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For me, this film is truly awful. It tells the story of an English woman who writes simplistic, kitschy, romantic novels - think Barbara Cartland, but set in the 1900s. Its prolific, eponymous heroine, the daughter of a provincial grocer, has her first book published while still at school; and goes on to achieve fame and fortune, before meeting her inevitable nemesis.
Had the film contained irony, humour, imaginative visuals, original character insights or surprising plot twists, it could have been watchable, perhaps even admirable. But Francois Ozon, the writer/director, has used little or none of these; and instead has employed the sort of fairy-story, linear plot line, cardboard characters, melodramatic action and over-decorated interiors as one imagines appear in Angel's books. (Fortunately, we are given little by way of examples of her writing.) Incidentally, though on a technical level the film is mostly competent, there is a laughably bad piece of back-projection - or whatever equivalent is used these days - near the beginning, when Angel is in a carriage riding through London.
Even with these defects, the film might still have worked if Ozon had made his main character in the slightest degree likable or intriguing; had she been, say, a naive dreamer, who relates guilelessly to those around her and to her adulatory readership. We could then have understood and forgiven her ignorance of the absurdity of her writing. But it is hard for us to sympathise with Angel when she starts off as a hateful, materialistic, selfish brat; remains so throughout her period of success and lionisation; and hardly changes even when fate turns against her.
It would be easy to blame some of the film's flaws on over-acting by its principal, Romola Garai, but I suspect she plays her part exactly as Ozon wanted. The male lead is Michael Fassbender as Esmé, a stereotypical, garret-dwelling, Bohemian artist, who is the one object of Angel's adoration (besides herself). Also on stage are Lucy Russell as Nora, Esmé's sister, who genuinely admires and loves Angel; Sam Neill as Angel's publisher, who incredibly agrees to print her first schoolgirl effort despite her refusal to alter even one word of it; and Charlotte Rampling as his wife who is understandably baffled by his abandonment of his critical faculty.
Unless you're really stuck for something to do, I recommend giving Angel a miss. Instead, for those who haven't seen it, the recent Miss Potter is a far more credible and engaging portrait of a turn of the century female writer.
Æon Flux (2005)
This movie hasn't yet opened in the UK, but I saw it in Spain on a recent visit. I knew nothing about it except it was futuristic and starred Charlize Theron, and the latter was the "Unique Selling Point" for me! The beginning of the film was so simplistic in tone, I thought for a while that it was intended for very young children, especially as MTV had appeared as one of the funding companies in the opening credits. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the film - with its strong anti-cloning subtext - while remaining fairly childish, is aimed at adolescents and adults.
The plot involving a rebellion against a tyrannical, post-apocalypse regime is clichéd; and as usual in sci-fi fantasies the action involves a strange combination of high-tech hardware, mystic mumbo-jumbo, and old-fashioned shoot-'em-up violence. Also, as usual, all the young women wear tight, skimpy clothing.
In playing one of the leading rebels, Aeon Flux, Theron is called upon to use little of her acting ability; but does (unless it's her stunt double) display great energy and agility as she takes on the might of the regime's armed forces in an attempt to topple the ruling clique. She is aided by the not-quite-so energetic and agile Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo); while the overall director of the rebellion, known as the "Handler" is a heavily disguised Frances McDormand. On the other side, the "baddies" are brothers Trevor and Oren Godchild (Marton Csokas and Jonny Lee Miller) whose family have ruled the roost for centuries.
Possibly the weirdest character in the mix is the "Keeper", a wrinkly if ever there was one, whose age is supposed to be several times that of the actor who plays him - 60 year old Brit, Pete Postlethwaite.
As can be gathered, I thought very little of this movie; and feel - as others have remarked - that about the only useful purpose it serves is to make "The Island" look good.
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Dumas would have been pleased (perhaps)
This 1998 movie provides everything a swashbuckling cape-and-sword flick should - legendary heroes, a cruel villain, noble sentiments, touches of love and sex, some slapstick, picturesque scenery, sumptuous interiors and of course dashing swordplay (the last perhaps a little limited by the maturity of some of the principals).
It has also some reasonably intelligent dialogue, provided by writer/producer/director, Randall Wallace, and spoken in part by two of the finest voices in the business - Jeremy Irons (Athos) and John Malkovich (Aramis). Gerard Depardieu (Porthos) and Gabriel Byrne (D'Artangnan) are the other two of the original 3 + 1 Musketeers.
The villainy of the young King Louis 14 is provided by Leonardo DiCaprio, who may be too wishy-washy for some tastes, though he certainly has the veneer of elegance needed for the part. One niggle I have is, that it would have been better if he had been instructed to pronounce Athos either with a short a or a long a (preferably the former) and not alternate between the two.
