Monday, 29 April 2013

What I've been watching lately.

As you can probably tell, I don't go to the movies very often these days. But I did get through quite a bit of my ever-growing "to-watch" list. Here are the films that I liked the most - many of them are pretty well-known, so you can either think 'pffffft been there, done that', or you can get a few ideas for your own "to-watch" piles.

Spirited Away. 2001.
Dir.: Hayao Miyazaki.

I have never given much thought to Japanese animation, my only impression of it being Pokemon (Gotta catch’em all!). Then one rainy Saturday I was staying home with the flu and Spirited Away came on. Since it was a better option than most of daytime TV (which makes me want to punch things), I tuned in. 2 hours later I felt like I took an incredible journey into a sinister and captivating world of witches and evil spirits (and I spent the last 20 mins crying like there is no tomorrow). The most charming thing about Spirited Away is the feeling of complete and utter submersion into the macabre that you get from watching it. I am trying to think of a film that had a similar effect on me and I guess it would have to be Pan’s Labyrinth, although Spirited Away is nowhere near as tragic, just very bittersweet.

Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin). 1987.
Dir.: Wim Wenders.

On paper this film sounds like one of those American movies from the 80s and 90s that have biblical characters living in the modern world, for example Angel Heart and The Devil’s Advocate. It is about two angels, Cassiel and Damiel, who float around Berlin and listen to its inhabitants’ thoughts until one of them can no longer take being a mere observer and decides to give up his immortality in order to become human.

Wings of Desire is a very slow-burning and contemplative experience (duh, it’s German). Shot both in b&w and in colour, it is a series of human portraits that showcase people’s aspirations and their profound loneliness. It strikes me as a characteristic example of Northern European bleak outlook on life – it does not shy away from the ugliness and moroseness of the everyday, yet it manages to find a few gems that are worth holding on to. Bruno Ganz, who plays the restless Damiel, is wonderful as both the eternal angel and the middle-aged, shabby man whom he eventually becomes. I would not recommend this film if you are in the mood for something lighter – think The Tree of Life and many inward monologues.

Working Girl. 1988.
Dir.: Mike Nichols.

If you ARE in the mood for something lighter – this is the movie for you. It is one of the most charming comedies ever. It tells the story of a working-class secretary at a Wall Street investment bank, who has ‘a head for business, and a body for sin’ (her words, not mine). Melanie Griffith is absolutely amazing as the ambitious and bright social climber Tess, who takes her boss’s place after the boss has a skiing accident. She ends up crashing important people's weddings and strikes up a partnership with another banker, played by Harrison Ford. I was really impressed by how much this movie is ahead of its time – it compares very favourably to most romantic comedies released in the past ten years, it has a strong feminist message, interesting storyline and witticisms to die for. The supporting cast is also great – Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin and Sigourney Weaver.

Kundun. 1997.
Dir.: Martin Scorsese.

If someone asks you to name a Scorsese movie, chances are you are not going to think of Kundun straight away. It has nothing to do with gangsters and New York, instead it is the life story of the 14th Dalai Lama, told in a series of episodes from his life, starting with his discovery in a remote region of Tibet and ending with his forced exile. The film is very slow but incredibly beautiful and sad – the saddest part is that you already know how it will all end. The script is based on Dalai Lama’s own writings and he even took part as a consultant, so it seems that the movie is legit.

Strangely, it does not strive to make a strong point or have any elements of dramatic storytelling – it does not pass judgement or ask you to dislike any particular characters. It is really just a series of snapshots from Dalai Lama’s early life, which both humanises him and explains many of his actions that came afterwards. I found it very moving and decided to read up on his teachings. I was really pleased to see that he is by far the most forward-thinking and liberal religious leader of his time. His views on women’s rights and homosexuality are miles ahead of his Christian and Muslim counterparts. Go Dalai Lama! 

Down with Love. 2003.
Dir.: Peyton Reed.

I think this movie is very underrated. Or maybe I am only saying that because I am a huge Mad Men fan and anything set in the 60s immediately gets brownie points from me. Down with Love is a very silly and camp movie but the gorgeous production values and the chemistry between Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor make it a really pleasant little film. The story is about a feminist writer Barbara Novak, whose revolutionary book tells all the women in the world to forget love and live as their own masters. The book proves to be an extremely influential bestseller but it has its critics too – mainly the men who feel uncomfortable with the whole idea. Barbara’s worst enemy is the playboy journalist Catcher Block who decides to use all the tricks of the trade to show everyone she is a sham. Can you guess what happens in the end?

12 Monkeys. 1995.
Dir.: Terry Gilliam.

Terry Gilliam is such a coolkat. He wrote and directed some of my favourite films, and although Brazil will always be considered his masterpiece, 12 Monkeys holds its own rather well. It is an intense and clever story about time travel with a central performance from Bruce Willis that foreshadows his acclaimed turn in The Fifth Element. There are some clear visual links to both Brazil and Blade Runner and the three films share similar themes of memory, identity, impending doom and technology - 12 Monkeys offers a very creative take on these.

