomes a broody recluse, virtually housebound and shunning society. Then she hears news that he is to return to New Orleans, and she resolves to humble herself before him, beg his forgiveness and pledge to be well beh
aved in future. Upon his homecoming, she is stunned to discover that he has married a Yankee and spitefully strives to drive a wedge between him and his new wife. Then an outbreak of Yellow Fever strikes the city and tragedy ensues. It's all rather dated but great fun with fine performances by Davis and Fonda, she wide-eyed, scheming and manipulative, him an honourable young man maintaining his dignity. Enjoyment was tempered by a poor print, blurred and badly speckled, a soundtrack horribly distorted at times, and a projectionist cropping the image at top and bottom, apparent when the credits were in part unreadable. There's not much excuse for this. Although not advertised as such, distributors sometimes proclaim a new print as a lure to get people to watch oldies at the cinema, so there's little reason for this one to be so poor. I'm awaiting a reply to an email I sent to Cineworld, the multiplex owner, pointing out these failings.
A Simple Plan
I've seen three films in the last week or so. Wednesday was 'A Simple Plan', but it was anything but simple in the complexity of the characters. I liked this very much. It's a taught, suspenseful drama, set in the snowy Midwest, with a good cast, featuring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. It was shown in the Art Wednesday slot here, so has taken several months to make an appearance locally, having been released in the USA in December. Paxton and Thornton are brothers, Paxton the more successful and intelligent of the two with Thornton leading a simple life, having a laid back attitude, and perhaps a bit slow on the uptake, but surprisingly deep. Fonda plays Thornton's heavily pregnant wife. Paxton and Thornton, along with Thornton's drinking buddy, Lou, chance upon the wreckage of a light aircraft in the snowy wastes, containing the corpse of the pilot and $4.4m in a holdall. Thornton and Lou eventually persuade Paxton that they keep the money, but only by agreein
g that Paxton keep it safe until the spring, when the thaw will reveal the aircraft and whether the money is reported missing. As you can imagine keeping such a secret isn't easy, and as Thornton tells Fonda, her initial reluctance to keep it turns into a Lady Macbeth type character, determined to keep the money for the new baby, whilst whispering words of distrust about the others to her husband. Things go wrong when Fonda persuades Paxton to return some money to the aircraft so that it will not be suspected that any has been taken. (This plot device was weak, because if the money is not known about, why return any, and if it is, then anything less than $4.4m will be noticed). Anyway, this provides the opportunity for things to go wrong as they are seen by a local farmer, resulting in his murder when the brothers panic. Events go downhill from here as mistrust, greed and paranoia starts to grip the protagonists with more murder and mayhem ensuing. It's a very well acted film, with t
he leading characters having hidden depths and not responding to their circumstances in the manner you may initially expect. Couple this with bleak, snowy scenes (always a popular backdrop with me) and it added up to a couple of hours of gripping cinema, carefully building up to a series of climaxes. I'd give it 8 out of 10.
Cabaret, with Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey, I first saw in the cinema over 25 years ago, and I enjoyed it now as much as I did then. Although the heyday of musicals had passed by the early seventies, this put a new twist on musical drama, coupling great songs to a much stronger plot than most musicals traditionally had. I'd suggest that this represented the cinematic high point for Minnelli, York and Grey, none of them having done anything this good since, although I did enjoy Minnelli in New York, New York with Robert de Niro and to be fair to Grey, he does most of his acting in theatre rather than cinema. I still love the scene when Minnelli embarrasses York as he's trying to give English lessons to the young, virginal Jewess. The songs Cabaret, Two Ladies and Money Makes The World Go Round are as fresh as ever and the beer garden performance of Tomorrow Belongs To Me still chills the blood.
