Wednesday, November 28, 2007

28th Nov 07 - The Darjeeling Limited

It seems that as Christmas steadily approaches, it brings with it not just an increase in tat on the shelves, a decrease in bank balances, runny noses, stresses and other such fun, but also a steady trickle of good films. Imagine! Good films! The autumn season is always a bit dry, with the dregs of summer blockbusters left and the Oscar contenders holding back to emerge at a time that’ll better their chances. But as winter kicks in a few goodies start coming back out of the woodwork, clawing their way at the Cinemafool Top 10 (which is shaping up nicely, by the way, but some battles still to be had in the last month of the year). Last year Pan’s Labyrinth and Stranger Than Fiction impressed as 2006 closed down, and this time around we’ve already had Eastern Promises wedging a lovely Viggo into our midst. And now The Darjeeling Limited.

Yup, Darjeeling is one of those films that had me smiling throughout the bulk of it, which is pretty impressive as my natural facial expression is that of contempt, or occasional horror (see Pirates…) It’s a Wes Anderson film, whose previous flicks include Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and 2005’s The Life Aquatic. Wes’s films tend to meander plot-wise, feature Bill Murray, have ace soundtracks, and often leave you wondering if you enjoyed it or not.

Wes likes to feature actors with slightly weird faces, and have lots of close up shots of them, then shots of them walking in slow-motion to a cool song, preferably with all characters in formation, one behind the other. It looks good, you see. He also likes to have plots that you can’t really summarise. Take Darjeeling. Essentially it’s about three brothers on a train in India. If I tried to explain it anymore I’d spoil its occasional twists and turns, and would run out of space for this review (which, granted, has already been taken up by lots of unrelated waffle anyway, although good waffle none-the-less. There was some more.) Wes also has a weird knack of making a 90 minute film feel like it’s been on for a ga-jillion hours.

All of the above makes it sound like I dislike his films. I don’t, but I am wary when approaching them. Darjeeling features all of Wes’s usual traits, but the reason for my almost constant smile is down to three little words. Owen, Jason and Adrien. That’d be Wilson, Schwartzman and Brody. As the three leads these guys are just pure brilliance, and putting them together as squabbling, peculiar brothers was a genius move. Owen’s character is overly organised, bossy and a bit anal, although impressed me with his travel planning. As any of my travelling companions know, I like to plan things out, preferably with spreadsheets. Owen has laminated itineraries. Laminated! A great idea, and one which I might implement in my forth-coming January trip.

Jason Schwartzman plays a sombre writer with impulsive behaviour and lady problems, while Adrian Brody is the tall, slightly broody and emotional sibling. All three have amazing noses (see previous comment on Wes liking weird faces) and gel together so well on screen you can easily see them as brothers. The film wavers in tone between comedic and melancholic, with a few unexpected flashes of excitement, and some giggly moments of fun that makes the whole thing a pleasure to observe.

My only gripe, aside from a reasonably pointless short film used as an opener (watch out for Natalie Portman’s ribs - seriously disturbing) is the ga-jillion hour factor, with the film seemingly coming to an end but then motoring on for another few hours (or maybe twenty minutes or so). It was just enough to make my smile fade, and enough to drop Darjeeling down a point - but to say that it still stands at CF3 should suggest how much I was enjoying this film. The Darjeeling Limited is oddball, quirky, and any other clichéd adjective you want to throw in there to describe a film that’s different to the norm. But it’s certainly worth watching. So watch it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

14th Nov 07 - Eastern Promises

As Brick was to last week’s The Lookout, a History of Violence is to this week’s Eastern Promises, namely a film wowing mostly down to the utter coolness and confidence of its lead actor. Last week was Levitt, this week it’s Mortenson, a man so effortlessly, silently cool it’s simply flabbergasting. Plus his first name’s Viggo, which isn’t really a name, is it? He’s just so damn cool.

But rather than gush about the lead actor yet again, I’ll go for a different tack. Eastern Promises is David Cronenburg’s follow-up to a 2005 CF Top-10 rated A History of Violence, still keeping the violence jarringly mixed with simple family life, but this time plonking it in London alongside some Russian gangsters. It’s a disturbing world, made more disturbing when you read how much research went into the film and what had to be left out as it may have been “too much”. What’s left in is murder, theft and horrific treatment of women. Oh and that violence thing that Cronenberg does so well.

The story follows Viggo as a driver/minder to Vincent Cassel’s unruly son-of-big-boss, played by crag-faced Armin Mueller-Stahl. Their paths cross with midwife Naomi Watts but to go further into the plot would probably spoil it (as an idiot managed to do for my companion in a thoughtless toilet conversation. Seriously - the worst place to talk about the ending of a film is in the toilet of the cinema. I bet they answered their mobile halfway through the film, too.)

