Thursday, October 23, 2008

Live! from Victim's Bedroom

This review will probably make more sense if you've seen Live!, which, as we'll discuss (EDIT: briefly. Very briefly), is a highly unlikely possibility, so you'll just have to make do.

If I had better graphical skills (or indeed, a better graphics program), this would be in a circle like the "contestants" on the tv show within a film stand in (although honestly I don't know how anyone'd manage that). But I don't, so it isn't. A list will have to do.

Contestant #1... Eva Mendes!
It feels, oddly, that Eva Mendes has been around for years, and yet I'd be hard pressed to name more than about three films she's starred in (well, I would have been before looking at IMDb). But I have a lot of goodwill towards her after being so impressed by her turn in We Own the Night, the very underrated James Gray film from last year. So seeing she was not only the star but the executive producer (money=faith) of Live! induced me to go and see it despite having heard very little about it. We'll get to semantics later, but here's the basic premise: Eva is an ambitious tv exec who comes up with a reality show based on the "classic game" (yes, they actually say that) of Russian Roulette. Yes, six people stand in a circle and one of them is going to kill themself. As you can imagine, it all turns out very well indeed. You might question why Eva would put her money behind such a thing, but as a role you can't question her decision: she's tart, magnetic and astutely attuned to the differing facets of a role that, as written, could easily just be the bitch-extrodinaire. (So, no, the bullet in her chamber is a blank. Well done, Eva. You live to fight another day.)

Contestant #2... Robert de Vico!
The production design on this is actually quite stellar. As in, the studio where the tv show takes place- which is about the final third of the film- looks authentically 'American reality tv show'. That is, shiny metal, overdramatically dark lighting, geometric shapes. Minus points for Eva's ludicrously labyrithine house. (Robert de Vico is the production designer in case that wasn't clear. He also survives. Hurray!)

Contestant #3... Jay Hernandez!
Sometimes I happen upon an actor who's never been in anything particularly amazing, and has never truly convinced me of their amazing skill, and yet they worm their way into my head and sit there, chirruping at me to champion their cause. Jay Hernandez is one of those. Every time I see him in the cast list of a film, my heart does a little somersault. (Don't get too excited, this is a disturbingly regular occurance... many people occupy the little swinging ledge in the birdcage of my mind.) Anyway. Here Jay is one of the contestants, and he does a perfectly competent job, but I just don't get why he has to slum it in things like this. I guess he'll just have to keep chirruping. (And not get shot in the head.)

Contestant #4... Stephen Kazmierski!
I'm sure you're all saying "who the f**k is that?". Well, let me tell you, good people. Stephen Kazmierski is the cinematographer. Why is this important? Because the photography draws great attention itself by the story being a film within a film- not an unfamiliar concept, of course. But, although this is all done as a documentary (David Krumholtz plays the filmmaker who has 'randomly' decided to follow Eva around), it's not done in the grainy, shaky-cam style we've all come to associate with documentary (or faux-documentary, or 'realist') films. And therein lies the problem. It's all too glossy. Even this probably wouldn't be a problem if we didn't then run into the tv show itself... which looks exactly the same. Shiny and glossy. And when your supposed 'reality' is as fake as the reality show it's criticizing, you lose the force of your moral lesson. (Also there's some very shoddy editing. Pull your socks up people! If even I notice it you know you're in trouble. Kazmierski survives, but for a moment you thought it was all over.)

Contestant #5... Bill Guttentag!
I'm afraid it's all this man's fault. It's hard to avoid blaming him, really, since he wrote and directed it. Fair enough, who could make such a ridiculous premise believable... but why bother making a film of this in the first place if you're going to try and make a moral lesson out of something that seems ludicrous from the off? In the end what you get is a film that obviously thinks it's got it's audience squared- you do sweat and bite your nails as the contestants hold that gun to their head. But is that because you actually care or just because the idea of a shot ringing out is an always horrible one? Your moral lesson, Bill, doesn't work, because I would never watch this tv show. And (here is where I put too much faith in humanity) I doubt many others would either. But it doesn't matter anyway because no one would ever show it, and your entire film is pointless before it's even begun.

