Tuesday, 26 March 2013

East is East - Damian O’Donnell - 1998

A comedy examining the culture clashes that ensue within a Pakistani family in the North of England, East is East walks a fine line between biting drama and farcical comedy but almost always manages to stay on top. Om Puri is fantastic as George, the domineering father who is so determined to bring his seven children up as strict Pakistanis that he is blind to both his own hypocrisies and the simple fact that his rigid discipline is driving his children towards the frivolous English culture he wants them avoid. In lesser hands it would have been very easy to make the character a simple villain, particularly given that he occasionally resorts to domestic violence in order to assert his authority, but in Puri we can see such moments of confused pain behind the eyes that he can never quite lose our sympathy; however misguided he may be, he is still a father trying to do what he thinks is best for his children. The rest of the family are all excellent, bursting off the screen with so much raucous energy that it’s sometimes hard to keep up but remaining down-to-earth enough to always remain a convincingly real family unit. Particular standouts are Jimi Mistry and Raji James as two older brothers who react quite differently to news of arranged marriages, and Linda Bassett who is adorable as George's long suffering wife, determinedly maintaining her own fierce and very Northern pride in her family. Crucially given the delicate cultural issues involved East is East doesn't come down on one side or the other but instead like all good comedies lets us laugh at the characters and their misunderstandings and think for ourselves afterwards.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Wild Wild West - Barry Sonnenfeld - 1999

After the union of Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld and breakout star Will Smith created a smash hit with action sci-fi comedy Men in Black, it made perfect sense to reunite the pair for Wild Wild West, a film grandly aiming to do with the Western what Men in Black did with sci-fi. Perfect sense, on paper that is; in practice Wild Wild West is a shining example of the very worst kind of blockbuster, overblown to such huge proportions that little things like story, character and humour are crushed out of all recognisable shape. Based (very) loosely on a sixties television show starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, Wild Wild West attempts to replay the buddy movie formula from Men in Black by joining up Smith’s wisecracking sharpshooter Jim West with Kevin Kline’s eccentric secret agent Artemus Gordon to foil an evil terrorist plot to take over the good ol’ US of A. Except that with a script that often verges on the diabolical, Smith is left floundering in his default shtick with nothing clever, funny or cool to say or do, Kline can only ham it up from behind a series of silly disguise and even more ridiculous gadgets and the audience is left watching a slapstick rivalry that starts off dull before quickly becoming infuriating. The plot does make more sense than Jonah Hex (not that that’s difficult) but rapidly goes off the rails with a series of increasingly absurd set pieces that suggest Sonnenfeld is more interested creating the biggest bang possible rather than anything approaching stylistic coherence. Men in Black worked because the script worked to make the crazy alien technology consistent within the world it was creating and so audiences could buy into it. When mad scientist Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh chewing up the scenery in the worst performance of a previously impressive career) unleashes a giant mechanical spider on an unsuspecting Western town any remaining pretence of steam-punk style credibility is quickly crushed and an audience hoping for excitement, adventure and really wild things is left with nothing but mindless Michael Bay explosions. Smith at least redeems himself with another cracking song over the end credits but that is literally the only thing worth taking away from this embarrassment of a film.

Jonah Hex - Jimmy Hayward - 2010

In 1999 Wild Wild West was widely heralded to be the worst Western of all time, a title it should in decent society have retained. Decency in Hollywood however is a rare commodity and so a mere eleven years later Jonah Hex rode into town and achieved what Salma Hayek and multiple explosions never could: making Wild Wild West look good. Directed by the man behind the Dr Seuss animation Horton Hears a Who! (no seriously) and hampered by a disastrous production that saw extensive reshoots ‘supervised’ by Constantine’s Francis Lawrence, Jonah Hex clocks in at a mere 78 minutes looking so battered it’s a wonder it ever made it to cinemas at all. The concept, based on a character created for DC Comics by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, of a savagely scarred ex-Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter does on paper sound pretty cool, but in practice, even with the clumsy addition of a Supernatural twist to Jonah’s character, it fails to live up to any expectations. Josh Brolin playing Hex mumbles and growls his way through the film looking exceptionally grumpy behind his impressive makeup job while John Malkovich coasts through on autopilot playing one-note villain Quentin Turnball and Megan Fox is, well Megan Fox. Only Michael Fassbender as henchman Burke appears to be having fun, merrily running away with lines about ‘Pretty Orange Balls’ in an Irish accent so thick you could serve it up in a pint glass and call it a Guinness. The plot about some sort of super weapon that could destroy the US is so derivative you can almost sense everyone behind the camera is embarrassed by what they’re shooting, so much so they didn’t even try and do a Michael Bay and fill in the plot holes with more explosions, preferring to simply race to the finish line as quickly as possible. If this was Hollywood’s attempt to atone for Wild Wild West then we can only hope that next time they stay well away.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Micmacs - Jean-Pierre Jeunet - 2010

The latest film from French eccentric Jean-Pierre Jeunet sees the director on familiar territory as a band of misfits and outcasts living on a rubbish heap unite to destroy a pair of weapons manufacturers whose work has ruined the life of their new friend Bazil (Danny Boon). Naturally there is a lot of fun to be had watching the machinations of the Roald Dahlesque villains continually foiled by this motley band armed only with imagination and a limitless supply of rubbish and Jeunet is clearly having fun inventing new eccentrics (highlights here include an elastic woman and a man who speaks entirely in old sayings) but Micmacs doesn't have the heart of some of his previous work. Amelie, which still stands as Jeunet's best film, worked brilliantly by pairing an inventive gallery of characters with a simply adorable protagonist and while Bazil is sweet and sad he doesn't establish quite the same connection with the audience as Amelie did making her film so memorable. Also while it is certainly credible for Jeunet to pick a serious target for satire like the arms trade and there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from their ultimate exposure, the director's style is too light and scattershot for the attacks to be taken really seriously. Ultimately it feels like Jeunet is coasting along creating something overly familiar rather than striking out for new territory and so much like with Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam whose most recent work has also been similarly predictable and with whom Jeunet shares a certain sensibility, we can only hope for something fresher and more daring next time.

Memoirs of a Geisha - Rob Marshall - 2005

An astounding beautiful portrait of a lost way of life, Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of one girl's induction into the elite practices of geishas and her struggle to retain her feelings in an environment that doesn't allow for any form of emotion. The story is told by Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo as a girl and Ziyi Zhang as a woman) a poor girl from a fishing village in pre-World War Two Japan who, having been sold by her father aged nine, grows up in a geisha house in the big city and so we experience this astonishing but often harsh world through her child’s eyes as she becomes accustomed to this strange environment and begins to fight for some sort of position. Director Rob Marshall is unafraid to take the time to watch and examine all of the little rituals that a geisha must perform, even at the expense of the narrative thrust, but with deservedly Oscar winning costume design and art direction this is an added pleasure for a Western audience who are more likely to be fascinated by an exotic world they know little of. The downside of telling a story in such a repressive world is that any emotional engagement is quashed for the audience as much as the characters and thus the experience is often like simply watching a beautiful travelogue. Also it feels a little awkward that Marshall has seemingly focused on casting well known Asian faces (good as they are) apparently not bothered that these Japanese characters are all played by Chinese actresses, while his decision to make them all speak English rather than their native tongue (in a world otherwise lovingly created to an intricate level of realism) smacks of commercialism. However as an introduction to an exotic new world and the changes it went through with the encroachment of war, this is still a fascinating watch and if it persuades people to explore some actual Japanese work, this is all to the good.