This Week We’ve Been Watching…

Mike’s Been Watching…
CHOCOLATE [Main Picture]
DIR: Prachya Pinkaew
The problems with Thai martial arts flick Chocolate are so numerous that it’s hard knowing where to begin. Let’s start with the story, and the clunkily overwrought narrative which makes the melodrama of Douglas Sirk look like the cinema of Lars von Trier in comparison. I’d be okay with Chocolate just drumming through yakuza clichés but it does so with such laziness and incoherency that I was ready to give up on the film ten minutes in. The performances are so wooden that I struggled to distinguish between the actors and the furniture, but they’re not helped by the awful screenplay which spends an entire 30 minutes in exposition! It’s really rushed through as well, with absolutely no fluidity or depth to the story, which finds an autistic girl recovering money to help her cancer-stricken mother. Yes, it’s trying that hard. DoP Decha Srimantra lends the film a sickly visual polish which means that all of the emotional scenes, which look like they’ve been draped in honey, have an overbearing sentimentality (not helped by montages and pop music) and we never get to the heart of the relationships. We never feel the weight of mother and daughter’s afflictions because we’re always being flung into an action sequence. JeeJa Yanin, while not the best dramatic actress (her high-pitched and simplistic portrayal of autism can become grating), is an undeniably impressive fighter, who has equal ferocity and grace, and a compelling screen presence. The first couple of set-pieces are bland, and some CGI touch-ups are embarrassing, but the 20-minute finale is a genuinely impressive and exciting piece of work; perhaps strong enough for me to recommend you the film, but with extreme caution. Everything but that set-piece is just plain shoddy, and ultimately the film is a failure.

DIR: Maurice Pialat

Upon winning Best Actor at Cannes for his role in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972), Jean Yanne turned down the award due to the emotional turmoil and day-to-day suffering he underwent in making the film. Pialat’s cinema is deeply personal, largely autobiographical, and I’ve read numerous reports of actors who have struggled under his direction. But no film seems more personal than Loulou, which he would later disown and describe as “shameful.” Lead actress Isabelle Huppert (almost unrecognizable in a perky, smiling performance) spoke of how Pialat would disappear from set for days and crew members would find him in the nearest dingy café; confronting the sorrows being acted out before him, taken from the pages of his own life. Sure enough Loulou is a sexually frantic and sporadically violent drama, equally intense and comedic. Its political agenda, about the pomposity of prosperity and the repression of the bourgeoisie, is largely subtle (although a juxtaposition between lazy hotel sex and mid-afternoon saxophone playing feels heavy handed), and scripted by Pialat’s wife Arlette Langmann there is a rawness to the relationships which proves hugely effective. Huppert and Depardieu turn in charismatic, understated and largely naked performances, establishing in these early roles why they have gone on to become such respected performers. They bravely inhabit the uncomfortable skins of their characters and make believable every askance judgement and loving glance; it’s truly terrific work, the beautiful Huppert being particularly effective in a role far away from the clinical ice queen roles she’s now associated with. The story is a little meandering but Pialat’s film is stylish and as pure drama there’s hardly a false note. I get the feeling there’s more interesting work to be uncovered from his oeuvre, but I can certainly recommend Loulou.

Oren’s Been Watching…
DIR: André Øvredal

I had the pleasure of seeing this film at a midnight screening at the TriBeCa film festival last week, and I found it immensely enjoyable. I am confident that the midnight screening nature improved the viewing experience, as there is nothing quite like an excited, energetic midnight crowd to make a silly, hilarious, over-the-top genre film all the more enjoyable. Troll Hunter sets out to do one thing and one thing only: to entertain. And it succeeds admirably. The director was present at the screening and during the Q&A section admitted that his biggest influence was Steven Spielberg, specifically Jurassic Park. Going off of this, I’d say that the best way to describe Troll Hunter is The Blair Witch Project meets Jurassic Park. It’s set under the pretense of a fictional documentary crew who discover this troll hunter whose job it is to keep Norway’s secret troll population under control. Why does he agree to expose the secret to the film crew? “I hate this job. The pay stinks and the benefits aren’t worth the trouble. Also, there’s no dental.” It’s that kind of humor that really sells Troll Hunter and makes sure that we, the audience, don’t take anything we see on screen seriously. The film makes it a point to really milk the troll legend for all that it’s worth – a major plot point involves the fact that trolls can actually smell the blood of Christians, just to further indicate the film’s playfulness. At the end of the day Troll Hunter is a silly, self-aware, effortlessly enjoyable fun romp of an adventure with a brilliant, fascinating main character and some really impressive CGI to boot (to create the trolls).