Another bunch of great songs, but above all, I'm still touched by the tenderness of Yes, I Remember It Well with Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. Chevalier was in his seventies when this film was made. If I can look as fresh and vibrant as him in my seventies, then old age will hold no fears. We've got a couple of CDs of his vintage recordings, and despite the scratches, hiss and crackle from the old 78s that they were recorded on, the joie de vivre shines through. I don't think anyone has ever mastered the knack of singing with a chuckle in the voice in the way he did. Leslie Caron, as Gigi, was like a French Audrey Hepburn, an almost swan like beauty. It has even been described as My Fair Lady set in Paris, which is fair comment; they did seem to share certain features - an ingénue, Leslie Caron/Audrey Hepburn, being groomed for high society by an older man Louis Jourdan/Rex Harrison with music by Lerner and Loewe. The film does suffer from a rushed ending. I know that the
y overran the budget in its making, and the ending looks like it. Jourdan's sudden transformation from being a courtesan's consort to a would-be husband is too hurried. Nor would a film be made today with the sentiments of Thank Heaven For Little Girls, with an elderly gentleman, Chevalier, casting admiring glances at little Parisians; innocent in its day, but jarring to modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, the film still looks wonderful - sumptuous and elegant, although, as I've stated on previous occasions, it suffered from a poor copy at the cinema - very scratchy picture and sound with chunks of frames missing as broken film segments are joined together. Caron featured in a fairly recent film, Funny Bones (1995), with Jerry Lewis, Freddie 'Parrot-Face' Davies and Lee Evans. Despite a strange cast, and being a comedy film that doesn't try very hard to be funny, the pathos and touching performance all round make it a quiet hit.
The Spy Who Shagged Me
It's so stupid, it's funny. There wasn't any point in analysing the film for character or plot development; it was just sheer fun. It looked as if the cast had a great time making the film, and the success of the first AP movie was sufficient to entice the likes of Willy Nelson, Woody Harrelson and Tim Robbins et al, make cameo appearances this time around. I thought this AP movie superior to the first in a number of ways; it's more gross, the cultural references were sharper (although I didn't notice anyone else in the auditorium pick up on Moon Unit, Alpha to Moon Unit, Zappa - they were mostly too young to know anything about Frank's progeny), and Heather Graham was much superior to Liz Hurley as the leading lady, as you thought, too. Mike Myers has obviously allowed for the possibility of making more sequels, and the 1960s provides such a great deal of material for nostalgia freaks, that there should be plenty of scope for AP3. The young women in the audience were quite taken by t
he Mini-Me actor as they kept uttering motherly 'coo' and 'aah' noises for several of his scenes. I enjoyed much of the music, especially The Quincy Jones Orchestra's Soul Bossa Nova, because it's so cheesy, and Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride, as it's so grungy - in a 60s style. I also liked Dr Evil sending up black sister mannerisms - 'go, girlfriend!'; 'talk to the hand'; and sassy, circular head and neck movements, amongst others.
Limerick, Ireland, 1930s-1940s. Relentless rain and grinding poverty. Infant mortality, a feckless, drunken father, flinty-hearted priests, catholic bigotry and anti-English hatred. These are the grim ingredients for Angela's Ashes, based upon Frank McCourt's book of the same name. Yet I thought it was a warm-hearted film, where shafts of boyhood humour kept illuminating the never ending downpours and damp, fetid squalor under Alan Parker's directorial hand. Essentially about the young Frank McCourt growing up with his parents, played by Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle, and siblings, succumbing to consumption yet replaced with equal rapidity by his fertile mother, it avoided being resolutely depressing by judicious use of Irish wit. Emily Watson was stoic throughout, despite the constant disappointment of husband Robert Carlyle, spending what little money they had in the pub and unable to hold down a job for more than a few days at a time, whilst the children would be underclothed, u
nderfed and underheated. If these were the true conditions of the Irish poor, it's no wonder that so many turned to America, England and Australia for a better life. It remained sufficiently captivating such that the 140 or so minutes passed very quickly, and the three actors, two boys and one young man, who played Frank as he grew up, gave commendable performances. Also appearing, as Frank's auntie, was Pauline McLynn, the actress who played the dotty housekeeper in Father Ted, almost unrecognisable in this role as a hard hearted woman who nonetheless comes up trumps when young Frank hasn't the means to clothe himself decently for his first job. Don't be put off by the cold, damp exterior of this film because it has a warm heart.