And you really did yourself in when you chickened out of showing us what could possibly have been the most interesting moral dilemma of the entire film. (So, yes, it's Bill that crumples to the floor, as the final contesant(s) weep(s) with relief...)

Contestant #6... Harvey/Bob Weinstein!
After Guttentag shot himself in the foot, it's no wonder the Weinsteins went running for the hills and left this film behind. C-

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cue Childish Sniggering

"Would you like to come to my house and see my silver-tipped spruce?"

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Victim's Useless Guide To The London Film Festival

Now, as your resident favourite Brit-of-the-blogosphere (because I am, aren't I?!), I'd love to be your guide to this country's biggest film festival, which starts today and runs until October 30th all over London. Unfortunately, contrary to the old American maxim that every Brit lives in London, I live about 200 miles from the capital and it takes me two hours (by train) to get there. Add this to my waning bank balance and a university that unfortunately insists I show up for things, and you get me unhappily only taking one trip down to the West End. (That's this Sunday, folks, for Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, which I am very excited about.) But I can't fail you completely, and, so, instead of the detailed diaries I'm sure those who get paid for this sort of thing will be doing, I'm going to get this out of the way now and tell you what I would be seeing if I were a rich layabout cinefile who lived in a mansion in Kent. (I've restricted myself to one per day because otherwise we'll be here all night and you're probably bored already. Hurrah.)

Wednesday, 15th: Frost/Nixon
The opening gala. Can't say the film itself holds a great deal of interest personally (though naturally I'll see it on release), but it's a gala and I've always wanted to go to one of those. I'd probably actually scrub myself in preparation.

Thursday, 16th: La Belle personne
I actually thought about going to this because there ARE STILL TICKETS (a rare thing to come by) but monetary and time issues made me sigh in defeat. This is from Christophe Honore, whose delightful Les chansons d'amour was released this year on both sides of the Atlantic. La Belle personne is similarly musical, similarly Louis Garrel-starring (always a good thing), and strangely enough based on La princesse de Cleves.

Friday, 17th: Love Live Long
The latest experimental thingamabob from Mike Figgis, who's always worth giving a chance to impress, disgust or bore you completely. It's about the Gumball 3000 Rally, whatever that is. More importantly, it's digital, it sounds unnervingly raw and it appears to be in black-and-white, which the pretentious snob in me always loves.

Saturday, 18th: Virtue + Shopworn
Now I would have gone to this but 'twas already sold out. Bastards. Anyway, this is a double-bill of rare Pre-Code films, the first with Carole Lombard (love) and the second with Barbara Stanwyck (love more). But I guess I'll never see them, then. Oh well.

Sunday, 19th: Hunger
This comes out soon anyway, but I can't wait to be stunned and horrified (apparently I'm a masochist then) by this tale of Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who led a hunger strike in the 1980s.

Monday, 20th: Rachel Getting Married
You know this one. I can't wait for it. It doesn't have a release date. Boo. Let's move on.

Tuesday, 21st: Of Time and the City
Terence Davies' very personal documentary about his childhood and hometown of Liverpool. Described as a 'visual poem', it's narrated by Davies' himself, whose voice is bound to switch as many people off as it does on.

Wednesday, 22nd: Genova
Michael Winterbottom is often amazing. And this story of a grieving father taking his daughters to Venice and hanging around with Catherine Keener becomes even more exciting when you remember which previous British art-director went to Venice with psychological traumas. Got there? Oh yes... (Again, this was sold out already. Grr.)

Thursday, 23rd: Of Parents and Children
Every fantasy film festival diary needs a Czech film in it (that's what they tell me, anyway). So this is mine. A grandfather meets his 40-year-old son at a zoo every week and they walk around Prague reflecting on how shit their lives are. Probably. For film buffs there's the pleasure of knowing the grandfather is played by the lead of Czech-classic Closely Observed Trains (which I didn't like but oh well).

