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Half Nelson (2006)
Very good urban drama with Gosling as the heart of gold teacher who seems to function normally but has a serious secret drug habit - one of his pupils (Epps) discovers this but keeps quiet and the two strike up a tentative friendship - her uncle is a dealer and tries to get her to join the business - forcing Gosling into direct action. What's interesting about it is that is non-judgemental - a junkie teacher would be an obvious target for moral panic but the film merely observes without drawing any conclusions - both leads work very together and Gosling shows even back then just what a superb actor he is - highly recommended...
Haneke's haunting parable set in a small German village on the eve of WWI - told from the perspective of a local teacher (with a voice over looking back many years later) it tells of a series of events that took place - some mundane, others quite horrific that engulfed the village - no-one can be found to be blamed and this creates tensions that ratchet up the already tense relationship between the major characters. Its as much a mediation on the roots of evil and how in the years to come these roots will manifest themselves as history. Its engrossing throughout with long elegant takes and fantastic B&W photography - its quite slow and at 2h24m quite a long haul but won the Palme D'Or at Cannes that year - and it does reward the effort.....
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Always been a big fan of Jim Jamursch's work - his offbeat tales and quirky characters are always interesting - although this is a bit of a minor addition to his work - 11 self contained scenes set in a variety of coffee houses across America and concern conversations based around....coffee and cigarettes...
Quite a few just don't work and at the end of them you are left wondering just why but several are worth highlighting - There is a very funny encounter between Iggy Pop and Tom Waits who play themselves as grumpy,techy middle-aged men - when Waits suggests they move to a Taco Bell as the coffee is better Iggy huffily retorts "do I look like a Taco Bell kind of guy?" and this sets the tone for the whole encounter - lovely.... Kate Blanchett gets to play two roles - a glamorous movie star and her down to earth resentful cousin to whom she can spare 5 mins between her busy schedule - the barely concealed hostility between the two is very well played and there are several good lines as mis-understandings lead to slights covered by a politeness stretched to breaking point.
Jack and Meg from the White Striped have a very odd scene involving one of Tesla'a machines and later we meet Bill Murray as a caffeine addicted waiter hanging out with the Wu-Tang Clan but its the encounter between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan which gets the biggest laughs - Coogan's career in the US is just taking off and assumes that Molina has a film project to talk to him about but it soon becomes apparent that Molina has a much more personal matter to discuss - the way Coogan politely(and then not so politely)rebuffs him is a hoot as is the bit towards the end when he realizes that Molina could be very useful after all...but by this time he has blown it and his clumsy attempts to get back in favour only make things worse - not normally a fan of Coogan but he is very good......its interesting that most of the "actors" play themselves as Coogan comes across as obnoxious as his characters.
Photographed in crisp black and white by people like Fred Elmes and Robby Muller it all looks great - the interiors all have a grainy feel to them that enhances the drained coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays - just a shame that so many of the other scenes wern't as good
La mala educación (2004)
Anorther fine piece
Pedro Almodovar is one of the most interesting of the current crop of European Directors and this is another fine example of his work. A story within a story - we meet Enrique(Fele Martinez) a film maker who encounters a young actor called Ignatio(Gael Garcia Bernal) who knew at him at school and was in fact his first love - Ignatio has written a story about their schooldays together and their encounter with Fr Manola who had a thing for young boys.....Enrique(who is looking for a subject for his new film) is intrigued but something about Ignatio doesn't quite ring true....the sexual attraction is still there but its not the Ignatio he remembers - nevertheless he agrees to make the film.
This device allows Almodovar to unveil a Russian Doll of a movie - we see Igantio's story acted out with Bernal playing a transvestite pretending to be Ignatio's sister and blackmailing the Priest....during filming the real Priest turns up and it soon becomes apparent that nothing is at it seems....and everyone is playing a certain role whose motives are murky at the very least. You basically have actors playing characters playing actors playing other characters.....without revealing too much Bernal plays no less than 3 different roles in the film.....its as much to do with how individuals try and project onto others what they would like them to be - its most obvious reference point is Hitchcocks Vertigo and like that film its only afterwards that all becomes apparent. Martinez is excellent in the role,accepting certain things even though he knows them not to be the truth but its Bernal (who was equally good in The Motor Cycle Diaries) who is quite amazing - when he plays Zahara the trannie he bears an unsettling resemblance to Julia Roberts and manages to play all the roles with considerable style - he really is becoming a major talent.
It may not have the emotional depth of Talk to Her and some of the lurid elements hark back to his earlier work but its still a considerable achievement.
Dead Man's Shoes (2004)
An extremely effective(and very nasty)British revenge thriller from last year that disappeared almost as soon as it was released - but is getting very good internet word of mouth. Paddy Cosidine(who also co-wrote it) plays Richard an ex-marine who returns to the Derbyshire town of Matlock to wreak revenge on a local gang of drug dealers for the way they treated his retarded brother Anthony(Toby Kebbell). We learn how Anthony was treated in a series of B&W flashbacks as he is adopted by the gang but used a kind of court jester especially by the leader Sonny(Gary Stretch).At first Richard merely seems to want to humiliate the gang(the way they humiliated Anthony)and wants them to know who he is and why he is doing it - he is living rough at a farm with Anthony(who doesn't seem too effected by his experiences) but things darken considerably as Richard begins his bloody havoc.
