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Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.

 

It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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How’s about this for a subtle way of sliding a blatant plug into one of these pieces: I have a piece in a collection of essays coming out later this year, concerning a fairly-well-known fictional character whose generally benevolent nature rapidly vanishes whenever he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. The editor of the collection asked me to provide a one-line biography of myself, and it seemed natural to choose a moment of perfect happiness of my own – tongue slipping slightly into my cheek, naturally. I went for eating a $60 cheeseburger high in the sky over Tokyo, in the 50th-floor hotel bar where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sort-of hooked-up in Lost in Translation. (I refused to believe you could possibly justify charging $60 for a cheeseburger, no matter how nice the scenery was. Then I ate a $60 cheeseburger, and revised my opinion.)

It’s one of those questions which you can take as seriously as you want to, I suppose, and it is at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film After Life (the Japanese connection is mostly coincidental). This is one of Kore-eda’s earlier films, released in 1998, and one presumes it (along with a bunch of other Kore-eda films) is enjoying a revival off the back of the success of Shoplifters last year. I have to confess I had never heard of it until only a few days ago; this is not the kind of Japanese movie which generally lands an international distribution deal.

As the film opens, we are in what looks like an abandoned or semi-derelict school or hospital; two co-workers are casually making their way into the office, gossiping about people they have met while doing their jobs. It is Monday morning and the departmental supervisor thanks his team for their efforts, but observes they have a large number of clients coming in this week who will all need to processed as smoothly as possibly. So far the general atmosphere has been of a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall documentary, but as the team’s clients begin to arrive, walking into the reception area out of a misty white void, we perhaps begin to discern that not all is quite as it seems. The clients are a disparate bunch, perhaps skewing more towards the older kind of person, and the reason for this is revealed as they are taken into private meeting rooms for their initial interviews with the processing team.

All the clients are people who have recently died, and the place where they are (it is never named) is basically the ante-room to the next life. The new arrivals are officially informed of their change in status, and the purpose of the place is explained: the newcomers have three days to decide upon which of their memories is most important to them. This memory will then be recreated and filmed by the staff of the facility. At the end of the week, everyone will watch the completed films of their chosen memories, at which point they will pass on into eternity, taking only that single memory with them.

Most of the early part of the film concerns the various clients discussing their lives and the things they remember most strongly. One of them isn’t sure he has any memories he really wants to take with him; another, a slightly flaky young man, refuses to choose, despite the fact he will not be able to move on until he does. These two characters are scripted, but even as you’re watching the film it’s clear that some of these scenes are real people honestly talking about their lives (not actual dead people, obviously, but the fantastical context in which they are speaking does lend their stories a significance and gravity they might not otherwise possess).

As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that this is more than just an inventively-disguised talking-heads documentary. The people working here have their own stories, too: they are not angels or spirits or supernatural beings, but people who have chosen not to move on. Some of them are better at their jobs than others, and they have their own relationships. The film focuses most on what seems like a very low-key romance between two of them, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda). The film is as subtle as ever in the way it raises ideas without beating the viewer about the head with them – just why are they still here? Is it even possible for two people in such a strange state of metaphysical hiatus to have a meaningful connection of this kind? When the life-story of one of the new clients proves to have a personal resonance for Takashi, it begins to look very much like they can.

When the film first made clear the rules of Kore-eda’s afterlife – specifically the part about only being able to take one memory with you, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (to quote U2) – I have to confess it didn’t sound to me like a very good deal; what kind of life can be summarised by only a single moment or memory? But perhaps this is not the point. Quite what that point would otherwise be, I’m not sure, although the film does suggest that most people just choose moments of special happiness for them. Perhaps the implication is that people get the afterlife that they choose for themselves, whether that be one of bliss or self-flagellating guilt and remorse. It’s a slightly worrying idea and one which feels disturbingly plausible.

In all other respects, Kore-eda’s clearing house for the great beyond is a very appealing concept. I couldn’t help thinking of the grand conception of heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its enormous escalators, great clocks, pristine uniforms and so on; Kore-eda’s alternative feels rather like a somewhat under-funded branch of the social services – the roofs leak, the place clearly hasn’t been decorated in ages, and there’s a slightly shambolic quality to everything from the film reconstructions themselves to the brass band that accompanies the clients to the climactic screening. I found it undeniably charming, and very much of a piece with the rest of the film, which opts for low-key, understated naturalism throughout. You can imagine the Hollywood remake of After Life: it would be all soaring string sections and luminous CGI dissolves, with Important Life Lessons being crammed down the audience’s throat; none of that is here and it is what gives the film its enormous, gentle charm.