Tommy Lee Jones's latest is a reasonably good thriller. He plays the parole officer for a woman (Ashley Judd) who's just served six or so years in prison for murdering her husband, although his body was never found. She is determined to trace her young son, who was being cared for by a friend but has since lost contact with her, and also her husband, who she comes to believe is still alive. Whilst inside, she discovers that the rule of double jeopardy ensures that she's immune from prosecution if she should really kill him as she cannot be convicted twice for the same crime. So upon release, she violates parole, with Tommy Lee Jones in hot pursuit, and sets out to recover her son and find the man she thinks is responsible for sending her to prison. The most pleasing aspect for me was that sentiment was kept to a low level. There were opportunities to make this film very tearful and mawkish, but they were not taken and therefore it remained quite taut. So despite being a fairly routi
ne film, it scores well for being quite concise and for credible performances from Lee Jones and Judd (a face that's new to me).
At long, long last it finally turned up, I saw it on Wednesday and I must say was worth the wait. I thought it was a very British film in the sense of being emotionally straitjacketed. All the players seemed to be corseted, literally and figuratively. Throughout the film there was a very strong sense of repressed feelings, of maintaining a stiff upper lip, of keeping oneself in check. But the tension was there. You could feel it beneath the surface and it was a commendable performance by all concerned to convey anger and heartache whilst keeping them at bay. I liked the story very much and I wondered whether it was a work of pure fiction or perhaps based on fact. Either way, the screenplay was excellent, although I have no idea how faithful it was to Rattigan's play. With many of the scenes taking place in interiors, the theatrical origins were revealed, but this allowed for concentration on the text with few visual distractions. I only knew Hawthorne and Northam by
name, and very fine they were too, but I enjoyed the other cast members, especially the determined suffragette daughter, Gemma Jones.
End Of The Affair
End Of The Affair, I thought, was a lovely evocation of 1940s London, and the restrained performances put me in mind of Brief Encounter, where the participants were constrained from revealing their feelings by the social mores of the time. I particularly liked Stephen Rea as the cuckolded husband and Ian Hart as the snoop. I don't know Rea at all, but his emotional retentiveness was magnificent. Julianne Moore remains enigmatic to me. I always like her performances, but there is often a dreamy look in her eyes that suggests her thoughts are elsewhere. Ralph Fiennes did his usual thing, very well as we've come to expect, but it is yet another role in which he is largely cool and impassive. I thought that the film did have its longeurs and that the erotic scenes lacked passion, emotional rather than physical, but I enjoyed the story and the idea that a lover should be jealous of God. Author Graham Greene did seem confused, though, because the Fiennes character, thought to represent Gr
eene himself, denies the existence of God, yet is jealous of Him because Moore's vow demands that she break their affair. Perhaps, though, this is the sort of confusion that's not uncommon amongst those trying to come to terms with religious beliefs. You used the words 'bleak' and 'gloomy' in your comments. Yes, it did have those characteristics, but was nonetheless moving for all that, especially when Moore's terminal condition, decline and death were revealed. Overall, I liked it, and once again, the accompanying music was very good for setting the mood.
I saw The Beach, and it wasn't too bad. I thought the di Caprio fantasy sequences were silly and superfluous, as if he had taken some kind of hallucinogen, only he hadn't. It was, though, the first film I've seen which touches on tourism 'issues' and so had a resonance for me. I do feel uneasy when watching scenes of youthful western hedonism in an alien culture. The images in the film of 'rave' culture, throbbing club music blaring out in a Thai resort, binge drinking and vomiting, were ugly, selfish and disrespectful. Yes, it looks little different to Blackpool or Benidorm, but it's more jarring. It's the equivalent to farting in a church or mosque.
