Saturday, 10 July 2010

This isn't Paris. This is Hell.

No 390 - 2 Days in Paris
Director - Julie Delpy

So Julie Delpy is pretty damned cool. She is an actress in cool films. She is one of those cool indie people. So imagine my complete lack of surprise when I find that the film she wrote, directed and starred in is painfully cool. The opening montage of images, with Delpy's voice-over, just began to tell me that this film may have too many hipster credentials. I may not be cool enough to watch it (pfft... who am I kidding. I'm solid cool).

This film is embracing a culture clash. As a couple (one American and one French) go to Paris for a couple of days. Over these two days Jack (played by Adam Goldberg) and his girlfriend Marion (Julie Delpy) wander around Paris and meet a impressively large number of Marion's exes. This begins to put Jack in a bad mood and he gets progressively grumpier throughout the film. However, even at the beginning of the film he appears to be an antisocial whining grump that would rather be at home in New York on his own. He moans about his allergies, he moans about french condoms, he moans about the quality of the house he is staying in. He just moans a lot. After a while it just becomes rude - because although Marion's friends and family (certainly her family) are a bit strange - they are trying very hard to be hospitable to him and he spends his whole time complaining.

However Marion is no better. She seems completely unsympathetic - she is prone to genuinely terrifying outbursts of aggression. She also seems to ignore Jack a lot in Paris. And considering he is in a foreign city... he does need support.
Some of the outbursts are incredibly uncomfortable. Marion's rant about an ex leaving her to have sex with 12 year old Thai prostitutes is not only uncomfortable to listen to but seems a very strange addition to the film, completely ruining the tone and making everything really rather awkward.

This is also present with the cabbies. If we were to take 2 Days in Paris as a definitive guide, it would seem that all Parisian cabbies are homophobic, racist, sexist pricks.

So what do we do in a film where the protagonists are so unsympathetic (Marion a lying agressive nut job, and Jack a moaning intolerant prick)? Where can we turn to? With whom can we make our connection?

Thus enters Marion's family. They are bonkers! I don't know if it is because I have a French mother but I found Marion's mother to be pure comedy brilliance: the way that she was just a bit mental, a bit over bearing, wholly inappropriate and always turning up at the wrong time. It made me feel warmly nostalgic - French mothers are funny.

But the best character is a fleeting and dreamlike character. A character who is a bit mysterious and the only person who seem separate from the reality of the rest of the film. Lukas. Played by the always excellent Daniel Bruhl.

Lukas is a fairy. Not a homosexual - but an actual fairy.

It is his intervention and his assistance that causes Marion and Jack to finally speak to one another. It may result in an enormous argument but finally they're happy. That's what matters.

Lukas helps them get together.

Lukas is my favourite character in this film, which in the end is a film I really enjoyed - but couldn't exactly pinpoint why.

These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons

No 115 - Blazing Saddles
Director - Mel Brooks

This is an odd film - it has moments of utterly deranged genius, but it also has moments which make me cringe. Like all good film spoofs (for example not this... seriously - it upsets and angers me... how do those two guys keep making films?!) it is also doing something clever - so whilst this is a spoof of the old classic western genre it is also a pretty scathing look at racism. It's good that the film is doing something clever, otherwise I think the amount of times the N word is used would anger me. In the end, it's used so much it just becomes ridiculous.

The racism in this film is so extreme, it becomes a joke. Mel Brooks, being a Jew, probably faced a fair amount of prejudice himself - so it seems at least appropriate for it to be the theme of the film.

The plot is actually quite clever (wealthy rail-road owner hires a black sheriff to drive away the residents of a town - allowing him to build a rail road through it). However, it is wholly unimportant. This is a not a film which you watch for the plot, this is a film which you watch for the wonderful gags and bonkers set pieces. Little touches such as the big band orchestra playing the film's score live in the desert are wonderful (the live score was recently paid homage to in MicMacs) - but the film's real gem is the relationship between Sheriff Bart and his deputy Jim.

Cleavon Little is wonderful as Sheriff Bart - it is a powerhouse performance and he comes out of it as the only truly sane person in the film. In fact, the only way he can often negotiate with the white folk is by acting unhinged. Oh and he is damned snazzy in his moleskin sheriff outfits.
Then we have Jim, the fast shooting drunk, played by Gene Wilder. More than any actor, I cannot seem to let Wilder become any different role. He is Willy Wonka and will always be. Johnny Depp certainly didn't manage to wrestle away that mantle, and no other film has managed to make me look at Gene Wilder in a different light. Whether freaky or magical - he is made and defined to children of a certain generation by that one role.