The plot, like the Dumas novel on which it is based, has no less, and no more, credibility than is appropriate for this type of film - for anyone interested in the real events and rumours surrounding the Man in the Iron Mask, I recommend this website - http://www.royalty.nu/legends/IronMask.html
One aspect of the film I find amusing is that in this version of a quintessentially French story, the only French actor in the quartet of heroes, Gerard Depardieu, plays the part of a uncouth, lecherous buffoon; while an Englishman, an American and an Irishman provide the grace, heartfelt speeches and depth of character. I wonder how that went down with the audience in France.
Broken Flowers (2005)
World-weariness may suit Murray, but not me
Can't say I particularly liked this Jim Jarmush film, mainly because I don't much care for the sort of middle-aged, world-weary cynic Bill Murray here plays to perfection (as he did in Lost in Translation). Indeed, to my mind, one of the reasons Murray is so popular is that he has helped give this jaundiced, negative attitude - so easy to adopt for both young and old - a good name.
Anyway, in this movie Murray is Don Johnston, a successful writer - though of what is hard to imagine - who, on the very morning he finds himself deserted by his current, temporary girlfriend, receives an anonymous letter intimating that he may have a son of nineteen. Encouraged and aided by Winston (Jeffrey Miller), his great friend, family man and lover of detective stories, Don then goes off in search of the four women he thinks could possibly be the mother of this mystery son.
These four women, their differing homes and family/friends provide most of the visual and character interest of the movie. They are given some of the best lines; are ably played by Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy; and for me are the best reason to see the film. Though certainly physically marked by his experience, Don appears to finish the movie as emotionally impervious as when he started; and the "open" end of the film - though not uncommon in Europe - may be a little unsettling for an American audience.
As indicated in my review of that film, I prefer Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking, which has a superficially similar plot-line; but is warmer, more hopeful and visually interesting.
Drew enchants as a fiery Cinders
This 1998 movie is a delightful take on the Cinderella fairy tale, largely due to the personality and talent of Drew Barrymore who effortlessly blends innocence and feistiness as Danielle de Barbarac who, after her father dies, is downgraded to a servant by her harsh and greedy stepmother (Angelica Houston). Also in attendance of course are two stepsisters (Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey) though they are far from ugly, and the latter has quite a lot of sympathy with poor put-upon Danielle.
Enter a handsome, dashing Prince Charming, in the form of 16th century real-life Henri (Dougray Scott), son of the French King, Francois I (Timothy West). He falls for Danielle, under the impression that she is a noble lady, not a commoner and menial, and lots of misunderstanding and intrigues ensue. One of the cleverer aspects of the film is the presence of Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) who was in fact brought to France (where he died) by Francois. Another realistic surprise is some sharp social criticism - voiced by Danielle - partially based on Thomas More's book, Utopia, whose publication pre-dated Henri.
Where, however, the screenplay is a fairy tale of its own is that Henri far from being charming was ruthlessly cruel when he became King Henri II; also, needless to say, there was no Danielle de Barbarac in his life. The film was shot in France, with lots of picturesque scenery and châteaux to admire. Finally, another good reason to view this movie is a brief appearance by Jeanne Moreau in her 70th year; but this was by no means her final film - according to IMDb, she's made another 15 since then!.
True Lies (1994)
In an unchanging world of terror, only Arnie has transformed himself
Not being an Arnie fan, I gave this one a miss the first time round, but write this review now, 11 years after the film's making, having recently seen it on TV.
True Lies is a comedy action-thriller, based on a pretty deplorable idea. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a top American ass-kicking secret agent; but from before and throughout his marriage to wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) Harry has maintained the fiction to her and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) that he is a meek and mild computer salesman. Perhaps even more deplorable is that when after some 15 years of lying Harry finds out that Helen is possibly seeing another man - partly due to his own neglect of her - he becomes incensed, and uses all the resources of his agency to subject her to, not one, but two terrifying ordeals, the second with some unsavoury sexual overtones.
Director James Cameron just about gets away with this distasteful storyline because (a) there's some reasonable comic acting by Arnie and Jamie - remember this was before Arnie revealed his full powers as a humorist by becoming Governor of California; (b) Helen is allowed to sock Harry pretty hard, several times, when at the end of the second ordeal she finally recognises him; and (c) the film then immediately moves into full action mode, as Harry and Helen are kidnapped by terrorists, led by menacing fanatic Khaled (Marshall Manesh).
From then on, it's formula, formula, formula; and SFX, SFX, SFX until the closing credits, with the usual nuclear warhead threats, multiple killings of the baddies, hair-raising escapes by our heroes, and a few laughs along the way. The final episode, with Harry doing amazing manoeuvres with a VTO fighter aircraft, stretches credibility beyond breaking point, but in this sort of movie WTF.