Anyway, at a sprightly 100 minutes, Promises is surprisingly laid-back in pace, taking the time to build characters and finger twisting tension. In typical Cronenburg style, the violence is sporadic but gruesomely effective. Shove your gorno Saw-trite up your arse, this is raw, powerful and, if the less desensitised could watch between their fingers, amazingly shot effects-wise. The stand-out scene in the sauna will stay with you, and kicks the likes of Bourne and Bond right back into fictional la-la-land. Perhaps having a sweaty, naked Viggo makes the scene easier to watch..

Here I go back to my gushing, for Viggo certainly astonishes, with his apparent grasp of Russian (well it sounds pretty good, anyway) and physical presence stealing every scene. Plus the guy’s got a cleft in his chin - a proven sign of genius. The rest of the cast are still strong, and for a film set in London there’s not a single shot of the Eye, possibly a first for the year and a great way not to annoy me.

But Promises isn’t getting the sought-after CF5 rating, so there must be some quibble somewhere. Perhaps the plot could have stretched itself into something even deeper. Perhaps more delving could have gone into Viggo’s fascinating character. Perhaps a less clichéd view of a “gangster family” could have been portrayed (instead of quiet elderly front-man, with lots of food and family parties and piped ’culture-specific’ music). Perhaps Naomi Watts should have stopped wearing those ridiculous goggles on her bike.

Well. This is still a powerful film, with ace performances, a memory-stamping fight scene, some unexpected twirls in the plot and, did I mention, a naked, sweaty Viggo? I feel strongly enough for Eastern Promises to punch through the recent CF2 barrier, making a smashing CF3. Perhaps there’s time for the last stragglers of the year to follow it through? Let’s see…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

7th Nov 07 - The Lookout

Last year Brick scrabbled its way on to the acclaimed (by me) Cinemafool top 10, mostly on the merits of its lead actor, Joseph Gordon Levitt (the kid out of Third Rock from the Sun). At the time I said he was one to watch, so here I am watching him again, in a bizarrely empty cinema (probably down to a football match, but that doesn’t explain where all the other people were who have any semblance of intelligence.) Anyway, Levitt takes the lead in The Lookout, written and directed by newbie Scott Frank, and as he nailed moody cool in Brick, here he bangs confused frustration right on the head. See, I made that comment because Levitt’s character Chris is involved in a frightful accident and has severe head trauma. See what I did there? Clever, I know.

So poor Chris battles with memory issues, sequencing problems and an ill-timed lack of restraint. He’s gone from being super star hockey player to bumbling around, cleaning floors in a bank and living with a blind dude (Jeff Daniels - recreating The Dude). Naturally he’s not too happy a chappy. So when smooth talker Gary appears with an offer of friendship, it’s no wonder Chris lets his guard down. Could be a nice buddy-movie, but Gary is sort of after robbing a bank, and spies Chris’s current employment mixed with head-issues a perfect opportunity. Naughty Gary.

Despite the underlying bank robbery / head trauma dramas, The Lookout is a remarkably composed piece of work, ignoring a wow-bang impulse (possibly budget related) and instead going Fargo style, with slightly eccentric villains, a dysfunctional collection of heroes and lots of cold settings. Focus is largely on how Chris copes with life, with a slip into straight robbery-gone-wrong territory just towards the end. It makes for a neat little indie film, and feels like a refreshing walk in the cold outdoors compared to recent “issues-heavy” stodge.

Levitt doesn’t disappoint, still with a very cool exterior but also an essential underbelly of anger, guilt and your basic frustration. I can’t put my finger on why I like Levitt so much - as an actor he just seems completely in control but without that knowing glint folk like Mr Clooney often display (the “check me out ladies, I’m acting” look). Anyway, I’ll stop harping on about Levitt. He’s flanked by a very smooth Matthew Goode and a comedy injection of Daniels as Chris’s roomie.

On the negative, the film stinks of having been written by a guy, the only female characters being insipid, idiotic and actual lap-dancers. They are so insignificant to the plot, despite offering whiffs of interesting character development, that they fade away before the finale, never to be remembered. I’m not saying that all films written by women portray men fairly either - mostly they portray them as dashing and charming, which is of course a barefaced lie created to appease unhappy single women, which is flawed as it’ll only make them worse by giving false hope.

Um, where was I? Oh yes - The Lookout. Good, solid first for the director and another cracking performance from Levitt. Good enough to climb to a CF2, but lacking a little bit of oomph to get past that now tricky CF2 barrier.

On a side note, I watched Them this weekend, a French horror that was originally released in January. If you want to genuinely poop your pants, I would highly recommend, especially if you watch it when you’re home alone. Mind, Joseph Gordon Levitt isn’t in it, but don’t let that put you off.