The original title of After Life was Wandafuru Raifu, which translates into English as Wonderful Life (Japanese is sometimes less challenging as a language than people think). However, this isn’t obviously an update or riff on Frank Capra’s much-loved seasonal favourite; it has none of that film’s darkness, nor its implicit imprecation that we should take the time to be grateful for what we’ve got. This is a film about quiet reflection and acceptance, almost wholly non-judgmental and enormously humane and warm. It is genuinely a bit of a treasure.

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(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keeps coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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Well, here’s something which has kind of snuck up on me: having recently watched Takao Okawara’s Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, I find myself in the position of having seen all thirty-two of Toho’s Godzilla movies. This has been a long road, to be perfectly honest: there were only seventeen when I started, back in 1990, and the fact that most of the recent films are very difficult to track down in the UK did not help much. Thank the stars for the internet. It seems quite appropriate that this should form the basis of the landmark 1002nd film review on the blog (look, I do literature, not mathematics).

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II was released in 1993, and was apparently intended at the time to mark a pause in production for films in the series: the first big-budget American Godzilla was believed to be imminent at the time (in the end it was another five years before it arrived, so Toho made another two movies before finally putting the series on hold). Watching the movie now I suppose you can just about discern the suggestion that things are being concluded, but for the most part it resembles the films around it, not least in the way it reintroduces famous characters from the films of the 60s and 70s.

The film gets underway with the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre unveiling their new weapon to sort the big lizard out once and for all: the severed robotic head of Mecha-King Ghidorah has been fished out of Tokyo bay (where it ended up at the climax of 1991’s Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah) and reverse-engineered so its futuristic technology can be employed in two new vehicles: Garuda, one of those flying tanks which seem to be common in tokusatsu movies, and Mechagodzilla, which is, um, a mecha which looks like Godzilla.

(There is a bit of a departure here from the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla, which – if memory serves – was basically a robot. Here it is essentially a somewhat outlandishly-designed vehicle. This take seems to have gained some traction, for the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla – the Kiryu version, from Tokyo SOS – sticks very close to the same concept. On the other hand, this may have something to do with the same guy, Wataru Mimura, writing all the recent Mechagodzilla movies.)

Flying Garuda, to begin with at least, is lovable lunk Aoki (Masahiro Takashima). In a piece of foreshadowing about as subtle as being hit by a truck, we are informed that Aoki is a huge fan of pteranodons, not that this particularly informs the plot much. However, quite early on he is redeployed to elsewhere in the anti-Godzilla corps, which if nothing else means he gets to wear a snappy cravat with a big G on it (this is actually part of the uniform).

From here we cut to a bunch of scientists on one of those remote Pacific islands which are such a common feature in these films. They are excited to have discovered some impressive pteranodon fossils, and also an actual intact egg. Excitement shifts to alarm when they realise that another egg has already hatched, and a giant pteranodon is roosting in the vicinity. The unlikely size of this beastie is explained by one of the boffins as the result of nuclear waste irradiating the island, though I’m not sure this entirely explains what pteranodon eggs are doing on a Pacific island in the 1990s.

(Now, the pteranodon is – obviously! – a new take on Rodan, one of the A-list Toho kaiju with a long and distinguished career which extends back to his own 1956 movie and is due to continue next year in a new Hollywood incarnation. The American dub of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is unique in that it reverts to using Rodan’s Japanese name, Radon. I’m going to stick with Rodan, however, as it would feel odd not to.)

The scientists go beyond alarm into actual panic when the sea erupts and Godzilla himself appears on the scene. Godzilla and Rodan catch sight of each other and promptly begin to party like it’s 1964, laying waste to most of the island in the process of their rumble. The scientists take this as a cue to make a swift departure with the egg. Being such a pteranodon nut, Aoki turns up to check out the egg in the Kyoto lab where it ends up, meeting nice young scientist Azusa (Ryoko Sano) in the process. Psychic Miki (Megumi Odaka), a regular character in these movies, is also hanging around and discovers that – fasten your seatbelts, friends – some moss sticking to the egg is actually telepathically singing to it. (Well, of course it is.)