Back to the film. You said it's a load of hippie tosh, but the hippies get their comeuppance, so look on the bright side. I rather like the idea of silly idealists unable to cope with dental problems and shark attacks and resorting to a kind of barbarism. It was also good to see people hiding from the modern world, but unable to go without fragrant toiletries and batteries for the Walkman. I was just pleased to see the point being made that hippie idealists, living in a commune, are not morally superior and are subject to the same 'sins' as the rest of us. Alright, the story was a lot of hooie, but it made some worthwhile attacks on some well deserved targets. I'm intrigued, though, why the film had it in for the Swedes. They are portrayed as dopey and end up as shark bait. Roxette weren't that awful, Abba have been canonised, Ace of Base are harmless popsters and The Cardigans are fabtastic, so why do the Swedes get it in the neck?
Jeremy Northam and Steve Zahn play a couple of small-time crooks on the run. They steal a camper van, not realising it belongs to a gay couple, specialists in producing beauty pageant shows. They arrive in Happy, Texas, a small homely community, and wonder why they seem to be expected. When they discover that they've been mistaken for the gay couple and are expected to produce a beauty pageant competition, they decide to act out the roles assigned to them, firstly for cover whilst they lie low, then to give them time to plan a raid on the local bank. Being a film of mistaken identities, a couple of the local women take a liking to them, yet they know that their charms are lost on the 'gay' guys. The crooks, in turn are attracted to the women but cannot blow their cover. To confuse matters more, William H. Macy, the local sheriff, thinking the two guys have had a falling out, comes out of the closet to reveal his true feelings for Northam.
Northam is a little detached in his role, but his American accent is convincing. Zahn gets some great scenes trying to pass himself off as a choreographer, but the cream of the crop is Macy. He is in top form as the inhibited sheriff, coming to terms with his feelings but struggling to articulate them. When he opens up to Northam, it is done with great affection and a lightness of touch which is quite poignant when you know all along that he's doomed to fail. Ally Walker is warm and sensitive as Northam's love interest, and manager of the bank he's planning to raid, and Illeana Douglas gives a spirited performance as school teacher to the girls Zahn is giving the dancing lessons to.
There are several plot absurdities, but I forgave them because I felt in such good spirits afterwards. The film seems to have had a low marketing profile, slipping out without much publicity. I would imagine it's no longer on general release, so you may have to wait until it appears on TV before getting an opportunity to see it, but do give it a chance.
The Talented Mr Ripley
Today I saw The Talented Mr Ripley and it's already a contender for my film of the year. Matt Damon was delightfully creepy, sinister and chilling and Jude Law, I thought, was excellent as the spoilt, idle playboy. I had no idea that Damon would end the film unscathed and, Paltrow apart, believed. Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett were, once again, lovely. They both have an aura that lights up any film. Full marks too to Law and Blanchett for the American accents and a mention in dispatches to 'Freddie', played with a believable slimy cynicism by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Never has La Vita Bella looked so dark and moody. You wrote that it was worth a view. I feel much more strongly about it than that and would heartily recommend it to anyone else.
Gawd Blimey, it's The Limey
Terence Stamp plays an ex-con Londoner, visiting America to find the reasons for his daughter's untimely death. He holds a newspaper clipping reporting that she died in a motoring accident. That, you'd think, would be the answer. But no. He decides that she met her demise in a more murky fashion. Why? We don't know. He just does. So he's in California, finding out from her friends and acquaintances what happened and lo and behold, he spots a trail of deceit leading to Peter Fonda. He decides to take his revenge on Fonda - with virtually no evidence, and the rest of the story is of beatings and killings as he pursues his quarry. Peter Fonda is a music promoter with a fancy condo, wealthy as hell and we are supposed to take a dislike to him, but given little reason to do so. All is revealed in the end, but a lot of hoodlums have to pay the ultimate price in the process. There are some nice touches - glimpses of the Ken Loach film, Poor Cow, showing Stamp as a young man - and we f
ollow Fonda as he drives along the California coast with a knowing nod to Easy Rider as Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride plays on the car stereo. But the sound is muddy, and the camerawork is full of arch angles with arty editing. We hear voices off as we look at the character not speaking and there are confusing flashbacks as we flick from present to past and back again. Then there is Stamp's cockney accent. He lays it on with a trowel, using rhyming slang familiar to Max Miller and Arthur Askey, then wonders why the Californians struggle to understand. This is amusing to begin with, but is quickly revealed to be the only humorous card in the film's pack and quickly palls. To cap it all, the cinema's projectionist decides to drop the frame of the picture by a quarter of the screen's depth and so we watch it with a very nice black border at the top for the last five minutes whilst the actors speak with the their mouths lost in the front row somewhere. Nice idea, rotten execution.