As the gang members are murdered(or executed as Richard puts it) one by one it feels like the punishment is wholly dis-proprortiante to the crime....until we learn that all is not what it seems. There is a interesting moral ambivilence about it - the gang are small time dealers who seem to spend their profits on getting themselves stoned - they are a million years from the normal sadistic drug lords that feature in these sort of films and although Richard(Cosidine is excellent in the part) is supposed to be the heroic avenging angel his increasingly extreme behavior marks him down as someone who has gone well beyond the norms - a fact he himself realises but cannot stop the bloody chain of events until they reach their inevitable harrowing conclusion.
Very well written and tautly directed by Shane Medows it achieves more in its 84 minute run time than in most films far longer....hopefully the groundswell of opinion will continue to grow as its very good indeed.
Xi yang tian shi (2002)
Must admit it was the cover that sold me on this one - 3 foxy Asian chicks in sexy cat suits and tooled up - and its a belting movie as well... Qi Shu plays Lynn who with her younger sister Sue(Vicky Zhao) run a high-tech assassination group - they do this because their Father designed a satellite surveillance system but got murdered by the gangsters who wanted it for themselves and the two sisters undertake to revenge themselves. Lynn manages to gain access to the baddies HQ and guided by Sue who runs all the techie stuff manages to kill the Chairman - one neat trick is too flood the building security systems with music - in this case The Carpenters Close to Me - so you end up with a kick ass Kung-Fu fight sequence set to Burt Bacharach.....which you don't see too often.... A local maverick cop(Hong at Hong - Karen Wong) is soon on their trail - things become complicated when the next hit they undertake turns into a set-up and soon the two sisters are fighting for their lives while trying not get arrested. Soon we are up to ears in car chases,gunfights and HK action fighting - all brilliantly done by Coery Yeun(who was involved with both Crouching Tiger and The Matrix) - there is a also a central bond between the two sisters that provides an emotional core that acts as a counter-balance to all the action. An event takes place half way through that is the pay-off to all this and Sue and Hong join forces against the rest of the bad guys(more than a hint of John Woo's The Killer) resulting in some really stunning stunts and wire-work. The whole thing culminates in a bloody samurai sword fight and with more than a hint of lesbianism thrown in this is the kind of movie that Taratino gets his rocks off to.... The 3 leads are all excellent - Qi Shu is stunningly beautiful(she was the girl in The Transporter) and the whole thing is done with such style and grace it proves just how ahead of the pack Hong Kong still is.
Become a major fan of the Tartan video/Asia Extreme movies of late - from the more better known movies like Ring,Dark Water and Ju-On to the more obscure but equally satisfying films like A Tale of Two Sisters and this Korean movie is another fine example. Ji-Won-Hau plays Ji-Won whose story about several men indulging in under-age sex has resulted in them being sent for trial - she is being stalked by one of them so changes her mobile to avoid his abusive calls.As a consequence she begins to receive even weirder calls that she finds really distressing. One of her friends suggests she moves into the house they are renovating to get some peace which she does but all this does is intensify her fears. Her friend Ho-Jeong(Ju-Me-Kim) has a little girl Yeong-Ju(See-Woo Eun) who answers one of the calls and begins to act very strangely indeed.
At first this is put down to part of growing up but as begins to exhibit hostility to her Mother and an unhealthy obsession with her Father Ji-Won becomes increasingly concerned.Her anxieties are heightened when she discovers that several people who owned the phone before her have died in mysterious circumststances and this seems to be linked to the disappearance of a local schoolgirl - how this all works out I shall leave but its a very effective film. For obvious reasons it has been dubbed as Ring on a mobile ,but although it does share certain elements with that the way the plot works out makes it distinctive on its own. Some very creepy moments but what lifts it is See-Woo-Eun as the little girl who appears to be possessed - its a very disturbing performance - forget Linda Blair and the green vomit - this kid is genuinely scary in ways that kids her age shouldn't be....it takes the film into a new area.....and one that will haunt you for some time.....and you will never listen to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in the same way ever again. I can't put my finger on just what makes these Asian movies so effective but with so much dross coming out of mainstream Western cinema these are a haven for people who really appreciate first rate movies.