But it seems futile to talk about this film with out mentioning one section. The end. The end is pure cinematic magic. Pure insane comedy genius. Pure brilliance. It will just make you smile.

Not only does it become surreal and post modern but it also reaches new levels of intelligence. So after the greatest fight ever (escalating out of the western - and into the studio; affecting other films and turning into an enormous pie fight) we see characters from the film going to the cinema to watch Blazing Saddles in order to help them know what to do next.

I'm not going to link to any of the end because you should watch it all in context (and we're looking at a 20 minute sequence here).

The film is a perfect journey from a simple, but intelligent, parody - to a full blown post modern descent into utter insanity.

The best comedians will shake the story up and shake the humour up, but it is rare for it to be done so dramatically in one film. For that alone, this film should be lauded.

Isn't this fun? Isn't fun the best thing to have? Don't you wish you were me? I know I do.

No 349 - Arthur
Director - Steve Gordon

Dudley Moore's Arthur is a bit of a weird one. He comes of as a bit unhinged. Especially at the start of the film. He is a bit of a laughing drunken loon. Reminiscent of a drunken uncle - cackling wildly at his own rubbish jokes. He is however manic and naive. A bit hopeless. He speaks about happiness and having fun but you can see that really, he isn't all that happy. He hasn't found that release yet. He is sort of pathetic - hanging out with prostitutes and getting blind drunk, just because he can afford to.

It all changes when Arthur (who is an arranged marriage in order to keep his inheritance) meets Liza Minelli's Linda. A lower class, shoplifting kook. And whilst I've never seen Liza Minelli as attractive, she is definitely cool. This film really provides a platform for her kooky cool - and you can see why young Arthur becomes obsessed about her.

So, essentially the main plot is a love triangle between the hopeless Arthur, the unobtainable Linda and the poor poor victim Susan. An aristocratic fool who loves Arthur and who is treated terribly throughout the film. These circumstances are not her fault. Whilst this (coupled with the inheritance aspect) is the key story, it is not the bit that I want to discuss - Arthur's development as a character. Arthur's maturity stems from a different, far deeper and far more beautiful relationship.

Let me introduce Arthur's butler Hobson. This is the marvellous John Gielgud in a role which allows him to steal every second of every scene we're blessed to see him in. Hobson has been to the Jeeves school of butlering - in which he manages to disguise withering put-downs and massive snobbery as simply fulfilling his role. He is fantastic and there is a wonderful closeness between the two men. A genuinely beautiful friendship. Hobson clearly views Arthur as a sort of high maintenance child whom he cares deeply for, but who is also a lot of hard work.

However as the film progresses you realise that Hobson is not well, and it is is Hobson's deterioration which provides the film with real heart. All of a sudden, Arthur is more than a witty imbecile. He is caring, he is loving. He showers Hobson with gifts and fine dining and (best of all) decks out his ward in fine Victorian mahogany. It just begins to show what you can use that money for, and how you can use it to make a beautiful difference.
It is all the more evident when Hobson finally loses his Stiff Upper Lip, and breaks into tears. That is the most emotional part of the whole film. And from that point on, Arthur is a changed man.

Of course, this is a love story - so it isn't too much of a destructive spoiler to say that Arthur manages to get the girl and keep the money. After the ordeal of Hobson's illness, after seeing that Arthur has three dimensions and is a beautiful man (not just a drunken fool) - you want the happy ending.

It is a striking film for starting out a bit silly, frankly, and yet ending in a truly heart-warming manner.

Though it must be said that Arthur's theme in this film is not as good as Arthur's theme in the TV show.

What's wrong with this fucking country? Everybody hates everybody!

No 208 – The Departed
Director – Martin Scorsese

I had watched almost all of this film and then, much to the dismay of myself and my house mates, the disk ruddy conked out. So I had to send it to LoveFilm, who swiftly provided a replacement and we watched it again. From the start. We didn't mind though. Because it is brill!

We begin by instantly setting the scene. With a foul mouthed (and occasionally racist) monologue from Jack Nicholson. After all, this is the Oscar Winning Best Film with the most 'fuck's in it. True fact, fact fans. Is it Scorsese's best? No. But it is bloody great.

Lets look at the strengths:

Firstly the cast. It is beyond good. It is beyond stellar. This film has so many excellent actors (and 'big name' actors) that it starts to get embarrassing. I reckon several smaller films probably failed to get funding because Scorsose stole all the male leads.

I mean look at it:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio

  • Matt Damon

  • Alec Baldwin

  • Martin Sheen

  • Ray Winstone

  • Mark Wahlberg

  • Jack Nicholson.

