Friday, 9 March 2018

The Doors

Year of Release:  1991
Director:  Oliver Stone
Screenplay:  J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone
Starring:  Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kevin Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, Michael Madsen, Billy Idol, Kathleen Quinlan
Running Time:  140 minutes
Genre:  Drama, music, biography

Venice Beach, California, 1965:  Film school dropout Jim Morrison (Kilmer) is fascinated by the emerging hippie culture surrounding him and, with his friend, keyboardist Ray Manzarek (MacLachlan), forms the rock band The Doors along with drummer John Densmore (Dillon) and guitarist Robby Krieger (Whaley).  With Morrison's poetic lyrics along with his enigmatic and darkly seductive on-stage persona the band become one of the biggest in America by the end of the 60s.  As the band are riding high (in more ways than one), Morrison is involved in a tumultuous relationship with girlfriend, Pamela Courson (Ryan), while his personal demons threaten to destroy everything.

This film is almost the quintessential rock biopic:  The band are formed, become successful, and are then in danger of being destroyed from within.  To be fair, this film is mis-titled.  It's not really about the band The Doors, the focus is almost entirely on Jim Morrison and the other band members barely get a look in.  Although you don't really learn much about Morrison either, there is no context for anything that happens or explanation for his behaviour.  The movie is more interested in depicting crazy rock star excess, as Morrison loses himself in drink, drugs and sex.  According to many people who knew Morrison, the film is pretty inaccurate in it's depiction of him, and is probably at it's best in recreating the sights and sounds of the sixties, from the sunshine psychedelia of the West Coast to the strange, seductive underworld of Andy Warhol's New York parties, however accurate that may be.  The Morrison depicted in the film is such a horrible, toxic character that it is really hard to understand how anyone would want to spend more than two minutes in his company.    Meg Ryan and Kathleen Quinlan are severely underserved in a film where none of the female characters are given any real personality or agency. The film delves a lot into Morrison's fascination with shamanism and mysticism, which can be seen as either deep or deeply pretentious (the film's depiction of a mystical Native American spirit guide was parodied in the film Wayne's World 2 (1993)).  Oliver Stone opens up his box of cinematic tricks which makes the film look very slick and stylish, and means that it is certainly never dull.  Val Kilmer is good in the central role, helped by his striking physical resemblance to Morrison, and the music is, of course, fantastic.       

Kyle MacLachlan, Val Kilmer, Frank Whaley and Kevin Dillon break on through as The Doors

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Game Night

Year of Release:  2018
Directors:  John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Screenplay:  Mark Perez
Starring:  Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler
Running Time:  100 minutes
Genre:  Comedy thriller

Married couple Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) share a deep love of all things competitive and host a weekly game night with their friends.  One night however, Max's vastly more wealthy, charismatic, better looking brother Brooks (Chandler) shows up, much to Max's displeasure, and immediately takes over the game night, infuriating both Max and Annie.  The following week they all have game night at Brooks' huge house.  The game Brooks has arranged is an interactive, mystery game, involving a faked kidnapping.  Shortly thereafter, two masked men break in and snatch Brooks.  As Max, Annie and their friends compete to win the game, they soon realise that this game is all too real.

This is a hugely entertaining comedy-thriller, with plenty of laughs throughout as well as a mystery that piles on twists and turns.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, both very talented comic actors, have great chemistry together and they are supported by a strong supporting cast (including Sharon Horgan, of Pulling (2006) and Catastrophe (2015- ) fame) who all get a chance to shine.  The action is well-staged and stylish, for example many of the establishing shots of the locations are made to look like a game board with pieces.  There are several late reveals that seriously strain credibility, which to be fair, there are jokes about in the film itself.  This is not a film that is going to change the world.  It is the kind of movie that is ideal for when you just want something light, that is going to give you a couple of hours of solid entertainment.  Stay until the end of the credits for an additional scene.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in Game Night

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Melinda and Melinda

Year of Release:  2004
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Radha Mitchell, Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet, Wallace Shawn
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre:  Comedy drama

In a Manhattan diner, four friends discuss whether life is essentially comic or tragic.  To illustrate their points two playwrights take a simple premise (an emotionally fragile woman, Melinda (Mitchell), disrupts a dinner party) and tell their own versions of what happens to her. One version plays as a tragedy, and the other as a light romantic comedy.