What IS credible and depressing about this film is that although it was made 11 years ago, and a full 7 years before 9/11, if the screenplay were submitted to Hollywood today, not one word or piece of action would need to be changed - same terrorists from the same part of the world, threatening to use the same hardware, for the same reasons.
A master class in getting fired!
The leading figure in Factotum (which means a jack of all trades) is Henry Chinaski. The movie, written and directed by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian, is based on the novel of the same name by Charles Bukowski, who died in 1994. Like Chinaski, Bukowski was a drunk, indulged in casual sex, and liked to gamble; and most of Bukowski's books, including Factotum, are based on his own experiences in and out of blue collar worker. Also, like his creator, Chinaski is a writer, albeit unpublished as yet. Nevertheless, it is probably best NOT to approach this film as a partial biography of Bukowski, but simply as a fictional movie based on his writings.
Chinaski, played by Matt Dillon, is the ultimate, irresponsible goof-off, living just above the level of skid row, who gets work when he needs cash for booze etc, but invariably gets fired within days or weeks. Told not to smoke in a particular workplace, he lights up once the boss is out of the way; asked to make a delivery, he drives the van away while it's still connected to an electric plug, leaves the van door open and drifts into a bar. Even outside work, he behaves perversely - notably leaving ointment on his private parts overnight, when he's been told that one hour is the absolute limit! And Chinaski, though initially appearing mildly passive, is not averse to violence, even to women.
The man's sole redeeming features are his belief in himself as a writer, and his persistence in writing and submitting his work. (His main redeeming feature should be his actual talent for writing, but the film gives us little evidence of this, except for a few Bukowski quotes, which in any case are mainly about his belief in himself.) .
Dillon fits this role like a glove. By turns, he sleepwalks, staggers and rampages through the movie - that is, when Chinaski isn't drinking in bars or sleeping it off with or without a woman. And, because this is fiction rather than biography, Dillon can mitigate his deplorable behaviour and slovenly dress simply with his good looks and dark eyes. One suspects that in real life Bukowski was far less likable than his cinematic alter ego.
Chinaski's main squeeze for most of the movie, bravely and quite unglamorously portrayed by Lili Taylor, is Jan who shares her lover's fondness for alcohol and a slacker life. In one sequence, when he has split from Jan, Chinaski encounters a glossier woman, Laura (Marisa Tomei), who introduces him to a more bourgeois world; but this doesn't last long, and he soon reverts to his usual round of drink and casual jobs. (Incidentally, I found the sound quality in the whole Marisa Tomei sequence quite poor, and missed much of the dialogue.)
I'm not too sure what anybody uninterested in Bukowski (or Matt Dillon) will make of this movie; but if you're looking for something in English other than blockbusters, rom-coms, costume dramas etc - this is it. And, whatever your view of the movie, if you haven't already done so, read some Bukowski - you'll love it!
Billy Elliot (2000)
Billy Elliott is a moving, uplifting, and often exuberant, drama about motherless young Billie (Jamie Bell) fulfilling his dream of becoming a ballet dancer, in the process overcoming the objections and prejudices of his father and brother (Gary Lewis and Jamie Draven).
It is also a piece of magic realism, with political overtones. By setting their near fairy tale in the context of a close-knit mining community, and more specifically against the backdrop of the 1984/5 miners' strike - a defining moment of modern British economic and social history - writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry are able to refer to gender and class issues, without turning their work into a political tract, and without losing focus on the central human drama.
The film is realised near flawlessly. Bell achieves a convincing blend of adolescent bewilderment and defiance; if his dancing is not quite as good as we might expect, the storyline explains this away by saying that at this early stage his attitude and drive are more important than his technique. The dancing set pieces, clearly inspired more by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly than by Nijinksky, are performed with gusto, mainly to pop songs by T-Rex.
Lewis and Draven put gritty realism and passion into their roles of a father and son committed to their community and to the miners' cause. They make us feel their despair as they realise that this cause is lost; but also their endurance as they come to terms both with Billie's aspirations and their own uncertain futures - within a few years most UK coalmines would be closed. (The colliery in Easington, the real-life location of the film, closed in 1994.). The scenes of violence between strikers and police are presented uncompromisingly and authentically, but with the occasional touch of humour.
Julie Walters provides an outstanding performance as Mrs Wilkinson, the dancing teacher who recognises and fosters Billie's talent; and helps him resist his own and his family's inhibitions. She is perfect as the chain-smoking, straight-talking mentor, who has her own personal disappointments and hurts, which she hopes Billie's success will help heal. To we outsiders watching the movie, Mrs Wilkinson appears as an integral part of the local community; but it is made clear that in the mid-80s, as far as Billie's family and friends are concerned, she is a middle class outsider, almost as alien as another species.