This is a very male-heavy film, but the male cast is impeccable and just beautiful to watch. Especially as they bounce off each other. Whilst the female roles are mostly there as eye candy, we do have the wonderful Vera Farmiga offering a strong character; although she is still often relegated to the role of love interest, or as a means to simply complicating the plot... all in all, this just isn't the most feminist of films.

Matt Damon's character is charismatic with an undercurrent of danger... but then the man played Bourne, so you'd expect him to be able to play that kind of role. Meanwhile, DiCaprio is sporting his little goatee which reminds us that he is in a serious film playing a serious role, and is not just a handsome little boy. He also scowls a lot and punches a lot of people. However, whilst the two leads are superb, they are still playing roles which we know they can do well. So let us look at some of the other stand-out roles.

Beginning with Wahlberg's Staff Sgt Dignam. This part is the closest thing this film has to comic relief. He is abrasive, argumentative, foul-mouthed and utterly hilarious. This is a film which has a lot of quick witted foul-mouthed one liners, and whilst Alec Baldwin's Captain Ellerby gets a good few, the majority of them fly from the angry mouth of Dignam.

For example when DiCaprio's Billy Costigan is asked whether he knows what a specific police department does, he replies that he has an idea - which causes Dignam to launch a tirade of abuse:

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's say you have no idea and leave it at that, okay? No idea. Zip. None. If you had an idea of what we do, we would not be good at what we do, now would we? We would be cunts. Are you calling us cunts?

It is gloriously aggressive and wholly inappropriate. Which pretty much sums up the majority of the film. The language is just ridiculously foul. Love it.

But, if you think Dignam is crass and abrasive, you ain't seen nothing yet. Because with Jack Nicholson we are introduced to a gangster nightmare. Frank Costello. An arrogant, drug using, violent, over-confident bastard. Who, throughout the film, is getting gradually more paranoid and subsequently more unhinged. This is a far more terrifying, far more unstable criminal kingpin. This is Nicholson's Joker cranked up to the next level and made all the more terrifying by the realism he is grounded in. And villains are just more scary when they're realistic.

So, the casting is top notch and the script has zinging dialogue, but there is more. The music is wonderful - whether we have the aggressive Irish American punk of the Dropkick Murphies summing up the entire criminal mentality in one barrage of noise or the tragic lust fuelled romance of the film perfectly underpinned by Pink Floyd's haunting Comfortably Numb.

All these little notes help us go back to Scorsese's Oscar. This film's real skill is how subtle it is. Every aspect of it just works. The camera is there without any flash gimmicks - it just tells the story. The music is ideal for each situation. The entire film is just perfectly cast. It may not be the most obvious and deserving film for an Oscar, but it is wonderfully planned - and it is masterfully executed. And as a nod to a director who has ruddy deserved an Oscar time and time again - it makes sense.

So, I've managed to talk about what I like about the film without really mentioning the script and the plot. Which is good because this is a film with some many twists and turns. With double and triple crossing that it would be difficult to explain without giving it away. All I can say is that you should give yourself 2 and a half hours and just watch it.

And whilst I've never seen Infernal Affairs - if it is half as good as this English Speaking remake, then it will be a marvellous film - and THAT is a bloody rare thing to say about a practice I think is usually pointless and wrong and can be, at worst, disrespectful to the source material.

Friday, 2 July 2010

I can't relate to 99% of humanity

No 266 - Ghost World
Director - Terry Zwigoff

As comic book films become more popular and as every comic book ever becomes a film, it is only natural that the less usual comics become films too. However, I am surprised that this film made it so high up the list, and that the more exciting and daring types of films didn't get onto the list at all - I don't think this film is quite as good as American Splendour for example (though that may stem from a huge admiration of Paul Giamatti).

So, here we have a film which relishes in the fact that not much happens. A film about isolation and a film about growing up. A film, in which the protagonist is really really annoying. For whilst we may follow both Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) - Rebecca kind of fades out of the equation and it is Enid who is the key character in this film. She is also a bit of a twat.

The problem with Enid is that she believes herself to be better than everyone and her superiority manifests itself in a number of horrible ways. Firstly, although she is fascinated with outsiders she seems to get down hearted when things work out for them. She wants other people to be miserable so that she can feel better - her friendships seem to stem from a high level of Schadenfreude. Secondly she is deliberately confrontational. She mocks people with regularity and she starts fights or arguments equally frequently.
Check out her withering asides "He might die of AIDS when he date rapes her".

At the beginning of the film Enid and Rebecca are deliberately alienating themselves from their high school - admiring the weirdos and berating the popular kids from afar. However after graduation, Rebecca begins to assimilate with the real world: saving money, looking for a house, getting a job.
All of this seems alien to Enid who wants to continue to live out life in her little bubble. And so Enid's alienation becomes real - a side effect of her (quite horrible) character, rather than a deliberate part of her superiority.