I wos stitched up good 'n' proppa, me ol' China.
The Green Mile
The Green Mile is a most moving film, despite being too long in places and going all out for milking sentiment. It centres on Tom Hanks as a prison guard serving on death row, known as the Green Mile for the colour of the floor that leads from the cells to the execution chamber. He is given charge of a convicted murderer, a huge black man, seven feet tall and built like a mountain, condemned to death for the murder of two little white girls. Strangely though, for 1930s America, little use is made of the race card. Maybe film makers are sensitive to the use of the 'N' word, but it is rather odd that it features so sparingly here. Nevertheless, Hanks and his too-good-to-be-true crew of prison guards, benign and benevolent to a fault, have a harmonious rapport with the inmates, except for a vindictive shit of a prison guard, secure in his job with relatives in high places, who delights in behaving maliciously towards the prisoners and annoying his colleagues. Anyway, the new prisoner se
ems to be a most meek and sensitive guy and when poor old Tom Hanks is doubled up in pain on the Green Mile floor, caused by a severe bladder/urinary tract infection and a good kicking received from another new prisoner, a deranged psychopath, the man mountain calls for Hanks's attention. Having staggered to the cell, the inmate has a laying on of hands on Hanks's nether regions and miraculously, Hanks is cured. This is the signal for some athletic bonking with the wife that night, bedroom activity having been severely curtailed by Hanks's condition. Eventually, it occurs to Hanks and his pals that perhaps the prisoner is not a callous murderer after all, yet despite curing the prison governor's wife of terminal cancer, can anything be done to halt the countdown to his execution? I won't reveal the answer to that, but there is a particularly frightful scene involving another death row prisoner. The vindictive guard has a grudge against this prisoner such that when the prisoner is bein
g strapped into the electric chair, old sparky, the guard is supposed to administer a soaked sponge to the prisoner's scalp to concentrate the charge to the brain, but the guard keeps the sponge dry and when the current is sent through the prisoner's body, he fails to die instantly and suffers agonies as he is fried alive. Yet another Stephen King adaptation, it is not as good as The Shawshank Redemption, but has some fine acting performances, especially from a pet mouse, and does cause lump in the throat syndrome. Some scenes, though, are laboured and could have done with a brisker pace.
Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 is a marvellous delight with astounding animation. Once again Tom Hanks is the voice of Woody with Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, John Ratzenberger as Hammy, the piggybank, Kelsey Grammer as Stinky Pete, a toy gold prospector, and other familiar toys such as Mr and Mrs Potato Head, the timid dinosaur, the slinky spring dog and the plastic soldiers. The family decide to have a yard sale and when Mr Wheeze, a toy penguin with a broken voice is put out for sale, Woody sets out to rescue him. But Woody is spotted by a toy dealer and although the boy's mother says he's not for sale, the dealer sneaks Woody back to his apartment where he is the final piece of a collection of 1950s Western set that also featured a cowgirl, Stinky Pete, the gold prospector and a faithful horse. Buzz Lightyear with help from the other toys, launches a rescue mission entailing a trek from the suburbs to the toy dealer's shop, where they think Woody is to be found. In the meantime, Woody faces a dilemm
a. The other toys in the Western set have been kept in boxes for some considerable time and when Woody appears, he is their passport out of storage. A Japanese collector wants to buy the complete set and the dealer is preparing to pack them off to Tokyo where they will go on display. Woody is torn. He knows that the family will miss him, yet he cannot disappoint his new friends who fear they will go back into storage if he leaves them. Meanwhile, Buzz and co reach the toy shop and start searching for him. Mayhem ensues as Buzz encounters a huge display of upgraded Buzz Lightyears with new utility belt. Wanting the belt, old Buzz wrestles with a new look-alike but loses and ends up strapped into a box on a shelf with all the other Buzzes. The other toys are driven around the store in search of Woody by Tour Guide Barbie, one of several animated Barbies to be encountered, but when they meet up with Buzz, they don't realize he's the new one. The toy dealer pops into the store and whe
n he leaves, the rescue party follow him to the apartment. Here, a tug of love ensues as Woody has to choose between old and new friends and confusion is caused as old Buzz appears on the scene, but before escaping, Woody and his new friends are gathered up into the transit cases and whisked off to the airport ready to embark for Japan. The old toys have just one more chance to rescue Woody at the airport. This is great fun with plenty of adventure and laughs. I was with my sister and her family and my 5 year old nephew was roaring with laughter, but it's a film that works for adults too.