It is an interesting premise, the problem is that the tone is very jarring throughout, most of the film is taken up with recounting Melinda's story interweaving the two versions moving from bleak drama to frothy comedy.  Some of the film is pretty repetitive, we see the same events play out in two different versions.  Radha Mitchell plays Melinda in both stories, with Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller and Chiwetel Ejiofor starring in the tragic story, and Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet starring in the comedy version (which also features Steve Carell in a small role as Ferrell's friend).  The performances are good for the most part, with Mitchell in particular giving a stunning performance in the central role, although Will Ferrell's performance seems to consist mainly of him doing a Woody Allen impression.  The film feels very much like a filmed play at times, it has a fairly small cast of characters and is almost entirely dialogue driven, however the tragic storyline has muted colours and a slightly dull, slightly overcast look to it, while the comic sequences are bright, vibrant and sunlit.
While this is far from Woody Allen's best films, it still has it's moments.

Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda.            

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Year of Release:  1972
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen, based on the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) by Dr. David Ruebens
Starring:  Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, John Carradine, Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds, Gene Wilder, Lynn Redgrave
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Comedy

This film is a selection of seven sketches inspired by questions relating to sex and sexual behaviour:  In medieval England a court jester (Allen) attempts to seduce the Queen (Redgrave); A respectable doctor (Wilder) falls in love with a sheep; An Italian man (Allen again) discovers that his wife (Lasser) can only reach orgasm in public places; A middle-aged married man (Lou Jacobi) takes to wearing women's clothing; A cheery 1950s game show attempts to teach America about sexual fetishes; A mad scientist (Carradine) unleashes a giant, monstrous breast on the world; A nervous sperm (Allen) prepares to leap into the great unknown.

The original book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, was a serious sex manual, which became a huge bestseller and was one of the most popular and influential non-fiction books of it's time.  Allen, here, takes chapter headings from the book, and spins them off into the comedy sketches.  The kind of sketch comedy format, while it has often been popular on TV (maybe not in the past few years, but it certainly used to be), never really works in movies, partly because because sketches tend to be hit or miss,  and also because they tend to be very lightweight, they are really either too short to get into, or they are too long to sustain the joke.  By and large this is funny, with each segment having at least one good laugh in it.  It belongs to the early part of Allen's career, when he really was trying to make straightforward comedies, without the dramatic or philosophical concerns that would later come to dominate. The film pokes fun at Shakespeare, Italian cinema, and science-fiction and horror movies.  The best segment is the last one; which takes place in the hi-tech control centre of a man's brain while he's on a date, with Allen as a nervous, white-uniformed sperm.  That last segment is inventive and very funny.
It's certainly worth watching, but I would point out that this is a product of the early 1970s and has not dated well in terms of it's attitudes and some of it's humor, so proceed with caution.

Woody Allen is going to tell you Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*  (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Hannah and Her Sisters

Year of Release:  1986
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Woody Allen, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre: Comedy drama

This film concerns the lives of three sisters over the course of two years.  Hannah (Farrow), is kind, loving, strong and stable, her husband Elliot (Caine), while he loves Hannah, is infatuated with her sister Lee (Hershey), who is living with mercurial artist Frederick (Sydow).  Meanwhile, the third sister, Holly (Wiest), a former cocaine addict, struggles to achieve her dream of becoming an actor while managing a catering company with her friend and rival, April (Fisher).  Also Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen), a hypochondriac television producer experiences an existential crisis when he becomes convinced he has a brain tumor.