Friday, 24th: Benicio del Toro
Not a film, but a talk! How thrilling. But seriously, I'm sure the man would be fascinating. Of course he's around these parts because of Che (a simultaneously exciting and exhausting prospect), but a look back into his filmography demonstrates he has a lot of interesting stuff to be asked. (Of course, you can book for this, but it's on far too late and I'd be stranded in London for the night. Scary.)

Saturday, 25th: Hansel and Gretel
This South Korean flick sounds deliciously creepy. What's more disturbing than children? (Apologies to any children who may be reading.) Happy children, that's what. Hopefully I'll get a chance to this one at some point.

Sunday, 26th: Surprise Film
They have one every year. You don't know what it is until you turn up. This year, according to festival director Sandra Hebron, it's a return to the usual situation where they still aren't sure what they're going to be showing. How thrilling. Or it would be if I was going.

Monday, 27th: The Brothers Bloom

I don't like Adrien Brody though.

Tuesday, 28th: The Beaches of Agnes
Cleo from 5 to 7 is superb. And this "auto-documentary" is a self-portrait of its director Agnes Varda. Apparently her last film, too, and you can bet your bottom dollar such a film will be fascinating and completely vanity-free.

Wednesday, 29th: Easy Virtue
I'm sorry. But whenever anyone mentions Jessica Biel in the same breath as her namesakes Alba and Simpson, my blood boils ever so slightly. What did she do to deserve such an indignity? She looks smashing in this period comedy alongside Colin Firth (boring) and Kristin Scott Thomas (amazing). The trailer instantly reminded me of Stephen Fry's Evelyn Waugh adaptation Bright Young Things, and as anyone who has seen that can attest, this is only a good thing. (Thankfully this is released very soon. Hurrah!)

Thursday, 30th: The Sky, The Earth and the Rain
And so we reach the end. You could go and see the closing gala Slumdog Millionaire, but I'm not big on Danny Boyle and so instead in my fantasy world I'll be seeing this "ravishing" Chilean peek at two solitary souls where the landscape stands for the characters' inner moods. Susan Sontag would storm out in disgust.

And that, good people, is two weeks that I WON'T be enjoying. Good night.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Um... Did You Save The Receipt?

It's A Gift is possibly the most unamusing comedy I ever did see. Moreover, it's completely uninteresting.

It's not even as if it's particularly offensive (although it is deeply misogynistic, but in a way that doesn't rile you up but more puts you into a coma; if such a thing seems impossible to you, you evidently haven't seen this). It's just dead. W.C. Fields, while not held up as a Chaplin or a Keaton, is still fairly well respected today, but on the basis of this I have no idea why. I know the film is simply built around comic setpieces for Fields to show off in, but for me to laugh at something that is riffing off a realistic situation, I need to believe the validity of the situation we're given. And since Fields is generally not depicted as a complete idiot (he generally seems to be ahead of the game, but just a victim of other's stupidity), I find it hard to believe he'd be so stubborn as to risk cutting his throat just because his daughter was using the bathroom mirror. Either WAIT, or ask the girl to MOVE. Don't position yourself on the back of a chair so that you almost fall on top of your blade.

And don't even get me started on the coconut that is actually a cannon ball.

I am not against old comedies. On the contrary, I find Chaplin and Keaton and the Marx Brothers and especially '30s screwball to be an utter delight and a welcome respite from what the Hollywood mainstream of today generally serves up for our delectation. (And now I sound like a snob. Hurrah.) But W.C. Fields- at least as far as It's A Gift demonstrates- is NOT funny. He's just a boorish fool who somehow ended up married to the 1930s American incarnation of Hyacinth Bucket (that's prounced Boo-Kay).