I was most impressed, but you have to be prepared for an assault on the tobacco and media industries and an anti-business tone to the whole film. Crowe, for me the pinnacle of the film, plays a research executive inside a tobacco company. After a series of disagreements with his superiors, he is unceremoniously sacked to face a life of uncertainty with his wife, two daughters and some major financial commitments. Whilst with the company he signed a confidentiality clause which would lay him open to a civil action if he were to reveal company secrets. Pacino, a producer for the CBS 60 minutes news program, receives a dossier on the workings of a rival tobacco firm and he seeks advice from Crowe to put the scientific data into layman's terms. As Crowe explains a little of his own circumstances, Pacino senses that he has an opportunity to expose what he believes to be a scandal in the tobacco industry, namely that secret ingredients are added to cigarettes to enhance the addictive effect
s of nicotine, in direct contradiction of earlier statements given under oath from heads of the big seven tobacco firms that they believe nicotine not to be an addictive drug. He wants Crowe to undergo an interview for the show, but Crowe says that he is unwilling to go public on what he knows. In the meantime, his former employer gets wind of Crowe's tentative involvement with the media and they start putting pressure on Crowe to silence him. Anonymous threats are made to Crowe and his family and the company executives, including a terribly miscast Michael Gambon who is utterly unable to effect a convincing Deep South accent, call Crowe in to sign under duress a yet more exacting confidentiality agreement. Realising that pressure on Crowe is losing him an explosive TV show, Pacino resorts to subterfuge to tease out the story. Neighbouring Mississippi has launched state legal action to try to reclaim from the tobacco companies multi-billion dollar public health costs believed to be di
rectly attributable to tobacco smoking. Pacino realises that if he were to persuade Crowe to testify against the tobacco firms, then that testimony under oath would put Crowe beyond the legal reach of his former employer. The tobacco firm does, however, launch a successful counter attack in Crowe's home state of Kentucky, making Crowe liable for arrest in Kentucky if he attempts to return to the state having testified in Mississippi. Crowe is in a terrible dilemma, but he so resents the treatment being meted out by his former bosses that he decides to testify, and so he becomes free to undergo the TV interview. So, interviewed by the veteran Plummer, the show is recorded, but the frighteners are put on CBS by a threatened law suit from the tobacco firm. The CBS executives pull the plug on the show, and to the fury of Pacino, he finds that his colleagues in the News Departmanet are running scared. Even his long time colleague Plummer acquiesces and Pacino rails against the cowardice a
nd lack of integrity of his compatriots. In the meantime, Crowe's marriage is under strain as his wife is frightened of their future together, and when he learns that his bravery is all for naught, that his interview will not be broadcast, he becomes embittered and accuses Pacino of using and abandoning him. Pacino, stung by the accusations, starts to leak the story to the newspapers and it explodes into front page news. Pacino hopes this will so embarrass CBS that they will forced into transmitting the interview.