As a result of the discovery of the singing telepathic moss, the egg hatches out, not into another pteranodon but a baby godzillasaurus, which everyone refers to as Baby Godzilla. Baby Godzilla seems essentially benign and doesn’t appear to be especially irradiated, which just adds to his cuteness. It’s never really confirmed that Baby Godzilla and the full-sized version are closely related, but big Godzilla certainly seems to take an interest in the newborn and starts heading for Kyoto. There’s only one thing to do: stand by to launch Mechagodzilla!

Well, if nothing else, I feel like I’m beginning to understand why so many of the sub-par Godzilla movies of the 1990s and early 2000s feel so samey – it’s because most of them were written by Wataru Mimura (Tokyo SOS, which is the best of the post-1992 Godzilla films, was the work of someone else). Quite apart from a rather Gerry Anderson-esque take on Mechagodzilla, what these films have in common is a tendency to treat Godzilla like bad weather – one of those annoying facts of life people just have to come to terms with – rather than the terrifying menace he is in some of the other films. Godzilla just turns up and attacks places in this film whenever the plot slows down a bit.

I say ‘plot’, but the main problem with Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is that in a very real sense it doesn’t actually have a plot – not to the extent that it feels in any way structured or thought-through. Things just happen one after the other, frequently without much in the way of explanation or causality, to say nothing of occasional odd tangents. The film is reliant on things happening without any real explanation – where do the eggs come from? What the hell is the deal with the singing telepathic moss? Why does Baby Godzilla seem to have psychic powers? How come Rodan mutates into a more dangerous form halfway through the movie? I could go on.

One result of this is that something rather odd happens with audience sympathy in the course of the film. To begin with, Godzilla is the same ambiguous anti-hero as in all the movies since the 1984 relaunch of the series, and the operators of Mechagodzilla are heroic defenders of Japan. But by the end of the film, one finds oneself rooting for Godzilla – or at least expected to do so – as he takes a beating from characters who are theoretically the protagonists. The only catalyst for this is the fact that the bosses at G-Force are unspeakably cruel to Baby Godzilla, using him as bait even though he is so small and cute. I suppose if nothing else this speaks volumes about the famous Japanese vulnerability to anything cute with big eyes.

Oh well. There are a few good things about this film – Megumi Odaka, perennial second banana in this series, gets some good material, and the monster suits are generally excellent. The Rodan puppet in particular is extremely impressive. The initial battle between Godzilla and Rodan is also boisterously good stuff. Apparently this was choreographed as it was due to complaints that too many monster battles in the previous few films just consisted of monsters standing off and zapping breath-rays at each other – which makes it slightly odd that the other battles in this film consist of pretty much that exact same thing. (Although the traditional scene where the massed model planes and toy tanks of the JSDF trundle out to engage Godzilla and have no effect whatsoever also makes an appearance, and it’s like seeing an old friend when it does.)

In the end, though, one has to remember that this film is predicated on the idea that, having salvaged priceless technology from the future, the best thing the UN can think of doing with it is to build a giant cybernetic dinosaur with laser-beam eyes. Normal standards of logic and sanity are clearly not in effect. In the past I have spoken of the special pleasures of a Good Bad Movie – Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is not quite a Good Bad Movie, but it is at least an Okay Bad Movie, and the dedicated Godzilla audience it was clearly made for will probably find stuff to enjoy here.

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A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

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Let us set the dials on the Films of Yesteryear Time Machine to a point in history slightly closer to home than is usually our wont and head back to the strange days of 1999. So long ago! And yet still somehow so recent! It is slightly discombobulating to watch what looks like a contemporary film, but one in which nobody has a mobile phone and they still watch movies on VHS tape. Perhaps the strangest disconnect between Then and Now is the fact that Johnny Depp was not yet the box office darling he has since become, but a jobbing movie star whose ability to open a movie was still a bit questionable. Especially when the movie in question is one like Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife.

Depp is playing the astronaut, natch. Playing Mrs Astronaut is Charlize Theron, and I suppose at this point it is incumbent upon us to reflect on what a movie business veteran – or perhaps hardy perennial – she has also turned out to be, although not without a few missteps along the way. Here she is at the age of 24, arguably carrying what was a fairly major movie (the budget of The Astronaut’s Wife was $75m, though I’m blowed if I can work out where all the money went). It is, admittedly, not a very good major movie, but nobody knew that when they were casting it.