Bruce Willis’s character is a convict in a distant post-apocalyptic future, who has a chance to go on parole if he can discover the reason behind the epidemic that wiped out most of the Earth’s population. To do this he is sent into 1990 where his warnings aren’t taken seriously and he ends up in a mental hospital. There he meets a lovely doctor who takes an interest in him and a fellow patient (Brad Pitt earned an Oscar nomination for this role) who strikes up a tentative bond with him. The plot is full of twists and turns and once you start to understand what’s going on, it is very entertaining to watch the story unfold.

The Sting. 1973.
Dir.: George Roy Hill

If this movie has one flaw, it’s that there is too much handsomeness involved – you almost have to look away. Paul Newman and Robert Redford share the screen for the second time since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as two con men in the 1930s Chicago and New York. The Sting is pure undiluted fun – it has an elaborate plot involving poker cheats, confidence tricks, assumed identities and a big, mean baddie.  I really think that Newman and Redford have so much bromance going on and their charismas bounce off of each other in such an amusing way that it would be entertaining enough to watch them chat about the weather in an empty room – so when there is a great screenplay attached to their tandem, you don’t need much else to have a brilliant film on your hands. It’s also clear how influential this movie is judging by all the crime capers that followed in its step, especially the Ocean remakes.

Battle Royale. 2000.
Dir.: Kinji Fukasaku.

Battle Royale is about a class of Japanese students who are drugged and transported to an island, where they have to fight each other until there is one man standing. There is some theatrical violence, teenage angst and lots of declarations of undying love. This is supposedly Quentin Tarantino’s favourite film and the main inspiration for Hunger Games, so I expected to be completely blown away by it (always a dangerous attitude to have). I thought it was good, but not fantastic. Maybe if I watched it before Hunger Games and Kill Bill, it would have seemed more original and fresh (which it really is). But instead I kept playing a mental game of where-have-I-seen-this-before. It is quite annoying really that many aspects of Asian cinema are adapted in Western films where they are embraced and celebrated as pioneering. Which makes going back to the source material both exciting and somewhat daunting because you are bound to be disappointed by either side in the end. Still, I’d recommend watching Battle Royale simply as an educational tool to see where Tarantino gets many of his ideas from.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. 1988.
Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar.

I would give anything to be a part of Almodóvar’s world for a day. You can always bet that there will be some beautiful woman involved in a completely outrageous plot with murder, switched identities, mental illness, illicit sex and some totally bonkers characters. Women… is the film that first put him onto the international stage back in 88 and has most of the above. The story is about Peppa, a voice-over actress who desperately tries to find her ex-lover while balancing several insane people in her life: a model friend who became entangled in a terrorist plot, a young couple looking to rent out her flat and a deranged lady also looking for the same man. It is properly funny and camp, with many weird plot devices and simply a joy to watch. And on top of that it features a VERY fresh-faced Antonio Banderas as a stuttering and bespectacled youth with a frigid girlfriend. What's not to love?

Thursday, 20 December 2012

REVIEW: Life of Pi

Dir.: Ang Lee
With: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

There was so much potential for this film to be bad. Although the novel was published in 2001 and went on to win the Booker prize in 2002, no-one dared to adapt it back then – filming a teenage boy sharing a small boat with an adult Bengal tiger seemed impossible. Now in 2012 with the use of CGI, motion capture and 3D this movie turns out to be one of the most incredible cinema spectacles of the year.

The story deviates from the novel very little – it is narrated by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to the writer (Rafe Spall), starting with Pi’s happy and spiritual childhood surrounded by zoo animals in Pondicherry, India, and going on to survive a shipwreck and drifting for 227 days through the Pacific Ocean together with Richard Parker, the tiger. The film rests on three main pillars – Suraj Sharma’s performance as the teenage Pi, Richard Parker’s tactile realism and the stunning views of the ocean. It is incredible to think that this is Suraj’s first acting job – his performance is saturated with so much feeling and spirit that it is impossible not to empathise with him to a great extent throughout all his adventures.

The story itself is no ordinary shipwreck survival like "Castaway" for example. "Life of Pi" is more of an Odyssey (even the French title of the novel is "The Odyssey of Pi"), it is a journey of self-discovery, wicked trials and a constant conversation with god. I am sure that the message of the film, that all religions and convictions have as much validity as the next, will find its critics as it did when the book came out. I, for my part, think that there is something terribly romantic about Pi’s final suggestion to the writer that he is free to choose whatever version of the story to believe in – the cruel and realistic one or the fantastical – as long as he likes it.

Fantastical is one of the key words to describe ‘Life of Pi’ with. The film is interspersed with moments of sereneness when Pi, despite the destitute conditions he finds himself in, is able to take in the power and glory of the nature around him. These scenes are usually slow and self-indulgent, with much of the scenery and marine life created digitally. And even though I knew that none of it was real, the interplay between colour and moving form was mesmerising. I actually felt my jaw drop when a blue whale leapt out of the ocean on a starry night (easily amused I am).

It is very impressive that this sort of divine and hyper-real beauty and spirituality were created by the same person who directed “Taking Woodstock”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Hulk” and “Sense and Sensibility”. The other Ang Lee film that has a similar dream-like feel is of course “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Although both these films take place out in the wild and have many difficult to film elements, there is a strong sense of directorial control over them, especially in terms of their visual richness. And yet, Ang Lee doesn’t leave the kind of stylistic stamp on his works, unlike so many other directors. Instead, I think that he is the kind of director who lets the material speak for itself, and speak for itself it does.