This is a very tense drama, with a super performance from Pacino as his one of his customary characters, oozing sincerity and eyes popping as his temper flares, and a great comeback from Plummer, his best role for years as the cynical TV interviewer, approaching retirement and not wanting to sour the autumn of his life with an interview that may spell disaster for his reputation. But Crowe was better still. His performance is very edgy and you feel he is about to erupt with rage at any moment as pressures from his family, the tobacco firm and Pacino crowd in on all sides. Tension is written all over his face as his world falls apart. Unlike Gambon, his accent, for a New Zealander, is impeccable. The pacing of the film is excellent as it builds and the hand held camerawork is effective in giving it an air of realism. My main concern, apart from the toe-curling Gambon, is how much fiction has been woven into the story. It may give the film dramatic tension, but I wonder to what degree
a company would use extra-legal threats to silence a former employee. Also, if a company was breaking the law, would employment contracts allow them to prevent an ex-employee from revealing the fact? There is a note in the closing credits that the story is based on fact but that fictional elements have been added. The question is, how much? Nevertheless, this is a superb drama and must be added to a list of films which are proving 2000 to be a year rich in cinema nuggets.
Joan of Arc
If you know your Joan of Arc history, the story will be familiar. Milla Jovovich plays Joan, a young Frenchwoman with a burning desire to expel the conquering English from 15th century France. As a girl, she saw her village razed to the ground by brutal English soldiers and witnessed her elder sister, run through by the sword and raped as she died. Even when quite young, she was very pious and believed that she was receiving messages from God. As she grew, she thought that God was telling her that the English must be beaten back across the Channel, so she sought a hearing from the Dauphin, John Malkovich, asking for his support in her crusade. Thinking he had nothing to lose against the all conquering English and with promptings from his mother, Faye Dunaway, he despatched her with troops to lead the relief of Orleans from an English siege. The French troops were dismissive of her. How could a teenage girl be of any use to them? But fired by a religious zeal, she inspired the troop
s to overcome the odds and oust the English from Orleans. She repeated this success at Rheims and the French came to regard her as a saviour, but with Rheims liberated, the Dauphin was free to be crowned in Rheims cathedral, the traditional place of coronation, and with his reign confirmed, both he and his mother wanted to come to a diplomatic arrangement with the English. The war was costing too many lives and the treasury could no longer afford it. Joan, though, wanted to free Paris and was dismayed when she no longer had the new King's support, so her efforts failed for want of sufficient troops. The Dauphin and his mother, realising that Joan was becoming troublesome, allowed her to be captured by the Burgundians. At that time, Burgundy was an independent state and was quite prepared to support the English. With Joan in captivity, the Burgundians offered her to the highest bidder, so the English bought her and sent her for trial in Rouen, then under English control. The Bishop o
f Rouen, Timothy West, had to have her tried for heresy, for claiming to be God's messenger, but he didn't want to be responsible for her execution, so during her trial, he tried all he could to persuade her to recant. Joan, tormented by her conscience, had visions in which she was visited by an apparition, Dustin Hoffman. Was this God's messenger or her conscience? But she would not deny being God's conduit and was condemned to death. Eventually, whilst she was about to be burned at the stake, the Bishop secured her recantation. But her respite was brief. Having freed the church from its responsibilities, he turned her over to the English and being somewhat less forgiving, they had her burned at the stake.
There were many good points to this film. The battle scenes were quite magnificent, decapitations and severed limbs making for a quite bloodthirsty spectacle. Jovovich put in a thoroughly spirited performance. Her Joan was inspiring as she rallied the troops, angry as the French soldiers brushed her contemptuously aside, contrite as she sought endlessly for forgiveness of her sins and tearful, oh so tearful, as she pleaded for help, begging God for guidance and weeping at the carnage of the battlefield. Never have I seen eyes as moist as these. Jovovich has perfected the art of balancing teardrops on the lower eyelid, waiting for the perfect moment to let them slide down her cheek. If tears could receive Oscars, hers surely deserve a lifetime achievement award. Dunaway was fine as the coldly calculating mother, pulling on the strings of her easily manipulated son. Malkovich failed to be a convincing Dauphin. Was this really the leader of the French in their hour of need? Perhaps
it was his weakness that allowed for a Joan of Arc to come to the fore, but honestly, what a prissy tantrum he threw on the morning of his coronation when his crown and robes were not just so. Although only appearing late on, Hoffman was enigmatic as Joan's apparition. Cloaked and bearded, I didn't immediately recognise him, but he brought a quiet authority to his part. Timothy West, in a supporting role, was nonetheless pivotal. His face is quite suited to historical characters and once again he didn't let us down. His scheming and deception were spot on. Having said all that, some of the scenes did drag, especially those of Joan and the voices in her head. I suppose they were necessary to pose the conundrum of whether the voices were God's or of Joan's conscience, but they did become intrusive. Also, financed by Gaumont, a French company, the English are depicted as vile, uncouth, despicable and evil. If you want a balanced portrayal of history, you won't find it here. Overall,
though, it was an enjoyable, if overlong, film and I came away feeling better informed about one of history's most famous heroines and what inspired her to feats of great courage.