DIR: Martin Brest

I saw this film for the first time in my screenwriting class last week; it was the last film our professor chose to show us, and I can see why. Unlike the first film we watched, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, which defies traditional narrative story structure in almost every way imaginable, Midnight Run devotedly, almost slavishly adheres to the formula. We have strong but flawed protagonists with clear goals, numerous obstacles that have to be overcome, a hero reluctantly accepting the call, conflict, overcoming the obstacles and eventual character change. It’s an extremely traditional story arc and one that we have no doubt seen countless times before in numerous other films. It also strictly adheres to genre conventions – in this case, the “buddy comedy”. We have two characters who are exact opposites, forced together into the same situation and faced with no choice but to reconcile their differences and learn to work together. We have gangsters, car chases, shoot-outs, a MacGuffin… everything a slick, streamlined, very formulaic script needs. And yet… it works. Almost miraculously, director Martin Brest, with the help of his two extremely talented and very charming stars Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, manage to breathe new life into the tired genre and create a film that, despite its formulaic nature, tells a strong, interesting story with just enough heart to keep us going, and with just enough unique character development for the film to succeed despite being almost painfully formulaic. The funky score by Danny Elfman doesn’t hurt, either!

DIR: Will Gluck

In retrospect, this film was probably the finest comedy of 2010, and one of the best high school comedies to come along in recent years. I’m almost surprised it didn’t get more attention when it came out besides good reviews and modest box office success, but it is my opinion that this film will stand the test of time and be considered something of a modern classic years down the line. This might sound outrageous, but I just absolutely adored this film with every fiber of my being. And almost all of that adoration can be attributed to one individual: Emma Stone. Stone has been around for a few years now, and judging by her slate of upcoming releases on IMDb, it looks like she’s here to stay. So when people in the future go back and try to pinpoint exactly when her career truly took off, I have no doubt that they will point to Easy A. Her performance in the film is stunning: it is rare to see so much sweetness, charm, sympathy, likability and just general suaveness projected by such a young actress. Stone carries the film, and her irresistibly adorable and charming performance deserves all the credit. The film itself is a clever twist on the whole literary-classic-transported-to-high-school genre best exemplified by Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You (also films that benefit from the irresistible charm of their leads), and although it lapses into formula once in a while, especially in the third “girl atones for her actions and gets the guy of her dreams” act, for the most part, Easy A manages to remain fresh, witty and uproarously funny. Also deserving of much credit are Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci for creating two of the most sympathetic, likable parent characters in high school film history.

Sam’s Been Watching…
DIR: Sion Sono

I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, Sion Sono makes a terrible film, but I’d be shocked if he ever makes a dull one.

This spiritual follow up to his earlier cult hit Suicide Club is long (159 minutes), bizarre and challenging, but it’s also an involving and rewarding experience. It follows runaway teenager Noriko to Tokyo, where she befriends a girl she knows from an internet message board and gets sucked into her business, in which they are hired by lonely people to pretend to be members of their family. Soon Noriko’s younger sister follows her, and ends up working with her, and then their Father also travels to Tokyo to find his daughters.

The story is basic on the surface, but underneath all that Sono explores questions of identity and family, often settling on disturbing answers, and refusing, even after nearly three hours, to tie things up in a nice neat bow. The performances are excellent all round, achieving an impressive naturalism given the odd technique that Sono employs here. Throughout the entire film (and I do mean that literally) there is narration from whichever character we are following at the time, it can become wearing, but it also informs us of things that could never be communicated visually, and would clunk in expository dialogue.

Noriko’s Dinner Table is strange and unsettling, it can be a tough watch, but I found its invention and the fact I never knew where it was going quite thrilling, and the film as a whole another confirmation that Sion Sono is some kind of mad genius.

DIR: Joe Johnston

Honey I Shrunk The Kids is a part of my childhood, and I guess I never quite grew up, because I still find it just as much fun as I ever did.

There are a few things that I notice today that I didn’t when I was 10, notably that you can see a few vestiges (the beginning of the ant sequence for example, and the cereal bowl set piece in which the kids are almost eaten by their father) of the horror backgrounds of producer Brian Yuzna and screenwriter Ed Naha, and a couple of teen targeted lines (“French class, kid“), but actually I enjoy the movie for many of the same reasons now that I did then.

The set pieces are inventive, the film’s design; creating a giant world for the kids to get lost in, is outstanding (even if a few of the effects are now dated) and the whole film manages to combine those thrilling set pieces with nicely developed characters, decent performances and a lot of laughs. I still find the silliness of the film funny (the scenes with Rick Moranis suspended above his lawn with binoculars attached to a helmet looking for his kids, that’s an image that just doesn’t stop being funny). The cast is appealing, with Moranis reining in the mugging and the kids all giving capable performances, yes everything is a bit broad, but it all suits the tone of the film well.

All in all, I wish more family films were this good.