A revolutionary history
As the blurb puts it - a story so improbable.....it must be true.... Set during the Mexican revolution of 1914 its the story of revolutionary hero Pancho Villa and his rather shrewd manipulation of the media - the Mutual Film Company led by the ever marvellous Jim Broadbent are contacted by Villa and offered to film the struggle.Star director DW Griffiths thinks its a great idea and Broadbent's nephew Frank Thayer(Eion Bailey) is dispatched south of the border with a bag containing $25 000 in gold as payment.Villa(Antonio Banderas) soon has them filming during actual battles and inspiring Frank with his dreams of a free Mexico. They return with the film but its fairly amateurish and gets laughed off screen - Frank somehow persuades his uncle to part with even more money and this time use actors like Raoul Walsh to play Villa and add some artistic licence to proceedings. There follows a very funny scene where Boradbent gets Villa to agree to only fight during the day(when they can film) and if they miss any battles to re-enact them for the cameras - Villa is appalled at the liberties taken with his lifes story but Frank explains its what the audience wants to see and will help his cause no end - something he needs as William Randolph Hearst's press empire is starting a campaign to get the US to invade Mexico to protect America's lifeblood - Oil.
Its a great little movie - made by HBO its a TV movie but Bruce Beresford directs as if its for the big screen - epic adventure,lavish battles and romance all intermingle to great effect - Banderas is excellent as Villa - a bit of a ham who is far more savvy than he lets on - the scene where he plays himself as the aged El Presidente is priceless - it doesn't shy away from the cruelties of both sides either - in fact this cruelty is what finally drives the friendship between Frank and Villa apart - although the way its used in the final film is a more than ironic touch. Fine support from Broadbent and Alan Arkin as a machine-gunning Brooklyn Jew add to the rounded cast and its picked up a really good reputation on DVD and its easy to see why......
King Arthur (2004)
Avoided this one at the cinema and got it on rental not expecting much.....which is just as well as really terrible - set in Britian towards the end of the Roman occupation in 452 AD - which is the first of many howlers - the Romans had pulled out decades before and by this date the Empire itself had ceased to exists - anyway the plot has it that Arthur and his Knights are a bunch of Eastern Europeans from around the Black Sea shipped over to Britain.Arthur(Clive Owen) has led them for 15 years mainly against the Woads who are led by Merlin who is isn't a wizard at all and appears in need of a good wash - the rest of the Knights are a pretty grungy non-descript bunch with only Ray Winstones Cockney hard man of distinction. They are on the brink of ending their servitude to Rome when the local bishop has them head North from Hadrian's Wall to rescue a Roman family from their Villa that is under threat from the invading Saxons - as if by this time any Roman would chose to live North of the Wall and survive more than about 5 minutes.... This brings Arthur into contact with Guinivere(Keira Knightly) who is a woad covered warrior - albeit one with a posh totty Home Counties accent and the rest of the film is the battle against the Saxons led by Stellan Stersgard which entails much hacking and slaying.
What lets it down is the lacklustre direction,flat wooden performances - only Winstone enjoys himself snarling and roaring at everyone and Stersgard who has fun peering at us from what appears to several manes of hair - the script is appalling - every scene seems to have the entire cast discussing freedom and what it means to be free until you expect to see George W Bush's name to appear as script adviser - Owen(who is normally quite good) makes like an oak tree and the lengthy battle scenes go on so long you give up caring who is hacking who......I suppose giving a go at Arthur the non-legendary mystical hero is worthwhile but the whole thing is no inept that even that good intention goes down the pan...
Mou gaan dou II (2003)
A fine follow up
Thought the first one was one of the finest Cop thrillers in recent years and the follow up is equally brilliant - for obvious reasons its a prequel set in 3 time periods leading up to the events in the first movie. This time round Ming(Edison Chen - Andy Lau last time) and Yan(Shawne Yau - Tony Leung last time) are more peripheral characters - the main action concentrates on Inspector Wong(Anthony Wong) and his struggles against the Triads. The leader of the major gang has been murdered and his son Hau(Francis Ng) has taken over - he is a more ruthless boss and intends to take over all the territory that other leaders currently control. These include Sam(Eric Tsang) and its interesting how close Wong and Sam are before the events that end so tragically later - Wong would rather have Sam running things and it appears that Wong has conspired with Sam's woman Mary(Carina Lau) to have Hau's Father killed - only to see the son become worse than the Father. To complicate matters Yan is Hau's half brother who as a cop is willing to infiltrate Hau's gang but whose loyalty is put under pressure when he realises that Wong(who he is working for) had a hand in his Fathers murder.Meanwhile Sam is grooming Ming to become his mole in the HK Police(although Ming's attraction for Mary does complicate things).
How this all pans out and leads to the events in the first film I shall leave but its an excellent film - a little complicated at times as you have to work out all the dynamics buts worth the effort - as mentioned the most poignant part is the relationship between Wong and Sam - they may be on opposite sides but have a closeness that will prove to be the central point of the story later.
There is a fantastic scene where Hau contrives to have himself held in Police custody whilst the other gang bosses are murdered and the way the film cuts between his interview(where he reveals how he knows who killed his Father) and the other bosses being wiped out is worthy of comparison with Coppola's Godfather - the series has that whole epic feel and the way it culminates with the handover of power to the Chinese in 1997 with new bosses on both sides of the conflict coming to power is very well done.
For once a sequel that lives up to the original........I shall be interested to see if Scorcese's remake can come close.