It may have been over three hours long, but this sprawling epic was worth seeing. Not that it was perfect by any means, but some of the performances were superb. The film starts with some examples of highly improbable coincidences then leads into a series of vignettes, running in parallel over a 24 hour period. There is Jason Robards on his sick bed, dying from cancer, with his beautiful young wife, Julianne Moore, unable to cope with his illness nor her guilt at having married him for his wealth. He is attended by his nurse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who helps the old man to trace his estranged son. In the meantime, there is a quiz show host, Philip Baker Hall, also dying from cancer, who is estranged from his daughter, and wants to become reconciled to her. He also has a confession to make to his wife, Melinda Dillon, to atone for his guilt. His quiz show pits a team of child prodigies against a team of adults and we follow one particular boy, Jeremy Blackman, who is struggling to m
eet the demands placed upon him by his father, Michael Bowen. An ex-child genius on the same show in the 60s, William H. Macy, is now living an unfulfilled life unable to hold down a decent job, resentful of his parents and with an unrequited crush which he's unable to resolve. A decent cop, John C.Reilly, religious, considerate, kind but unlucky in love is called to the apartment of a young woman, Melora Waters, where the music is blaring at top volume. Having gained entrance, he finds himself attracted to this young woman, completely messed up by drugs and a hatred of her father. An unlikely liaison develops between the two. Then there is a television sex evangelist, Tom Cruise, preaching misogynistically to men about how to take control of women.
All these strands could very easily ramble on, but the threads are gradually woven together. The intrigue is to see how it will all make sense. I feel that the director was struggling at times to hold it all together, nor does he satisfactorily explain how coincidence is at work in the story. To me, these are credible events happening to connected people at the same time. We also have a downpour of biblical proportions to try and lend an element of the supernatural to the proceedings, but as visually impressive as this may be, this comes across as a contrivance to try and make the events seem out of the ordinary and ends up providing a weak excuse to link some of the characters. The preamble contains far more mysterious coincidences than the main plot. Having said that, the tale remains interesting throughout, in essence about how the sins of parents drive away their children, but it is the acting that commands total respect. Never have I seen Tom Cruise so utterly involved in his c
haracter, at times vile and consumed by anger and hatred. Julianne Moore, after a series of films in which she has played emotionally retentive characters is here distraught to the point of near breakdown. Philip Seymour Hoffman, always a fine character actor but often playing slimy creeps is cast as a sweet, kindly character. John C. Reilly has a face I recognise but I cannot remember any of his previous parts, yet here he has to pull off the difficult job of playing the affable, polite and charming police officer without being bland and succeeds marvellously. Another of my favourites, William H. Macy, once again does a fine job as the ageing child genius, unable to come to terms with his past and confused about his present. The rest of the cast are never less than impressive and are joined in minor parts by the likes of Alfred Molina, Henry Gibson and an unlikely Miriam Margolyes, a million miles from the Infanta in The Blackadder. The final puzzle is the choice of film title. I s
ubsequently read of two clues secreted in the film but I failed to pick them out whilst watching. Overall, I suspect that the director has been overambitious, but a never less than interesting series of plots and some marvellous acting makes for a film that whilst long is never boring. If it's still available you might want to give it a go.