This is possibly one of Woody Allen's finest films, managing the very tricky art of successfully balancing both comedy and drama.  It manages to be tender and sentimental without being saccharine, profound without being pretentious, warm without being cloying and, where necessary, being biting without being cruel.  Allen manages to get good performances out of his large cast, and seems to have genuine affection for all of his characters.  If you are familiar with Woody Allen movies, than you'll know the kind of humor on display here, mostly wry, neurotic, intellectual wisecracks.  Of course, these days Woody Allen is problematic to say the least, and also this is a film almost entirely about very wealthy white people, in Allen's New York, people of colour are barely glimpsed.  Although this is a very affecting film about sisterhood, love, ambition and just trying to find a meaning to life.

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest are Hannah and Her Sisters   

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Third Man

Year of Release:  1949
Director:  Carol Reed
Screenplay:  Graham Greene
Starring:  Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Running Time:  108 minutes
Genre:  Thriller

In war ravaged, Allied-occupied Vienna, Austria, in the years immediately after the Second World War, racketeering thrives.  Holly Martins (Cotton), an American writer of pulp Westerns, now fallen on hard times, arrives in Vienna because his friend, Harry Lime (Welles), has offered him a job.  However, no sooner has he arrived, than he learns that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident.  With the help of Lime's girlfriend, Anna (Valli), Martins investigates his death, but becomes suspicious that it may not have been an accident.  To his horror, he learns from a British major (Howard), that Lime was a callous, murderous racketeer.

This British movie is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.  It is a suspenseful, dark thriller.  Filmed in crisp black-and-white in an almost expressionistic style with harsh light and deep, inky black shadows, and shots frequently photographed in a distorted  "Dutch angle" style, and boasting a literate, witty and intelligent script from acclaimed novelist Graham Greene, with memorable performances.  Cotton is memorable as the alcoholic novelist torn between loyalty and conscience, and Valli as the mysterious, tormented Anna.  There is also of course Orson Welles, who despite not appearing much in the film is gifted with one of the most memorable introductions to a character in the history of cinema, and two memorable speeches.  The film's ear-worm theme music by Anton Karas performed entirely on the zither became an international hit, and spent eleven weeks at the top of the US charts.  From the cynical, opening narration (spoken by an uncredited Carol Reed) which introduces the situation in Vienna at the time of the film, to the final chase through the sewers, this depicts a bleak, fallen world of betrayal, and quick violent death with little to provide light or hope.   

"You know what the fellow said, in Italy under the Borgias, they had warfare, murder, terror and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace.  And what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock."
 -Harry Lime (Orson Welles)

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Shape of Water

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay:  Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, from a story by Guillermo del Toro
Starring:  Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Running Time:  123 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, romance

Baltimore, 1962:  Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a secret government laboratory.  One night a new "asset" is delivered, under the supervision of sinister Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon).  The asset turns out to be an amphibious humanoid creature.  As Strickland performs a series of cruel tests on the creature, Elsa secretly bonds with him, a bond which develops into a friendship and then something much more intimate.  However, Strickland wants to kill the creature for experimentation, and there is also a group of Soviet spies, who want to kill the creature before the Americans can discover it's secrets.

This is a beautiful, elegant romantic fantasy.  Although rooted in Baltimore in 1962, the film appears to take place in a strange, otherworld.  Sally Hawkins gives a tender delicate performance as Elisa, and Doug Jones manages to make the creature into a genuine emotional character despite the layers of make-up and special effects.  The true monster in the film is Michael Shannon as the sadistic Strickland, who somehow becomes more bestial as the film goes on, while the creature becomes more human.  The film has a tenderness and real emotion, despite being surprisingly graphic and quite violent in places.  It has a warmth to it however, and richness in the supporting characters, such as Elisa's friends, the lonely artist neighbor, Giles (Jenkins), and garrulous, unhappily married Zelda (Spencer).   This is a beautiful and powerful adult fairy tale.

Underwater love:  Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the Creature (Doug Jones) in The Shape of Water