Enid's descent into isolation also ropes in the film's best characters. Firstly Seymour - played by Steve Buscemi. I've spent the last blog talking about the fact that I think Buscemi is excellent, and I still do. Seymour is just a normal person - a bit nerdy, a bit depressed, but utterly unremarkable. His love for blues and his awkwardness with his friendship with Enid (I think he feels uncomfortable being friends with a 17 year old girl) is wonderful. You kind of hope that things will go well for Seymour. That he will be happy. That he will move away from his weird circle of friends (though it does include the ever-awesome cameo king that is David Cross... oh and his house-mate Kenny from Frasier) and settle down. However, like everyone in the film, his life is made worse by Enid turning up and claiming ownership on Seymour and his emotions. She may claim to love him and that he is her hero, but she still messes him around so much that he ends up even more of a wreck than he used to be.

It is in Enid's art classes that she begins to realise that actually alienation isn't that good - mainly because the art teacher is a bit of a prick and a snob. Her view on what makes art and what isn't allowed (illustrations can't be art) just shows her as this horribly pretentious elitist wanker. When Enid is made to face up to the art teacher (who is, essentially, an even more OTT version of Enid herself) it causes Enid to realise that she needs to be determined and make something of her life.

It also opens up a wonderful sub-plot (the best bit of the film) about the controversial past of Cook's Chicken (a nearby KFC-type restaurant) - which I won't go into, but which brings up issues of acceptability and how far Art can go to push the envelope.

All in all though - the film is as aloof as its protagonists. Which isn't really a good thing.

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.

No 198 - Fargo
Directors - Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

When a horror film states that the film is nothing more than 'found' footage, you kinda know that it isn't true. Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are all obviously not real. We know that; but is part of the story telling. It is part of the fun.
However, when a film begins with a disclaimer that it is based on a true story - you kind of expect it to be at least partially based on a true story.
I think it takes a certain ballsiness and a pretty weird sense of humour to put that in - and Fargo begins with a disclaimer stating that only the character's names have been changed. But then, the Coen brothers are ballsy people with a very odd sense of humour which is littered throughout this film, despite the dark subject matter.

I mean in the closing credits, Prince is listed as having a cameo in the film.

He doesn't.

Beyond the really odd (and essentially nonsensical) additions before and after the feature, the Coen's humour and distinctive style runs thickly throughout the film; mainly in the naive homeliness of the majority of characters. You have to love a film which relishes the juxtaposition of a series of grisly murders and characters who curse less than Ned Flanders.
Most of the cursing and violence stems from one character - Carl Showalter, played by Steve Buscemi sporting an awesome moustache, which sort of makes him look like a young John Waters (which is at least pointed out constantly, with Carl being frequently described as 'funny looking' - which, indeed, he is). Carl is an angry man and is responsible for almost all of the swearing in the film (if you don't include lines "Well gosh darned heck" as a swear). He is also the 'brains' behind the bungled crime which is at heart of the story. He is brilliant.

You see, I always assumed Fargo was some kind of murder mystery, with Frances McDormand's police officer - Marge Gunderson - discovering the bodies and everything stemming from there. However we don't meet her for over half an hour, and instead the film begins with the bungled kidnapping. So we meet the excellent Carl and the equally brilliant Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H Macey. He is (as is often the way with William H Macey's characters) a hapless and unlucky fool who is also insanely nervous. Macey ticks and twitches his way throughout the film and is the most suspiciously nervous person I've ever seen. No wonder Marge immediately realises he may up to no good.

Marge Gunderson is the real star of the film, and allows Frances McDormand to play that kind of homely and adorable character that she plays so well. It is only strengthened by the fact that she is absolutely at the mercy of her pregnancy; constantly with the munchies and constantly out of breath. Her excellent policing and unfazed strong attitude work as a great juxtaposition with the physically vulnerable situation she is in. The film, mostly, follows her (with the occasional asides to H Macey and Buscemi) and we get to see her lovely homely life that involves (a lot of) eating and chatting to her friends.
Marge is a well respected police officer who is happily married to a loving husband, is pregnant and is just doing her job. It is great to watch a police film in which the hero doesn't have a point to prove or personal flaw. She is just an officer who is good at her job. And has an excellent accent. I ruddy love the accent. To my British ears, it provides a certain level of humour to the proceedings. This scene makes me forget that it is a police interview with two hookers and just makes me smile.

I just really like how they say yeah.

And of course... how can I not love a film which involves a death where someone is fed into a wood chipping machine. Feels apt.