One issue which the film tackles head-on is traditional heterosexual male abhorrence of homosexuality. This attitude clearly underlies the shock of Billie's father and brother when they discover his interest in ballet. They would be even more horrified if they realised that his best friend was discovering gay tendencies in himself. It is typical of the sensitive direction that without labouring the point the film indicates by its close that attitudes towards gays changed radically during the 1980s and 90s along with the industrial landscape.
Don't Come Knocking (2005)
Top class Wenders
Don't Come Knocking, like Wim Wenders' 1984 film, Paris Texas, is set largely in the western deserts of the USA. And like the earlier film it concerns a man too fond of drink, who is searching for a lost family and for lost meaning to his life. But the two films have quite different "feels" to them; and while usually one might expect Wenders' later piece - made in his 60th year - to be more melancholy and pessimistic, in fact it is far lighter and more hopeful in tone than the earlier work.
There's also an interesting comparison to be made with Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, made just about the same time, and also about a middle-aged man looking for a child he never knew he'd fathered. But, again, while Bill Murray's character in that movie is the epitome of world weariness and cynicism, Sam Shepard who wrote DCK, and plays the lead, invests his character with more curiosity and perhaps more regret, about the alternative life he might have had but missed.
From the moment Shepard, as Howard Spence a veteran film star, rides his horse off the set of a western and just keeps going, the movie is full of quirky episodes and quirkier characters, possibly the weirdest being Tim Roth's insurance investigator in ice-cold, rather than hot, pursuit of Howard. Then there's Gabriel Mann as Earl, a modern folk singer, and possibly Howard's son; Fairuza Balk as Amber, Earl's faithful, cookie girlfriend; and, most captivating of all, Sarah Polley as the mysterious, ultra-serene Sky. Also in the mix, and playing less eccentric roles, are Eva Marie Saint as Howard's mother, and Jessica Lange.
This is one of the most watchable films I've seen in recent months, and represents Wim Wenders at the top of his considerable form. The camera-work includes both awesome landscapes and Edward Hopperesque townscapes; but essentially the film like most great movies is character-driven. Shepard and Wenders have created people we really care about and for whom we want the best.
One reading of Don't Come Knocking is possibly that, like Harry Dean Stanton's Travis in Paris Texas, Howard cannot escape the hopeless life he has chosen for himself; but I detect in the closing moments of DCK a hint that his own choice may not turn out to be his final destiny.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
Digging the dirt in murkiest Africa
This is one of those films the Brits do so well - adapted from a British novel, in this case by John le Carré; set in an African country, once a British colony; and dealing, inter alia, with deep treachery by the British Foreign Office. Except, as it happens, apart from its two main leads, Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener is hardly British at all, and in particular is directed by the Brazilian, Fernando Meirelles, previously best known for City of God, about young people living in a violent, poor quarter of Rio de Janeiro.
The detailed plot, involving dirty dealing by the drugs industry, aided and abetted by senior figures and institutions in both the UK and Kenya, should not be taken too seriously. These days, any drugs company marketing a medication known to have dangerous side effects would be risking crippling law suits. Nevertheless, within the normal limits of cinematic credibility, the screenplay is convincing, and certainly the vulnerability of the African poor to almost any cr*p dumped on them by outside forces or their own Governments is true enough.
Fiennes is well cast as Justin Quayle, a diplomat in the UK High Commission (embassy) in Nairobi, who is intelligent and sensitive, but essentially detached from the world around him, except for his beloved garden. Weisz is quite brilliant in her portrayal of his passionate wife, Tessa, a health-care volunteer, who discovers and investigates the drugs conspiracy, at the cost of her life. One lapse in the plot and characterisations (possibly present in the original book which I haven't read) is that Quayle's diplomatic work is left too vague. Some reference to his actual job might have allowed a deeper exploration of the contrasts in attitude of Justin and Tessa, who like many married couples have only their love in common. Other noteworthy cast members are Danny Huston as Justin's oily superior; and Bill Nighy, in a sinister role, as a senior civil servant, whose mild exterior conceals the frigid hole in his chest where his heart has been extracted.
Visually, the film is compelling, with many scenes of local deprivation contrasted with the comfortable lives of the diplomatic corps. Also, when appropriate, Meirelles doesn't hesitate to depict Kenya's spectacular scenery. (Given the plot, it was perhaps surprising and brave of the Kenyan authorities to allow filming in their country.) Heightened (digitally enhanced?) colour adds to the visual and dramatic impact.
Overall, this is a high class movie, raising some important issues, whose form and content are equally above average.