The thing is, really, that I see none of the virtuosity in Fields that his contemporaries- those aforementioned- demonstrate, either verbally or physically. (Supposedly he was a fantastic juggler. But he didn't juggle in this film. Not even with the coconut.) But compare to the Chaplin film I saw last week- The Rink- and we see Chaplin charm us with his (silent) chuckling and his rising hat effect, and wow us with his skating virtuosity. (I haven't even mentioned the way he walks. Like a penguin. I love it.) Buster Keaton takes my breath away with his dangerous stunts on the train track in The General. Groucho Marx (and sometimes Chico and Harpo too) has me on the floor with laughter with his wisecracking, clever gags. And Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn run around with a leopard and walk on the side of imaginary hills and I doubt anything can ever make me laugh as much as I am at that moment.

But all I got from Fields was him yelling at a blind man, trying to kill himself as he shaved, trying (and failing) to sleep at 5:00 in the morning (in the only neighbourhood that has a girl who is sent out to the shops at that time of day), and waving a pillow vaguely at a dog. (See? He can't even do that properly.)

And, after all that, he ends up a rich bugger relaxing on the sunny veranda of his orange grove. Life just isn't fair.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why You Can't Take It With You Sums Up Everything That Was Good About 1930s Hollywood While Also Managing To Be Distinctly Mediocre

I think the title hints what this post is about.

Alright. I'll fess up. I only put You Can't Take It With You at the top of my rental queue because it's one half of the next episode of the holy trifecta's Best Picture thingamawhatsit. (For what it's worth, Titanic is as bewitching as it ever was.) The inhumanly perfect pairing of Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart should have been enough to drive me to rob a DVD shop at gunpoint for a chance to watch it, and yet somehow, by perverse logic, the fact of it's being a winner of Oscar's top prize tainted it's appeal. (Like: if they like it, it can't be good enough. And yet I must see it because I am under their foolish thumb.)

Turns out, naturally, that I was quite correct. You Can't Take It With You, apart from having an irritatingly long and un-shortenable title, is basically the manic screwball comedies that I adore so much, but diluted with the infamous corn of Capra. If making films was a culinary art (and you know you wish it were), then here we have at the helm a chef who got noticed for his originality but has landed a boss who is terrified of bad press. 'Play it safe, lad,' he says, and so our precocious young cook looks down at his delicious concution and sadly pours in Capra's Creamed CornTM into his pot. Stir, and voila! You have crazy that Oscar can adore without having to laugh too much. God forbid people think the golden man's got a funny bone.

You can't contain the crazy. But you can put a sign that says 'Home Sweet Home' on it's front door and pet it gently. They may end up in a jail (like all the best and worst screwballs do), but this is a jail with 'ladies of the night' and scruffy homeless people, who certainly aren't there to be laughed at (you'll find no leopards here). You can mute the absurdity by throwing such disparate elements as dancer Ann Miller and wizened straight-face Lionel Barrymore into the same melting pot, but they doesn't mean they make a family. You can't present the ultimate kooky family as if it's normal and teach us moral lessons about the world at the same time: it's our world, or yours. Choose.

In the end, it's the cast that defines this film, in terms of how good they are at salvaging its worst moments, but also in how their disparate personaes represent the confusing mess that this film emerges as. Jimmy Stewart was to become the poster-boy for Capra's social concerns. Jean Arthur is the wiseacre of 40s social comedies. Lionel Barrymore is like a relic of the stage, gentle and loveable, sitting in the corner as a marker of prestige. Ann Miller is like a moth (a musical moth) that sneaked into a house and is fluttering to get out before someone squashes her for flying into their face. Spring Byington is the fluff that tickles Oscar's ear and makes him melt inside. Mischa Auer is the marker for xenophobic hilarity. And Edward Arnold... well, he's the cream of Capra's corn. You Can't Take It With You is that most frustrating of films: the film that isn't quite sure what it wants to be, and so tries to be them all. (Much like this highly schizophrenic post.) B-