Things get underway with Depp and Theron bunked up together and enjoying a last moment of whoa-ho-ho before his latest space mission. For the role Depp has adopted a somewhat questionable blond dye-job and a verywhat questionable Deep South accent. (His character is name Spencer Armacost, which apparently is theoretically possible, it just doesn’t sound like it.)

Well, Depp goes up into space with another astronaut, but there is trouble in orbit and contact is lost with the mission for a little while. When the astronauts return to Earth, Depp’s colleague (Nick Cassavetes) seems to make a full recovery, but starts behaving oddly at a party and then collapses and dies. The generally cheery tone of the movie continues when Cassavetes’ pregnant wife (Donna Murphy) commits suicide during the funeral. (I should have mentioned – this is ostensibly a horror movie.)

Not long after this, Depp announces he is quitting his job as an astronaut and joining a New York-based aviation company, despite his previous love of flying and oft-stated hatred of big cities (for a film about an astronaut there’s a definite lack of actual space hardware in it). Theron is a bit baffled by this strange behaviour but goes along with it, mainly because this is that sort of film. When she asks him about what happened during the mysterious interlude when he was cut off from Earth, he seems to take this as an invitation to start interfering with her intimate person, resulting in some public rumpy-pumpy which is not really as pulsatingly erotic as the film would like to think it is.

Soon enough, Theron finds out she is pregnant with her husband’s child – well, it’s twins, apparently. But is she? Coming out of the woodwork is Joe Morton from NASA’s Department of Paranoid Bafflegab, who reveals that Murphy’s character was likewise carrying twins when she died, and that Cassavetes died as a result of the strain placed on his body by some alien influence. He suggests that some malign force from deep space has taken possession of Depp and is using him to carry out a nefarious scheme here on Earth – which incorporates, somehow, the unborn children Theron is carrying…

Yeah, well, as I said, this is basically another entry into the obstetric horror subgenre (never a particular favourite of mine, it must be said), with strong elements of paranoia and cobblers SF to it as well. In fact it is, if you’ll indulge me, something of a cross between The Quatermass Experiment and Rosemary’s Baby, only not nearly as good as either. I expect this was one of those ideas which looked good on paper, but the problem is that the story runs out of places to go quite rapidly, settling on a final destination which seems not especially well thought-through – there is vaguely sinister talk of Depp helping to build a robot plane which will eventually be piloted by the twins, but this is only really a cigarette paper’s thickness away from being total gibberish. You would have expected a malevolent alien mind parasite to have come all this way with a better scheme than that.

So in the end the film just opts for an atmosphere of stately menace, with the occasional moment hoping for erotic tension – none of which really hides the fact that this is a movie in which not very much happens for long stretches, unless you include a baffling number of close-ups of people’s mouths, ears, feet, and so on (you can see why Charlize Theron was such a successful model – her toes are gorgeous). There’s a subplot about Theron’s past history of psychological trouble, but for me this just added to the vaguely dubious tone of much of the movie – you can tell this is one of those movies about the female experience which has been written and directed by a man.

The fact that the studio figured out they had a troubled production on their hands is fairly obvious, given that the DVD of The Astronaut’s Wife comes with not one but two endings. Now, the theatrical ending has lashings of CGI in it and concludes on a note of menacing incoherence. I have to say I am somewhat more impressed by the original ending which they ended up not using: it may be more ambiguous, but this seems to have been the intention.

Hey ho. We could speculate about a parallel world in which all those bloody pirate films never got made, and wonder about what kind of career Johnny Depp would have enjoyed there – I can well imagine the actor sitting down with a pile of his late 90s and early 2000s movies and thanking his lucky stars at great length, because it’s easy to envision him still trapped in the cult fave ghetto as Tim Burton’s slightly ageing muse. Theron does a decent enough job in a not especially rewarding part, I suppose – though I suspect no-one at the time would have pegged her as a future Oscar winner and latterday ass-kicker.

It’s fairly easy to see why Rand Ravich has not been allowed near the helm of another movie since this The Astronaut’s Wife. The look of the thing is competent, but its tone is more dismal than actually frightening. It’s one of those movies that freely helps itself to elements of a number of other films, but in the process somehow manages to make them rather less interesting and effective. Probably one for obstetric horror completists only.

 

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‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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